- Introduction: Toward a Theory of Resource Aesthetics
On May 10, 2016, as the May Day wildfires ravaged the city and environs of Fort McMurray, Alberta, and neighbouring municipalities swelled with the 90,000 residents forced to flee their homes, Postmedia News (Canada’s go-to media source for neo-liberal spin) ventured to lift the collective mood with a type of silver-lining headline: “Good news everyone! Wildfires deemed no threat to Fort McMurray radioactive waste site” (Graney). Good news indeed, although perhaps compromised in its goodness by some unsettling details in the accompanying story: for instance, that the waste site now deemed safe from fire holds 43,500 cubic metres of uranium ore residue and contaminated topsoil; or that the tomb of this waste, housed beneath the city’s centrally-located Beacon Hill neighborhood, is effectively in midtown; or that the construction of the site in 2003 served to contain spillage occurring all the way back in the 1940s and 50s, a fact and a timeline meaning that the atmosphere within which Fort McMurray grew exponentially in the second half of the twentieth century was literally one of unaddressed radioactive contamination. In this regard, one might read the exclamation mark in Postmedia’s headline as doubly punctual, driving home the affect requisite to the story itself while also demarcating sharply the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of radioactivity. Never mind the uncertainties of the radioactive past, the headline’s exclamation seems to say: trust instead in the security—the inviolability—of our collective radioactive future.1
That the “good news” on offer in this story was genuinely news will not only index popular ignorance about the storage of radioactive waste in Fort McMurray—it will also prove symptomatic of profound historical amnesia: the widespread forgetting or indeed failure to know that this northern city, well before becoming a global centre for bitumen extraction, was once a key hub in the transport of uranium. The radioactive materials were sourced in the 1940s from the world’s first uranium mine, located at Port Radium, on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, and after transport by train from Fort McMurray and refinement in Ontario, were shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico where they were used to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. On August 6, 1945 that bomb killed 100,000 people instantly in the city of Hiroshima and left tens of thousands to die of radioactive poisoning in the months that followed. The uranium mines were worked by members of the Sahtu Dene First Nation, who hauled and ferried the ore in forty-five kilogram burlap sacks, exposed to the radioactive dust that coated their lungs, contaminated their water, and infiltrated their homes. Declassified documents have since shown that the U.S. and Canadian governments never informed the workers of the risks involved (Nikiforuk); Deline, the nearby Dene town on the shores of Great Bear Lake, would become known as “the village of widows.”2
We choose to begin our special issue on “Resource Aesthetics” with this amnesiac history because the prospect of Fort McMurray’s radioactive waste site conjoins a host of concepts, issues, problems, and motifs that animate, variously, the essays to follow. The story turns on dynamics of visibility, of what can and cannot be seen. It highlights the inescapable entanglement of distinct energy sources and regimes under modernity—in this case, the overdetermined petro-system supplemented by nuclear-fuel residuals. It indicates the spatiotemporal complexities of extraction’s practices as of its legacies. It intimates a capacious repertoire of aesthetic figuration indispensable to the generation and deployment of energy as hegemonic resource. And it marks the inextricability of energy as power from social and political power, most significantly with respect to an ongoing capitalist history of settler-colonialism (crucial for us to acknowledge, writing as we do from Treaty 6 territory) in which resource extraction and the violent, even genocidal project of clearing away Indigenous peoples go hand in hand.3 For all these reasons, Fort McMurray’s radioactive waste site demarcates a complex zone where “resource” and “aesthetics” come together as...