The modernist ideal of finding novel, optimal solutions to problems, a legacy of the Enlightenment’s privileging of reason and perpetual progress, is so deeply encoded in our societal DNA that it’s hardly questioned. That ideal fuels not only the Brobdingnagian efforts to extract bitumen from beneath Alberta’s boreal forest, but also Chris Turner’s publisher’s claim that The Patch provides “the definitive story” of the resource, “told through the eyes of those who live it.”
In his signature blend of intelligent, expansive and energetic reportage, the acclaimed Calgary-based author aims to document the “collision and …reconciliation project” between two “competing world views”—the modernist ideal of progress and the ideal of balance marking this era of Anthropogenic climate change. He highlights the geology, geography, history, science, technology, economics and politics of Alberta’s bituminous bonanza/brouhaha, drawing on diverse narratives of people toiling in the industry. Turner finds the resource’s impact far-reaching and ubiquitous, situating it as ground zero for a vociferous, if unproductive, showdown between economic boosters and environmental critics. Ultimately, he implicates us all and ponders what’s next.
The Patch admirably attempts an objective account of what Turner positions as the acme of modernism, what I call the “bit-sands.” (Even the terminology is polarizing, given common parlance of “tar” or “oil” sands instead of the more technically correct but awkward “bituminous sands.”) But objectivity can be problematic even if it’s attainable. Readers of Turner’s best-selling environmental work, such as The Geography of Hope and The Leap, might wonder what this one is really about. Is it a critique of high modernism? Sometimes, given the author’s mock-awed, italicized exclamations of “Man creates his world!” Is it an apology for extracting bitumen? Perhaps, given his featuring the vision, innovation and toil that bring us its products. Is it a story about people working in the industry? Partly, but many industry executives wouldn’t share their stories, and—as in life—workers seem dwarfed by the scientific, technological, economic and political machinations epitomized by the massive yellow trucks mining the open pits. Is it an environmental story? Not the one you’d expect from a Green Party candidate in a 2012 federal by-election. One recurrence from Turner’s earlier oeuvre—though in shorter supply here—is his conviction that technology can solve our problems.
Fans of linear reportage may be bedevilled by Turner’s returning to events discussed earlier in the book—1,606 dead ducks, the appointment of a new Suncor CEO, different Alberta elections. If you’re looking for a chronological polemic with a clear-cut ending, you won’t find it here any more than you would in life. And if you’re looking for deeper historical, political, scientific or other single-disciplinary takes on the subject, they’re available elsewhere.
For environmentalists or ethicists, more is lacking. Turner understands the symbolic value of the resource in the public forum. But in citing the bewilderment of bit-sands boosters at why their project must bear so much global ecological angst, he too sidesteps even the possibility that Albertans could take a true leadership role on the global stage. Imagine the potential symbolic power of actually decelerating rather than accelerating the planned extraction of such a diversely controversial and environmentally devastating enterprise—especially if it is not in one’s immediate financial interest.
“The definitive story”? Hardly. But worth reading? Definitely.
—Geo Takach is associate professor in communication and culture at Royal Roads University and the author of Tar Wars (UAP, 2017).