Winter on two wheels: an interview with Tom Babin

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Long marginalized as mentally unstable radicals, there’s a particular group in Calgary and beyond that is fighting back against stereotypes in an effort to bring more unwitting citizens into their fold. Terrorists? Scientologists? Climate-change deniers? Nah, winter cyclists.

Front and centre in this battle for the minds is Tom Babin, senior tablet producer at the Calgary Herald and author of the new book Frostbike: The Joy, Pain and Numbness of Winter Cycling.

“I think the biggest obstacle to adopting winter cycling is having a healthier relationship with winter and getting over the fear of being cold and the fear of being outside,” says Babin, chatting over a coffee.

His book is geared mostly to people who are considering taking the step of riding year-round, weather be damned, and acts as a sort of guide for how to get started. In it he talks about attitudes and infrastructure around the world, dives into some history and shares information on available gear. He also shares anecdotes of his own journey — from car-dependent, to fair-weather rider, to winter cyclist — in the hopes that others will avoid some of the same mistakes he made, or simply gain the confidence to mount up when the thermometer dips.

“For me it was, I kept wanting to read something as I was starting winter riding and it was hard, I was just figuring it out on my own and I felt there were no resources,” he says. “So I thought, ‘I went through this whole process, I need to write something to help other people out.’”

One of the main issues with winter cycling is the perception that it is difficult, dangerous and uncomfortable, and while you do have to be more cautious — just as you do in any vehicle in winter — the truth is that winter cycling isn’t such a big deal.

“I also think that’s part of the problem right now, it’s sort of holding it back from being accepted as more of a mainstream thing, this idea that you’ve got to be this super-tough masochist to want to ride in the winter,” says Babin. “A lot of that comes from people who ride in the winter themselves — we like to sort of foster that image, and I admit it feels good to be exceptional, but it’s not that exceptional. If we want it accepted widely, we have to normalize it. We have to get over this idea that we’re doing something unique.”

He uses the example of seeing “grandmas putting their groceries in their basket and riding through the snow” while he was touring around Europe as fodder for his argument. He also highlights better clothing and equipment that make it easier to ride in the cold.

Although Babin is careful to note that you can’t sugarcoat the winter riding experience, and he documents a few wipeouts in his book to drive the point home, he also thinks there’s a critical mass of riders in the city who are looking to ride year-round and who need the support — from current riders and from the city. Maintenance and clearing of pathways is important and so, too, is debating cycling infrastructure, no matter how tiresome it can be.

“It would be nice to see the city get beyond the same arguments we’ve been going over and over and over again,” he says. “It would be nice to have a wider recognition that this is a good thing, but we also have to be reasonable too. Not every street should have a bike lane, and not every idea that comes out of the city is a good one, that’s for sure, and not every idea that comes from a bike advocacy group is a good one, but at least these are conversations that we’re having now and it’s nice to see us moving in the right direction.”

At the end of the day, however, it’s Babin’s lucid descriptions of those special moments, like riding down vacant streets and paths as snow falls and silence envelopes the city, that really capture the imagination and encourage a winter ride. You can argue infrastructure and gear all you want, but one trip like that and you’re bound to be hooked.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Capitalism and catastrophe: an interview with Naomi Klein

Photo by Ed Kashi

Photo by Ed Kashi

Let’s start with a question. What seems like a bigger challenge: fixing a flawed economic system, or dealing with the catastrophic consequences of uncontrolled climate change? How about another one: would you rather hand over billions to bail out a bank, or to help ensure the our planet remains liveable?

Extreme, right? No. We’re in the position where our world is collapsing around us, our governments are doing absolutely nothing to stop it and we’re throwing away almost a trillion dollars a year in global subsidies to the companies that are ostensibly killing us. It’s absurd.

Naomi Klein, who always causes a stir with her books, argues in her latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, that the time of small fixes to avoid catastrophic climate change has long since come and gone and that we need to radically rethink the way we live and structure our societies in order to affect positive change.

