geography 442 – a student-directed seminar

Posts from — November 2010

Discourse and Lifestyle Politics

We have covered the problems of economics, politics and technology in mitigating the degrading and violent geographies of energy extraction, distribution and consumption. It is absolutely necessary discuss what taxes, laws and engineering will be needed to create solutions to our energy, social and environmental problems. However what is missing from much of these debates is the cultural attitudes which covertly normalize solutions and ideals of any future policies.

This results from neoliberal governance which is premised upon rational, individual, human agency. Upon this premise it follows that when human agency is informed by correct information (i.e. market signals) our collective buying decisions will collectively demand the appropriate solutions by governments and private firms for policies, goods and services. [1] However, what this neoliberal approach fails to factor in is the limitations of human agency and rationality.
Philosophers such as Michel Foucault have raised doubt on the notion that human individuals are free, rational thinking agents; rather he argues that the individual is conditioned by a plethora of texts which define what is normal, rational and ‘correct’.[2]  The combination of these forces produce what he terms ‘discourses.’ I would like to discuss the discourses which normalize the ‘lifestyles’ prevalent in the identities of myself and citizens of Canada and the United States more generally. I will consider how discourses produce and maintain ideals of lifestyle, and the political demands our lifestyle choices effect.
Discourses have a genealogy.[3] They evolve overtime through a series of random social mutations created by texts. These texts are produced by of various actors both human and non-human; political campaigns, green consumerism or the war on terror all involve words and ideas which coagulate into common sense discourses which condition what is normal, what is expected to be the case, and how people characterize themselves and others. In our geographical and historical location, texts are produced by a variety of media and historical influences.
Government and corporations influence our lifestyles to support economic imperatives. The suburbanization of Canada and the United States is a good example of how a particular, and unique urban geography has been normalized and actively encouraged by the government.[4]   The United States defends the consumptive habits of its citizens as a god given right and an essential kernel of the American ‘way of life.’ [5]
Our history is imagined as a story of progress over linear time. We expect the future to be different and better; we expect to have more of everything at an ever decreasing cost; we expect to travel the world and the country in short periods of time and at a ‘reasonable’ cost. But are these values universal or normal in any sense?My own needs have changed and become normalized over my short existence.  I now need a computer to complete my schoolwork, communicate with family and friends and make my life ‘easier.’  I need a cellphone as plans are made last minute and are subject many contingencies. I need a bus pass or access to a vehicle in Vancouver and Canada more generally to cover the vast distances between school, work, friends and family. I expect, over any given year, and over the rest of my life, to explore the world, on my weekends and summer vacations by plane, train and automobile. How has this standard of living been established as normal? The answer is impossible to pin on any single source, this is the nature of discourses, but culture plays an important role.
Culture and identity have  influenced my expectations of a normal standard of living. I grew up with the family summer road trip; we hit the road with a travel trailer every summer and saw some beautiful spots. I would always go hiking and skiing on the weekends; we would jump in the car every Saturday morning and head out; I grew up expecting to continue this luxury. This history cultivated my identity. The activities I enjoy and use to identify myself dictate the material requirements of my lifestyle. I now feel a sense of entitlement to continue living this lifestyle.  But what are the consequences of this lifestyle? Matthew Huber argues the how a similar sense of entitlement embodies the American lifestyle creating certain expectations; ideas such as freedom and independence have cultivated a sense of entitlement to low “price of gasoline.”[6]  While I don’t drive an Chevy Tahoe, I do feel an entitlement to the freedom of the freeway.  I remember countless conversations about outrageous gas prices after small talk about the weather grew tiresome; the worrying rise in prices since the blissful times of sub fifty cent litres of gasoline. I remember the implicit entitlement present in these conversations to our right of mobility and the lifestyles it allows.
The discourses created by culture determine our standard of living which leads to a sense of entitlement to certain activities and their continued affordability.  This sense of entitlement pervades most other consumer goods, from clothing to computers. We expect almost everything to become cheaper without questioning how this comes about. However it is important for us to question the normality of our standard of living. For instance Huber argues that our demands for cheap gasoline are directly linked to violent geographies of production.[7] This is certainly the case for almost anything else you consume that wasn’t grown in your back yard.  Everything we consume has a geography of production; everything requires energy, materials and labour to produce.  It is also important to realize that the the discourses governing our expected standard of living are political. Could the demand for cheap gasoline have driven the Unites States to invade a country with the lowest cost oil fields? [8] Could our demand for cheap tomatoes impel governments to fly destitute Mexicans here to work under slavery conditions? [9]
I think it is important to question the normalcy of our standard of living. To do this we need to realize the cultural and historical origins of the creation of discourses of normalcy.  Our standard of living and the demands we place on society to meet those demands have inextricably linked to the ugly geographies of other places. To question these discourses is a moral and political move. But to ignore the politics effected by our demands is equally so.  I don’t intend to take the moral high ground, but simply ask that we critically evaluate the political effects of our lifestyles.
1. Matthew Huber, “The Use of Gasoline: Value, Oil and the American Way of Life,” Antipode 41, 3 (2009) 469.
2. Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press, (2005) 32-33.
3. Gary Gutting, Foucault: A Very Short Introduction, New York: Oxford University Press, (2005) 45-46.
4. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford:Basil Blackwell, 1989) 185.
5. Matthew Huber, “The Use of Gasoline: Value, Oil and the American Way of Life,” Antipode 41, 3 (2009) 469.
6. Ibid., 478.
7. Ibid., 469.
8. Ibid., 482.
9. El Contrato, directed by Min Sook Lee (Montreal: National Film Board of Canada. 2003).

