I, Rock Star: Why Neil Young Should Jam With Leonard Read

Neil Young is the anti-oil celebrity du jour. Source: Mark Blinch/Canadian Press.

Canadian rocker Neil Young has concluded his anti-oil roadshow.

Young’s four-concert crusade, which recently ended in Calgary, was a fundraiser for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. The aboriginal community is taking the Canadian federal government and Royal Dutch Shell to court over plans to expand mining operations at the Jackpine oilsands.

By all accounts, the tour was lucrative. It surpassed the goal set to support the First Nation’s legal defense fund, and drew accolades from such notables as David Suzuki (who thinks Cuba offers a model of sustainability for Canada to follow) and Naomi Klein (who thinks facts are superfluous to truth).

But the tour was about more than raising money. It was, according to Young, about starting a conversation at the breakfast table.

Here’s how one such conversation, led by Young, might begin: “I am a rock star . . . Being a rock star is both my vocation and my avocation; that’s all I do. You may wonder [then] why I should talk about the oilsands . . .”

If you have read Leonard Read’s I, Pencil, the above will sound vaguely familiar. It is how Read begins his short but striking account of the global gestation of one of the world’s simplest products.

Leonard E. Read. Source: FEE.org.
Leonard E. Read. Source: FEE.org.

Read is talking about a pencil, not a rock star. But there’s much in Read’s observations about the genealogy of a standard schoolhouse pencil that Neil Young could learn from.

To understand why, consider Young’s train of thought: the rocker says that resource extraction at the Athabasca tar sands has turned Fort McMurray, Alberta, into another Hiroshima. Of course, Young means Hiroshima then (after the A-bomb was dropped), not Hiroshima now (a popular World Heritage site). Comparison to the former has outraged some Albertans, who have started tweeting photos of Fort McMurray’s splendor under the hashtag #myhiroshima.

Undeterred by local sentiment, Young calls the oil industry “the greediest, most destructive and most disrespectful demonstration of something just run amok.”

Al Jazeera loves it.

But the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is not amused. “[E]ven the lifestyle of a rock star relies, to some degree, on the resources developed by thousands of hard-working Canadians every day,” reads a PMO statement in response to Young’s comments.

To which Young responded in-kind: “Of course, rock stars don’t need oil. I drove my electric car from California to the tar sands and on to Washington, D.C. without using any oil at all, and I’m a rock star.”

Enter Leonard Read.

Read’s story of the genealogy of the lowly pencil is important because it explains why Young’s brash but seemingly benign comment is so perilous. In I, Pencil, Read confronts the fallacy of first appearances — that is, the error of isolating something from its context and confusing an end-state with a beginning.

Tracing the gestation of a pencil — from the forests of Oregon through the graphite mines of Sri Lanka and the coffee plantations of Brazil (Workers of the world need Arabica!), onward to the arid plains of Mexico and the clay beds of the Mississippi — Read invites us to imagine what we cannot see: the complexity that makes simple possible.

The point is that appearances can be deceiving.

Neil Young’s declaration that he drove his electric car “from California to the tar sands and on to Washington, D.C. without using any oil at all” is a textbook example of the fallacy of first appearances.

Lots of oil was used to ensure Young could make his date with the tar sands.

Oil was used in the production of Young’s electric car, in the manufacture of his clothes, and in the processing of the food he ate along the way. Oil was used to build the road on which he drove. And, once upon a time, it was used to produce the vinyl records that made him a household name.

For someone who argues that “science cannot be ignored as inconvenient,” Young’s role in dumbing down the oil sands debate places him atop the gusher of inconvenient truths populated by people like Al Gore, who hates big oil but has no problem taking petrodollars from the sheikh of Qatar (whose government owns Al Jazeera).

A productive discussion on the tar sands demands avoiding the fallacy of first appearances.

The brilliance of Leonard Read is in reminding us not to confuse the simplicity of a thing with the complexity of its origins.

You do not disconnect from oil by plugging in your car. And, with all due respect to Neil Young’s musical talents, Four Strong Winds do not generate enough power to sustain the world’s population.

That’s a conversation worth having.

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