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Reviewed by:
  • Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions by John Gordon
  • Steve Larter
Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions. By John Gordon. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015. ix + 222 pp. Figures, maps, notes, works cited, index. $45.00 paper.

In the era of Trump and alternative facts, here is a book on facts, counterfacts, and fictions relating to the development of Canada's oil sands. The book is a complex mixture of literature, art, science, engineering, politics, Great Plains anthropology, and indigenous peoples, woven together into an often difficult-to-read text on the environment, energy, and economy trilemma our civilization faces. The book challenged my scientist's literary skills and vocabulary; it is not a quick read, but I emerged wiser, if at times confused, by the direction the book was heading. Nevertheless, the book introduced me to a large volume of literature, poetry, and other materials on oil sands and associated topics that I was simply unaware existed. Overall, it was enjoyable to read, even if very hard work to get into at the start. The only book I have read previously that came close to this level of entangled complexity was Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach epic. That was an easier book to read!

In a nutshell, through an analysis of a multitude of literary, media, technical, and other resources, Gordon seeks to find the role that literature can play in finding a route for society through the oil sands environment, energy, and economy trilemma. Though focused on oil [End Page 143] sands, the argument also focuses on current societal complexities and conflicts more generally. In essence, Gordon asks the question, when faced with multi-billion-dollar projects backed by transnational corporations, what can poetry (or other literature) do? He tries to show that literature can create time for thought that may help us avoid the railroad tracks of cultural and political norms and correctness, with the inevitable and predictable standoffs between cultural sectors and stakeholders they create. I am not sure he succeeds in his task, but he does reflect on a lot of interesting material on his journey.

The book is too complex to summarize succinctly, but does contain some insights. Gordon reflects on the similarities between Darwin's love of nature and his subsequent discoveries about it. He asks the same question about Karl Clark, another remarkable man who developed the first practical technology for separating bitumen from its sandstone matrix and who also grew up with close proximity to, and love of, nature. Gordon argues that separating our existence between nature and our day jobs in our cities, where we mostly live and work, means we lose our connection to the consequences of our activities on the wilderness we all initially loved.

Solutions to solving the entangled complexities of the energy-environment-economy conundrum will mostly have to come from the social rather than the technical sciences. While science rapidly developed after the 17th century, our ability to deal with social and political issues and dated ideologies has not similarly progressed. While Gordon's book does not give us a clear route to addressing the issue, it does present the complexity and complications in a novel way. While this is not a book that you can read quickly, or even in places follow clearly, it is a book that makes you think. If you have a spare week or two, it's worth reading.

Steve Larter
Department of Geosciences
University of Calgary


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pp. 143-144
Launched on MUSE
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