Tag Archives: energy

“Flicking switches, turning dials, and pressing buttons”: The important work of energy historians

Written by guest blogger, Andrew Watson.

I don’t think it’s too much of a cliché to say that most of us have only the vaguest idea what the origins are of the energy we consume on a daily basis. Many of us living in the world’s industrialized countries have it hammered into our daily lives that we should turn the lights off when we leave a room, that we shouldn’t leave the front door open on a cold day, and that we shouldn’t leave the engine idling. Doing these things is a “waste,” so we’re “saving” energy (and money). We’re concerned about an abstraction, but not because we appreciate its true form.

In my introduction to the CJH/ACH special issue on the Material Realities of Energy Histories, I used Plato’s simile of the cave to convey the veil that shrouds our understanding of energy in the 21st century. In his parable, Plate describes prisoners in a cave who have never known any other life. Their gaze is fixed on a wall. Behind them, a light casts shadows on the wall, and the prisoners are convinced that these images are the objects themselves. It is only upon their release and ascendance to the surface that the prisoners come to understand the difference between the shadows dancing on the wall of the cave and the true form of the world.

The phenomenal power of fossil fuels has led us into the false perception that energy is, to quote Christopher F. Jones, “profoundly immaterial.” As Jones argues in his contribution to this special issue, “The Materiality of Energy,” we use so much energy today that we somehow don’t even notice. How is this possible? Under what historical circumstances has the industrialized (and industrializing) world come to detach energy consumption from most knowledge about its origins?

letter Figure 1: Coal breaker, anthracite coal mining, Scranton, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

In the opening article of the special issue, Jones lays out two useful types of arguments that historians of energy should consider in beginning to answer this question. First, modern energy regimes are shaped by the material realities of energy delivery infrastructure. Using oil and coal in the eastern United States as case studies, Jones explains how important it was that pipelines and canals had very different influences over energy pathways. Second, the materiality of an energy source fundamentally influences its production and consumption. Using anthracite coal as an example, Jones reveals that the transition from one fuel to another is never inevitable, but mediated by human negotiation with physical properties of competing fuels.

letter Figure 2: The first oil well. Reproduction, copyrighted in 1890, of a retouched photograph showing Edwin L. Drake, to the right, and the Drake Well in the background, in Titusville, Pennsylvania, where the first commercial well was drilled in 1859 to find oil. Source: Library of Congress

Jones prompts us to grapple with material questions. Energy histories can help us understand the material realities of what are largely abstract understandings. Released from the belief that the material realities of our energy systems and experiences stop at the gas pump, or the light switch, or the thermostat, energy historians (like the ones featured in this special issue) can help society break free of those bonds and turn to see the fire burning behind us.

Banner: Oil rig at Titusville, Pa. Source: Library of Congress

Read the Editor’s Note in the latest issue of CJH as well as Christopher F. Jones’s article The Materiality of Energy, both free to read for a limited time here.

The Canadian Environment in Political Context

To mark the publication of The Canadian Environment in Political Context, the author, Andrea Olive, provides an overview of the book’s contents in addition to reflecting on why she decided to write the book and how its approach will benefit students.

Canadian Environment in Political Context_FINALThe Canadian Environment in Political Context is a direct outcome of my own cross-border and cross-discipline background. I grew up in Saskatchewan and moved to Alberta and then Nova Scotia for university. After that, I hopped across the border to Washington DC to work for a lobby group in higher education. From there it was a quick jump to Indiana for my PhD. While all my academic degrees are in the discipline of political science, my research tends to cross over into geography, environmental studies, Indigenous studies, and public law. I started my academic career at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where I taught American environmental policy and researched endangered species conservation and Arctic issues. In 2012, I returned home to Canada and took a position at the University of Toronto where I am officially cross-appointed between the departments of political science and geography. I now teach Canadian environmental policy. Since the Canadian political system is so different from the US system, I have had to reorient myself in order to understand the environment inside a parliamentary democracy.

This book is based on my experience of teaching environmental policy in a political science department for the past six years. What I have come to realize is that you cannot understand environmental policy until you understand federalism. This is truer in Canada than the US since sub-national jurisdictions in Canada (the provinces and to some extent the territories) have enormous power in natural resource development and property regulations. You also cannot fully grasp environmental policy without knowledge of Indigenous politics (in the North but also across the country) and recent Supreme Court decisions. Canadian politics is fascinating. Even more so, putting Canadian environmental policy into its political context is both enthralling and necessary.

The book is organized into twelve chapters that in many respects reflect twelve different lectures or modules in my undergraduate course. But more than just lectures, the chapters should reflect the thousands of conversations that I have had with students, colleagues, and policy makers in recent years.

The book begins with an overview of Canada’s environmental track record from coast to coast to coast. The next two chapters present a broad outline of the Canadian political system and policy process. The fourth chapter is a sweeping history of environmentalism in Canada, focusing on the “waves” in the twentieth century, and then the inertia under the most recent Conservative government. Chapters five through eight are issue focused: endangered species, water, land, and energy. Understanding the role of the federal government and the provinces is the key focus, but attention is also given to the role of cities, non-governmental organizations, and citizens in each issue-area. Aboriginal politics is the topic of chapter nine and provides the reader with an introduction to Indigenous peoples in Canada as well as a history of aboriginal law and environmental policy across the country. This flows nicely into chapter ten, which focuses on the North and Far North where First Nations and Inuit play a large role in natural resource management and environmental policy making (and implementation). However, the chapter also focuses on energy politics and international governance via the Arctic Council. Chapter eleven places the Canadian environment into a global context, and explains the country’s role in international agreements on environmental issues like biodiversity, hazardous chemicals, and climate change. Finally, the concluding chapter provides both a summary of the book’s main points as well as a forward-looking account of Canada in the twenty-first century. Ultimately hopeful, the book posits that the best environmental policies lie ahead.

