Tankers and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Even Possible

Back in the summer, I wrote a blog post entitled Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough. The post was about a leak in a Husky Oil pipeline that had spilled into the North Saskatchewan river and contaminated the drinking water for approximately 70 000 Saskatchewanians (and poisoned the habitat of countless wild creatures that called the river home). My concern was that the regulatory environment around fossil fuel transportation has bowed to pressures from the fossil fuel industry to focus on “responsible outcomes” (i.e. leak and spill clean-up) rather than preventing environmental disasters from happening in the first place. (You can read a letter, signed by representatives from the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association and sent to the federal government in 2011, here. Many of the industry’s requests later appeared in legislation tabled and passed by the Harper Government).  My point was that, even giving Husky Oil the benefit of the doubt and assuming that pipeline maintenance, observation, and spill response was a top priority for the company and that Husky did the best they could, they were still unable to prevent disaster. Not quite the kind of “responsible outcome” fossil fuel industry representatives had championed.

But what about when, as happens far too often, the “best” isn’t even available? What if, for example, a tugboat pulling a (thankfully empty) fuel barge were to run aground off the coast of the (supposedly protected) Great Bear Rainforest? And right near the clam beaches at Bella Bella, threatening the food security and economic well-being of the Heiltsuk Nation (not to mention fouling their traditional lands and waters)? What if, though the barge itself was empty, the tug, pierced by the sharp rocks of this precarious stretch of coast, began to leak its over 200 000 litres of diesel fuel (and thousands more litres of hydraulic oil, lubricants, and other contaminants) into these precious waters? What if the initial response team had to travel from over 300 km away, and took 20 hours to even arrive at the scene? What if the booms placed around the tug to contain the spill couldn’t withstand the severe weather conditions common on B.C.’s northern coast? Could we say, in that instance, that the industry had done its “best”? Could we say, in that instance, that the government and industry were demonstrating a commitment to “responsible outcomes”? How could the public trust that industry and government will be able respond to a large tanker or barge spill when they couldn’t even contain the fuel tank contents of a tug?

webwcmrcmapofequipmentcachescopyUnfortunately, these questions are not hypotheticals. The tugboat Nathan E. Stewart, which was pulling an empty barge, really did run aground on October 13, just off the coast of Bella Bella, B.C., and it really did leak diesel fuel into the sea,  polluting the clam beaches of the Heiltsuk people and devastating their livelihood. Spill response, which had to come from the nearest Western Canada Marine Response Corp. station in Prince Rupert, over 300 km away, really did take 20 hours to arrive on scene (WCMRC is an industry-funded organization that responds to fossil-fuel spills). The provincial and federal governments, meanwhile, were (to say the least), somewhat unsatisfactory in their responses (the premier’s response was to blame the federal government for their lack of response, and the federal government’s response was to, I’m not sure, chew some gum for about three days?).

It is unknown at this time what the real extent of the damage to Bella Bella has been. It may be a long time before we know the extent of the environmental and economic damage done to the Heiltsuk Nation. In the meantime, the federal government is set to decide whether it will approve further pipeline projects to carry Alberta bitumen to B.C.’s tidewater. Any increase in the volume of fossil fuels reaching the coast, of course, means an increase in tanker traffic, meaning all coastal B.C. residents, not just those in Bella Bella (or those B.C. residents living in the pipeline’s path), are significantly impacted by these decisions.

This is why both government AND the fossil fuel industry have been throwing around phrases like “world class spill response” for the past few years in order to assuage fears about proposed fossil fuel projects. But whatever this “world class” spill response might be, it hasn’t proven it can overcome B.C. geography or its weather (a fact totally ignored by the National Energy Board, which ruled that Kinder Morgan’s spill response plan for the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline is feasible and adequate, despite the fact that experts have warned that the outcomes promised by Kinder Morgan simply will not be possible).

Of course, containing a spill is difficult work. Of course, the B.C. coastline is dangerous and its weather, especially in the winter months, is unpredictable and extreme. Indeed, the technology for overcoming these challenges may not even exist (and the technology for recovering bitumen after it spills into water certainly does not). Even with the best of intentions, a “responsible outcome” may not be possible if another fuel spill were to occur on B.C.’s coast. Which is why maybe, just maybe, the most responsible course of action is not to take that risk at all.