November 30, 2010   No Comments

under the banner of "crisis": citizenry or the consumerist logos?

For a society that champions its Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a paramount declaration of shared values, principles and prerogatives, it is problematic that the rights of its consumers seem to garner greater value than the freedoms of its citizens. In the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the word “freedom” correlates to matters of the mind, namely – freedom of conscience, of religion, of thought, belief, expression, communication, peaceful assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of association. These are the foundational components of a participatory democracy which, according to Ivan Illich (1978: 3), is beginning to erode under the forces of unchecked, accelerating technologic expansion. Writing from over a quarter of a century ago, Ivan Illich voiced concerns about a capitalist consumer culture that was losing faith in the “political power of the feet and of the tongue” (9). The result of this, he worried, would be a topsy-turvy technocracy, in which the individual “wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it” (10).

Illich’s prophetic concerns, articulated in his article “Energy and Equity,” are premised on a thesis of velocity and acceleration, a thesis which is more relevant today than it was a quarter of a century ago. “High speed,” he asserts, “is the critical factor which makes transportation socially destructive” (6). Illich’s elaboration of this claim is as articulate as it is expansive, and while I cannot offer a comprehensive summary of it here, I hope to apply my own interpretation to his theory.

Whereas Illich commits his thesis of speed to the context of traffic, I am interested in understanding how the implications of his discussion are relevant to an entire rationale that dictates the way we have come to understand and correlate notions related to “progress.” Words like “rationality,” “progress” and “growth” have not only become unmoored from their historic reference to general prosperity, the common good, and the common wealth, but have become synonymous in a problematic process of semantic and ideologic dissolution, the implications of which are dire and worth expounding.

I would like to explore these implications by making a drastic cross-disciplinary leap. By situating the process of terminological dissolution within the narrative context of classical and comparative literature, the relationship between dissolution and crisis can be seen as profoundly causal. Consider, for example, the tragic hero, Hamlet. His is a world where the boundaries that separate those fundamental differences upon which values, morals, and social and political systems are precariously but profoundly dependent have been rapidly corrupted, blurred and abandoned. Take for example the murder of Hamlet’s father by his own brother, Claudius. This intolerable act of regicide/fratricide is ironed over by the new powers-that-be in a speedblur of “efficiency,” “speed” and “progress.” Hamlet’s morbid despair is seen by the Court as a revolt against the rational progression of aristocratic succession, of “nature,” and of the narrative structure itself. These so-called rational adults in Hamlet’s world have distorted and (con)fused their capacity for reason with the impulsiveness of their desire. In doing so, they generate the damning psychic conditions which lead to Hamlet’s internal “crisis.” The real tragedy is that Hamlet’s crisis is diagnosed by an illegitimate power elite as a subjective, personal malady in need of a cure, rather than a reaction to the repugnant conditions that generated it.

I see this narrative as a microcosmic parallel to a much broader, much more complicated relationship between speed, rationality, desire, and crisis, one which Illich is criticizing in “Energy and Equity.” In the same way that the adults in “Hamlet” conceal the wreckage of a socio-political order that has been unraveled by their own corruption, hypocrisy and unchecked libidinal desire by focusing on Hamlet’s internal crisis, so too is the “energy crisis” typified with a “euphemistic term [which] conceals a contradiction and consecrates an illusion” (Illich, 2). In other words, the declaration of an “energy crisis” functions essentially as a mechanism of denial: mindless and indulgent habits of consumption go unchecked, uninterrupted, and uncontested in a libidinal economy, while a looming “energy crisis” legitimates rampant credit expansion, unsustainable urban and rural land-use patterns, exploitative markets for fuel, and the list goes on (see O’Connor, 243). As Illich puts it, “North American and [M]exican ideologues put the label of ‘energy crisis’ on their frustration, and both countries are blinded to the fact that the threat of social breakdown is due…to the attempt of industries to gorge society with energy quanta that inevitably degrade, deprive, and frustrate most people” (4). I suspect that it is because we continually fail (either out of learned or intentional ignorance) to distinguish between loaded semantic differences that we struggle to openly and critically confront the conditions that generate our real crisis: the simultaneous abandonment of hope for freedom as citizens and submission to the “iron cage” of the consumerist logos.

When Illich advocates for the kind of “technological maturity” that “permits a variety of political choices and cultures,” (5) he is also implicitly invoking the foundational values and principles upheld in the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. The social ills generated by uncurbed indulgence and submission to the “pleasure principle,” as it is termed in literature studies, could be checked by the decelerating processes of reason, thought, and conscience. Or, in the contextual terms of energy politics, the unabated growth of energy consumption could be countered through conscientious recognition and acceptance of a “socially critical threshold of…energy quantum” (Illich, 22). A society that harbours such a deep aversion to the notion of limits confines itself to a fate of maddening insatiability, while exporting the unlivable conditions of real crisis to other localities within the global network of unequal exchange. The political ideals of a participatory democracy – ideals which we claim are worthy of fighting for – cannot keep up with the unfettered acceleration of a burgeoning technocratic socio-political landscape. Only by reclaiming our freedoms as expressive, communicative, thoughtful and conscientious citizens can we hope to salvage the ideals of a truly progressive and prospering participatory democracy.


Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” from Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

James O’Connor, “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?” and “The Second Contradiction of Capitalism” from Natural Causes. New York and London: Guildford Press, 1998.

November 30, 2010   1 Comment

Lay Off the Oil Sands! CR3

I have two main problems with many of the criticisms levelled against the Canadian oil sands. Through this critical response I will lay out these criticisms as faithfully to their authors as I can and I will then express my counter points. I do not intend this piece to necessarily support the rampant pace of development that is present in the Canadian oil sands. I feel that it is important to point out that while I am an environmentalist, I cannot align myself with many of the individuals that are allegedly also voicing my concerns.

The first argument I would like to address has been present in many of the readings we have been assigned through the course. As we read in the two Huber articles, capitalism (and especially North American capitalism) is dependent on an abundant source of fossil fuels (Huber 2008), so dependent in fact that many Americans consider gasoline to be essential to the American way of life (Huber 2009). Many North Americans may not think about this every day, but the support of capitalism which they demonstrate through their daily activities is reliant on continual supplies of affordable energy. Critics of the oil sands will use this dependance to demonstrate problems that oil sands development is representative of. In the preamble to Tar Sands (Nikiforuk, 2008), author and renowned oil sands critic Andrew Nikiforuk writes a “declaration of a political emergency” (page 1) in which he outlines what he perceives to be the most pressing concerns of oil sands development, criticisms of capitalism’s reliance on cheap energy there included.

Many of these criticisms are extremely important. Nikiforuk’s condemnation of the lax regulatory atmosphere in Alberta and Canada is both accurate and troubling, and his use of industry facts (archaic as some may be, as is addressed later in this piece) does effectively force the reader to understand the dangers of oil sands development. As a supporter of capitalism, however, I find many of his points to be contrary to the very nature of how Canadians have come run their economy (speficially points II, III, V, VI, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII). I would contend that many of his arguments would be better placed in a criticism of Canadian liberal democracy where they would have to stand on their own against other economic ideologies, as opposed to in a critique of a unique industry that employs hundreds of thousands of Canadians and will generate trillions of dollars for the Canadian economy (CAPP 2010).

I fear that Mr. Nikiforuk may be using the easily manipulated and highly industrialized image of the oil sands to promote political means that most Canadians may not be comfortable with. If you were to apply similar criticisms to the ones laid out by Mr. Nikiforuk to other industries in Canada, such as manufacturing or agriculture, which emit 15% and 10% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions respectively compared to the oil sands 5% (CAPP 2010), you would doubtless receive much less social recognition for your work, and furthermore less money for your book. I do not intend for this point to support development in the oil sands, but I do think that Mr. Nikiforuk’s arguments against capitalist development would be better served by not relying on images of tailings ponds and upgraders that most Canadians are entirely unfamiliar with.

Furthermore, this anti-capitalist line of argumentation leaves little room for innovation described by supporters of capitalist approaches to decreasing carbon emissions. As we read about in “Accumulation by Decarbonization and the Governance of Carbon Offsets” (Bumpus, Liverman 2008) there are many different methods through which a capitalist economy can seek to decrease its carbon footprint. I contend that there is a smorgasbord of options (carbon tax, different cap and trade systems, command and control) available to capitalism to deal with carbon emissions in a variety of ways. Therefore to discount capitalism and capitalist values as an inherent part of a “political emergency”, as Nikiforuk does, is to ignore the most likely candidates for rectifying the current crisis of global warming. We simply have to ask ourselves what we see as the most likely course of the Canadian government in order to be accountable to their citizens when it comes to issues dealing with the oil sands. Would it be politically possible for the Harper government to put the brakes on oil sands development altogether? Or is it more likely that in the face of growing public concern about local and global ecological issues that the Canadian parliament will pass rational environmental policies prioritizing decarbonization and respect for local ecologies?

My second concern with criticisms of the oil sands is also present in Nikiforuk’s declaration. T here is a tendency for critics of the oil sands to use the worst examples of environmental stewardship in their discussions of technical issues. They are tarring all oil sands extraction with the same brush. This is where some might accuse me of splitting hairs, but I do believe that there is an important distinction present between different extraction methods and different corporations in the Canadian oil sands.

When Nikiforuk wrote “each barrel requires the consumption of three barrels of fresh water from the Athabasca river” (Nikiforuk 2008) this was true of bitumen produced by open pit mining methods in 2007. No one can argue that this is a figure exemplary of an industry that cares for the environment. However, if you contrast this figure with the 80% of oil sands development that must be performed in situ and draws literally no water from the Athabasca river and furthermore achieves recycle rates in excess of 80% for the two barrels of water that are used to produce one barrel of higher quality crude, the difference is staggering. Is it really fair that engineers and scientists at both facilities receive the same reputation and criticism? I contend that to ignore important innovations in the Canadian oil sands does not give sufficient credit to those individuals who are trying to earn a living by decreasing the environmental impact of oil sands operations in a legitimate Canadian capitalist society.

