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How We Tell the Story About Oil and Violence

December 21, 2017

Portrait of Christian Angelich

Portrait of Christian Angelich
Photo by Cullen Kobayashi, CLAgency student

In the middle of a calm summer night in July 2013, the small town of Lac-Mégantic, Québec exploded into flames. Forty-seven people died, including children still asleep in their beds. Two thousand residents had to immediately evacuate due to toxic fumes.

Seventy-two tank cars from a runaway train full of North Dakota shale oil had plowed into the town, devastating the community and its environment. Four years later, the town and its residents still haven’t fully recovered. 

It’s a horrifying story, and Christian Angelich says, it’s a warning for all of us. 

PhD candidate and recipient of the Maryann Schall Graduate Fellowship, Christian D. Angelich grew up in California and received his undergraduate degree in human communication from Cal State University, Monterey Bay. After graduating, he became a commercial airline pilot. From this birds-eye view, he saw our dependence on fossil fuels on a grand scale.

“I used to fly . . . [from] an airport called Inyokern in the middle of the Mojave desert. We would fly into Los Angeles. You would see just droves of red taillights going into Los Angeles, and at night droves of white headlights coming out,” he says. As a pilot, he was also conscious of the high levels of carbon that flying adds to the atmosphere.

Knowledge at an Early Age

Angelich recalls his first awareness of the oil crisis during grade school, when he realized the entire planet was eventually going to run out of oil. His fifth grade teacher was interested in earth sciences, and the theory of peak oil―the maximum rate in which petroleum can be extracted before terminal decline―was a large part of the discussion. 

Angelich says, “I started to realize and understand how oil is formed and that we live on a planet that is a closed system. We can’t produce more of basic materials for generations; what’s there is there. We’re not going to produce more oil beyond the technology we currently have to extract it.” 

Our need to extract and transport this finite resource, Angelich argues, puts us all at risk and exposes ourselves and our communities to violence. 

How the Danger Happens

Angelich stresses that climate change kills people through oil. The investigative-journalism side of his personality comes out in his research as he asks questions about what we are paying attention to and why. “Which is going to directly cause the most harm to the most people on the planet within our lifetime: global terrorism or climate change?” Angelich asks, “After figuring that out, the follow-up is: which one are we paying more attention to and why?”
Angelich explains another part of the story of oil and violence. “Another way to think of it is that oil works as slave labor. We understand that violence is built into colonial systems of oppression and slavery. Oil is like a chemical version of that. Because it’s more mechanical, there’s this disconnect from the perception with its dark side.” Like slavery, oil is used without full consideration of its harmful effects and consequences.

Angelich’s current project is telling the story of Lac-Mégantic--a violent tale--to help people see the terrible price they may pay in loss of environment, loss of community, and frighteningly, loss of life. “The ultimate goal would be [to tell] those survivor stories. There’s crazy stories of people seeing their windows melt. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning and their windows are melting.” Angelich is working on telling the Lac-Mégantic story as he describes, “in a way that people care about it and also that double-bind—that we’re still hooked on oil.” 

An obstacle to decreasing the threat of  oil violence is that capital invested in oil infrastructure and a carbon lifestyle is still more profitable than investing in greener alternatives. More infrastructure leads to greater risk. “The thing to note with these derailments is that many of the rail lines in North America follow rivers,” Angelich noted in a February 2017 Public Lands podcast. “As we all know here in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the major rail line of BNSF runs right along the Mississippi River from which 3 million people draw their daily drinking water.”

The realities to be addressed are the global stories of climate change disaster aftermath. The challenge is figuring out how to personalize those stories in a way that creates systematic change. 

Spreading public awareness of stories like Lac-Mégantic’s of real people and the rate of climate change is secondary to first addressing how their lives and the lives of their children will be inevitably affected. The problem with climate change is perception, and if the public can be moved by personalizing the violence that oil dependence can bring, Angelich believes his research will be successful. 

“What keeps me up at night,” Angelich said during in the podcast, “is wondering whether the next generation will have a different carbon footprint from the one we have today? Were the deaths of the 47 people who died in Lac-Mégantic in vain?"

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.