Analysis: James Cameron's Tar Sands Tour

James Cameron addresses his identity as both an “outsider” and a Canadian with standing to comment on Canada’s tar sands.

A couple weeks back, I helped create a website to document James Cameron's tar sands press conference. As I listened intently to the live conference, I was immediately struck by Mr. Cameron's solid grasp of the technical and ecological issues involved in tar sands extraction, as well as his pragmatic view about what should be done to clean up the sands.

In retrospect I shouldn't have been surprised by his quick study of the issue, in addition to being one of the world's most successful directors, he has also co-invented a 3D camera system (the same one "Avatar" was shot on) and has logged hundreds of hours in various forms of underwater exploration. He also reconstituted that evil liquid metal guy in Terminator 2. The guy is a smarty pants.

I know some people were cynical about Mr. Cameron passing judgment on the tar sands, and some environmentalists were even downright disappointed with his message, deeming the tar sands as either a potentially "great gift" or a "great curse," depending on how they're developed (many environmentalists would prefer to steer clear of any conversation that frames the tar sands as a resource). Mr. Cameron's message, and the counter-reaction (albeit in private) from some quarters in the environmental movement harkens back to a common refrain I've repeated on this blog - that the environmental community needs to get better at defining competing sustainable futures for respective environmental issues, especially the tar sands. "Stop the Tar Sands!" is not a message that resonates with Canadians. Slowdown and clean them up, regulate them based on science (from CO2 emissions to water pollution) is a message that does.

James Cameron calls for a moratorium on new tar sands tailings ponds until the pollution from current projects is better understood.

Mr. Cameron's message was rare in that it managed to create an opening in Alberta's conservative press. As one colleague pointed out to me, the fact that the National Post didn't disagree with Mr. Cameron's call for more regulation and a slow down in the sands, was unprecedented - it showed a non-partisan evolution of the tar sands conversation, and I would argue that media treatment came down to Mr. Cameron's pragmatic message.

It also helped that he took three days to hear the respective stories of all the major players (First Nations, industry, government and environmental groups), thereby positioning himself as a relatively fair and balanced observer. Mr. Cameron's celebrity gave him the platform, but his ability as a storyteller transcended normally opposed audiences. He listened and distilled some of the basic truths we can all agree on, truths like, something is wrong if First Nations are scared to swim in or drink from a river. That's a basic human value that not many of us would accept contravention of.

My same colleague, in observing the disappointment of environmental groups in Mr. Cameron's press conference, thought that they hadn't found where they belong when science and celebrity (brought together by Mr. Cameron) fill the public spotlight they're so used to occupying. Mr. Cameron's celebrity was no doubt going to steal the show, but the groups could probably have played a more prominent role in the public conversation if they articulated a similar or even competing vision of a more sustainable tar sands development.

Shortly after Mr. Cameron's tour, in response to increasing pressure created by a series of scientific reports that hit a climax with Mr. Cameron's visit, the federal government announced the appointment of a new and apparently credible water monitoring review panel to investigate claims and concerns about pollution in the Athabasca rivershed, a significant and previously unprecedented step.

Anyone who watched the entirety of Mr. Cameron's press conference would be hard pressed to argue with his message - he knew the material like the back of his hand and he played a fair hand, listening to the respective players and pushing back against the vilification of individuals in industry. He recognized the disparate stories and as a storyteller managed to bring them together distilling them down to some rare common ground (albeit not yet substantive enough to achieve sustainability) that we can all agree on.

It was an important first step in the maturation of Canada's tar sands conversation - one that has a lot further to go.