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What’s fuelling our future? An upcoming U of A panel addresses our attitude adjusments to oil

Imre Szeman // Supplied
Imre Szeman // Supplied

A lot of lip service has been given to diversifying Alberta’s economy away from its heavy skew towards fossil fuels. But the greater issue at stake is modern society’s dependancy on fossil-fuel energy, which will require a radical shift—and not just in Alberta or Canada—towards alternative energy sources.

The University of Alberta and Universities Canada are hosting a panel discussion—What’s Fuelling Our Future? on April 18—to address the personal attitude adjustments we’ll all have to make to achieve this goal. Vue spoke with Imre Szeman, one of the panelists, research chair in Cultural Studies and co-director of the Petrocultures Research Group at the U of A, for some insight into the discussion.

Vue Weekly: So, how about the big question: what attitude adjustments do North Americans need to make about fossil fuels?

Imre Szeman: Just as a smoker can’t imagine living without nicotine, we often think of fossil fuels as something that society can’t do without. The first thing to do is to get over our fear of change. We want to change, but we’d rather stick with the fossil-fuel society we already know—mainly because we know it!

VW: What are the alternatives to fossil fuels that would be most suitable to North America?

IS: Every form of alternative energy can find a home in North America: wind, solar, nuclear and new forms of hydroelectric energy. We need to be ready to use a range of alternative forms as part of our transition from oil and coal.

VW: North America, and especially Alberta, will have to make a radical shift in its economic structure before it’s no longer dependent on fossil fuels. Do you think we’re likely to take a proactive approach to this transition, or will it be reactive?

IS: My fear is that it will be reactive—and that the reactions will be belated. There are signs, however, that Alberta is taking a more proactive approach. Energy Futures Lab—an Albertan think-tank involving government, industry and academia—is developing ways for Alberta to transition to a new energy future. I expect we’ll be hearing a great deal from this lab in coming years.

VW: What are the steps to this transition? What can we expect in Canada over the next few years?

IS: We can expect to use an ever-greater mix of renewable energies in addition to fossil fuels. Hopefully, we will also start to have an ever-greater public discussion about the place of energy in our lives, so that we might be able to take on the real difficult work of transition: reshaping our physical infrastructures and our everyday social and cultural practices. We won’t get to where we need to be if we use electric cars to commute to work on highways—our transportation and labour structures will have to change, too.

VW: What are the biggest barriers preventing this transition?

IS: Modern society developed in conjunction with the use of fossil fuels, and so all of our established practices and habits reinforce the status-quo use of energy. To me this constitutes a bigger barrier than, say, the economic power of fossil-fuel companies and their influence on government policy.

Another barrier comes from inequalities in energy use around the world. The average North American uses 100 times the energy of a citizen of Haiti. Much of the world wants to have the conveniences and capacities of a developed, modernized society, and much of this will come from an increase in energy use—right now, primarily fossil fuels.

VW: What are some of the drawbacks of alternative energy sources?

IS: Dependability, difficulties with storage and challenges (in the case of nuclear energy) with processing waste are problems. But consider the drawbacks of fossil-fuel use: flooded cities, unbreathable air and species loss. We can manage the challenges of alternative energy.

VW: Is ther anything else you want to add?

IS: Scientific and technological innovations won’t provide the miracle solution to energy transition. Technology will help move us away from our petroculture, but only in conjunction with other social and cultural shifts—everyday changes of habit and outlook that can be harder to name and describe, and which we’ve only taken the first steps in identifying.

Energy transition is a major, planet-wide social transformation, and one without precedent. It’s not just an opportunity to get our use of energy right, but to get the societies we live in right, too.

Mon, Apr 18 (9:30 am – 12:30 pm)
TELUS Centre (111 St & 87 Ave)
To register: uab.ca/mindshare

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