Furthermore, ignoring important technical advancements by certain operations removes external pressures off of those operations which may have decreased efficiency and also limits stimulus for further innovation. It is important that Canadians understand the diversity of the operations occurring in the oil sands so that they can form opinions based on accurate facts and not the pessimistic or overly optimistic views presented by critics or supporters, respectively.

In conclusion, I have outlined what I perceive to be the two most pressing issues with criticisms of the oil sands. I have purposely addressed the work of Mr. Nikiforuk specifically so that I can evaluate some of his rhetoric directly and have left out specific details on extraction methods for the sake of brevity. I feel it is important to reiterate that I am an environmentalist and I do agree with many of the criticisms that Mr. Nikiforuk laid out in the excerpt that we were assigned. The criticism I have expressed of his work is not inherently in support of oil sands development, it is explained so that my disagreement with his values can be better understood.

Works Cited

Matthew T. Huber, “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of production” in Geoforum 40 (2008) 105-115

Matthew T. Huber, “ The use of gasoline: Value, oil and the American way of life” in Antipode Vol. 41 No. 3 (2009) 465-486

Andrew Nikiforuk, Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2008); 1-5, 11-16

“Upstream Dialogue, The Facts on Oil Sands 2010”, CAPP, September 2010

Bumpus, Adam., Liverman, Diana. 2008. Accumulation by Decarbonisation and the Governance of Carbon Offsets. Economic Geography. Volume 84, Issue 2, pages 127-155

November 30, 2010   No Comments

A Meek Defence of the Canadian Oil Sands (CR2)

I have tried to approach this response as critically as possible, which isn’t to say that I’ve been overly critical, but that I have instead attempted to offer the most pertinent criticisms I can muster to the works in question using a relevant and tangible example where possible. Through this critical response I aim to lay out a meek defence of the Canadian oil sands in the context of two Matthew Huber articles. As such my main argument is as follows: It is possible that you are being too hard on the oil sands (and capitalism in general).

I could try to impress you with information that organizations like the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) put out in handy pocket-sized mini-books, but somehow I’m not convinced that you will be impressed that oil sands development is expected to contribute around $1.7 trillion to the Canadian economy over the next 25 years, or that in that time it will directly affect around 590 000 jobs (CAPP, 2010). Somehow it rings false if I try to tout the value to Canadian businesses and even specifically Canadian aboriginal businesses (which made $810 million in 2009 from oil sands companies) to support the industry against an attack on capitalism itself. I will therefore place my focus on both the beginning and end of our course with Matthew Huber’s “Energizing historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of production” and “The use of gasoline: Value, oil and the American way of life” respectively. In doing so, I hope to frame the issues talked about by Huber in a modern Canadian context and also provide counter arguments to some of the more controversial points raised he raises.

In the first piece, Huber claims that “capitalist social life is profoundly dependent on the abundant provision of fossil fuel energy” (page 105) which for the purpose of this critique can be understood to refer in part to oil extracted from Canada’s bituminous sands, as these provide over one million barrels of oil per day to the United States (CAPP 2010). Throughout his piece, Huber establishes an intrinsic link between capitalism and the availability of affordable fossil fuels. One important claim is that “[u]nder capitalism the process of production creates spatial conditions of circulation that become part and parcel of the process of becoming a commodity” (emphasis his, page 111) and that these spatial conditions of circulation are largely a result of the availability of fossil fuels. To take Huber’s work at face value is not necessarily to criticize capitalism inherently. No system is perfect, and to judge capitalism based solely on its affiliation with current polluting technology is unfair, especially if you neglect to consider the many technological advances that capitalism has provided that improve our modern quality of life (among them modern medicine, soap and safe drinking water); which are also equally dependent on the same affordable fossil fuels.

What I consider to be the strongest argument in the first Huber piece to directly associate a harm with capitalist behaviour comes in the conclusion when the author portrays the “social and ecological contradictions of fossil fuel energy (e.g. war, violence, local socioecological degradation, global climate change, and suburban sprawl)[…] as part and parcel of the internal contradictions of capitalism”. How does this argument apply to the Canadian oil sands? First, there are no reliable reports of war or violence in northern Alberta (that can be specifically blamed on oil sands development) so we can ignore these contradictions. Second, I disagree with Huber’s assertion that suburban sprawl can be equated with war and violence as a harm of capitalism. Although fossil fuel energy has allowed for the continued suburbanization of modern cities and is therefore a necessary part of (largely North American) capitalism, I am wary of people who treat suburbanization so dismissively as to equate it with war and violence in terms of harms. The choice to live in a suburb is a free choice made by rational actors which is facilitated, not coerced, by the availability of cheap oil.