Advertisements

Pipelines and Spills: When Your “Best” Isn’t Good Enough

A Husky pipeline has spilled approximately 250 000 litres of oil and diluent into the North Saskatchewan River. Despite clean-up efforts and the placing of booms on the river, the spill has contaminated the water source of the small Saskatchewan cities of North Battleford and Prince Albert, forcing the affected communities to find alternate sources of drinking water for approximately 70 000 people. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall (longtime vocal supporter of oil pipelines and the fossil fuel industry in general) has called the spill and resulting water contamination “a terrible situation,” and says the provincial government wants to see a “complete restoration” of the North Saskatchewan’s ecology.

There have been several questions, fueled by discrepancies in the timeline reports filed by Husky Energy, about whether the company knew about the leak in its pipeline fourteen hours before it turned off the pressure or informed the provincial government. Husky has since claimed that though an “anomaly” was detected on the evening of Wednesday, July 20, and a crew was dispatched to investigate, a leak was not discovered until Thursday morning. Husky may be telling the truth, or they may be covering their asses, but either way, it seems that there certainly has been some failure to properly investigate and respond in a timely manner, especially when the pipeline in question runs beneath a major waterway and source of drinking water.

We also know that pipeline companies are well aware that spills are a “when”, not an “if”, scenario, as evidenced by the oil industry’s lobbying of the Harper government. An example of this is a letter sent in December 2011 to then-Minister of Environment Peter Kent and then-Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver, and signed by the presidents of the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, and the Canadian Gas Association [the letter was obtained by Greenpeace through a request filed under the Access to Information Act]. This letter is essentially a wish-list from the fossil fuel industry, requesting that the Canadian government relax environmental regulations and streamline approval of oil and gas projects (many of these requests later appeared in various pieces of omnibus legislation tabled by the Harper government). The letter minimizes the importance of avoiding environmentally harmful events, preferring to focus instead on “responsible outcomes”. The letter states:

“We believe that the basic approach embodied in existing legislation is out-dated. At the heart of most existing legislation is a philosophy of prohibiting harm; ‘environmental’ legislation is almost entirely focused on preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.”

Underlying these ten-dollar words is the basic premise that oil companies know that asking for forgiveness is easier than asking for permission, and that promising to clean up any spills that happen is more realistic than promising (and actually REALLY trying) to prevent “bad things” from occurring in the first place. And if a pipeline spills and the company doesn’t clean it up, well, shucks, they’ll try harder next time. The important thing is, the pipeline’s already there, and they’ve already won.

But let’s put all that aside for a moment. Let’s give Husky Energy the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that Husky monitored their pipeline as best they could and investigated the pressure anomaly thoroughly (though unfortunately, by their own admission, they missed the leak). Let’s assume that the pipe itself was top-of-the-line and well-maintained. Let’s assume that the booms Husky initially used to contain the spill (and which ultimately failed) are the best tools the industry has at its disposal when dealing with events such as this. Let’s assume that Husky’s promise to pay for the entirety of the clean-up is sincere. Let’s assume that Husky has done, and is doing, absolutely EVERYTHING RIGHT to achieve the “responsible outcome” that the co-signees of that Energy Frameworks Initiative letter were promoting.

The leak happened anyway. Containment didn’t work. Clean-up processes will likely be more difficult and lengthy than first thought . And in the heat of the summer, the main source of drinking water for 70 000 Saskatchewan residents (many of whom actually do support pipeline projects and the fossil fuel sector in general), has been contaminated.

fp0727_sask_oil_spill_c_mf

Environment: Time for Justin Trudeau to Pick a Side

There’s an old adage that says when you try to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. I imagine sayings like these are on Justin Trudeau’s mind as he coifs his hair each morning and wonders where his “sunny ways” went wrong. Or maybe he’s not concerned, because he’s too busy doing one-armed push-ups and taking selfies and trying to insist that the “middle ground” is actually a fertile place from which to grow our future.

I don’t mind that Justin Trudeau is part of a political “dynasty”. I don’t mind that he and his wife are young and good-looking. I don’t mind that they are from Quebec. I don’t mind that Trudeau used to be a drama teacher before his political career (teachers and artists are often exceptionally selfless and intelligent people and I think many of them would make great leaders). I don’t mind that he smoked pot. I don’t care that part of Trudeau’s household budget is being spent on nannies (Mulroney’s household did the same). I don’t mind that he wants to take selfies with people and seem “accessible” to Canadians (actually, I do mind the photos a little because I’d rather see Canada known for policy, not personality). I don’t care that he’s a bit of a ham and I don’t even care that he’s a Liberal.

