This is an Accepted Manuscript of a book review I wrote that was published by Wiley in Review of Policy Research on 7 November 2017, and is available online.
First World Petro-Politics: The Political Ecology and Governance of Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 696 pages. ISBN 978-1-4426-4419-9 (hardcover) ISBN 978-1-4426-1258-7 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-4426-9942-7 (ebook) Edited by Laurie Adkin. 2016. $49.95 CAD
To date, the petro-state literature has nearly exclusively centred on rentier states from the Global South. This important tome, edited by Laurie Adkin, represents a marked departure from this trend and takes a deep dive into the Canadian province of Alberta. Historically understudied by social scientists, Alberta—as a First World oil province—is a fascinating case to explore through the lens of political ecology. This integrative approach, which views natural and social environments as mutually constituting, works at multiple scales and brings in existing literature, from human geography, political economy, ethnography, ecology, and feminist, post-structuralist, and post-colonialist approaches.
Adkin’s prescient volume comes at a time when Alberta, after 44 years of rule by the same conservative party, elected a social democratic government in 2015. While it was clearly too early for the contributors to reflect on the actual impact of this political shift, readers can now make a much more informed analysis based on this comprehensive effort to catalogue Alberta’s fossil-fueled politics leading up to the landmark 2015 election.
The seventeen chapters in this volume are just as diverse as political ecology. For example, primers are offered on the neoliberalization of Alberta’s environment ministry (Chapter 3), on the geospatial impacts of oil and gas development (Chapter 4), on the media’s framing of the oil sands (Chapter 7), on public participation in sour gas development (Chapter 9), on the role of Indigenous communities in environmental governance (Chapter 10), on social movement politics (Chapter 14), and on the province’s once-formidable coal power industry (Chapter 15).
Two chapters proved particularly fascinating. Anna Zalik’s essay examines industry-community governance mechanisms among indigenous communities in northern Alberta and in the Nigerian Delta (Chapter 11). The comparative design helps to expose some of the unique elements of each region but also identify similarities faced by these communities when negotiating with oil companies that have much greater access to capital and financial/legislative power. Zalik compellingly argues that the industry uses divide and rule strategies to create further fragmentation among and within these communities, thereby limiting their ability to protest or litigate.
In Chapter 8, Sara O’Shaughnessy and Göze Doğu provide an illuminating analysis of the gendered and racialized nature of work in the city at the heart of Alberta’s oil sands, Fort McMurray. The authors examine how a shortage of workers and an influx of new immigrants can cause seemingly stable notions of frontier masculinity and traditional family values to become destabilized. This examination exposes a much more complex array of gender identities and practices than what is stereotypically understood.
The eclectic nature of these chapters and the broad approach of political ecology provide an excellent grounding in the particulars of Alberta. Readers will leave with a basic understanding of how the fossil fuel industry, political parties, provincial government, labour unions, Indigenous and local communities, social movements, and the media intersect with oil, gas, and coal development in this First World petro-state. Authors in this volume are predominantly Alberta-based scholars and practitioners who benefit from being embedded in their case study. Many of them adhere to the explicitly normative orientation of political ecology and do not take shelter behind dispassionate reasoning. Instead, they shine a spotlight on the policies and practices that have heightened injustice, eroded democracy, and degraded nature and offer insights into how this particular First World petro-state can become a more just and sustainable province.
All this being said, some criticisms can be made. Firstly, the volume could have benefited from thematic discipline. Without refined themes or sub-sections, its considerable diversity and sheer size can make it unruly for readers. Further, by focussing on a single location, the book’s findings—when taken on their own—are prone to providing just-so explanations (with the exception of Chapter 11 and a brief section of Chapter 17). Are these Alberta-based findings relevant for other First World petro-states? Also, this book is rich in empirics but relatively scarce in theory. Few pages are spent building or engaging with new theory. Adkin admits (p. xviii) that few of the authors had previous experience working within a political ecology framework. Of course, there are exceptions. Angela Carter and Anna Zalik (Chapter 2) provide a cogent critique of the rentier theory’s often ahistorical, state-centred approach. In Chapter 17, Adkin engages some of the resource curse literature, but fails to link this to the rich scholarship on state-society relations. Lastly, the techniques of governance outlined in the book are not limited to Alberta or to fossil fuel industry-dominated jurisdictions; Adkin concedes, “they belong to the repertoire of all capitalist states” (p 585). For more critical readers, this begs the question: what is particularly different about Alberta? From the mountain of evidence proffered in this book, one has more than enough data to start tackling this important question.
The audience for this book is as wide-ranging as its contents. Beyond the traditional research-minded crowd of academics and graduate students, this book provides grist to the intellectual mills of policymakers, and environmental, community, and Indigenous activists. Adkin’s edited volume reveals the fascinating case of Alberta, of how a dominant industry—and the provincial government that is highly dependent on that industry—can shape public institutions, political discourse, and citizen engagement. In many respects, Alberta ought to be the bulwark against the type of petro-politics that typify many oil- and gas-producing nations of the Global South. With nominally strong and democratic institutions, a highly-educated workforce, and the rule of law, it should handily avoid the persistent governance challenges experienced by many petro-states. Yet, this book provides crucially important and substantive empirical evidence which suggests that much work remains for those in Alberta seeking to balance the interests of the fossil fuel industry with the myriad interests of a flourishing, just, and sustainable democracy, regardless of what government is in power.