Finally, I will address what I feel are the most pressing and contextually relevant harms associated with fossil fuel based capitalism as presented by Huber; socioecological degradation and global climate change. In “The use of gasoline: Value, oil and the American way of life” Huber mentions in his conclusion that capitalism is “historically open to contestation and change” (page 481). Although in this context he is writing about the possibility of exploring the use-value of gasoline in a capitalist framework, I think this assessment of capitalism fits the argument I want to make quite nicely and so I will use it. Throughout the piece, Huber argues that the American perception of gasoline has been skewed by political motives so that it is viewed as part of the “American way of life”. However in his conclusion he claims that the defining characteristics of capitalism may be negotiable, with which I agree and would add that it is for this reason that we cannot assert that all future capitalism must be as detrimental to the local and global environment as past forms have been. To discount possible technological advancements by asserting that capitalism necessitates fossil fuels is to minimize the possibility for innovation that distinguishes capitalism from other economic systems.

While I agree with Huber that fossil fuels are intrinsically linked to capitalism, I would not contend that this link is inextricable. As capitalism is able to adjust to market needs and government regulation, so may it move beyond the above mentioned “social and ecological contradictions of fossil fuel energy”. To put this back in the context of the Canadian oil sands I would put forward two main arguments. First, a significant amount of meaningful investment into renewable energy sources is coming from companies that work in the Canadian oil sands; whether this investment is used as a marketing tool (green washing) or as a legitimate financial endeavour, it still occurs in the capitalist framework. Second, new developments in the Canadian oil sands are focusing on decreasing their environmental impact both on a local socioecological scale and in terms of carbon intensity to decrease greenhouse gas emissions. While this may not mitigate all the negative effects Huber alludes to it does serve to minimize their impact.

To conclude, I have laid out a brief refutation to some of the criticisms that Huber offers in the pieces mentioned. For the sake of relevance to our class discussions and my own interest I have centred some of the discussion on issues in the Canadian oil sands. I would not apply all of the defences I have laid out for the Canadian oil sands equally to all oil sands producers, but I do think it is important that discussion remain two sided when considering important issues central to the Canadian economy and ecology.

Works Cited

Upstream Dialogue, The Facts on Oil Sands 2010”, CAPP, September 2010

Matthew T. Huber, “Ener historical materialism: Fossil fuels, space and the capitalist mode of production” in Geoforum 40 (2008) 105-115

Matthew T. Huber, “ The use of gasoline: Value, oil and the American way of life” in Antipode Vol. 41 No. 3 (2009) 465-486

November 30, 2010   1 Comment

speed-stunned imaginations: a reflection on Energy and Equity (CR #3)

In his recent book Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman declared that we have entered the “energy climate” era. According to Friedman’s narrative, the solution to the twin crisis of peak oil and climate change relies overwhelmingly on technical advances and market innovations. Along with his win-win scenarios for business and the environment, Friedman states, “Only if we got abundant, cheap, clean reliable electrons could we deal with climate change, petro-dictatorship, biodiversity loss, energy poverty, and energy resource supply and demand. That is the cure” (Shea, 2008).  While Friedman’s holds out for such an invention to come and solve the world’s socio-environmental problems, I think it is apt to revisit Ivan Illich’s 1973 essay Energy and Equity, where he posits there are social limits to the ever-expanding consumption of energy, renewable or otherwise.

Illich states “The widespread belief that clean and abundant energy is the panacea for social ills is due to a political fallacy, according to which equity and energy consumption can be indefinitely correlated” (2). Using the example of the transportation industry, Illich attests that energy and equity can grow concurrently only to a point. Above a certain quantifiable threshold, energy and equity are negatively correlated (Illich, 3). Writing in a period in which the automobile had become the utmost priority in transportation planning and urban design, Illich saw the endorsement of speedier and more energy-intensive modes of transport as involving the homogenization of landscapes and the annihilation of “commons into unlimited thoroughfares … for the production of passenger miles” (18). This new round of space-time compression was manifested physically in an accelerated rate of land-take for transport infrastructure. For example, in Los Angeles during the 1960s, over one third of the downtown became exclusively parking lots (excluding the spaces of traffic corridors), producing an environment where every citizen found the autonomy and use-value of their feet reduced (Coolidge, 2007).

Crucially for Illich, this unevenness is the outcome of transportation, as an industry, dictating the configuration of social space and incorporating class inequality in its material structure. Across North American cities, personal automobile ownership came to be a prerequisite for participation in social life and work, for the spatial dispersion of the post-WWII urban form made “the consumption of the products of the auto, oil, rubber, and construction industries a necessity rather than a luxury” (Harvey, 39). In this light, the prized personal mobility bought by having an automobile was in fact involuntary traffic made necessary by the settlement patterns that cars create. While transportation is an insignificant cost for upper-class speed capitalists, the necessary infrastructure for unlimited high-speed travel dictates that the majority spends larger amounts of personal time on unwanted trips (and larger amounts of labour time to earn the money needed to commute to work). Across cities, the result is “more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry” (Illich, 8).

Illich’s insights are applicable not only at the urban scale, but also at the scale of core/periphery in world systems theory. As John Whitelegg notes in his study on transportation policy, the majority of World Bank loans for transport spending from 1962 to 1994 were geared towards new highways, rail closure and privatization (1997;54). Whitelegg recommends that if the World Bank “has the ultimate objective of reducing poverty … then they could ensure that 95 percent of investment funds are not steered in the direction of 5 percent of the population who are in a position to drive themselves around and carry freight by truck (1997;58). The massive subsidies and policy preference for increasing energy-intensive, private forms of transport comes with highly uneven benefits, not to mention increased dependency on industrially-packaged forms of energy.