What I DO mind is that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is trying to please everyone–is trying to claim a “middle ground” in several either/or situations and is, simultaneously, pissing off just about everybody on both sides of the issue. Nowhere is this more obvious to me than in his government’s position on the environment.

At the moment, folks on the “right-wing” or “conservative” side of the political environmental debate are pissed at Trudeau because he does things like sign Paris climate deals, spout a lot of hot air about Canada being “back”, and because, when the country’s reliance on the oil industry resulted in a lot of lost jobs and financial uncertainty as oil prices plummeted, he was tone-deaf enough to say that those communities left out of the federal government’s EI benefits “should be pleased that they are not hit as hard as other parts of the country and indeed the province have been”. Cold comfort when you’re trying to keep food on your family’s table and shoes on your kids.

At the same time, folks on the “left-wing”, or rather (since the environment we live in affects both right and left), the “green” side of the issue, are pissed at Trudeau because he signs Paris climate deals, spouts a lot of hot air about Canada being “back” as an ally in the fight against global climate catastrophe, and then goes ahead and lets undemocratic, ethically suspect, Harper-appointed bodies like the National Energy Board (NEB) go ahead and approve the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion (which will, incidentally, have a profoundly negative impact on the communities in which I live and work). A lot of people (including me) have called Trudeau a dummy in the past, but surely not even he actually believes that supporting crude oil pipelines (i.e. increasing the amount of oil sands bitumen that will be extracted, transported, and burned as fuel) will somehow lead to a “greener” future for this country.

Spectacularly, that is exactly the claim that Trudeau is trying to make, and a claim SFU professor of sustainable energy Mark Jaccard had no qualms about eviscerating when interviewed by Maclean’s. When it comes to Trudeau’s wishy-washy statements on pipelines being used to fund a green transition:

Jaccard can only shake his head and chuckle. “What we’re beginning to hear from the federal government now—‘We’re going to fund green infrastructure and innovation’—those are faking-it policies. You’ve got to either regulate or price.” Asked specifically about Trudeau’s vision of a “transitional period”—an era when new pipelines would be built and oil sands production encouraged, apparently all to pay for the advent of the post-carbon economy—Jaccard forgets to laugh. “It’s bunk, total bunk,” he says, “and please quote me.”

No problem, professor. I’m quoting you with relish. “Total bunk,” says an expert on the subject, YOU HEAR THAT, JUSTIN, YOU LILY-LIVERED BUFFOON?!

I despised Stephen Harper as much as I can despise any person who didn’t actually murder or maim someone, but at least he had the conviction to just come right out and say (I’m paraphrasing) that he didn’t give a shit about the environment and that he didn’t think climate change was a problem. It takes guts to stand up in the face of overwhelming scientific consensus and the devastating effects of human-caused climate change (like last year’s typhoon in the Philippines which killed 20 000 people) and just be like, “Nah, I don’t care. Kyoto’s for losers.” What pisses me off so much about Trudeau is that he not only pretends to care about climate change, he actually goes on the international stage and takes credit for caring, and then turns around and gives crude oil pipelines the ol’ thumbs up, as if we aren’t watching. But we are, and we’re disappointed.

Oil companies don’t give a shit about Canadians. But our government should. Oil companies don’t think about the long-term interests of the nation they’re digging up and traversing, but our government really should. It’s time for Trudeau to stop leaving it up to unelected morally bereft bodies like the NEB and foreign corporations and actually take a stance based on what he believes is  the best way forward.

So what’s it gonna be, Prime Minister: is Canada truly “back”, or just back to the same old oily tricks?

Let's hope he meant it!

Let’s hope he meant it!

[Note: leadnow.ca has a petition circulating to ask Trudeau to reject the NEB’s approval of the Kinder Morgan expansion. Please consider signing here.]

The forests are burning (your children are burning)

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Photo: Brayden McCluskey

Sometimes I wonder why people still have children. I wonder when the sky fills with smoke and the air tastes like ash, when the heat comes in and sits, indifferent to the presence of the sea, indifferent to the ceiling fan, indifferent to everything that should shoo it out again. I wonder when I start to describe the blue sky as “relentless”–another day without rain. Another day without rain.

I wonder when I hear how many of these wildfires were started by discarded cigarettes, one person’s slow careless suicide ripping like a whip-crack across the tinder-dry grass and into a forest of–firewood, now–hot coals, now–charcoal, now–ash, now.

