Sense and Sensibility: A Tourism Experience of Materials and Things in the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada

Authors: Deborah Jackson*, Earlham College
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Canada, Tourism Geography
Keywords: extreme extraction, tar sands, Canada, resource materialities, embodiment, Bakhtin
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/7/2019
Start / End Time: 2:00 PM / 3:40 PM
Room: Balcony B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


The oil extraction operations in the “tar sands” of Alberta, Canada, are hardly a matter of everyday experience. Called “the largest and most destructive project on earth” by Greenpeace, in an area the size of England vast expanses of boreal forest are being scraped away to obtain the highly viscous bitumen beneath that yields crude oil. These extraordinary processes in a remote location are, however, made accessible to ordinary people by way of bus tours sponsored by Suncor, one of the major oilsands corporations. While conducting research during the summer of 2015 on environmental justice issues in the region, I participated in the tour; this paper analyzes that experience. Drawing on linguistics, embodiment studies, and resource materialities theory, I consider the tour as a political project, intended to disassemble the tar sands region as a site of environmental destruction and reassemble it as one of energy production. Toward this goal, tourists’ sensory responses are controlled within the bus and through the choice of locations at which to stop, while their sensibilities – i.e., affective responses – are manipulated through the tour narrative. In addition, although the emphasis of the tour is on materials and things, there are references to people – mostly the larger-than-life scientists whose discoveries and inventions have made these operations possible. At the same time, the workers who labor under hazardous conditions, and the indigenous communities who confront the resulting toxic pollution, are - but for an occasional mention during the tour - rendered invisible and silent.

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