Just Doing their Jobs: Convincing People to Destroy our Planet

Something about the Canucks versus Canadiens game last weekend has stayed with me, producing a mental itch that won’t go away.

No, it wasn’t the Canucks scoring on their own net, although that was one of the most ridiculous own goals in the history of professional hockey.

It was in a break from the action when my TV screen filled with beautiful images of crystal clear streams, healthy salmon and pristine British Columbia back country. A kind and gentle voice praised the incredible environment that Mother Nature has bestowed on this province. One felt a sense of soothing comfort, tinged with pride at having chosen to live in this part of the world.

It was a commercial promoting the Gateway pipeline. An ad for a project that is an essential part of what one could argue is the greatest single environmental threat currently facing the planet.

After the initial shock at the over-the-top doublespeak of using our love for nature to promote a pipeline transporting some of the most carbon intensive oil on the planet, I began to wonder who would sell their soul, along with their creative energy, to create a piece of propaganda that would have amazed George Orwell himself.

Somewhere, sometime a group of artists, or at least reasonably creative women and men, had sat in an office discussing how best to convince a skeptical public (polls have shown well over 60 per cent of B.C. residents opposed) on the merits of building a pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the west coast.

Imagine these human beings, not much different from you or me, pitching proposals, exchanging ideas and debating the merits of various creative approaches to ignoring climate science, disregarding the likelihood of breaks in any pipeline, discounting the well-reasoned fear of shipping accidents and completely overlooking the opposition of First Nations whose land the pipeline must cross.

“Let’s sell them on a pipeline by showing pretty pictures of nature,” one of them says. “And use a voice that people trust to brand the pipeline as environmentally friendly.”

“That’s it,” says another. “That’s it exactly. It’s the same as selling beer. If we can convince young men that getting drunk makes them more attractive to women, we can easily use people’s love of nature to sell a pipeline.”

“Exploit the very thing that the pipeline will destroy to sell it, that’s hardcore,” says yet another. “Deviously wicked.”

“I love it,” says the client.

And not one of them feels the least bit guilty for helping to destroy the livability of our planet. Why? Because they are just doing their jobs.

So the commercial is written, produced, directed, location scouted, lighted, costumed, filmed, acted in, edited, catered, etc. and not one of the dozens of people making it feel the least bit guilty for contributing to global warming, because after all, they too are just doing their jobs. Likewise, the sales rep at the TV station, the traffic person, the director, master control operator and every other worker from Calgary to Fort Mac to Vancouver who take no responsibility — all are also just doing their jobs.

Am I the only one who is bothered by this? “Just doing my job,” sounds eerily similar to “just following orders,” a soldier’s excuse for committing a war crime. Is this where our economic system’s pursuit of ever-greater profits has led us? The sum of our individual actions is creating an environmental disaster but none of us are responsible?

I’m pretty certain most who work in Fort McMurray understand how destructive what they do is to the environment. I feel confident that the vast majority of creative people involved in selling products that are bad for us understand what they are doing. Most may prefer not to think about it, but they do understand. They believe there’s no choice. Acting like you don’t care is simply what it takes to successfully earn a living.

This is the attitude of people who feel powerless. It is the attitude of a soldier who has learned the negative consequences of ever questioning an order.

Our economic system gives the power to decide most things to a small number of people motivated by greed. Most of us must follow orders if we are to succeed. Our ability to choose is confined to decisions like Coke versus Pepsi. We feel powerless because that is our reality.

To take responsibility requires taking power.

This is the mental itch that won’t go away: How do people who feel powerless take power and build a world with a democratic economic system where we collectively decide what to produce and how, rather than let the profit motive decide all?

We better quickly figure out an answer because all the science tells us it will soon be too late.

Gary Engler is a Canadian journalist, novelist (The Year We Became Us) and co-author of the recently released New Commune-ist Manifesto — Workers of the World It Really is Time to Unite. He is currently working on the first great hockey novel tentatively titled Puck Hog. Read other articles by Gary.