Needless to say, the book is daunting, but it still manages to convey a sense of hope that it is possible to overcome the hurdles and to fix our world.

“I think that I believe it’s still possible. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s likely. I mean, I’ve been meeting people on the road who have really given up all hope, and just feel like we are in hospice and should just enjoy the scenery on the way down. I’m not at that point. I think being hopeful against these odds is a choice,” says Klein over the phone.

“I both don’t want to be in despair and I also believe that even if the chances are slim, that there is a moral responsibility to fight to better those chances.”

Her book is an elegant argument against the unbridled capitalism unleashed on the world in this era of global free trade, and its effects on the climate. As Klein describes it, our timing was terrible, with climate conferences starting work on treaties at the same time as international trade deals reshaped governance, regulations and the economy. Unsurprisingly, the trade deals rushed forward with strong monitoring and punishments for transgressors, while climate deals faltered and were ignored. Our global emissions in 2013 were 61 per cent higher than 1990, when the first climate treaty talks began.

“It’s a two-pronged issue. One is… we can’t regulate and that’s why we have failed to respond to this crisis, and then there’s the growth issue that I think cuts beyond deregulated capitalism,” say Klein, addressing the need of our current economy to constantly expand.

A longtime critic of international trade and the sort of unrestricted pillaging that comes with it, even Klein wasn’t prepared for what she found while working on this book.

“When I started the book, I did understand this clash between the sort of extreme free-market fundamentalism and what we need to do to respond to climate change, but I didn’t have my head wrapped around those numbers, those sort of terrifying numbers around how quickly we need to cut our emissions and what a challenge that represents to economic growth,” she says.

This Changes Everything isn’t just a screed against capitalism, though. Klein argues effectively for new ways forward and highlights the kind of resistance that is springing up around the world to fight extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration — particularly heavy oil and fracking operations. We meet Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree, as well as protestors in Greece and beyond, all joined by an opposition to building infrastructure that will lock us in dependence on these destructive industries for years. She calls this loose gathering of pockets of resistance Blockadia, and lauds the role of indigenous communities in driving and aiding the fight.

Klein’s solutions lie in the need to rein in the economic system, allowing for public, small-scale control of utilities to force green solutions, funding green developments in the developing world and increasing taxation on consumption and death-dealing industries. We need job training in low-income communities and countries to help lead to a new world where those left behind today can survive and grow in a new economy that respects the environment. As she puts it, we need equitable sacrifice, with industry and the wealthy taking just as much, or more, of a hit than those lower down the line.

She even outlines ways to pay for all of this, with a large chunk coming from existing oil and gas subsidies.

Needless to say, Alberta doesn’t come out looking all that good in this book, and for good reason. Not only is this province home to one of the more destructive enterprises on the planet, it’s also home to the gilded towers where decisions are made on Canada’s oil and gas industry and its planned pipelines.

So how does she feel about reading here?

“You know, the last time I went to Calgary with The Shock Doctrine, I thought it was going to be really controversial, and I found that it was one of my most receptive audiences,” says Klein. “I think progressives in Calgary are some of the most progressive people in Canada, because it just takes such fortitude to stand up to such a powerful…. You have to be such a powerful counter-culture.”

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

Out(road)rageous: $5 billion could go a long way

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We seem destined to always talk about transportation. Public transit, including the long-sought southeast LRT line and the nuances of where to put the north-central line; the mess that is Calgary’s taxi system; bike lanes; pedestrian safety improvements; two-way roads through the Beltline; and now the revelation that the southwest portion of the ring road will cost somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion.

It’s been about 50 years since the first studies were done on a ring road for Calgary, and the southwest portion has always been a contentious issue. There’s the Weaselhead natural area and the Elbow River as well as the Tsuu T’ina reserve to deal with. Negotiations with the Tsuu T’ina Nation stopped and started until a deal was finally inked last year as the rest of the ring road neared completion.

This is the kind of thing that makes all the other transportation debates seem kind of quaint.

