This piece originally appeared in Issue 3.37 (Winter 2019)
While I was reading this book, seven Tsleil-Waututh and Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from Vancouver’s Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, resisting the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by forming an “aerial blockade” of tanker traffic in Vancouver’s harbour. The shipping disruption was key, but the real genius of this protest action was its spectacle: daring, precarious bodies set against the bridge’s massive steel trusses and the bloated tankers docked below; long, triangular flags unfurling on a steady breeze, declaring Indigenous presence in and around these spaces.
At the same time, these bodies suspended mid-air between the bridge and the inlet below recall, to me at least, the 1958 industrial disaster that gave this bridge its name: due to an engineering mistake, nineteen workers were killed when they plunged from the same trusses into the water below. The aerial blockade never acknowledged the resemblance. That silence says a lot: too often we see an oppositional relationship between settler labourers, often made to be the shock troops of fossil capital, and Indigenous and environmentalist groups, the first of which are disproportionately exposed to extraction’s effects. And it’s this impasse that Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life takes as its main target.
Part travelogue, part theoretical intervention, part graphic narrative, this is a book searching for a genre. But its formal uncertainty might be unavoidable. As Amitav Ghosh and others have argued, the failure to address global warming politically is largely an imaginative and cultural failure: we don’t yet have narrative or representational forms adequate to the all-encompassing reality of fossil capitalism’s hold on our lives. So to me the most fascinating pages of Global Warming are Sacco’s, where the resources of graphic narrative are used to alternate between micro and the macro scales in successive frames, from a teaspoon of bitumen to an aerial survey of tar sands terraforming. Here the book’s contribution comes into focus: the project lands somewhere beyond investigative journalism but short of extended ethnography. It takes scrupulous care in its representations of real people working at points of extraction, fenceline communities along sites of pipeline distribution, and communities at oil’s diffuse points of consumption—particularly in cities, Hern’s area of expertise, whose development and current form presuppose the availability of fossil fuels. All along, the authors avoid the temptation of what they call “enviro-porn,”or the swelling list of documentaries and exposés of environmental degradation that, oddly, do good business among green urbanists. By focusing on individual consumption, and by framing oil industry labourers as unenlightented “knuckle draggers,” this genre misrepresents the issue and misses the real scope of the problem.
Striving to move beyond critique to constructive dialogue, the authors cite Giorgio Agamben’s “sweetness of life” and Ecuadorian Minister Alberto Acosta’s “buen vivir / sumak kawsay”—aligned concepts that point the way towards a new, politicized notion of ecology. As in recent books by Andreas Malm, or by Jason Moore and Raj Patel, here climate activism is reframed as an overdue decolonization:
by definition, any questions of ecology are immediately questions of land politics and sovereignty: who gets to make what decisions for what land? […T]rying to think about what an ecological future could look like has to place the relationships between settlers and Indigenous people at its center. (12-13)
The book features long interviews with Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg) and Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene) to outline what an anticolonial ecology might look like. Meanwhile Hern and Johal offer a number of other theoretical conversation-points to this ongoing debate. These include serious looks at Alain Badiou’s recent turn to ecological thought as a potential way to solve capitalism’s terminal crisis, and at Murray Bookchin’s anarchist dialectical naturalism, which views ecology as an increasingly complex and decentralized set of human-nonhuman entanglements. Readers on the left will find plenty of material to think with and debate here. The authors’ theoretical excursions are thoughtfully presented, offering several worthwhile framings of the book’s central issue: the slow but accelerating violence of settler colonial extraction, which organizes false conflicts between workers in Alberta, Indigenous peoples from points of extraction to tidewater, and environmentalists working on these issues.
This book arrived in stores the same month that the Trudeau government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline to reassure energy companies and their investors that extraction will continue, must continue. To make that happen, a certain kind of narrative needs to be told about how extraction serves the national interest, or about whose interests are national, and whose aren’t. Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life tells stories differently: as Sacco’s drawings telescope between tiny, everyday details and whole landscapes, the writing here holds in suspension different perspectives, geographies, groups, and arguments, showing us the complexities of telling this story properly.