"Transitioning off fossil fuels"

Fall 2011 grad course

Gordon Laxer

University of Alberta


Course Outline

There is a wide awareness of the changes climate change may bring, but Canadians are especially unaware of coming energy shortages and how they will be impacted. No wonder. Governments, the media, most economists, and the secular religion of Progress, and Canadians belief they have an abundance of resources, keep them in the dark. Ask yourself the following question, would BP risk getting another $65 billion dollar fine after last year’s Deepwater Horizon well blow-out in the Gulf by continuing to explore the deep oceans, if cheap, readily available oil was still available? Would they, and other oil transnationals, be in the high-cost and environmentally risky tarsands and the Arctic if the low hanging fruit was still unpicked? Lord Ron Oxburgh, former Chairman of Royal Dutch Shell said “There isn’t any shortage of oil, but there is a real shortage of the cheap oil. We know the earth much better [than in the 1950s] and it is pretty clear that there is not much chance of finding any significant quantity of new cheap oil”. Nor can it be replaced anytime soon with alternative energy, that if doubled, then doubled again and again, still won’t amount to much.


Most Canadians naively believe they would be exempt if there was an international oil shortage. Matt Simmons, former Chairman of the world’s largest energy investment bank, and a former energy advisor to George W. Bush, noted ‘Would Canada be impacted if you suddenly had an oil shortage? Dah, sure. It would be shut down’. Yet Canada’s National Energy Board, charged with ensuring Canadians’ energy security wrote me an email: “Unfortunately, the NEB has not undertaken any studies on security of supply”. This despite the fact that Canada imports more than half the oil it uses.


Although Saudi Arabia has the most oil in the world, some Saudis realize how quickly the current era will pass. “The Stone Age didn’t end for lack of stone, and the oil age will end long before the world runs out of oil”. Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Former Saudi oil minister, said. A popular Saudi saying captures the probable future well. “My father rode a camel. I drive a car. My son flies a jet-plane. His son will ride a camel”.


What is Alberta’s likely future if it puts all its eggs in the tarsands basket? Alberta’s tar sands are not the game changer its advocates claim it is. Even if they triple their output as the oil corporations expect, the tarsands would replace less than one year’s worth of the annual depletion rate in the world’s existing oil wells. As the rest of the world moves on to other energy solutions because it must, Alberta runs the risk of becoming a fossil-fuel belt, akin to the auto ‘rust belt’ around Detroit.


The seminar will use the perspective of Canadian Political Economy to explore these and other questions around social, cultural, political, and economic impacts of the triple crisis. Political Economy is an interdisciplinary tradition in which social, political and economic relations are conceived historically and comparatively. Political economists seek to understand tensions within society as they produce struggle and social change. The study of Political Economy has never been neutral. There have always been conflicting perspectives; starting from different assumptions, focusing on different factors and coming to different conclusions. This is a strength. In the course, we will examine the business as usual (BAU) case based in neoliberal ideology and a belief in never ending Progress, versus environmental, social justice, and popular sovereignty perspectives that challenge the dominant paradigm. Readings range from foundational writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, to the established Political economists, to some of the best of today’s thinkers about the future.


The course is set up as debates where we read leading literature on the following:
A. Intro
• Energy availability debates between BAU (Business as Usual) and peak oil advocates.
• Debates among climate change deniers, ecological modernization advocates, and “radical” environmentalists.
• Philosophic roots of debates on sufficiency vs. unlimited growth.
• Master Narratives: Progress, Armageddon, and cultural challenges to poweringdown.


B. Debates on concepts / levels of engagement
• Current sufficiency debates.
• Food security / food sovereignty.
• Energy security / energy sovereignty.
• Popular sovereignty at local, national, regional-continental, global levels.
• Staples theory (Harold Innis) of development around resources & Resource curse literature.
• Exporting specialized resources versus inwardly-directed and diverse local economies
• Debates around the tarsands and Canada as an ‘emerging energy superpower’


C. Politics of the transition
• Political power of entrenched interests: oil & autos vs. alt energy / powerdown.
• Politics of winning on climate change / energy security.
• Right of everyone to sufficient energy in the coming age of energy scarcity.