First there is debate as to the efficacy of building ring roads. It’s been proven over and over again that building roads only invites more traffic rather than doing anything to effectively relieve congestion. It contributes to sprawl, pushing people ever further to the margins. Does Calgary need a better way for people to get from one end of the city to the other? Probably, but there’s no indication that this will serve that purpose in any meaningful way. It will benefit those trying to escape to the mountains from the south, and will provide a trucking route through the southwest, but aside from a bit of relief on some central roadways, this will just invite more traffic and more sprawl.

But let’s say for the sake of argument that we need the ring road and that it will speed up cars travelling across our sprawling city.

What we don’t need is another major thoroughfare crossing over our water supply and tainting the Weaselhead natural area. If you haven’t been lucky enough to ride your bike or walk through this natural park at the end of the reservoir, you’re missing out. Pathways and walking trails wind their way through trees and scrub along the Elbow River — it feels miles away from the city at its doorstep. What’s not missing from the idyllic scene is a highway bypass roaring over the river and the reservoir wetlands.

But it seems like it’s going to happen anyway. The debates about protecting the headwaters of our drinking supply are over, the land deals have been made, the plans largely put in place. So let’s talk about the price tag. You can get a lot for that kind of money.

The $5 billion is for the remaining 41 kilometres of the ring road, from Highway 22X near Spruce Meadows to Highway 1 near Canada Olympic Park. We’ve already built 63 kilometres for the relatively paltry sum of $1.9 billion.

As has been noted elsewhere, the $5-billion price tag just happens to be the same figure that’s tossed around for the entire north-central/southeast LRT line — from Panorama Hills all the way to the South Health Campus. Heck, you could cut the ring road cost in half and still be able to build the southeast portion of the LRT route.

The city’s Route Ahead plan calls for a $13-billion investment in transit over 30 years to keep up with Calgary’s growing population. Five billion gets us a long way there.

Of course there’s been another transportation option that has been whipping critics into a frenzy: the Centre City cycle track network, a plan calling for protected bike lanes through downtown and the Beltline. Hands have been wrung, tears have been shed and prophecies of doom have been prophesied by those how don’t even blink when major interchanges are built.

If we were to take the cost of the southwest portion of the ring road and apply it to protected bike lanes, we could build 1,786 lanes equivalent to the proposed First Street S.E. lane, or approximately 5,000 kilometres worth of cycle tracks based on the estimate of $1 million per kilometre. We’d basically blanket the entire city in protected bike lanes. Hell, we might even have enough left over to install in-pathway heating to keep the ice away.

In other words, there are far more effective ways to utilize $5 billion if what we’re really interested in is easing congestion and providing transportation options for the citizens of Calgary — improved pedestrian safety, separated and marked bike lanes, transition to two-way streets in the Beltline and investment in bus rapid transit and LRT lines, to name a few. But those options would be considered social engineering, right?

Citizens on the backburner: it’s all about the oil in Alberta

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Imagine if you could run roughshod over the laws and be comfortable in the knowledge that you’d only get in trouble about one per cent of the time, and when you did, it amounted to a miniscule fine. What would you do?

You’d probably behave like the oil companies operating within Alberta.

In a recent report by Kevin Timoney and Peter Lee, and reported on by the Canadian Press, the authors sorted through thousands of government documents which they tirelessly compiled through Access to Information requests. What they compiled was a list of 9,262 environmental infractions — about 4,000 of which broke a facility’s licensing conditions — in the oilsands region since 1996. The government reaction to those 4,000 punishable incidents? They took enforcement action against 37.

According to the Canadian Press, the median fine was $4,500. For an oil company.

We’re not just talking about an employeee spilling a bit of solvent on the ground either. These incidents include leaks into the Athabasca river, the same body of water the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers insists is only contaminated by natural occurrences of bitumen. Nothing to see here folks, carry on.

The majority of the violations concerned air quality, seven per cent concerned water. One in five was due to a failure to file mandatory reports for regulation and data collection.

