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Literary Criticism Canadian

Unsustainable Oil

Facts, Counterfacts and Fictions

by (author) Jon Gordon

The University of Alberta Press
Initial publish date
Dec 2015
Canadian, Nature
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Dec 2015
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Apr 2016
    List Price

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"Sustainable development is, for government and industry at least, primarily a way of turning trees into lumber, tar into oil, and critique into consent; a way to defend the status quo of growth at any cost." —from the Introduction

In Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts and Fictions, Jon Gordon makes the case for re-evaluating the theoretical, political, and environmental issues around petroleum extraction. Doing so, he argues, will reinvigorate our understanding of the culture and the ethics of energy production in Canada.

Rather than looking for better facts or better interpretations of the facts, Gordon challenges us to embrace the future after oil. Reading fiction can help us understand the cultural-ecological crisis that we inhabit. In Unsustainable Oil, using the lens of Alberta’s bituminous sands, he asks us to consider literature’s potential to open space for creative alternatives.

About the author

Jon Gordon (1979-2016) taught Writing Studies at the University of Alberta and at Athabasca University. He was the winner of the William Hardy Alexander Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2012). He also taught at the University of Western Ontario, Maskwacis Cultural College, and at The King’s University.

Jon Gordon's profile page

Editorial Reviews

"At the heart of Gordon’s analysis is the argument that literature performs a ‘downward counterfactual function’—that is to say, that it exposes the grim realities of bitumen extraction—but that in doing so, it also reaffirms the possibilities for other types of futures…. Environmental work is difficult work. It is difficult because of the ways it often conflicts with and runs up against corporate and/or academic interests, and difficult because it must engage with a crisis whose effects are both currently unfolding and as of yet unforetold. Both Unsustainable Oil: Facts, Counterfacts, and Fictions and Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments take on this challenging work, and in doing so, demonstrate that a rich critical and creative network of humanities-based artists and critics is integral to both eco-critical conversation and ecological action.” Lucia Lorenzi, Canadian Literature, March 2017

Canadian Literature

Gordon’s agenda is to short-circuit the extremely polarized debate between team oil and team environment by bringing into play not facts and counterfacts alone but the power of narrative, storytelling, theatre, theory, even poetry.... The book is theoretically astute, Gordon’s writing throughout is crystal clear and elegant, and his analysis of texts insightful: this book is an exhilarating and beautiful read. The Goose 2017: Vol. 16 : Iss. 1, Article 4. [Full review at:]

The Goose

"In 1959 Alberta approved a berserk scheme to set off an atomic blast at Fort McMurray, liquefying the oil sands and freeing a trillion barrels of riches. Engineers with U.S.-based Richfield Oil Corp. rated it a 50-50 chance of economic success. Then-Prime Minister John Diefenbaker killed the idea. 'Certainly not,' he said.... Gordon is a talented writer. Unsustainable Oil profiles the Alberta sands as a phenomenon both cursed and celebrated in art and commerce and media.... Unsustainable Oil is pungent and funny and eloquent. It profiles oil sands as a cultural happening that’s driven Canadians to polar opposites. It works." 

Blacklock's Reporter

"[Gordon] proposes that we turn to works of literature (plays, poetry, short stories) as a means of re-imagining the narratives that we tell ourselves about our embeddedness in petroculture.... [He demonstrates] that literature performs not only a necessary diagnostic function (namely, to articulate the environmental and social costs of our dependence on bitumen), but also a vital prognostic function, through which we can begin to restore our understanding of the intimate relations between humans and their environment, and our hope for a post-bitumen future". Canadian Literature, Spring/Summer 2016. [Full review at]

Canadian Literature

"Unsustainable Oil deserves to be read alongside other excoriations of Alberta's great speculative game, such as Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent (2008) by Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, and studies in the emergent field of petrocriticism, such as Stephanie LeMenager's Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (2014). Oil, with its climate consequences, is a defining environmental concern of our age: it has found an impassioned critic in Jon Gordon." , Western American Literature 52.2, 2017

Western American Literature

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