The emerging field of energy humanities is featured in the new issue of the Journal of Canadian Studies, published by the University of Toronto Press. CENHS symposium participant Imre Szeman (University of Alberta, English) and Wilfred Greaves (University of Toronto, Political Science) contribute articles on the politics and epistemology of oil in the Alberta tar sands.
The issue, edited by Matthew Evenden (University of British Columbia), is entitled “Beyond the Culture of Nature.” It contains works of Canadian environmental studies that turn from the culture of nature (like the Big Seven painters or natural history practices) to topics like animal biopolitics, oil, and urban parks.
The Keystone XL pipeline connects Alberta to the massive oil refining, chemical, and plastics complex of the Houston ship channel and the surrounding region. The recent (in the case of Canada) and enhanced (in the case of the new US economy of “tough oil”) petrostate status of the two nations connected by the pipeline creates an important axis of shared research and communication. CENHS is interested in dialogue on oil between US and Canadian researchers in the human sciences.
Abstracts from Szeman and Greaves articles:
Wilfrid Greaves, “Risking Rupture: Integral Accidents and In/Security in Canada’s Bitumen Sands”
The expansion of unconventional hydrocarbon development in Western Canada is one of the most contentious issues in contemporary Canadian politics. Although widely studied, little attention has been paid to the framing of Alberta’s bitumen sands within distinct and incompatible discourses of energy and environmental security. This essay examines these discourses using the tools of securitization analysis, asking the basic questions of what each presents as needing to be secured, from what, and by what means. Presented with two sets of socially constructed in/ security claims related to the bitumen sands and proposed pipeline expansion, the author suggests the social theory of Paul Virilio provides a useful intervention into securitization analysis that allows the material implications of these discourses to be clarified and assessed. Drawing upon Virilio’s critical account of technological progress and his theory of accidents, this essay proposes that conventional accounts of “energy security” in the bitumen sands cannot result in meaningful conditions of security because they remain premised upon continued and expanded hydrocarbon consumption in an era of anthropogenic climate change.
Imre Szeman, “How to Know about Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political Futures”
As a contribution to the growing exploration of oil and energy in the humanities, the author examines what we might learn from three attempts to probe how we know oil—that is, the complex, myriad ways in which we try to name and narrate oil’s social significance—in order to understand better the opportunities and challenges of making oil and energy a more conceptually powerful part of our social and cultural understandings. The first of the energy epistemologies the author examines, Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011), reframes the history of left politics in relation to shifts in dominant forms of energy. The second, Edward Burtynsky’s photo-series Oil (2011), identifies the deep social significance of oil through experiments in visual form. The third example of knowing oil and energy is the ongoing struggle over the representation of the Alberta oil sands in public and political debate and discussion. The intent of examining these three distinct attempts to know oil as an essential component of social, cultural, and political life is to see what lessons such energy epistemologies might have for a left politics committed to an energy transition that would both ameliorate environmental concerns and enable greater social justice.