The obvious intention of the book is to help undergraduate students understand how the Canadian political system, namely federalism, shapes environmental policy and law in the country. However, the book should also engage readers and inspire deeper exploration into the concepts and issues discussed in the twelve chapters. American readers will be able to draw contrasts to their own political system in which federalism is organized differently and, consequently, plays into environmental policy differently. Since Canada and the US are so deeply intertwined from both an economic and an environmental standpoint, the book covers many topics that can best be understood in a North American context. Similarly, other international readers should hopefully be able to understand why Canada makes environmental policy (or fails to make policy) the way it does. Ultimately, I hope all readers finish the book with a new appreciation of the Canadian environment and a desire to change the way they think and act toward a variety of environmental issues.

Andrea Olive is Assistant Professor of Political science and Geography at the University of Toronto Mississauga. Her most recent book is Land, Stewardship, and Legitimacy: Endangered Species Policy in Canada and the United States.

Environmental Issues and the U.S. Presidential Debates

Peter J. Stoett’s new book, Global Ecopolitics: Crisis, Governance, and Justice, provides readers with an excellent introduction to major global environmental challenges. Through a series of case studies, it explores the limitations and possibilities of international governance—which involves not only governments but civil society and the private sector—to create effective solutions to these challenges.

The deeper aim of the book is to encourage sustained, informed discussions of environmental policy and problem-solving. And, serving this purpose extends beyond the covers of the book. Today, on election day in the United States, we would like to share Professor Stoett’s reflections on the absence of environmental issues in the U.S. presidential debates.

It took a colossal storm to get the media to focus, momentarily, on climate change-related issues during the recent American electoral campaigns. Yet in the days before Sandy, a casual observer of the Obama-Romney debates might conclude there are no environmental issues worthy of discussion if the word “energy” is not attached (a pipeline from Canada, patriotic dreams of fossil fuel independence, and the old chestnut, the “price at the pump”). But there are (with apologies to women everywhere) binders full of them.

No mention of the greatest ecological disaster in American history, the BP Gulf oil spill. Nothing on one of the most dangerous threats to human health, the loss of biodiversity; or on the safety of the new energy panacea, shale oil and gas. No melting Arctic. No Asian Carp on the verge of invading the Great Lakes, or the West Nile virus terrorizing Texas. And wasn’t there a severe, nation-wide drought this summer that inflated food and biofuel prices? Silence.

The so-called foreign policy debate focused on Romney’s favourite phrase that evening, “American leadership,” without even the slightest mention of America’s role in an international community struggling to cope with climate change, deforestation and desertification, an unprecedented oceans crisis, and the threat of mass extinction. Some positioning on American promises made in Copenhagen on a massive climate change adaptation fund would have been fairly basic. Again, silence.

This was not an eerie, mysterious silence, but an orchestrated one. Of course, the environment will be relegated to the sidelines when the economy is on the field. But even the two Bushes found it (to borrow a word from opponent Al Gore) inconvenient not to at least pay lip service, boasting of the reforms their own “green presidencies” could make. And recall that during these elections, also, it was “the economy, stupid.”

This silence is a consequence of a sharp trend away from policy debates that can in any way trigger wayward thoughts about climate change, the latest “third rail” in U.S. politics. I just spent six months in Washington, D.C., and think tanks are definitely treating the issue seriously, but ecology vanishes in thin public air at the leadership level. Well-funded “climate skeptics,” fueled by Fox News and other conduits, have rendered the broader debate on the environment largely mute. An implicit vow of mutual silence emerged; even the moderators knew better than to go there.

Naturally, if re-elected, Obama—probably facing a hostile Republican Congress—will lack a clear mandate to move forward in even small measures. Romney, who felt comfortable publicly accusing Obama of the sin of not being a “coal and oil man,” had little environmental agenda in the first place. But what, exactly, either man would push is hard to say after watching the debates, and their campaigns have not filled the void.

As for the impact of this careful silence in Canada, this depends on how your ear is turned. Our majority party in Ottawa prefers environmental dilemmas to be as quiet as possible, and let’s be realistic: Alberta will get its pipeline south either way.

But many Canadians would have liked to have heard even a whimper of an indication as to how the next four years may look, especially in a year in which Canada assumes the presidency of the Arctic Council, where that melting sea ice is a multi-level challenge. After all, we will share many of the larger problems, including climate change and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, coastal erosion, invasive species, and air particulate matter, with the same voters denied an adult discussion south of the border.

Thankfully, the real work on environmental improvement takes place on levels other than the presidential, and the billions of people engaged in the every-day struggle often embrace, rather than deny or try to defy, sound ecological principals. But silence is far from golden when it excludes some of the most fundamental challenges of our time from a debate which, given America’s potential leadership role, has significance for all of us.

– Peter J. Stoett

Note: If you are scheduled to teach a course that would benefit from having this book on the required reading list, please email requests@utphighereducation.com to request an examination copy. We would be more than happy to give you the opportunity to review this excellent text for yourself!