________________ CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 33. . . .April 27, 2012


Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands. (The Nature of Things).

Toronto, ON: CBC Learning (www.cbclearning.ca), 2011.
90 min., DVD, $240.00 (Single site license price).
Product ID XXY-10-24.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Barbara McMillan.

**** /4



I don’t think people realize how big the sacrifice zone is going to be. It’s an area slightly bigger than Greece; a third the size of Norway. (David Schindler.)

If you set out to devise a method to warm the planet, you couldn’t come up with a better one than what Canada is doing in the tar sands. You’ve got to bring in energy to heat this stuff up enough to get it out. Once you’ve spent all of that energy to get it out, you refine it into gasoline and burn it again. If any significant portion of that tar sands continues to get exploited and burnt then we’ll simply have too much carbon in the atmosphere. (Bill McKibbon.)

If the whole world followed Canada down that route, which we could…we would cook the earth. (Tim Flannery.)

Current administration believes that the tar sands are the economic engine for Canada’s prosperity. We have lost credibility internationally. There is no question that Canada is viewed as a laggard and obstructionist on the international scene. (Andrew Weber.)

We are beggaring the future. We’re not only destroying other cultures and other species, but we are beggaring our own descendants in this oil fuel binge and just burning up the planet’s deposit of liquid hydrocarbon in a matter of one hundred years or so. (Ronald Wright.)

If the development of the tar sands has one good thing about it, it might be that it wakes us up. Business as usual is over. We’ve run out of time. It is the tipping point. (Andrew Nikiforuk.)


The six excerpts above are filmed passages of an ecologist, an environmentalist, two climatologists, and two Canadian authors, respectively. They reflect only half of the story presented in Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands, a documentary first broadcast on the CBC’s The Nature of Things with David Suzuki. The remaining half reflects the enormous cost of the oil sands to the environment, including people living downstream, and the millions of dollars the Alberta government is spending to defend the oil sands while international environmental groups push back. In the introduction, Suzuki asks, “Could new science trigger the tipping point in the battle for hearts and minds?” What he is asking is for Canadians to put aside their insatiable demand for non-renewable fossil fuels and the assumption that the oil sands project is key to Canada’s economy and to understand the real consequences of mining and refining bitumen soaked sand on the biosphere. If understood from a more holistic perspective, the scientifically substantiated consequences will help Canadians re-evaluate how much they are willing to sacrifice for a cheap supply of domestic gasoline.

      As the film makes clear, the real consequences are not those that Don Thompson, president of the Oil Sands Developers Group, Ed Stelmach, Alberta’s premier, and Rob Renner, Alberta’s minister of the environment, want Canadians to believe. Nor are they found in the water monitoring data from the Athabasca River, which governments asked industry-funded consultants to collect and then refused to make accessible. The consequences Suzuki hopes viewers will take into account include the rare cancers and deaths of residents in Fort Chipewyan reported by Dr. John O’Connor, the occurrence of deformed fish in Lake Athabasca that local fishermen began to see, and the destruction of a major biome that wildlife biologist, Kevin Timoney, described as “a large mortality sink”. These allegations were dismissed or denied by the Alberta government as evidence for the need to implement stricter regulations even when the most powerful environmental organization in the United States, the Natural Resources Defense Council, targeted Alberta’s oil as “dirty oil” in an attempt to keep it out of the U. S. market.

      Viewers are told about David Schindler, a well known freshwater ecologist from the University of Alberta, and his international team of research scientists who began to investigate air and water quality in the vicinity of the oil sands. They tested the government’s claim that all pollutants in the Athabasca River are natural, that Industry was adding nothing, and found it to be false. The extraction and upgrading plants were releasing 13 toxic heavy metals into the Athabasca River. These metals included arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, and chromium, which are know to be cancer-causing agents. Moreover, the cancers identified in Fort Chipewyan were occurring at rates higher than would be expected, and according to Dr. Gina Solomon, had been linked in previously reported scientific studies to exposure to petroleum products.

      Running through the more scientific aspects of the film is a portrayal of the people of Fort Chipewyan, including Chief Allan Adam and Francois Paulette, an honourary Dene Chief. In one segment of Tipping Point, Paulette is shown at the United Nations gathering of Indigenous leaders in New York City where he met with James Cameron, the writer and director of the film Avatar. Paulette invited Cameron to Fort Chipewyan to see that what was happening to the First Nations communities in northeastern Alberta was identical to what Cameron’s film showed happening to the fictional Na’vi people living on Pandora. Cameron’s visit thrust Alberta into the global spotlight resulting in Premier Stelmach’s public announcement of a process to address community health concerns, particularly those in Fort Chipewyan. According to Suzuki, this was “the cancer study Fort Chipewyan wanted”.

      The film ends with a small ray of hope. Following publication of Schindler’s work, a high-level review panel was established by the federal government to look at the data from Alberta’s monitoring of the water quality in the Athabasca River. The result was “a scathing report” and a decision to “build a world class environmental monitoring system for the oil sands”. This announcement came at a time when world-wide demand for oil was increasing as the global supply was shrinking. In such circumstances, Suzuki suggests the “oil sands are impossible to ignore”. He tempered this thought, however, with excerpts of interviews with Nikiforuk and others. Nikiforuk cautions, “If we don’t respond to it [our dependence on oil] then as a society, we will likely collapse, because you cannot sustain a civilization on a resource as dirty as bitumen.”

      Tipping Point: The Age of the Oil Sands, like all episodes of The Nature of Things, is well researched, adeptly filmed, skillfully edited, and thoughtfully narrated. If after watching the film one does not question what’s occurring in north eastern Alberta, particularly the “toxic costs of oil sands development”, then the scientific evidence presented by Suzuki has not helped to “trigger the tipping point for hearts and minds” of viewers. Ecologists and environmentalists like Schindler, Timoney, and Suzuki hope that Canadians will not require further habitat destruction, pollution, suffering, and death before acknowledging the priority that has to be placed on ensuring the health of the biosphere, whatever the short-term cost.

Highly Recommended.

Barbara McMillan is a teacher educator and a professor of science education in the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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