Review of Sandwell, ed., Powering Up Canada

Two men mining coal, Tofield, Alberta. John Woodruff. Canada. Department of Mines and Resources. Library and Archives Canada, PA-021617.

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R.W. Sandwell, ed., Powering Up Canada: The History of Power, Fuel, and Energy from 1600. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2016. 496 pgs., ISBN 9780773547865

Reviewed by Caleb Wellum.

“The modern world is forged amidst our inattention,” writes Richard White in his seminal energy history The Organic Machine.[1] Although it is fundamental to human life, over the course of the twentieth century energy has been rendered neatly abstract – extracted in remote locales, moved surreptitiously through complex networks, and delivered largely to cities for easy consumption.[2] This is why many North Americans can spend far less time pondering and procuring energy than they used to while consuming unprecedented amounts of it. Over the past decade or so, however, a confluence of forces, driven by the spectre of climate change, has forced a reckoning – for the first time since the 1970s – with the energies that we devour and depend upon for our modernity. Energy has our attention. The essays collected in Powering Up Canada express this renewed interest on the part of historians. As a whole, this remarkable collection does important work to lay a foundation for understanding Canada’s unique path to “near-total” fossil fuel reliance, as well as the broader, multifaceted role of energy in Canada’s environmental, economic, social, and political history (20).

The book consists of an introduction, conclusion, two main sections – “The Organic Regime” and “The Mineral Regime” – and a helpful primer on energy terminology. Its aim is to redress the “near invisibility of most aspects of energy” in Canadian historiography by laying out the specific ways in which Canadians have historically produced and used energy and by exploring their transition from low to high energy use (5). Sandwell’s introduction establishes the distinction between the “organic” and “mineral” energy regimes that frames the book, which is adapted from the British historical demographer E.A. Wrigley’s energic account of Britain’s industrial revolution. An organic energy regime names a relatively decentralized economy of renewable energy flows rooted in the sun, and limited by geography, season, and the capacities of the land. It includes muscle power, food, biomass, and the kinetic energy of wind and water. A mineral energy regime, in contrast, names an economy of “uniquely focused forms of energy” that exist in stocks and are therefore amenable to centralization, transportation, and control. They include fossil fuels, electricity, and nuclear power. Perhaps owing to this framing, concern with the timing and nature of the organic to mineral transition runs through most of the essays in the book, which either explore how long Canadians used organic energy forms, or when and why they transitioned to mineral forms.

The essays on the organic regime cover an inclusive variety of energy forms, including food, animal power in the city and countryside, wood, various forms of wind, and pre-hydroelectric water power. The predominant theme running through most of them is the persistence of the organic energy regime, suggesting an uneven and complex transition to carbon modernity that depended on regional variations of economy, environment, and politics. Indeed, one of the more remarkable insights here is that this transition intensified the use of organic energies for a significant period of time. Jack Little’s essay on ox and horse power in rural Canada links nineteenth-century gains in agricultural productivity to more efficient use of animal power, and reminds us that those same animals laid the foundations for the mineral energy regime: railway construction depended on horses to move earth, deliver materials, and haul timber. Joanna Dean and Lucas Wilson argue that urban horses supported industrial expansion by moving increasing numbers of people and goods in growing industrial cities, even powering early forms of mass transit. Eric W. Sager notes the importance and longevity of wind-powered transportation in Canada’s economic development and argues that its eventual decline was “a product of culture and the social relations in which economic change is embedded” – a point meant to persuade readers that energy transitions are acts of collective political will rather than unstoppable market forces. Joshua MacFadyen’s careful study of wood energy shows that many Canadians continued to rely on firewood long after the introduction of coal, thanks to a cold climate and the close proximity of low cost wood supplies to many rural people. The story of wood, MacFadyen concludes, “is less about old energies dying out and more about new energy supplies being born” to meet the new demands of the urban, industrial twentieth century (155).

Although MacFadyen and others find hope in the resilience of organic energy forms, Powering Up Canada avoids romanticizing the organic energy regime. George Colpitts’ essay on food energy and the fur trade argues that the shift to calorie-dense pemmican drove settler relations with First Nations communities, as well as “unsustainable fur production, and… rapid commercial expansion” (39-40). Dean and Wilson dispel romantic notions of horse-drawn travel by showing that thousands of horses walking industrial city streets could be as dangerous to public health as automobiles. “The great advantage of steam, electricity, and gasoline,” they note, was that they “took the horse out of horsepower” (122). And Jenny Clayton and Philip Van Huizen highlight how the process of harnessing rivers for water power in the pre-hydro era changed ecosystems in ways that threatened wildlife habitats and human health.

