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Fort McMurray and the politics of karma



It was astounding to see just how swift and callous the reaction to last week's devastating Fort McMurray wildfires became in some less considerate circles of the Internet.

Memes were posted with furious frequency, accuracy be damned. Fake news stories blaming the blaze on climate change began to pop up, spelling errors and all. Hot takes proliferated almost as quickly and thoroughly as the flames themselves, turning tens of thousands of evacuees' collective tragedy into a litany of personal and political crusades. 

There were the eco-activists on the left who used the largest and most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history as an opportunity to rail against pipelines. There were the anti-immigrationists on the right who used the fires to lambaste Trudeau's response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Then there was former provincial NDP candidate Tom Moffatt, who managed to blame the fire on karma and plug his favourite social democratic candidate for U.S. president all in one ill-advised tweet. (He later apologized and was subsequently suspended from his municipal job. Is that karma? Probably not. Sheer stupidity? Absolutely.)

So let's talk about this tricky thing called karma. Beyond being a key religious concept for roughly 2.8 billion people across the world, it has become a catch-all term used by politicians and the online commentariat alike to dole out cosmic justice wherever they see fit.

Karma suggests there is some great order to the world, that all the horrible, random things that happen to us aren't so random after all. And there's a measure of relief in that. Life doesn't seem so messy and confusing if we can take our hands off the wheel for a second and let the cruise control kick in. But it's arrogant and petty to believe that karmic retribution is only doled out to our political enemies, to the people who dare go against the core values we hold dear. There are too many examples of terrible things happening to otherwise good people to truly believe that.

The problem is the Internet has caused us to internalize every current event that hits the headlines. The immediate impulse is to consider the latest tragedy not as something external that has happened to others, but as a means to espouse our own agenda. It's not enough to passively absorb the news anymore, we have to have an opinion, to take a stance. And those instant reactions blasted out into the Twittersphere in 140 characters or less don't leave much room for nuance.

And nuance is necessary when we're talking about something as complex as wildfire. Fort Mac is no exception. You can point fingers in a number of different directions: an unseasonably dry winter, a lack of vegetation, cheaply made budget housing, and yes, climate change. It's ridiculous to suggest that climate change didn't play a role in these fires, but there's a sensitive and thoughtful way to have that discussion without resorting to mudslinging.

It's easy to paint the oil workers of Fort Mac as the gas-guzzling, cowboy-hat-wearing stereotype they're often portrayed as. It's much harder to view them as real people with families and friends and hopes and dreams that probably don't appreciate being blamed for their own community's destruction. Because the fact of the matter is, if we want to have an honest discussion about climate change, we have to acknowledge that we're all complicit. We all reap the benefits of fossil fuels in some form or another, and our society's hopeless addiction to oil existed long before Fort Mac became a target for environmental activists' scorn.

So yes, let's talk about climate change. It's an absolutely necessary conversation to have, especially around these parts, where multimillion-dollar homes sit nestled into swaths of lush forest and our only lifeline out of town in the event of a disaster is the congestion-prone Sea to Sky Highway. But let's not let that talk come at the expense of 88,000 people watching their homes burn in the rearview mirror.