- Up from the GroundLiving with/in Petrocultures in the US and Canadian Wests
Several years ago my academic travels took me on a flight from Toronto, Ontario, to a gathering of the Western Literature Association in Victoria, bc, where the events would include a performance by Saskatchewan-born Connie Kaldor, one of my favorite singer-songwriters. As the aircraft arced high over the Plains on a clear autumn evening, I spent a lot of time following along with the flight tracker on the small screen in front of me while looking out the window, thinking of Kaldor’s love song “Prairie Moon” with its refrain, “you can blame it all on the Prairie Moon / And a night with a sky full of stars.” But somewhere over the Dakotas, the stars above gave way to a glow from the ground. What was this sudden source of light where the map indicated little urban population beyond Minot? Out of the darkness a thousand campfires flickered. Checking the map again, I realized that we were over the Bakken Shale, with its multitude of gas flares lighting up the night. My familiar world turned upside down. It was the earth that was full of stars, and each one signaled the petro-dependence that fuels so many academic lives, including my own.
Over the past decade, oil has produced a boom across parts of the American and Canadian Wests. The application of new fracking techniques has enabled access to shale oil and gas that was previously inaccessible, turning the United States into the largest petroleum producer in the world. Meanwhile, in Canada the Alberta oil sands have witnessed unprecedented expansion in the mining and processing of bitumen scraped from the base of the boreal forest. Such developments have generated tremendous wealth for many, and yet this boom has been neither uniform nor straightforward. [End Page 383] Instead, oil epicenters like Fort McMurray, Alberta, and Williston, North Dakota, experience both the prosperity and shadow sides of petro-development: expansive consumer purchasing power exists alongside strained social systems, and the rise of some community formations leads others into precarity. Further, nature itself has had things to say in the forms of earthquakes and wildfires, and humans do not always like to listen.
To add to the confusion, we are now seeing a renewed ground-swell of resistance against forms of infrastructure used to distribute petroleum, whether in the form of pipelines, rail, or tankers, as well as countervailing arguments about the levels of risk involved. Much of this protest has been led by Indigenous groups and other local landowners whose lands might be affected by potential leaks, spills, and other disruptions that accompany increased traffic. Yet the oil industry also constitutes a powerful lobby, and has been quite effective at suppressing knowledge that might challenge the continued expansion of petro-activities. Against the backdrop of these competing oil stories the recent dip in oil prices has added a new wrinkle, leaving some anxiously wondering when boom times will return, while others see cheap gasoline at the pump as a further hindrance to curbing carbon emissions. Despite all these ambiguities, two things seem clear: first, there is much fodder for storytelling in tracing the trajectories of oil as both commodity and cultural logic; and second, oil’s multi-scalar qualities, which track from the microbiological to the macroeconomic, present artists with significant challenges in developing forms appropriate to their expression.1 How does one represent what is at once so ubiquitous, making its way into our daily habits and consumer goods in the form of everything from fuel to plastics, and yet so elusive, since few of us ever have or will handle crude oil directly? Petroleum thus poses a significant problem for representation since we live by its effects but the material itself is often hard to grasp. This is precisely where art becomes important, since its refractory qualities allow us to imagine the kinds of things that are difficult to see directly. With rising global temperatures the environmental imagination desperately needs cultivation when it comes to the subject of oil, and poems, stories, plays, and other kinds of writing are essential to...