A second parallel can be drawn between Illich’s work and that of Arghiri Emmanuel, who helped develop dependency theory and its arguments of unequal exchange and declining terms of trade for “developing” countries. Emmanuel showed that “low-wage countries have to export greater volumes of products in exchange for a given volume of imports from high-wage countries than they would if the wage level were uniform” (Hornberg, 7). The low-income transit user who must spend the largest proportion of income on mobility is akin to the developing country that must spend higher shares of their export incomes on the importation of energy. Renewable energy advocate and late German politician Hermann Scheer researched this “energy trap” by comparing the ratio of export incomes of African countries to the costs of importing oil. Scheer found that the costs as a percentage of import spending incurred by importing energy have risen from 5-10% in the 1960s to upwards of 80% (2009, B III). Furthermore, “In 2005, the developing countries’ oil import costs rose by 100 billion dollars; this is significantly more than the sum of development assistance provided by all the industrial nations put together” (2009, B III). Participation in the Global North’s model of global trade (and its necessary infrastructure for industrialized transport) comes with high costs to equity and compromises other development goals.

When considering whether renewable energy will offer new possibilities for emancipation from a crisis-prone system, it is crucial to keep in mind the possibility that abundant, renewable energy may only perpetuate, perhaps even strengthen, forms of hierarchy and domination in the sunbelts and wind-corridors of the world. Thinking beyond the renewable/nonrenewable binary, “All industrial energy systems deploy space, capital, and technology to construct their geographies of power and inscribe their technological order as a mode of organization of social, economic, and political relations” (Ghosn,7). In his anticipation of a future beyond oil, Friedman dismisses the continuities between conventional and alternative energy and overlooks the deep structural issues having to do with power, control, and unequal access to resources. The attractiveness of ‘renewable energy’ as a panacea for social and environmental ills, independent of a wider social transformation of capitalism, risks foreclosing serious political questions about alternative socio-environmental trajectories.

Works Cited

  1. Coolidge, Matthew. “Pavement Paradise: American Parking SpaceCenter for Land Use Interpretation 2007.
  2. Ghosn, Rania. “Energy as a Spatial Project” New Geographies vol (3) 2009 pg 7-10, Cambridge; Harvard University Press.
  3. Harvey, David. The condition of postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Blackwell, 1989.
  4. Hornberg, Alf. “The Unequal Exchange of Time and Space: Toward a Non-Normative Ecological Theory of Exploitation” in Journal of Ecological Anthropology vol (7) 2003 pg 4-10
  5. Illich, Ivan. “Energy and Equity” in Toward a History of Needs. New York: Pantheon, 1978
  6. Friedman, Thomas. Hot, flat, and crowded; why we need a green revolution—and how it can renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
  7. Scheer, Hermann. “Renewable energies and the environment”, Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs. Council of Europe 18 May 2009
  8. Shea, Danny. “Tom Friedman Calls For Green Revolution”. Huffington Post. 4 July 2008,
  9. Whitelegg, John. Critical Mass: Transportation, Environment and Society in the Twenty-first Century, Pluto Press: London 1997.

November 28, 2010   1 Comment

Pictures of the port tour

November 24, 2010   1 Comment

Confronting semantic emptiness – "prosperity" and the power of the "individual" (CR #2)

It is striking to me that Tim Jackson shows no hesitancy interrogating the semantic emptiness of the word prosperity in his article “Prosperity Without Growth?” As an ‘economics commissioner’ for the Sustainable Development Commission, Jackson is unavoidably caught between the perilous crossfires of economic and environmental discourses. Economists and environmentalists alike carry arsenals of loaded and intentionally nuanced words, which bolster and uphold their various systems of meaning and morality. For this reason, economic and environmental jargons can lean towards essentialism and exclusiveness, leaving little room for comprehensive and participatory dialogue.

There is cause for concern when one of these words or phrases becomes entrenched within a much broader ideological landscape, because the word itself is often stripped of it poignancy. For example, the over/misuse of the word “sustainable” has in a way voided the word of its actual meaning through the exploitation and deployment of its considerable discursive affect. Thus, the word “sustainable” has been increasingly used as a pliant prefix, whose meaning and value bends to the will of its user. By depending on stock phrases and words that have become “cliched” through mindless repetition, communication breaks down. A word turned cliche becomes the most reliable safeguard against the significance of words, the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

I think Jackson’s article in part wrestles with this taken-for-granted ‘discursive affect’ by interrogating popular conceptions of “prosperity.” Even his title, “Prosperity without growth?” is defensively poised in the gesture of a question. And the intent of his article is just that: to question, to challenge, to penetrate and provoke. In doing so, Jackson creates a crucial space for reexamining the fundaments that inform our capitalistic values and principles.

He begins by inquiring into the cause of the 2008 banking crisis. The undoing of the market, he argues, was “not the result of isolated malpractice or simple failures of vigilance” (6). Rather, the crisis was generated by growth itself; or, more acutely, by the systematic sanctioning of economic growth as the paramount socio-political imperative.

