To whom do we turn to understand our relationship to petro-culture and its non-negotiable impact on our environment? To whom do we look to imagine long-term solutions to our dependence on bitumen? If not politicians, policy-makers, and those directly involved in the oil industry, then who? Jon Gordon, in Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts and Fictions, as well as the numerous contributors to Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones’ edited collection Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments, argue that that we ought to turn to the humanities as one of the richest sources of critique and of creative resistance to dominant discourses about petro-culture.
Jon Gordon’s work is a necessary addition to the rich body of scholarly works on petro-culture. Building on the work of Rob Nixon and Stephanie LeMenager, Unsustainable Oil not only positions literature about bitumen as a counter-discourse to corporate efforts to defend the idea of “sustainable development” of bitumen in Canada, but does so precisely by putting these works into conversation with governmental and corporate narratives about the possibilities for the future. At the heart of Gordon’s analysis is the argument that literature performs a “downward counterfactual function”—that is to say, that it exposes the grim realities of bitumen extraction—but that in doing so, it also reaffirms the possibilities for other types of futures. Gordon begins his text with a narrative of his experiences flying to Orlando for a family vacation. In doing so, he not only questions the carbon footprint of such a trip—a thought that many of us might have also had in the course of our own travels, however fleetingly—but also the forms of violence involved in extracting the bitumen that powers these forms of mobility. Gordon queries: “How can the suffering be avoided? . . . What do we do with the guilt this creates? How we can forgive each other? Ourselves?”
While Gordon does not claim to have all the answers, he proposes that we turn to works of literature (plays, poetry, short stories) as a means of re-imagining the narratives that we tell ourselves about our embeddedness in petroculture. More specifically, Gordon works to trouble the term “sustainable development,” asking readers to consider the realities of a resource that is both limited in quantity and heavily implicated in environmental damage, and to dwell in the “impossibility” of our current bitumen-dependent existence. Gordon’s analyses of texts ranging from Warren Cariou’s “An Athabasca Story” and the collective The Enpipe Line project demonstrate that literature performs not only a necessary diagnostic function (namely, to articulate the environmental and social costs of our dependence on bitumen), but also a vital prognostic function, through which we can begin to restore our understanding of the intimate relations between humans and their environment, and our hope for a post-bitumen future.
Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones’ collection Sustaining the West takes a similar approach as Gordon’s work does, insofar as it positions the work of the humanities as integral to conversations about scientific research and environmental policies. The collection, which has its roots in a three-day workshop organized by Piper and Szabo-Jones in Edmonton in 2011, not only offers a diverse and wide-ranging set of artistic and theoretical perspectives on Western Canada, but also does so in a fashion that speaks to the necessity of truly interdisciplinary and collective action. As Piper notes in her Introduction, the various pieces in the collection were commented on and responded to by individuals working in “a different discipline or creative practice from those who were presenting.” This commitment to interdisciplinarity offers a vital counter-measure to the ways in which different disciplines often find themselves siloed in their individual approaches to the environment, and as such, Sustaining the West speaks to the power of collective resistance.
The focus of the collection is, as per its title, the West. However, this category is broadly conceived not as “a particular place” but as a “range of different environments.” Central to the collection’s success in addressing Western environmental concerns is the ways in which it explores how ideas of the West are bound up in notions of progress, ones which are often girded by colonial and capitalist ideologies. As indicated by the organizational headings of the volume, this range of “environments” at stake in eco-criticism and eco-activism are not only material ones (as expressed in Part 3: Material Expressions) but also intellectual ones (Part 2: Constructing Knowledge) and relational ones (Part 1: Acting on Behalf Of). A cogent example of this approach to the idea of the West is Warren Cariou’s essay “Wastewest: A State of Mind,” in which he positions Western waste not only as an environmental toxin, but also as an ideological framework that exists in staunch opposition to Indigenous ways of knowing. What would it mean for us, as Cariou posits, to “regain a sense of proximity to our waste, and thus a responsibility for it.” Other essays in the collection similarly explore the layered multiplicities of environmental concerns, and do so by presenting a vast range of poetic and scholarly voices.
Environmental work is difficult work. It is difficult because of the ways it often conflicts with and runs up against corporate and/or academic interests, and difficult because it must engage with a crisis whose effects are both currently unfolding and as of yet unforetold. Both Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions and Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments take on this challenging work, and in doing so, demonstrate that a rich critical and creative network of humanities-based artists and critics is integral to both eco-critical conversation and ecological action.