A horse-drawn Royalite tank wagon at an unidentified British Columbia Imperial Oil facility, c.1922. City of Vancouver Archives, Major J.S. Matthews collection, AM54-S4-: Trans P5.1.

The book’s second section examines Canada’s transition to a mineral energy regime through essays concerned with the construction of the expansive systems of energy production and consumption that drive modernity’s voracious energy use. The mineral energy regime did not emerge “naturally,” but rather had to be built – an uneven and contested process in different parts of the country. Andrew Watson’s essay attends to the significant regional and geographic variations in the production and consumption of coal, which he calls the “most important” source of energy in Canada from 1870-1950, with significant social and environmental consequences (237). Coal depended on railways for its distribution and a large proportion of its consumption as well. Matthew Evenden and Jonathan Peyton examine Canada’s shift from small-scale systems of hydro electricity generation “to the era of large dams and continental grids,” stressing regional variations and, like Sager, the importance of social and political choices, including the ways in which hydro demand had to be generated by the power companies themselves to make their systems feasible. Likewise, in the collection’s most lively entry, Steve Penfold explains how the relentless upward surge of consumption that marks the history of petroleum liquids – oil, gasoline, diesel, and petrochemicals – depended on government support, most importantly in the construction of roadways that “literally and figuratively smoothed the way for increases in petroleum use” (289). Colin Duncan and Ruth Sandwell’s account of manufactured and natural gas also exemplifies these themes: consumers had to be taught to demand natural gas, a fuel whose profitable exploitation also required postwar US demand and the construction of a vast pipeline delivery system. The fuels comprising the mineral regime may offer more concentrated and (for urban consumers, at least) convenient forms of energy, but they rely on elaborate infrastructures for their feasibility.

Perhaps owing to their scale and centralized nature, many mineral regime energies sparked political resistance in the twentieth century. Dams and transition lines altered environments and inspired First Nations’ and environmentalist resistance; oil produced damaging greenhouse gas emissions, sprawling development, and ugly spills that galvanized organized environmental movements; and local communities have long protested the disposal of waste products from the gas industry. Laurel Sefton MacDowell’s essay on nuclear power spends the most time on this theme, emphasizing uranium mining and waste disposal in Canada as a source of environmental degradation and significant political resistance that has thrown its future into question, even as nuclear enjoys new support from some environmentalists concerned with climate change.

Powering Up Canada is a significant collection of careful, detailed, and richly illustrated essays that will inform the discussion of energy history in Canada for years to come. Although it is impossible to cover every aspect of energy history in a single collection, the data on energy production and consumption here will be valuable for researchers going forward, and the arguments will provide clarifying points of entry and debate for future scholars concerned to understand how deeply energy has shaped the Canadian past. This work was sorely needed. Future editions would benefit from a separate chapter on alternative energy in Canada, which would further illuminate the historical dynamics of energy transitions and be useful in present policy debates. Moreover, as the emerging field of “Energy Humanities” has demonstrated, energy has deep links to culture and capitalism, both of which tend to be tertiary in these essays, though Sager’s coverage of local knowledge is richly suggestive. Nevertheless, Powering Up Canada will be invaluable to established scholars and graduate students doing work that intersects with issues of energy, and would also be useful in undergraduate courses in environmental history, energy history, and geography, among others. It demonstrates beyond a doubt that the history of energy demands our attention if we are to understand Canadian modernity and imagine a future beyond it.

[1] Richard White, The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), 64.

[2] See: Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (New York: Verso, 2011) and Imre Szeman, “Pipelines and Territories: On Energy and Environmental Futures in Canada,” in On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy (Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press, forthcoming).

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Caleb Wellum

Caleb Wellum is an Assistant Professor (limited term) in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. In addition to teaching courses in modern history, Wellum is the Editor of Energy Humanities and a co-convener of After Oil 3. He is currently at work on several new projects, among them an environmental history of the New Economy and a study of energy in the philosophy of history.

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