Dead ducks and the Alberta oilsands

Three hundred ducks died in toxic tailings ponds. And about 10,000 birds die each year flying into Toronto skyscrapers at night.

You’d have to be a sadist to enjoy watching a bird in its death throes, thrashing about in an oily swamp. Images like the ones that emerged from the Alberta oilsands last week, where about 300 ducks made the deadly mistake of landing in toxic tailings ponds during a freezing rain storm, get people feeling emotional. Most of us prefer not to peek into the messy inner-workings of the energy economy.

Sure, we all know that when we drive we are depleting a finite resource and pumping nasty chemicals into the air. But our filling stations are so neat and tidy we eat apple fritters and drink coffee while we pump our gas. And yes, we know that our homes aren’t cozy warm thanks to the generosity of the heat fairy. But our furnaces silently suck gas from pipes that run beneath our roads, and come with Energy Star stickers to reassure us that we are good people.

So when we see some poor bird, feathers slicked with brownish goo, our instant reaction is to scream “Shame!” And then we change the channel before our forebrain starts percolating with uncomfortable questions. For instance: how many dead ducks are we willing to accept for our standard of living?

Tough question that. We’re supposed to say none, right? We will not sacrifice a single innocent mallard in the service of our pampered, fuel-sucking modern existence. God bless the ducks, and their little green heads.

Feel better? Great, except that hunters typically kill 125,000 ducks every year in Alberta according to Ducks Unlimited. That’s one province, every year … for sport. But you don’t hunt right? Do you drive? Collisions with motor vehicles kill well over 80 million birds each year in North America. Roughly 10,000 birds die annually in Toronto by slamming their little heads into the sides of tall glass buildings at night — not as a byproduct of some much bigger industrial purpose, but because we can’t agree to turn the lights off when we leave the office. Guess what else has a nasty habit of killing birds? Wind turbines. They don’t produce carbon, but they are efficient bird guillotines. Michael Fry of the American Bird Conservancy estimates wind farms kill at least 75,000 birds a year in the U.S.

I don’t share these statistics merely to harp on the hypocrisy of city dwellers who revile the oilsands, but to point out that nearly everything we do has some kind of environmental cost. Dead ducks represent one of the many sad compromises of a world that remains utterly oil-dependant. That angst you feel at watching them thrash around is what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance” — defined (roughly) as the discomfort that comes from holding conflicting views simultaneously. For example, many of us believe both of the following statements: a) It’s cruel and wrong to kill animals unnecessarily. b) Bacon sure is tasty. Awkward.

Three common ways of dealing with cognitive dissonance are a) denial; b) justification (hey, we gotta eat); and c) blame somebody (mean farmers with their tasty, addictive bacon).

As we try to square our energy consumption with the sight of ducks dying, most of us head for option c) — the warm glow of self-righteous indignation.

Politicians express “deep frustration” that the ducks died, just weeks after the province fined Syncrude $3 million for an even bigger duck disaster two years ago. Environmentalists scream about avian genocide. News anchors furrow brows and shake heads. And we think to ourselves, “You know, if those oil companies weren’t so greedy and stupid and irresponsible, then those ducks would still be alive and

I wouldn’t be sitting here feeling guilty about the 80-litre fuel tank in my driveway. Shame!”

We want to believe that all of the negative stuff that flows from our modern consumer society should be manageable and preventable…by somebody else. Reality is messier.

The companies in the oilsands use air cannons and flares and various other novel tricks to keep the birds away. They are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in technology that will shrink and detoxify and eventually eliminate tailings ponds over the next 20 years. But in the meantime, the solutions are imperfect. Our presence and propagation on this planet is not especially conducive to robust animal health, and these 300 are not the last ducks that will make an ill-advised stopover in the ponds near Fort McMurray.

Once we face that, we can have an honest conversation about the costs and benefits of progress. The way to deal with our cognitive dissonance is not with denial or blame, but by focusing on the justifications.

Your dinner was slaughtered. Your shoes were made by someone who would desperately like to swap lives with you. And for the time being, ducks best beware — we need the oil.