That last point leads to the fact that the researchers were confronted with sloppy, incomplete data from government records. The government, which insists it is watching and protecting us, doesn’t have a damn clue what’s actually happening in our biggest and most destructive industry. How do you enforce something if you don’t know what’s happening?

It’s just the latest and most blatant example of a government that doesn’t care as long as it gets a cheque, and an industry that’s all-too-willing to twist and bend and break the rules in order to pursue ever-increasing profits. It’s not hard to imagine boardrooms full of laughter at what companies can get away with in this province, and the minimal costs they must pay to do so.

Another recent incident points to the lack of knowledge, lack of care and lack of permitted citizen oversite in oilsands operations. In this case, the underground leaking from Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. operations on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.

The leaks, which are confounding regulators as well as the company, are caused by underground steam injection which melts bitumen and allows it to travel to the surface through pipes. It has been touted as a greener alternative to open-pit oilsands mines, but it also involves more water and energy.

The current leak, which was reported on June 24, is the fourth such leak attributed to CNRL to occur in the area. This is the first to affect a body of water, however. According to an article in the Globe and Mail , Alberta’s Energy Regulator — the attempt to rebrand the old regulator, the Energy Resources Conservation Board — says the bitumen is flowing into a slough, seeping up from underground, not leaking from pipes. Nobody is quite sure how it’s happening, or how to stop it.

It took 25 days for the regulator to tell the company to stop steaming in the area. It also took the regulator almost a month to inform the public that it had forced the company to stop steaming in another nearby lease due to three similar spills in the spring. Conveniently, the company told theCalgary Herald that it was finished with steaming in the area for the year. Thanks heavens they didn’t lose any income.

It’s not hard to see how it all comes together. It’s the classic dilemma of a government that is beholden to one industry. Sure there’s lip service paid to economic diversification from time to time, but we all know what drives this economy and what dictates government (in)action. The evidence continues to mount of a government that doesn’t care about the environment, or getting a decent payout for citizens from the companies that rent our land.

Transparency is an empty catchphrase, accountability is non-existent and the profits, at least for the companies, continue to mount. All while the government invests our money in PR spin for the industry.

How does it feel to be a second-class citizen?

Bow River, kind of a jerk

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Hey, thanks for taking the time to do this, I know you’ve been busy.

Yeah sure, no problem. I love your paper.

Er, thanks. So, why are you such an asshole?

Begging your pardon?

You heard me, you’ve been a bit of a prick lately.

Hey man, c’mon, I’m just going with the flow. You can’t really blame me.

I beg to differ. It seems like you’re kind of responsible for this entire mess.

Um, there’s also the Elbow.

Okay, fair point.

And I could probably point the finger at you skin bags too.

How so?

Global warming ring a bell?

Hey, we’re not allowed to talk about that. I think there was an emergency bylaw passed.

Oh for the love.

Back on topic. You’ve been a pretty good neighbour for a while, but this really is a bit much.

Well, what can I say. I’m a river. I flow. I flood. I guess I just got carried away.

Is this going to be a regular thing?

It’s probably going to happen more often, but I don’t have a calendar if that’s what you mean.

You forced the cancellation of Sled Island. I’m not sure if you noticed, but that pretty much made our entire issue useless.

Hehe. Yeah. Sorry about that.

Well, the joke’s kind of on you. There were tons of house shows and impromptu shows at bars.

Hey, I’m a music lover too. I can appreciate it.

You also destroyed quite a few homes and businesses. Did you know there’s no insurance against you?

I know! Talk about assholes. Acts of God? Come on.

Are you concerned that the provincial government will put infrastructure in place to pen you in?

Pfft! The government. They still haven’t implemented their flood plan from 2006. I’m not too worried about them getting anything done any time soon.

What about the feds? Harper was just here in his military jacket.

I saw that. I’m sure they’ll throw up some Economic Action Plan signs, but I’m not too concerned.

On a more positive note, people have really come together over this thing.

