The experience of the sublime - a vast awe-ful power that gestures beyond the limits of our perception - has shifted in the last century from the realm of the natural to the realm of the human. Our species now wields powers capable of altering whole global physical systems, crossing watersheds, airsheds, soilsheds, etc., in ways unprecedented. Petroleum offers us a pseudo-infinite, temporarily frictionless planet. Cheap energy, like cheap grace, offers us delight without immediate cost. In the end though, Earth will not be mocked.
Fuel (ominously numbered No. 13 in the lively Alphabet City series) probes all this through a collegial collage of writers, artists, designers, [End Page 376] and futurists. We are confronted with the New Sublime, captured by the photographic landscapes of Ed Burtinsky and George Osodi, as well as provided with dire last-gasp maps of the Caspian Sea and the resource fields of the High Arctic - tracing warm blood-and-oil-soaked lines through lands both wild and savage. As the editor notes, 'the magnitude of the subject exceeds the frame, defeating comprehensive perception.'
The eco-design frame being exceeded here is perhaps best described as 'trendy apocalypse,' something like having one's iPod play Arcade Fire's version of 'Nearer My God to Thee' on the ominously tilting deck of the Titanic. In other chapters we find the now familiar grasping at peak oil (the I-told-you-so will-o'-the-wisp beloved of many environmentalists); an array of local futurist projects (I particularly admire Chris Hardwick's 'Velo-city,' a proposal to high line and tubify bicycle lanes that brought my cycling advocate students treacherously close to fainting from delight); and something called an 'augmented lease evolution' of the Alberta tar sands into a 'heterogenous network of industrial parklands and productive wilds' (from 'Tar Sands' by Kelly Doran). Each of these projects is enticingly designed and presented, as if this particular range of utopian design gestures might be hurled into the teeth of the carbon-guzzling juggernaut in hopes that it will choke itself to death on them. If there is a design flaw to Fuel it is that the presented projects are still mostly variants, 'redefinitions,' and upgrades of the existing assumptions about the world around us - highways are to be improved by broadbanding, oil sands are to be restored after they have been used up, and so on.
While this effort is eminently worthwhile, there remain a few nagging political concerns about the eco-design frame of Fuel itself. For example, why is there an unexamined call for more nuclear plants (dozens!) on page 1 of Knechtel's 'Introduction' (a call echoed in at least one later chapter)? It turns out that the 'future is energy pluralism.' Any and all alternatives to fossil fuels are good alternatives. This theme is immediately followed in the first main chapter, 'Oil Futures,' by a sketch of contemporary politics wherein Imre Szeman argues that 'the left end of the spectrum has offered little more than moral hectoring to use less oil or none at all, a position that tacitly accepts liberal individualism and consumerism as the sole factors able to drive social change.' I'm not sure what that means, but his left is certainly to the right of any left I am aware of. By 'left' he appears to mean the 'Style' section of the Globe and Mail. However, Szeman then leaps smartly over this canard (there is in fact a very funny Canard Development Housing Project in the book), and finally promotes as his grand political solution - 'rational futurist planning'! - a set of thirty-year plans to replace Stalin's sorely missed five-year plans. There is of course no reference (apart from some moral hectoring) as to how we are supposed to get to such a glorious future, in a world where even the author admits that notions of planned economies (and almost [End Page 377] any notions of long-term planning all) are currently treated as embarassments to be hushed up and kept hidden from the children. The author's reference to 'quixotic...