And still the heat envelopes me in bathwater arms, hot dishwater arms, drowns me in dry air, and still the sky, behind the smoke, relentless. Blue.

I wonder at our gleeful march towards death, our species hell-bent on fashioning this hell-scape on earth. And I know, we did this. We’re doing this. I wonder why I should have children. I wonder, if I did, what they would grow to see–their childhood home, consumed by the flames? Their spiral-shelled shorelines slick with the entrails of tankers, slick with the oil that should have stayed in the ground? And, if they live to be old, the sunny backyard where their parents were married, submerged in the rising sea? The ice caps are melting. The ocean’s expanding. We’re doing this.

Do you, you avaricious elders, deserve my children, deserve their flesh (my flesh) and their hope (your hope) and their bright new shiny spotless souls? When I was a child you told me that I was the future. You–teachers, government–told me that what you were doing was for me, for my own good, for me and my children and my children’s children. But I am grown up now and no one has saved the planet for me. And when I say, I want to save it, please help me try, you say I am naive, you say we all need jobs, you say “dollars and cents”, that we need to pull the oil out of the ground because it is worth too much, we need to ship the oil and sell the oil and burn the oil, you say money is more important than life.

Your children can’t eat money. We can’t draw money cool-sweet from the ground and drink it. Money can’t buy us rain or stop the hot beating of the blue sky, relentless.

Come now, you rich people, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have corroded, and their corrosion will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. [James 5: 1-4]

Show me, wasteful citizens of a wasted planet, that you deserve my children. Convince me that you will not throw them into the flames as you have done with yours. Promise me you will not tell them that their hunger, their thirst, their choking for a clean gasp of air is naivete. Show me that you need them as more than just a bandage made of hope, as more than just a witness to our final ashy breaths.

I want to write about the Mountain

I tried to write about Burnaby Mountain this week, and the profiteering oil company Kinder Morgan, and the undemocratic and unscrupulous National Energy Board (who are really just a front for our unscrupulous and undemocratic federal government), and the courageous City of Burnaby who is doing what it can to fight both KM and the NEB (though losing as well–the company was granted the right to cut down trees and test drill in the Burnaby Mountain conservation area in defiance of Burnaby’s bylaws and the NEB and the courts have decided Burnaby does not have the jurisdiction to decide what happens in its own public parks). I wanted to write about the protestors and defenders of the environment, and First Nations rights, and justice, and democracy, who have been, in large and small numbers, on the Mountain since September, who have been so brave. I wanted to write about the people, old and young, First Nations and settler, rich and poor, who have willingly crossed the police line that marks the KM drill sites to be arrested. I want to write about how beautiful it is to calmly declare that you understand you will be arrested, and to cross a line, walk towards the RCMP on the other side, and be (sometimes gently) received into the shackles of a law that, I’m sure, many of the officers themselves don’t even agree with.

I want to write about Monday afternoon–my day on the Mountain in the mud, my day meeting (fellow) protestors, and chatting with the RCMP, and explaining what I believe, and listening to others explain what they believe, and simply standing in front of a yellow line, knowing that the people on the other side are different because they are in a uniform, but really not so different beneath, and knowing that behind them, partially out of sight, is a Kinder Morgan work crew, and knowing that the people on that work crew are different because they are doing something that is wrong, but really not so different underneath their jobs, and not knowing what to do with that information.

I wanted to write about discussing with my husband before I went up that day whether or not I should be purposefully arrested because perhaps the charge would not be so bad and perhaps it was the right thing to do. I wanted to write about the fact that this is the first time I have EVER thought that perhaps being arrested might be something I could do, and that I think that says something about how important this fight is. I wanted to write about the young man I walked up the mountain with, who asked me why I wouldn’t cross the line and “add to the numbers”. I wanted to write about telling him that maybe I was just more selfish. And that I wasn’t ready. And knowing that I’m not.

I wanted to write about the calm that descended on me as I stood on the Mountain. I wanted to write about the rain, and the umbrella someone lent me while he helped make a wooden track alongside the road (which had been blocked off by the RCMP) to help the protestors through the mud. I wanted to write about knowing that I was where I should be, and what it feels like to know you are on the right side of history.

I wanted to write about how it feels to know you are standing on the right side of history, but to know also that you might not win. I wanted to write about how unwilling I was to be angry, even when the shouting started. I wanted to write about how I just wanted to be a pair of eyes in a face. I wanted my gaze to help wedge someone’s spirit open, help them see that the world is worth saving, help them to be brave enough to NOT drill into a mountain even though it’s their job.