You’re welcome.

Um, that really wasn’t my point.

Well, I did bring people together. Neighbours helping neighbours, businesses giving away food and relief. It’s been pretty inspiring.

Yeah, but it’s your fault!

I know, you’re welcome.

Oh forget it.

Done.

You really are a prick.

Gotta run.

Big ideas we’d like to see

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When compiling this list, we asked ourselves: what kind of city, province and country do we want? What ideas would help get us there? This list is by no means comprehensive, but intended to start a discussion about where we’re going and where we should go. Have you got your own big ideas? Let us hear them in the comments section.

HIGH SPEED RAIL

Creating a high-speed rail link between Calgary and Edmonton has been on people’s minds since the ’70s, and yet there are no trains. Hell, there aren’t even slow trains. If the line was built using maglev technology, with a maximum speed of 300 kilometres per hour, the trip between Calgary and the capital would be reduced by over a third.

Reports suggest that the line could have huge economic benefits for the province, but the cost of constructing the line, the worries over the economic viability of the operation and the tricky question of buying the necessary land for the right-of-way, have all gotten in the way of the project moving forward. Estimates for the costs range from $5 billion to $24 billion (the aforementioned maglev being the most expensive option).

Obviously there are some serious questions here, but we’d still like to think that the long-dreamt-of line will one day become a reality, providing better transportation in what’s known as the Golden Corridor. Hopefully sooner rather than later.

LEGALIZE DRUGS

Seriously, just legalize the damn things already. Need some more taxable income? Legalize it. Want to combat crime and starve criminal organizations of vast sums of money? Legalize it. Courts tied up and police overworked? Legalize it. Want to help addicts rather than punish them? Legalize it. Interested in new job creation? Legalize it. The list goes on and on.

This one is just so damn obvious. Everyone knows that the war on drugs is a failure, it costs millions of dollars a year, it ties up our criminal justice system and it disproportionately targets disadvantaged Canadians, including First Nations. Politicians the world over never have the guts to say we should legalize, or at least decriminalize, drugs when they’re in office, but there’s a large number of them that say so as soon as they retire. We’re saying the government should legalize all drugs, but legalizing marijuana would be a good start. It’s not as though it’s a dangerous substance like, say, booze.

So what’s the federal government doing? Implementing mandatory minimum sentencing and laying the groundwork for a rise in incarceration and the associated societal degradation that follows. That’s just irresponsible.

FREE TRANSIT

Sounds radical, doesn’t it? At a time when the whole world is concerned about emissions and global warming, we should consider alternatives to the car in a more concerted way. Getting more people riding transit is a good start and what better way to create that incentive than to take away a major disincentive? Of course, nothing’s free. The costs for operating transit would have to come from somewhere, most likely property taxes or a hike in the gas tax.

Some mid-size cities have implemented free transit, mostly in Europe, to some success. Implementing it in a larger city would be difficult, but not impossible. If you want to tackle traffic issues, parking issues and pollution issues, and give a leg up to those who can’t afford cars or transit passes, this is a no-brainer.

CITY-WIDE WIFI

Sadly, it’s extremely difficult to operate in today’s economy without constant connection. So, should the city provide a service to its digital-age citizens? Yes. Fairly cheap to establish and maintain, with huge net benefits, a city-wide WiFi service, paid for like any other utility, would be a great equalizer and make Calgarians some of the most connected citizens on the globe. It’s a quality-of-life booster and a business efficiency measure all wrapped up into one.

Some cities in the states have city-wide (or close to city-wide) coverage, including Philadelphia and Minneapolis. In Canada, Fredericton has a city-wide system in place. Vancouver has been wrestling with the idea for years, but hasn’t yet implemented a plan. Calgary’s young population and penchant for all things digital makes us an ideal candidate for blanket coverage. Now, who to award the contract to…?

CULTURAL ZONING

Take a cruise through the city and try to count the number of vacant or under-utilized buildings within its limits. It might surprise you. Now consider that the most common problem facing artists and arts and culture organizations is a lack of space.

