One could be forgiven for thinking that the ducks, who are once again dying in the hundreds in Albertan tar sands tailings ponds, are trying to tell us something.
But before we get too smug, imagining that the fowl message is intended only for missing-in-action government regulators in Ottawa or Calgary or the conscience of oil executives, we should consider that they might be trying to warn us about a much more pervasive curse.
The idea that the tar sands could end up being a curse for Canada got a lot of play after the recent pronouncement to that effect by Avatar director James Cameron after his visit to the region, but his statement brought me back to a late night conversation from more than a decade ago.
I was living in Ecuador at the time, and trying to make sense of my recent tour of Canadian oil installations in that country's Amazon basin over a bottle of wine with two new friends.
Carlos had graduated from university in the 1970s, expecting that his generation would use Ecuador's new-found oil wealth to lift the country out of poverty. The reality, he confessed, was that they had become beggars sitting on a pile of gold.
Ivonne, on the other hand, had little time for bemoaning the past and urged the two of us to join her in what I saw as a terribly noble yet most likely doomed campaign to protect the Yasuni national park in Ecuador's Amazon basin. Yasuni is home to the Huaorani indigenous people, who still live a traditional lifestyle in an area with some of the highest levels of biodiversity on the planet. It is also the site of the largest oil deposit in that oil-rich country, and the lure of oil money appeared irresistible.
The conversation soon centered on what academics had then begun calling the Resource Curse. Researchers had noticed that many developing nations with abundant oil reserves exhibited a similar pattern of economic and political decline that accompanied the rapid expansion of their resource sectors. Countries such as Nigeria, Chad, Venezula and Ecuador exhibited the `symptoms:' government corruption, a rapidly widening gap between rich and poor, ecological devastation, falling education standards, currency inflation and decline in the non-energy sectors of their economies. Many also experienced chronic citizen disengagement because governments had become far more dependent on energy revenues, and politicians far more beholden to multi-national oil companies, than to the electorate.
Or as Ivonne put it: "The oil flows, and the people bleed." Her passion, and perhaps the wine, convinced us to join the campaign to halt the expansion of the oil frontier in the Amazon. So upon returning home, I dutifully organized letter-writing, petitions and public speaking events for people from the affected region.
At the time, I never imagined that the Resource Curse could apply to Canada, even though I knew that it was not limited to poor countries. Indeed, it had first been identified in the late 1960s, when the Dutch government entered into a massive joint venture with Exxon and Shell to drill for off-shore oil and gas. The energy wealth flowed abundantly, but within a decade or so, the tiny country found itself floundering. Energy exports had driven up the currency so much that Dutch manufacturers closed up shop as they were unable to sell their wares abroad due to unfavourable exchange rates. Unemployment rose, and when those off-shore reserves finally began to run dry in the 1980s, the Netherlands struggled to re-build an economy that had lost its entrepreneurialism during the boom times.
Yet in the last few years, carefully-worded reports from our own Parliament and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have warned that Canada is exhibiting symptoms of the dreaded "Dutch Disease", brought on by the boom in Alberta's tar sands.
The signs are all there. A rapidly-rising currency killing manufacturing jobs. Government revenues dangerously dependent on highly volatile energy prices. Record-low levels of political participation in the resource-rich region. Local community's concerns at best ignored and at worst denigrated in favour of unalloyed oil company boosterism. A willful blindness to what the gold rush mentality is costing the environment, and the next generation who will inherit the mess.
This is no small problem. The Resource Curse is hard to break precisely because it is nurtured by some of the wealthiest and most powerful corporations on the planet.
So imagine my surprise as I recently watched an interview with Ivonne about how small, poor Ecuador had decided that they aren't going to pursue the last drop of oil. How they had committed to leaving the nine hundred million barrels that lie beneath the Yasuni national park in the ground, and forgo half of the profits they would have received from it, in exchange for external help to get Ecuador on the path to a sustainable economy. Questions on the financing arrangements are referred to the initiative's technical coordinator: Carlos.
My friends' plan for leaving the oil in the ground isn't such a crazy idea once you've done the math that shows that if we burn it, the planet we grew up on is toast. And the new, much warmer one we would leave behind won't be nearly as hospitable for people or most other species.
Canada could be a leader in getting to that cleaner, healthier and more peaceful future. Or at the very least we could try to keep up with Ecuador, Costa Rica or Norway, all of whom are further along the path to a world beyond fossil fuels. I spent my summer working on an Energy Revolution blueprint mapping out how we can to that better, safer, and more equitable world.
But breaking the resource curse requires getting our political leaders' heads unstuck from the tar sands.
Maybe I should see if Ivonne and Carlos are available to help. I'm sure they'd be able to translate what the ducks are trying to say.
Keith Stewart works on Greenpeace's campaign to go beyond oil.