I wanted to write about how lonely but not lonely I was, by myself but surrounded by strangers who were allowing me to put my heart with theirs. I wanted to write about when the cold finally seeped into my bones, and I returned the borrowed umbrella, and said thank you, and walked down the mountain alone, and rode the bus alone, and watched my sodden mittens soak the lap of my jeans.

I wanted to write about how heavy I have felt since. So heavy I could not write this. So heavy because so many people, and so many organizations, can speak to what’s happening so much better than I can. So heavy because I’ve really been just a pair of eyes from the very beginning, following the story on the Internet, reading everything I could read, forgetting where I found it. A pair of eyes whose legs finally walked me up the Mountain, but could not walk me across the line.

So heavy because I just wanted to reach across the yellow tape, to the officers in their heavy vests and heavy boots, and touch them on the shoulder, and say “You are not a robot.”

So heavy because I wanted to thank everyone, wanted to tell them really and truly from the bottom of my heart how good they were to be there, but I couldn’t, because I was just eyes that day and a very quiet tongue. And the rain was so heavy, and so cold, and they said there was a fire and I could go warm up, but I didn’t feel deserving, and my feet that would not cross the line were rooted to a spot in the rain.

And so heavy because I don’t know how it’s going to end, but it will be so important, and everyday the world is so beautiful, and it’s starting to look like sunset now, and how do you write about that?

Burnaby Mountain police line

People’s Climate March Vancouver: I came, I marched, I blogged

IMG_1311

First we gathered at CBC Plaza

If you’ve at all been paying attention to the news lately you probably know that approximately 400 000 people marched through the streets of New York last Sunday to demand that the world and its leaders (125 of whom were meeting this week for a UN summit on climate change) to take meaningful action against climate change. What you may not have known was that this historical event (the largest climate march in history) partnered with marches in more than 130 cities all across the globe, including here in Vancouver. Though I’d received a phone call from the lovely people at leadnow.ca inviting me to take part in the upcoming march, I was feeling overwhelmed by various urgent and not-so-urgent obligations and wasn’t sure I was actually going to attend until I came across an opinion piece by Dr. Lynne Quarmby in the Vancouver Sun that morning (the piece was actually from the previous Friday; I just didn’t see it until Sunday morning). And that settled it. If you’ve ever read my blog, you’ll know that there are a lot of issues I care about. To name a few that I’ve written about at least once: I care about women’s rights and gender equality. I care about marriage equality and the rights of LGBT people. I care about the integrity of our democratic institutions. I care about the arts.

IMG_1318

After some speeches, we’re on the move!

Until recently, if you’d asked me if the environment was a top priority of mine I would have said no. Not because I didn’t care about the environment, but because defending it seemed impossible, especially in the face of my own complicity in the causes of climate change (I sure do love using electricity, driving cars, and buying cheap products about whose production I know nothing). I thought, “Why does this have to be my fight? Can’t it be David Suzuki’s fight? I mean, I recycle, don’t I?”. Even though I always knew I was against, for example, the proposed Northern Gateway crude oil pipeline, my reasons at first had more to do with not wanting diluted bitumen sloshing around in my backyard than about the planet as a whole.

IMG_1315

Gorgeous sign art by a talented marcher.

But then I realized that the crisis we are facing is so much bigger than my own backyard. It’s not just that we need to find a less controversial and more democratic way to review and approve energy projects, it’s that the oil actually needs to stay in the ground. It’s not just that Canadian ports have no business shipping the U.S.’s coal overseas (we don’t–we really shouldn’t be helping U.S. companies skirt around new American environmental regulations), it’s that the coal needs to stay in the ground. It’s not just the thousands of jobs in agriculture, aquaculture, and the tourism industry that will be lost if a pipeline leaks  or a tanker spills, it’s the thousands of human lives that have already been lost due to extreme weather events caused by climate change over the past few years. Our selfish actions, and our indifferent attitudes, are killing people.

And you know what else? We’re killing ourselves too. Do you think a drought, or a hurricane, or a flood, or an ice storm, gives a crap that you live in Canada, or work really hard at your job, or are rich, or are devout? Nope. Not at all. We’ve messed with a balance that is pretty important to our survival and now this imbalance is messing with us. We can stop it. But we need to act now. We need to stop being defeatist and thinking there’s nothing we can do. And we need to demand that our politicians stop selling the ground we stand on out from under us.

