Black Goo, the Environment, And the End of the World

Douglas Coupland looks to the past to find an answer for the impending environmental apocalypse of the extreme present.

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Oct 6 2015, 8:51pm

The first time I ever visited a McDonald's restaurant was on a rainy Saturday afternoon, November 6, 1971. It was Bruce Lemke's tenth birthday party and the McDonald's was at the corner of Pemberton Avenue and Marine Drive in North Vancouver, BC. The reason I can pinpoint this date is that it was also the date and time of the Cannikin nuclear test on Amchitka Island—a Spartan Missile warhead of between four and five megatons was detonated at the bottom of a 1.5-mile vertical shaft drilled into this Alaskan island. The press had made an enormous to do over the blast, as it was roughly four times more powerful than any previous underground detonation. According to the fears of the day, the blast was to occur on seismic faults connected to Vancouver, catalyzing chain reactions which in turn would trigger the great granddaddy of all earthquakes. The Park Royal shopping centre would break into two and breathe fire; the Cleveland Dam up the Capilano River would shatter, drowning whoever survived in the mall three miles below. The cantilevered L-shaped modern houses with their "Kitchens of Tomorrow" perched on the slopes overlooking the city would crumble like so much litter—all to be washed away by a tsunami six hours later.

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I wrote the above paragraph in 1992, 20 years after that trip to McDonald's, and no, the world didn't end. It never does. Looking back on the nuclear paranoia and fear that defined the emotional texture of Cold War—not just for me, but for much of the world's population—I see now that the nuclear threat was a boogeyman constructed largely to terrify citizens into okaying massive defence budgets without debate. Fear sells.

There's nothing like the fears you acquire between the ages of, say, ten to 14. They seem to go in the deepest and colour your world the most strongly. A common question I ask people whenever film discussions come up is, "What is the movie that scared the shit out of you when you were 11 or 12—the film that you were probably too young to watch it, but you watched it anyway, and it totally screwed you up for the rest of your life?" Everyone's got one. Mine was Lord of the Flies but other common answers are The Exorcist and Event Horizon. The point is that we all know that magic window in time when one is most porous to fear.

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In the early hours of Tuesday September 25, 1973, two freighters, the Sun Diamond and Erawan, collided at the entrance to Vancouver's main harbour area, Burrard Inlet, dumping almost 190,000 litres of bunker oil into the water. Bunker oil is the nastiest stickiest creepiest oil there is. In the oil distillation process, bunker oil is what sticks to the bottom of the tank. It's like molten tar, brutally foul, jet black, and on a warm day is the consistency of runny magnetic black diarrhoea. It sticks to everything and it doesn't come off. An oil-soaked bird is a dead bird. They don't live. They die. There's no happy ending for any wildlife touched by this stuff. Don't ever believe the photos experts want to show you.

So on the afternoon of September 25, 1973, someone thought it would be a great idea for local school kids to come "help," so a bunch of us went down to help "clean things up."

It was a dreadful idea.

We were dropped off in the same parking lot you normally parked in to get to the beach in summer, except there were dark bootprints everywhere, and you could see streaks on the lawn where people tried wiping bunker fuel oil from their shoes before getting back into their vehicles; litter and newspapers were used for the same purpose. I remember the bus driver saying they could get someone else to pick us up; he wasn't getting any of that in his bus, and then he drove away.

Sign from a 2015 oil spill in West Vancouver. Photo via Flickr user Marc van der Chijs

It was confusion. Nobody really had any idea what to do. Well intended people were using bamboo rakes to try to capture bunker fuel globules. You could see the blobs inside the waves as they lobbed in. Undead black zombie jellyfish. Nothing prepared any of us eleven-year-olds for the foulness of the bunker oil, the way it obliterates anything it touches, and its neutron star black gloss as it smothers a low tide-scape of barnacles and starfish. It felt a crime scene. It was a crime scene.

Someone gave us brand new rakes that had price stickers on the from the Woolco store in North Van. The government bought rakes from Woolco? They don't have actual proper clean-up tools on hand?

The government was seemingly no help at all, having no visible plan in place to deal with a spill like this, and its efforts were directly compared to Monty Python's Flying Circus by the Vancouver Sun.

Someone shouted, "Go down to where the gravel meets the water and start raking. Try to catch the blobs before they break up," and so that's what we did. It was dismal, like trying to capture wheelbarrow-sized chunks of Jell-O with chopsticks. Further down the beach, we saw what was peat moss was strewn onto gravel and sand to soak up the oil. Logs along the beach we were told acted as excellent bunker fuel sponges, and people would be gathering these logs to burn later in the day.

A remember a hippie coming up to me and two friends with something black in his hands: a cormorant completely covered in oil but still alive, and in heartbreaking death throes. "Look what you did."

"Huh?"

"You people from the suburbs. You made this happen. You killed it with your consuming and pollution."

That one asshole destroyed any sympathy I ever might have had for hippies, but he made me love all birds and animals in a way I may never have otherwise done. So thanks, asshole. And by the way, where did you grow up—in a manger?

Aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Photo via Flickr user Green Fire Productions

In general, local environmentalists showed no pity for the citizens of North and West Vancouver whose beaches, rocky coves and bays were blackened for miles once the tides began pushing it along. (Forty-two years later one can still clearly see oil stain marks on rocks ten miles up the coast.) The environmentalists argued that residents deserved retribution for all the crap suburbanites were already putting in the harbour—an attitude as arrogant and strangely useless as that of the government. People talk about the 1970s, but they never talk about how much hate there was back then. Hate and pollution. Everyone was looking for cheap easy targets. Social ideas were evolving, but technology to make new ideas fully manifest—as well as laws supporting the changes—were evolving much more slowly. Inside the lag time between the two realms lurked hate; everyone hating everything. Nobody looked clean. People still littered. Cars belched blue smoke that smelled like burning plastics. Don't get too nostalgic; it wasn't all plaid bellbottoms and feathered hair.

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After an hour it was obvious we were wasting our time. Two friends and I took a regular bus back to school, where we got a punitive lecture about bailing on community participation. It was 1973 and the fact that three kids had spent the day unsupervised would never have entered anyone's mind. Had we hitchhiked back to school we probably would have gotten points for being resourceful.

That night I didn't sleep, and I didn't sleep well for a month, and I still sometimes can't sleep when I think about the cormorant.

And don't forget nuclear war was always one ICBM away.

And then somewhere in there I saw Lord of the Flies.

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The punchline is that not even a month later, in the early morning of October 24, 1973, a German freighter, the Wesfalia, dumped 3,400 litres of bunker oil in Vancouver's main harbour, and by noon it had washed up on the shore of Vancouver's crown jewel, Stanley Park. The Westfalia's spill was a fraction of what had been dumped the previous month, but you have to add the 1970s everything's-gone-to-shit factor: everything was disintegrating back then. This smaller spill just reinforced the spirit of the age. Nobody was the least bit surprised.

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On April 8, 2015, 15,142 days after the Westfalia spill, a grain ship, the Marathassa, registered in Cyprus, leaked 2,200 litres of bunker oil into Vancouver's outer harbour area, English Bay. This is 1/86th the volume of what was dumped in September 23, 1973. One would think oil spill clean-up in 2015 would be quick, forceful, and inexpensive. Wrong. Federal and provincial politicians were about as functional and helpful as Peter, Chris, Stewie, and Brian Griffin drinking ipecac together. Finger pointing on all sides. Blame. Retaliation. Lying. Downplaying. Catastrophizing. The one lesson that emerges from what was actually a comparatively small spill, is that there is no effective system in place to handle oil gone wrong, and this is in the centre of a city of 2.4 million people. I shudder to imagine a spill, even a small spill up or down the coast, away from both clean-up protocols and scrutiny.

In Vancouver right now, a company named Kinder Morgan wants to triple the amount of oil carried by the Trans Mountain Pipeline from increase the number of oil tankers in Burrard Inlet from five to 34 per month. In preparation for (inevitable) future spills, the company "is committed to a polluter-pay, world-class, land-based, and marine-spill response regime." Who wouldn't feel better already? I'm stoked!

The BC government is also trying to get liquefied natural (LNG) gas out of BC and down to Malaysia, and to do so is hoping to get in bed with the Malaysian energy giant, Petronas. The BC government has seemingly bet the family farm entirely on LNG going to Malaysia, complete with a fantasy number of 100,000 jobs to be created (in actuality, 4,500 during construction and up to 1,500 permanent jobs after that spread around the province). One plant in particular is slated for the end of Howe Sound—North America's southernmost fjord, and a place of spectacular beauty which has only recently healed from the toxic and visual blight of both copper mining (closed 1971) and a pulp mill (closed 2006). The selling point in the nearby town of Squamish (which lost all those pulp and copper jobs) is, of course, jobs, jobs, jobs—even though the proposed job numbers are pie on the sky, and the facility is setting the region up for truly devastating disaster scenarios. As a bonus, an LNG plant will blight, in the ugliest possible way, one of the most beautiful and beloved scenic tourism corridors in Canada. This never seems to get mentioned. It will be a visual nightmare experienced by every single human being who drives from Vancouver up to Squamish, Whistler, and beyond.

Ambleside Beach looks like it's mostly recovered from the 1973 oil spill. At least in this oversaturated photo from 2015. Photo via Flickr user GoToVan

Everyone is trying to move energy everywhere—and probably close by to where you live. If it's not tankers and pipelines, then it's oil by rail. Remember: when something goes horribly wrong (and it will; even they acknowledge that), it will be written off as a one-time only human error kind of thing, but it will keep happening over and over. Yes, the world will continue to chug along, but it will be a stained and damaged world.

A wonderful expression comes to mind here, one about trees: "The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is right now." This could equally apply to planning safe energy. Twenty years passes very quickly, trust me. Start digging now.

Douglas Coupland, one of Canada's preeminent authors and artists, has been relentlessly chronicling the future of mass culture for 25 years and has usually been right. He is currently Google's Artist in Residence at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris.

Follow Douglas Coupland on Twitter. Lead image by Ben Ruby.

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