Has Garrett Brown sold his soul?

Walking around the streets of Ottawa, I am often confronted by Garrett Brown crouching and looking serious on life-sized billboards. The ads – funded by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) – proclaim that they have discovered ways to restore land used for oil sands extraction in years, now decades. Mr. Brown has put his name, face, and signature on these ads. He must think he is doing good. And yet, inescapably, I think he is aiding one of the most dangerous and immoral things happening in the world right now, namely the exploitation of the oil sands.


Garrett, I have some questions for you. How much land actually gets restored, and how much gets left as toxic wasteland? In the period before it gets restored, how many toxins and carcinogens leak into the Athabasca River? In the event that the government of Canada or Alberta tried to obligate oil sands producers to actually restore most or all of the land getting ravaged by oil sands extraction, don’t you think the CAPP would fight tooth and nail against that obligation? After all, it would reduce the profitability of the oil firms that fund the organization.

Climate change

More importantly, do you really think land reclamation is the most important issue here? The CAPP advertising campaign is designed to make policy-makers and the general public think that industry is already on top of all the problems with oil sands extraction, and that improved technology and techniques will make turning bitumen-laden sand into usable fuels into a benign activity.

What about climate change? What do you think about the effect of the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Do you accept the basic physics and chemistry of the situation, which have been well understood for decades? Do you recognize how the oil sands are a gigantic store of carbon, and how your employers would be happy to add all of it to the atmosphere. What consequences would that have for future generations of people?

How can we impose that suffering on them, just so we can extend for a while the length of time during which our civilization is dependent on fossil fuels? How do you think your great grandchildren will feel when they see these ads?

Obviously, Mr. Brown feels strongly that oil sands extraction is an activity that deserves a public relations facelift. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have consented to have his name, face, and signature splayed across these ads. I wonder what evidence and logic supports his views. Perhaps he expects carbon capture and storage to make oil sands extraction compatible with climate stability. If so, he isn’t paying enough attention to how the emissions from the oil sands are ultimately dispersed among all the disparate vehicles that use the fuels. Perhaps he cares a lot more about short-term energy availability and economic robustness than about the long-term factors affecting human welfare. If so, perhaps he should reconsider his priorities.

Right now, it is clear that the forces of inaction are winning. Climate change policy is going nowhere in Canada, and internationally. To a large extent, that reflects how effective opposition from industry has been: sowing phony doubts about the science of climate change, while arguing that climate change action is sure to cause economic ruin (while climate change itself will not.) With these ads, Mr. Brown is helping CAPP perpetuate a dangerous status quo, in which the atmosphere continues to get more and more full of greenhouse gas pollution.

I would definitely like to have a conversation with Mr. Brown, asking about the motivation for his endorsement. In the absence of that, I can only conclude that he hasn’t been paying enough attention to the science, politics, and ethics of climate change. He has lent his name and reputation to the people undertaking one of the most dangerous and unethical things happening on Earth right now.

14 thoughts on “Has Garrett Brown sold his soul?

  1. Pingback: Ethics and CAPP advertising

  2. Milan Post author

    He is an Environment and Regulatory Coordinator at ConocoPhillips Canada.

    Also appearing on CAPP posters are:

    Presumably, they share Mr. Brown’s belief that the oil sands deserve better publicity.

  3. Tristan

    I think you’re right, for the reasons you give he has “sold his soul”. Do you think there is there any chance you could actually get him to participate in a debate on the issue? Is there anything I or others could do to help in such an endeavour?

  4. Antonia

    Question you missed – ‘what is meant by ‘restored’ Getting trees to grow (all they claim) is one thing, ensuring they’re healthy and getting a healthy interacting ecosystem (including fauna and fungi) back is entirely different.

    Sticking trees back on for a few years and calling it restoration is like (in the UK) putting lawn grass and assorted popular meadow flowers over a brownfield city site and calling it restored meadowland.

  5. Milan Post author

    Do you think there is there any chance you could actually get him to participate in a debate on the issue? Is there anything I or others could do to help in such an endeavour?

    I am hoping one or more of the people who appeared in these ads will eventually Google themselves, find this page, and contribute to the conversation.

    Getting trees to grow (all they claim) is one thing, ensuring they’re healthy and getting a healthy interacting ecosystem (including fauna and fungi) back is entirely different.

    A good point. Still, I think the loss of forest habitat is ultimately one of the least significant consequences of oil sands exploitation. Very probably, the warming caused by burning these fuels will ultimately destroy a lot more forest than the mining does directly.

  6. Tristan

    There’s another way of thinking about this – yes Mr Brown has “sold his soul”. But many people do things which are totally immoral (especially where the time scale is long term) as part of their job and it is considered totally normal. If participating in this campaign was simply a requirement, or even if there would have simply been significant resistance to his refusal to participate, then we might have to consider the institutional forces more significant than his “personal decision”.

    People make bad personal decisions all the time, and we can’t (other than perhaps – and this is often dubious – through the justice and prison system) change their inner moral motivations for acting. Therefore, complaining about other people making decisions you disagree with, even if you disagree with them because they are wrong, can always come off as petty – because even if you’re right it’s unlikely to make a difference. And even if you were able to convince Garrett here to quit his job because what was required of him was so unethical, he would simply be replaced.

    As people concerned with the way decisions are being currently made, not just by a few bad apples, but by the majority of the business and governmental world, it might make more sense to concentrate on institutional forces than individual choices. You might get more support – it’s a lot easier for a politicien in a position where they are for institutional reasons required to support the oil sands to support institutional reform which would change the forces upon them than it is to have them simply ignore the forces upon them.

    Of course, this requires an institutional analysis of power, which is also going to be controversial. But I don’t think that’s something we can do without. I have my own ideas about what an adequate kind of analysis of power looks like, but I think it’s more important to encourage important people to consider the importance of this field of analysis at all, rather than encourage people to agree with me personally.

  7. Tristan

    One question I think we could ask is: why would it be so easy to replace Garrett with someone else willing to appear in this campaign, and his position at ConocoPhillips? What institutions and values exist such that someone who wants a business sector environmental job, and is willing to sell their soul for it, is constantly being produced by the education system and business training sector? How can those values and institutions change, to weaken the pressure which those systems are able to leverage against the state? How can the state change to weaken those pressures? How can communities change? How are these structures affected by inequality, poverty, debt culture?

  8. Pingback: Another response to the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers

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