So that is why I marched. That’s why I chanted and cheered and, once or twice, cried a few tears because hope is so heartbreaking, especially hope in the face of such powerful and insidious forces.

There is no room for dismissing me or my fellow marchers around the world as radicals or foreign agents or whatever the hell Joe Oliver and Stephen Harper and Ezra Levant would have you believe. We are regular people from all walks of life who have read the writing on the wall and know that something needs to be done.

It’s not even about our children’s future anymore. It’s about ours. You don’t need to be an environmentalist or a leftist or a Democrat or a hippie to know that you can’t eat money, or drink investments, or live in a city that’s under water or buried in snow. Common sense (and the consensus of the scientific community) tells us that you can’t essentially burn down your house and still live in it.

There are a lot of things I want to achieve and fight for in my life, but none of that will matter if this fight is not won. I’m trying to save my own home. What’s so radical about that? As my favourite sign from Sunday’s march read, “There is no ‘Planet B'”.

Think about it.

P.S. Maclean’s did a great interview with Naomi Klein that is well worth a read.

The Diamonds and the Jar

jelly-jar1Once upon a time there was a jar with clear sides and a lid. The jar was mostly full of air but at the bottom of the jar there was a tiny heap of earth sitting in a shallow pool of water. Living on the tiny heap of earth were tiny plants. When they were warmed by the light which shone through the glass the water in their leaves rose into the air and up under the lid of the jar. At night the jar was cool and the water fell as rain. As the tiny plants died they left their nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other tiny plants could grow. In this way, the jar, though small, was perfect.

Living amongst the tiny plants on the tiny heap of earth were tiny tiny people. They were so small that for them, the tiny heap of earth was a world and the tiny plants were a forest that stretched as far as they could see. They ate the fruits that grew on the tiny plants and lived in their boughs, and breathed in the air that the plants breathed out. When the tiny people died their bodies left nutrients in the tiny heap of earth so that other plants could grow, and other tiny people benefit. In this way, the people, though small, were perfect. This is not to say that there was no toil, or grief, but that there was balance.

It was quite by accident that someone found the diamonds. Most of them were buried deep within the heap of earth but some had made their way to the surface over time and lay glittering in the light, scattered here and there, small as berries. The tiny people who found these diamonds had never seen anything like them before but since everything else the earth gave up was good, like the plants, they believed the diamonds were good too. As they would with a new fruit, they touched one of the diamonds to see if it would sting their skin. It did not. They smelled the diamond, to see if it was rotting or acrid. It was not. They licked the black diamond, to see if their throats closed or their bellies revolted at the taste. They did not. One of the tiny people, the bravest or perhaps the most curious, put the diamond in their mouth, and swallowed it.

It was in this way that the people who lived in the jar discovered the wonders of the diamonds. When you had eaten one of these diamonds, you were stronger, and faster. Distances that would have taken days to walk were a very small matter for a person who had eaten a diamond. “Miraculous!” the people said, “the diamonds are gifts of energy from the earth!” And they were.

Life became easier for the people in the jar. The extra energy they received from the ground meant they could spend less time on toil, and more time in leisure. They could think about, and create, things that were beautiful, not only things that were necessary. They could visit family who had married into other tribes or moved into other villages because the trip was now a matter of hours, rather than a matter of days. Children who had grown up after the discovery of the diamonds did not know a world without them–they imagined this world would be a hard, inefficient, and ignorant place.

Of course, like anything that comes from the ground and is eaten, a single diamond could provide energy for an hour or two, no more. And when the miracle of the diamond had passed, a hunger for another would begin.

Not that the people needed to eat diamonds all the time. “Of course not,” they would say to each other, “that would be silly.” They ate the diamonds only to hasten their various labours, and when they needed to travel. Diamonds were not needed during times of leisure, only times of work. And yet there were those who occasionally ate them for fun, because they loved the speed of their movements, loved the freedom and strength and grace these diamonds seemed to give them. And of course, people often ate diamonds to travel even short trips, because it was faster that way, and would save time.

In fact, it seemed that once people began to save time by eating diamonds, they realized how precious time truly was. Their predecessors had plodded through life, taking for granted that another minute would follow this one, another day would follow that. “How backwards,” the people thought now, “how erroneous, to waste time as our grandparents did! Let us always give time its due, and value efficiency in ourselves and others.”