Here, what I find particularly interesting is Jackson’s insistence that it was not “individual greed” but a broader “systematic irresponsibility” that eventually led to the 2008 recession. Though I find much of Jackson’s argument invaluable, this kind of assertion and analysis strikes me as being deeply problematic. Most significantly, it underestimates and devalues the agency of the individual. Erasing the “individual” from a narrative of economic growth, or in any socio-political scenario, is an inherently defeatist gesture. It is precisely this gesture – where the “individual” is severed from the broader architecture of “the system” – that sources a whole range of social ills: irresponsible consumption, apathy, nihilistic disregard for the “other,” and alienation—from labour, from things, from the environment, the community and the self. In other words, placing blame on “the system” essentially voids the significance of the individual.

And this is not Jackson’s aim. I would argue, in fact, that Jackson is intent on fostering a trend of re-empowering the individual with agency and with a sense of purpose in a world so fixated with unfettered economic growth. But I think Jackson is perhaps hesitant to expound his argument in a thesis that deals with the intimate and diminutive scale of the “individual.” Investigations that work on this scale are inevitably “complicated” by the daunting messiness of emotions, morals and ethics. But in the same way that Jackson relies on deconstructing the small-scaled single word (prosperity) to summon information about a society-wide consumerist ethos, Jackson cannot avoid tracing the vastness of “systematic irresponsibility” back to the local scale of “individual greed.” “Systematic irresponsibility” and “individual greed” are mutually engaged in a destructive feedback loop, whereby the one evil is justified and bolstered by the other. That is, greed breeds more greed in a system of unchecked credit expansion; and the expansion of an unstable credit system is “justified” and indeed “necessary” to stimulate consumption growth (and the supposed “prosperity” that comes with it).

Jackson knows that the transition to what he calls a “sustainable economy” can only be achieved by addressing social logic and irresponsibility at all different levels of society, from the vast scale of “the system” to the intimate scale of the “individual.” Even though Jackson’s theoretical ambition prompts him to address the over-arching system of macro economics, his genuine hope for change is invested in the small scale of human-to-human interaction. “To do well,” he argues, is about the “ability to give and receive love, to enjoy the respect of your peers, to contribute useful work, and to have a sense of belonging and trust in the community. In short,” he concludes, “an important component of prosperity is the ability to participate meaningfully in the life of society” (7).

As important as it is to be educated and critical of the economic and political systems that we are inextricably bound within, we cannot forget the importance of seeking out and creating meaning in the often overlooked details of our day-to-day. An important part of this process is being critical of the way our words shape our experience of reality and our ambitious pursuits of happiness. It is in the local, intimate gestures of social interaction that we can hope to discover our real potential to flourish and our real capacity for prosperity.


Tim Jackson, “Prosperity without growth? The transition to a sustainable economy”

November 22, 2010   3 Comments

TED talk by Tim Jackson worth checking out

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November 17, 2010   No Comments

Some interesting videos on steady state economics

November 17, 2010   No Comments

The Ten “policy candles” and Deconstructing Daly: A Critical Response

Herman Daly’s work, specifically the article “From a Failed Growth Economy to a Steady State Economy” is both a brief critique of the issues that generate faith in “unlimited growth” but also a counter proposal for an economy that does not require growth. In this work Herman Daly has given us a road map, or at least a guide on how to change the way market economies  and multi-level politics operate. He calls them policy candles. Ten in total, each distinct ideas on how to change the system. When examining the ten ideas we can compare them to initiatives that re already taking place. Where there is ambiguity we can deconstruct them, in an effort to understand them better. From this exercise we can then consider if Daly’s vision is a possibility.

1. Cap – Auction – Trade Systems for Basic Resources

Norway is an example of how a country can take control of resource like crude oil. The large sovereign wealth funds accrued from taxation and royalties provide the Norwegian people with amenities and huge advancements in social and human capital. This also benefits Norway by preventing “dutch disease”. A condition which according to Daly’s 6th idea, would be subject to international tariffs.

2. Ecological Tax Reform

This would move the burden of taxation to the extracted resource. With the exception of stumpage fees and other royalties only the economic activity that surrounds a resource and its refinement is taxed. Daly argues that this is the wrong approach. In a steady-state-economy producing the most output with the least inputs is the ultimate goal. By taxing inputs, the resource would become the point of efficiency, as opposed to the process. However, taxing the source of the value a resource may possess is a complex task. The relativistic approach to the utility of nature and natural resources is rife with conflict. Assigning values to natural resources in an arbitrary manner could not be done by a single “resource tax”. What is the value of one sablefish compared to one kilogram of iron ore? It also has interesting repercussions in how a company would try to find economic efficiency. If a firm sees the only way of reducing costs is to use less of a resource, they will seek to do so, provided the value added by the new process does not incur them greater costs than the current means of production.

3. Limit the Range of Inequality in Income Distribution

The metric commonly associated with income distribution is called the Gini coefficient. As Daly reported most industrialized countries already have equitable distributions of wealth. The Gini coefficient reflects this statement. Daly goes on to discuss how people who have reached their maximum could “work for nothing at that margin…or devote extra time to hobbies or public service”. This aligns well with behavioral economics. Behavioral economics has shown that when presented with a physical task, increased financial incentives encourage faster more productive labour. However when we are given tasks that require higher cognitive abilities or creativity, adding financial incentive severely reduces our performance. Our society could become more productive as those who have reached their maximum incomes redirect their energies towards other goals.

