“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence.”
The Technological Society
On a starless night in August, I drove with a clergyman friend through a lightning storm into what seemed like hell on earth.
Racing through a downpour on the backroads near Worsley, Alberta, my hope of catching a glimpse of a starry sky was obliterated by a black blanket of clouds and offset by blinding lightning. This was an exciting alternative to stargazing – fireworks of a different sort. Our route through Treaty 8 Lands passed through the traditional territories of the Dane-zaa and Woodland Cree, through family farms carved out of boreal forest. I chose it for the lack of light pollution.
After a day spent reading books along isolated lakes, watching moose plough through muskeg, avoiding roadside deer, and drinking beer, I had hoped for a glittering quiet drive across the invisible border into British Columbia. Instead, the glow of apocalyptic red flames began to light up the undersides of the clouds, even as forks of blue-white lightning continued to lance down around our small Volkswagen, occasionally hitting so close that we needed to brake as thunder rattled the windows.
Passing into BC, we were treated to the reality of fracking and the LNG economy.
In a landscape devoid of natural light other than lightning, the belching flare-stacks gave everything the character of Tolkien’s Mordor. Flames from metallic towers licked the sky and the stench of petroleum and chemical by-products was heavy in the air. None of these sights, sounds, and smells were alien to me. I have lived in the Peace Country before, although typically it’s grainfields and boreal forest that define the norm. This aesthetic combination of fire and thunder, after years spent in the numbing cocoon of Vancouver, was a brutal reminder of the ongoing crisis. It was an education from the land, a sort of fever nightmare that affected the rest of the trip.
The next day we walked along the edge of the valley which the half-constructed Site C Dam will eventually submerge, obliterating an entire landscape. Protest signs from First Nations and local ranchers line the highway, pleading for someone to “Stop Site C”, but the trees are already being clear-cut. Concrete pilings and towers for a future bridge rise in a farmer’s field, soon to be underwater.
We then went to look at the W.A.C. Bennett Dam, which provides between a quarter and a third of BC’s electricity. The construction of the dam in the 1960s flooded the homeland of the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation, broke up caribou herds, altered whole ecologies, and ended a way of life for thousands of people. The W.A.C. Bennett reservoir is one of the largest in the world and the scale of the destruction its creation wrought is disturbing.
Travelling south from the dam, we passed open-face coal mines, logging operations, and pulp mills. I’m a bit numb to these industrial operations. I live several blocks from the Parkland Refinery in Burnaby, where Vancouver gets most of its gasoline. But it has been some time since I’ve been pressed up against the full reality of raw resource extraction in BC, since I’ve smelled hydrocarbons burning off from active wells, heard the buzz of thousands of hydroelectric gigawatts, or seen the reality of large-scale coal mining in progress. In northern BC and Alberta, one is confronted with the hungry mouth of capitalism chewing through the land, rather than the flatulent residue of consumption and digestion that we tend to witness in Vancouver.
The solution to the crisis which we are most commonly sold is to remove that flatulence.
The electric car, for example, will give us cleaner skies. But last month, Elon Musk’s calls for nickel production were answered eagerly by Vancouver-based Giga Metals, which owns the proposed Turnagain Mine, 70 kilometers east of Dease Lake, BC. Vancouver’s air will be cleaner, at the expense of another tailing pile, another road, another leachate pond. Giga Metals promises a cutting edge environmentally conscious mine, British Columbians would be wise to be suspicious.
All of these things are a ‘hidden’ crisis – both environmental and human. BC casts judgment on Alberta while committing equal or worse acts of environmental destruction. These acts are kept far from the eyes of those who might otherwise take action against them. Indigenous people in northern BC have seen little to no return from the billions of dollars siphoned off from these lands, and non-indigenous communities have had their entire essence oriented to the extractive economy.
It is not an accident that Vancouver is the ‘mining capital of the world’, with hundreds of firms here, many with dubious operations in nations with poor human rights or regulatory oversight. We have had practice on ourselves. UBC is funded with the tax proceeds of fracking, mining, and logging, but can revel in its green leafy malls far from the unattractive sights of such exploits. A huge portion of the power that lights our homes and classrooms is derived from the flooding of another people’s homeland. We’re doubling down on this destruction with Site C, new pipelines, and new mines.
This is a crisis.
In Jacques Ellul’s book, The Technological Society, he describes the nature of technique and the technical society we all live in. It is an unsettling picture of a disturbing monism, where everything in our world is made to serve ‘the machine’, where centralization is an inevitable outcome of technique. Ellul suggests we have made a Faustian bargain for a taste of power and in the hope for a technological ‘paradise’. It was just this type of exchange I was reminded of, as I rolled past small country churches, through darkest night, into silent sulphurous flames, and a stench that the mythological figure of Charon would have enjoyed.
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 325.
Jed Anderson Bio:
Jed Anderson is a PhD candidate (ABD) in the department of Educational Studies at UBC. He is studying higher education in northern British Columbia and is interested in similar cases in other northern regions in Canada and Scandinavia. Jed is curious how non-metropolitan, rural, and peripheral institutions are created and how higher education relates to regionalism and northern development. His research at UBC has led to a greater focus on the role imperialism and individualist-oriented capitalism plays in maintaining spatial inequality in BC.