Efficiency meant diamonds were required, but that was alright, because they were so small, and scattered in so many low places on the heap of earth (now that the people knew what to look for), and there were so many of them. But even the sands in the desert are not innumerable if you begin removing them grain by grain. Eventually there were only a few places where diamonds could be found and the people, unable to imagine a life without their gifts, began to fight over them, and to panic.

Fortunately, or so it seemed, the most clever and enterprising of the tiny people realized that like the plants that grew from roots buried deep beneath the earth, the diamonds on the surface were just fragments of the treasure to be found by digging. And so the people dug. They cut down their tiny trees and built tiny machines to harvest the tiny piece of earth on which they lived. Many of the plants were cleared away to make room for holes, and left to rot in piles. Leisure was unheard of now–diamonds must be mined, diamonds to improve the lives of the people! What did they care that the pace and scale of the work required the consumption of even more diamonds? Efficiency demanded fast work, fast work required energy, and energy required diamonds. It made perfect sense, and yet–

There were some people in the jar, strange people, but maybe wise people, whose eyes could see farther than others’, and whose memories were longer. “We used to have more trees,” they said, “we used to have better air. Can’t you tell?” But the people busy digging ignored them. “Plants grow,” they said, “and air is all around us. There is no shortage.”

But the wise people were not so sure. Once they began looking they could not stop, and the more their eyes saw the more their eyes filled with tears. It wasn’t only that the trees and plants were being depleted–made into machinery or cleared away. There was something about the diamonds themselves, something that happened when the people ate them. The air they exhaled was different from other air, harsher, heavier. People were used to coughing after eating a diamond, and called the condition “diamond lung”, but considered it only an annoyance. The wise people were not so sure. The air in villages where many people lived became thicker, heavy with their crystalline exhalations, and the weakest of the people were often ill, and sent to spend time in the forest. Somehow the plants helped.

The wise people saw this, and were worried. Eating the diamonds dirtied the air, and plants cleaned it. But people were killing the plants to mine more diamonds, and eating what they mined so that they could continue mining diamonds. “You must stop,” said the wise people, “you must let go of the gift of the diamonds.”

But it was hard to let go. People wanted to see their loved ones in distant places. People wanted to work quickly, to have time for more beautiful, pleasurable, and elevated things. They knew, of course, that the diamonds were not like the plants–they did not grow and they were running out. And yet this only increased the people’s  hunger; finding diamonds beneath the earth became imperative. “If there aren’t many left,” the people reasoned, “then it is better that we have all of them so that we can be sure we will have all we need.”

The wise people shook their heads. “Stop,” they said, “the air is being poisoned! If we stop now, we may still have a chance. The plants could grow back, the air could clear.” And a few of the braver, wiser people said, “We live in a jar, with a very tight lid. When the clean air is gone, there will be no more.”

The people were incredulous. “A JAR?!” they cried, “I have never heard anything more ridiculous! The earth is huge! The sky is immense! How can any sensible person believe that we live in a jar? We are powerful! We are important! We master the earth, we don’t live in a jar.” The ones who had suggested this were called heretics, lunatics, dangers to the good of the people. They were shunned and went into the forests by themselves, as far away as one diamond could take them, then built simple little houses, and never ate diamonds again. “A jar!” sneered the people, watching the wise ones leave, “Unbelievable!”

Nevertheless, it was true. The people were so tiny that only those gifted few could see the glass that encased their whole world. They did not know that their sky was a lid shut tight. They ate the diamonds, and dug for them, and ate them, and dug for them, all the while poisoning the air and destroying the plants that could have cleared it. They did not stop. They did not stop for a long time. They did not stop until their children woke up blind, their eyes unable to see through the crystalline fog that surrounded them. They did not stop until breathing was so difficult that the even sleep was laborious. They did not stop until the air was so thick that light could not filter through, and the remaining plants shed their leaves, and dropped their fruits, and died.

It was then that the people discovered that you cannot eat efficiency, and time cannot be saved. The faster you chase it, the more it runs out, like air in a jar whose lid is closed tight. They renounced the diamonds, cursed them, cast them in a pit and buried them, but it was too late. The small amount of time they had left was just enough to eat the last of the fruits, and to breathe the last of the air. No one, not even the ones who had been wise, could save themselves, because their world was a jar whose lid was closed tight, and there was no other.

(Good gracious, people, can’t we please try to save our jar? We still have time, but not much.)