The city should relax zoning regulations for cultural events, groups and individuals within the city, making it easier for them to utilize these buildings and help grow our cultural scene with little or no investment. The now-defunct artist studios in the East Village fish market were a great example of temporary cultural space in an otherwise abandoned building, but we need to go beyond that. The city should make it easy for productions, musicians, art markets and cultural performances to be staged in unlikely places. The organizations will have more space, the costs will be lowered and citizens will have more opportunities to take in our local scene in surprising places.

TAKE MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY

Our mental health system is a nightmare. It’s hard enough for people without mental illness to navigate its murky waters in order to help others find the help they need. Those without support are, well, screwed. There is a shortage of space in the limited psychiatric wards, there’s little followup and too often the solution is to medicate and then ignore.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians will experience mental illness at some point in their lives. This is a huge number and exemplifies why we need more, and better, help. It also goes to show that the stigma attached to mental illness is problematic. We need frank and open conversations about mental health and we need the facilities, the practitioners and the access required to help those in mental distress.

TAKE AFFORDABLE HOUSING SERIOUSLY

This ties into the last idea, at least on one level. Many people who suffer from mental illness also struggle to maintain housing and employment. But that group isn’t the only one that needs help in this regard. The city has a policy on affordable housing, offering incentives to developers with a promise that our overheated rental and home ownership market will be able to accommodate those without the means to buy in. These incentives and the partnerships between the city and developers is not creating enough affordable housing. Providing a cheaper alternative should become a prerequisite of any large development deal.

Creating affordable housing should not be a cattle-penning exercise, putting up towers and herding poor people in. Housing works best when there is a mix of incomes and lifestyles, and the only way that’s going to happen is if the provincial, federal and municipal governments step up their game. The creation of the Affordable Housing Task Force by the province in 2007 was a good first step and its recommendations resulted in the creation of 3,615 units in Calgary as of September 2011. But that’s not enough. The cost of living in Calgary is rapidly outstripping the ability of anyone who doesn’t work in the oil and gas towers downtown to rent or own without breaking the bank. If we’re not going to consider rent controls, we need to get better at creating more affordable spaces.

MAKE DEVELOPERS PAY

Mayor Naheed Nenshi tried to make this happen, and managed to get a partial deal, off-loading some of the costs for constructing new infrastructure in far-flung suburbs to the developers who reap the financial rewards. In 2010, that subsidy has resulted in $1.5 billion of debt, half of the city’s total. Although it’s great that council passed the motion requiring developers to pay half the cost of extending that pricey infrastructure to the edges of the city, we think that the balance is still off. Taxpayers should not be subsidizing sprawl and we should not be building housing on the periphery that is artificially cheaper. And no, there is no contradiction with our call for more affordable housing. That need is required, with or without more expensive suburban homes.

CONTEMPORARY ART MUSEUM

Let’s not mince words. It’s absurd that Calgary, a city of over one million people, doesn’t have a collecting contemporary art museum. There have been efforts over the years to establish one, but the plan always seems to fall apart. The latest effort is by the Museum of Contemporary Art Calgary (formerly the Triangle), which signed a memorandum of understanding with the former standard bearer, the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Art. This is an effort that Calgarians and all three levels of government have to get behind.

World-class exhibitions are bypassing Calgary on a regular basis, and despite some excellent programming at places like the Glenbow (no, seriously), we are being starved of more impressive, innovative and historically significant work. A strong architectural presence in the inner-city showcasing big exhibitions and internationally recognized work is a much-needed notch in our cultural belt.

PROTECT WATERSHEDS

The provincial government recently released its land use plan for the Lower Athabasca Region. It is the first land use plan that is focused on the major watershed areas of Alberta. Although there is some good news in the plan, including setting aside an additional 16 per cent of the land base for conservation, it doesn’t go far enough. The government should create a binding document that is fierce in its protection of our water.

