- Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts and Fictions by Jon Gordon
An immense wildfire consumed Fort McMurray, Alberta, in the spring of 2016 and interrupted industrial activity in the Athabasca oil sands. Images of the conflagration suggested apocalypse; the effect on the provincial economy was cataclysmic. The oil sands themselves are utterly distant from Ottawa and Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, but their importance to Canada was expressed powerfully in the televised scenes of the evacuation of Fort Mac: the disaster was a national crisis, one that exacerbated the perpetual controversy that attends bitumen mining in Alberta.
"Bitumen is central to the current narratives of Alberta and Canada," Jon Gordon writes in Unsustainable Oil, an examination of the political, economic, and cultural assumptions that sustain industries of extraction (1). Undoubtedly he is correct. He seeks to demonstrate that the phenomenon of the oil sands is not merely the result of technological capability or economic necessity but instead a consequence of ideology: "The industrialization of the bituminous region of Northern Alberta is a manifestation of a cultural belief in limitless progress and endless expansion" (xxxiv). To analyze the rhetoric of oil—"to contribute a new line of critique to the ongoing resistance to bitumen extraction" (lv)—he surveys an assortment of "bituminous narratives" (xxix): political statements, news reports, industrial and environmentalist propaganda, scientific findings, and literary works by such authors as Warren Cariou, Robert Kroetsch, Marc Prescott, Richard Van Camp, Rudy Wiebe, and Rita Wong. Because "literature can and has re-presented the necessity of ecological coherence and the threats posed to it by industrial capitalism" (2), it provides "one place to look," Gordon proposes, "for alternative narratives that reveal what is left out of [End Page 219] progressive and teleological myths" (3). He also writes affectingly about Laurier Lake, a wild place of "deep personal connection," now threatened (177).
Gordon interprets the "nation's petroculture" (45) with the assistance of Bruno Latour and Slavoj Žižek, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Prominent too are the ideas of Canadian intellectuals who may be less familiar to an international readership than les grands penseurs: he draws on the philosophical writings of George Grant, who "has, arguably, thought through the consequences of a fully realized technological society in the Canadian context more completely than anyone else" (10), and of Jan Zwicky, whose notions of lyric perception are understood to challenge capitalist convictions.
Gordon is generous in his estimation of literature's capacity to sway hearts and minds. He contends that "literary texts can help us to see, in a new way, the myth of liberal capitalism that we are living within; they can help us to wake up, to see that even those of us who may think we are benefitting from extraction capitalism are threatened by it" (148). But as his book attests, it is not only literature that exposes the myth: Unsustainable Oil is primarily a work of cultural criticism, not literary inquiry. The public effects of literary works are difficult to discern and measure. I share Gordon's faith—I choose the word deliberately—in the transformative powers of the literary arts, but I am skeptical of an inherent connection between the effects of poems and novels upon the reader, which are above all private and unruly, and the social and political arrangements that license ecological abominations. "Reading poetry, reading literature," he observes, "can help us pause and think, … can interrupt the smooth functioning of a system that claims scientific knowledge in the service of maximizing profit, can wake us from the dream of limitless growth" (142). Would that it were so. But how literature attains these ends—when and under what conditions—it is hard to determine.
Yet of course, as Gordon knows, habits of mind shape the world. The argument is stated cogently and with some urgency in another recent volume, Jedediah Purdy's After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (2015): [End Page 220]
far from being frivolous make-believe, imagination is intensely practical. What we become conscious of, how we see it, and...