4. Free Up the Length of the Working Day, Week, and Year

This idea is closely tied to candles two and three. If firms simultaneously have their taxes reduced in relation to their “value added” processes while limiting the incomes individuals can receive then there is greater opportunity for increased labour force participation rates. France is most noted for it’s reduced work week and very generous vacation time. While many have criticized this calling it inefficient, or worse, socialist, before the 2009-2008 recession France boasted the highest levels of Productivity in the European Union.

5. Re-regulate International Commerce

Balance of Trade between the global north and south has been placed badly out of alignment. Daly very briefly reminds us that free trade is not equality in trade. Free trade is possible perhaps even preferable for countries that are on equal footing to one another. The industrialized developed nations of the global north can be free to trade among one another as they are relatively equal. When a large imbalance exists between two countries in terms of political and economic powers that is where Daly’s proposal would have the largest effects. This also relates to point three, by limiting the flow of international capital, the global south would be protected from foreign investments affecting their income equality.

6. Downgrade the IMF-WB-WTO

Daly makes a strong case against the current structure of these institutions he even says “The closest thing we have to a global government has shown no interest in regulating transnational capital for the common good”. This is even more disturbing when considering that this “government” is appointed and is not elected by any demographic.

7. Move Away From Fractional Reserve Banking Towards a System of 100% Reserve Requirements

It is at this point where Daly’s logic seems to falter. Daly states “…regulated as commercial banks subject to 100% reserve requirements. Banks would earn their profit by financial inter mediation only, lending savers’ money for them…”. Reserve requirements is the amount of cash deposits that a bank is required to have on hand for withdrawal. If the requirement is 100% then the bank cannot loan out any money, because as soon as it had done so it would no longer be at 100% reserves. The alternate way of interpreting this is that the money need to have been previously been saved by an individual before it may be lent out again. With this arrangement there is then nothing stopping banks from loaning out large amounts of money keeping only what the average account requires for regular access. This banking system is very close to what is currently used across the globe.

8. Stop Treating Scarce as if it Were Non-Scarce

While scarcity is addressed in Point, 1 Daly discusses the free flow of knowledge. I believe this is somewhat misleading. What I believe Daly to be actually saying is that the barriers to knowledge should be lowered. Teachers will still need draw a salary, paper and pencils will still need to be bought, schools will still need to be built. This would not affect most of the industrialized nations as they already provide free or subsidized tuition to their population These cost can be, and are absorbed by the government, who in turn tax the people. It is the assertion the intellectual property laws need to be revised. This is a powerful statement. Knowledge by it’s nature should belong to the commons, but to encourage firms to produce new knowledge or products we allow them to monopolize the “invention”. The monopoly is to allow a firm to be the exclusive holder of the idea, and the only one legally allowed to make a profit off of its sale. Many drugs have been made exempt from copyright laws and royalties because of their need in underdeveloped regions, often to the objection of the patent holding pharmaceuticals.

9. Stabilize Population

This will have the largest effects on the global south. For the global north population growth has slowed to a crawl in most countries, while many countries of the global south still see massive population increases. In the 2009 report on Human development by the United Nations clearly pointed out, the single greatest contribution to Greenhouse gas reductions would be to encourage social and reproductive rights for women in the global south. Currently there are many aid programs that try to encourage women to take voluntary birth control measures. There are large obstacles to implementing these measures, mostly they are socio-cultural, as religion often plays an interfering role within these endeavors.

10. Reform National Accounts

Similar to the second point, this requires highly subjective and relative thinking. Assigning costs to the flood mitigation of swampland versus the tax revenue a new mall will generate are very politically charged issues. They require complex models to describe and assign the value of each. And ultimately, based off the current arguments each side views certain basic precepts of the other as invalid. Secondly, Daly suggests we begin to measure happiness. What other outlets do we have for happiness and the metric we would add to it. How do we measure something so subjective. The Kingdom of Bhutan currently measures Gross National Happiness. France has begun to record measures of happiness in its own population and groups like the pembina institute are calculating other socio economic metrics like GPI, or the Genuine Progress Indicator.

Daly writes from a standpoint of generic observation, often calling upon the America perspective. This is unsurprising as he is an American ecological economist. When we examine his suggestions we can find examples of his ideas across the globe and across disciplines. Others of his ideas need to be greatly expanded or are obscured by relativistic arguments and need clarity and focus to be better understood. Altogether though there is credibility to many of his proposals. Many of them have been implemented in one way or another. While each point is its own reform, they interlink with each other forming a cohesive strategy. It is difficult to say if the strategy will be effective on a global scale, or if it will even be embraced internationally. Daly is correct in saying that it will only be possible if it happens gradually.

Trouble brewing in oil-rich Norway November 18th 2005. ACCESSED November 14th 2010

France, Bastion Of Productivity March 22nd 2005 ACCESSED November 15th 2010

State of world population 2009. United Nations Population Fund. 2009

November 15, 2010   No Comments