The next regional plan, which is open to public input until December 6, focuses on the South Saskatchewan region, which encompasses Calgary. With logging activity just west of the city in our own watershed, and with population pressures increasing, it’s imperative that the government comes up with strict and enforceable regulations around our water — in terms of use, habitat protection and, if need be, moratoriums on industrial activity in sensitive areas.

This post originally appeared in Fast Forward Weekly.

You are a slave owner: Andrew Nikiforuk on energy consumption

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As the oilsands continue to expand — clearing forest, digging earth and pooling effluent — there’s more than just nature that is being shunted aside. According to journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, we’re also burying debates about what it all means in the process. And so, in his new book, The Energy of Slaves , he revives some old ideas that remain fresh and takes them to an exhaustively researched new starting point.

“If there’s any place in Canada where we should be having wide-open debates about energy — its character, its nature and its development — it should be here,” he says over coffee in Calgary. “And what happens when anybody raises even a question about the pace and scale of development in the tarsands? ‘Oh well you’re fucking Greenpeace, or you’re this or you’re that.’”

Peppering his conversation with expletives, it would be easy to paint Nikiforuk as an angry ideologue, but that’s simply not the case, in person or in print. His latest book takes us from the use of slaves in building society to the present-day use of energy slaves, slurping up oil and gas in order to give us a level of societal opulence never before seen. The arc is presented matter-of-factly and helps to illustrate the gooey bind we find ourselves in.

“We’re locked into high energy living, which is really high carbon spending too,” he says. “We have all these freakin’ slaves, we’ve become fat and lazy and extremely comfortable, and like the slave holders of old, we don’t even want to have a discussion about this.”

Nikiforuk blames this silence on the fact that Big Oil dominates the conversation, but he also acknowledges that the comforts afforded by oil and its mechanical slaves are a balm for people not wanting to address the inevitability of change. He calls the oil age “a hell of a joyride.”

From a historical arc, Nikiforuk takes us on a journey through our increasingly complex world, from the politics of the petro state (Alberta is textbook in this definition, save for the military spending), to the absurdities of economics, to Japan’s energy crisis and what it means for the rest of the industrialized world.

These are not new ideas, at least not all of them. There are astute observations about the dangers of mechanical slaves and the new capitalism that date back to the 19th century, but Nikiforuk has skilfully weaved these old ideas into the contemporary sphere in an attempt to create a concise metaphor for a larger discussion about where we need to go.

His logic is sharpest when he focuses on the rate of energy returns and the changes that have occurred in efficiency since the early days of oil. Our rates of return are diminishing and the high returns that led to our complex world of luxuries are gone.

“We can argue and rail against the tarsands in terms of carbon emission and pollution, but the thing that’s going to get us there are how poor those damn returns are,” he says.

“Big Oil can make a lot of money off that, but civilization can’t run on this shit for long. It is not providing the surplus. We haven’t had that conversation at all.”

Those waiting for the big sales pitch on renewables from Nikiforuk will have to hold their breath a while longer. Although he thinks that we need to invest heavily in cleaner forms of energy, he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He says that if we do renewables the same way we’ve done oil and gas, “we’re going to be really fucked.”

“They thought the transition would be glistening windmills and solar panels in their front yard, when in fact the transition begins with an economic dislocation and disruption,” he says. “The same way the industrial revolution began.

“Unfortunately I think going down the energy ladder might be a lot harder than it was climbing up the energy ladder.”

So, the book and the author aren’t the most optimistic, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Yes there will be shocks, but there is only one conclusion to be drawn, according to Nikiforuk: we have to use less energy and give up some of our slaves.

“That doesn’t mean that everything will be bad,” he says. “I mean, I think relocalizing food production, I think that’s a good thing; getting more people involved in agriculture and farming, that’s a good thing; reducing the complexity of having to deal with so many mechanical, digital, electrical slaves in your life, I think most people are going to welcome that and, in many ways, are looking for that, because they can no longer cope with the complexity of machines in their lives.”