Downstream discrepancies: water and energy in Alberta

Earlier this week Sarah Boon wrote a nice piece on how Canada is, by undermining its water policies, also undermining its cultural foundations. I agree, and have said as much (though not so thoroughly) here, by arguing that the long-held wisdom of the policies and norms that helped to build a society should not be discarded lightly, even if they are not wholly satisfactory any longer.

Instead of jettisoning them, we should think of them as a kind of upstream heritage. Upstream, that is, in a temporal sense where our water histories affect the options we have now. Likewise, today’s policies will constrain our options later.

In Alberta, we can see contests over the upstream heritage of water histories being played out in real time. And we can note a significant discrepancy.

On the one hand, Alberta recently approved an expansion of the Jackpine Oil Sands project. Canada’s environment minister openly remarked that there would be negative impacts but that the expansion was “justified.” But what justified it is altogether unclear, as this nice post details. Even the Edmonton Journal is worried about the risks of rushing Oil Sands development. And with the environmental agency that monitors the Oil Sands in danger of folding, the on-going awkwardness of over 170 square kilometers of manmade lakes burying waste products and recent concerns those lakes (read tailings ponds) are leaking, the Environment Minister’s claim just doesn’t wash.

Now, if we turn and look the other way, to Alberta’s only upstream neighbour – British Columbia – we see a different story. There, the Site C dam approval process has Alberta up in arms. The assessment for the dam is here, but Alberta is worried about elevated levels of mercury downstream (i.e. in Alberta) if the dam is approved. The Ft. Chipewyan Metis are suing BC Hydro over the effects of the two existing dams in that same watershed (see here and here). There is also community opposition to the project (and has been for some time, as I’ve noted before).

To me, the double standard over water and energy reveals a glaring discrepancy in the way downstream effects are understood. The Ft. Chipewyan communities are downstream of both B.C. and most of Alberta’s energy projects, so they see and live the negative impacts of both. Alberta, by contrast, is at once claiming that its upstream neighbour should be more careful while using only the loosest ‘justification’ when it comes to its own downstream effects. Of course, nobody will be surprised if the discrepancy rests on some argument for self-interest. But in this case, the self-interested party(ies) are, as Sarah so nicely put it, undermining their own foundations.

In other news, here is a recent study on un-burnable oil that was just published.

William Connolly on the fragility of things and neoliberalism

978-0-8223-5584-7_prI’m now finally able to have a good sit down with William Connolly’s latest book. The Fragility of things: self-organizing processes, neoliberal fantasies and democratic activism. It came out earlier this year and has been on my shelf for far too long given the ways that Connolly’s works build off of each other in such intriguing ways. This one is no different (although it does help to have read A world of becoming before this one). The video below is from a talk he gave at McGill, and which forms part of the later ideas in the book, which the publisher describes as follows:

In The Fragility of Things, eminent theorist William E. Connolly focuses on several self-organizing ecologies that help to constitute our world. These interacting geological, biological, and climate systems, some of which harbor creative capacities, are depreciated by that brand of neoliberalism that confines self-organization to economic markets and equates the latter with impersonal rationality. Neoliberal practice thus fails to address the fragilities it exacerbates. Engaging a diverse range of thinkers, from Friedrich Hayek, Michel Foucault, Hesiod, and Immanuel Kant to Voltaire, Terrence Deacon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Alfred North Whitehead, Connolly brings the sense of fragility alive as he rethinks the idea of freedom. Urging the Left not to abandon the state but to reclaim it, he also explores scales of politics below and beyond the state. The contemporary response to fragility requires a militant pluralist assemblage composed of those sharing affinities of spirituality across differences of creed, class, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity.

Liquidity: the value of wetlands (in the US)

1st articles from Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene now out

Several open-access articles from Elementa are now out. One, co-authored by Erle Ellis on dating the Anthropocene has already been picked up on by David Biello in Scientific American here.

Fire over water: Fracking and the Elsipogtog protests

I’ve mentioned the on-going protests over hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in New Brunswick before (see here and here). Here is a recent video:

Chris Hedges on the pathology of the rich

Andrew Nikiforuk: pipelines and the petrostate

A recent talk on the Canadian petrostate. It is interesting to follow journalist Andrew Nikiforuk’s take versus those of industry, the government or academics who don’t think the idea of seeing Canada as a petrostate holds.

Human development in a ‘good’ Anthropocene

This is a talk from Garry Peterson from the Stockholm Resilience Centre. Garry always brings a broad and interesting perspective.

Ethics and the duty of water

I’ve mentioned the interesting work that James Wescoat has been doing on the “duty of water” in a previous post. And now there is another work of his that is out on the concept. This one is in the Journal of Landscape Architecture and it combines issues of ethics with those of irrigation. Here is the abstract:

The ‘duties of water’ with respect to planting: toward an ethics of irrigated landscapes


The ethical dimensions of irrigation in landscape planning and design are examined. After introducing the historic ‘duty of water’ standard for irrigation use, four major extensions of that concept are discussed: 1) the duty to start watering (reclamation ethic); 2) the duty to reduce watering (conservation ethic); 3) the duty to stop watering (ecological ethic); and 4) the duty to continue watering (planting ethic). No one of these duties universally overrides the others. They need to be critically examined and coordinated with one another in irrigated landscapes. The final section of the paper outlines a pragmatic path toward an ethics of irrigation in landscape planning and design.

Donald Worster on The Age of Vulnerability