- Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions by Jon Gordon
In the introduction to Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions, Jon Gordon offers a subheading that works as a fairly straightforward summation of the book’s concerns and its increasing relevance: “Literature’s Counterfactual Response to All the Factual Bullshit.” Gordon’s focus is the Canadian political and economic ideologies that reinforce Albertan bitumen extraction and refinement, and he handles the subject with depth and rigour to demonstrate the ways in which an overreliance on empirical rationality allows the Canadian state to justify the irrationality of tying a nation’s long-term economic wellbeing to a fuel source that will inevitably run out. Gordon’s analysis of the literary, economic, and political representations of the Albertan bitumen extraction and refinement processes is grounded in discursive and rhetorical analysis. Rhetorical analysis allows Gordon, and by extension his readers, to get past the bullshit—not just in the sense of getting to the “real” facts that bullshit tends to obscure but in the sense of moving toward ways of knowing that are, unlike bullshit, directly related to the matter and material at hand. Unsustainable Oil argues that literature provides opportunities for imagining the ethical, ecological, and social unknowns that are routinely excised by dominant narratives that appeal to the familiar Western tradition of tying reason and rationality to authority and, ultimately, prosperity.
While the book’s focus is on Albertan tar sands and Canadian energy politics, Gordon provides a means of understanding the ideological wake of the UniAmerican election of Donald Trump as president. Published in 2015, Gordon’s book anticipates the era of so-called post-truth politics, demonstrating the necessity of literary and cultural analysis in a time when the denial of science and empirical reality is encouraged at the very highest levels of U.S. politics. When factual reality and scientific consensus are openly, and often hostilely, rejected, relying solely on empirical rationality and science has been ineffective. Gordon’s book demonstrates how literature might engage the Trump administration’s strategy of promoting what spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway termed “alternative facts,” which have been used to reject the factual reality of climate change. Gordon’s analysis demonstrates that literary and cultural representations are thus vital sites of imaginative resistance as the U.S. intensifies its fossil-fuel reliance through both policy and the appointments of Rex Tillerson, Scott Pruitt, and Rick Perry to key cabinet positions. [End Page 121]
Unsustainable Oil begins with an understanding that the prevalence and expansion of bitumen processing in Alberta relies upon a dominant narrative that rationalizes sacrifices in the name of a greater prosperity. These sacrifices are made by both human and more-than-human beings, but the decision to make them, of course, is a solely human endeavour. Gordon’s central premise is that these decisions are made possible by a legitimating force produced by a strategic overreliance on the professed virtues of facts and rationality. Here, he follows Mike Gismondi and Debra Davidson’s important work, Challenging Legitimacy on the Precipice of Energy Calamity, which expounds the formation of legitimacy and ideology in support of tar sands operations. Where Gismondi and Davidson focus their attention on the industry and government sources responsible for the conditions of a populace willingly assenting to the legitimacy of the tar sands project, Gordon extends the conversation by focusing on the counterfactual works of literature that challenge this legitimacy and the privileging of (certain) facts and (certain) forms of reason.
Throughout the book, Gordon argues that counterfactuals, imaginative scenarios typified by a “what if” or “if I had only known” conditionals, are necessary sites of investigation in order to analyze and imagine what should be done with Alberta’s vast bituminous reserves and the culture they have created. Given that so much of modern thought and culture has been made possible by petroleum, is it possible to attain the necessary distance from the resource and culture in order to imagine anything else? Gordon compellingly argues that counterfacts are one potential avenue. Through his archive, he demonstrates how...