Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : April 26th 2017 Contents A26 life
guardian.co.tt Wednesday, April 26, 2017
REVIEW BY RAYMOND RAMCHARITAR
Like everywhere else, Trinidad & Tobago has
its issues. Beside the impressive, if dubious,
Trinidadian official information about literacy,
tertiary education, the number of tall buildings
constructed and so on, ideative conflicts and
activism about women's and children's rights,
public corruption, and social justice abound.
Such conflicts define a nation as a political and
social entity, and provide the basis for a national con-
science. And here enters US anthropologist David
McDermott Hodges: he is interested in Trinidad's lack
of conscience in, or even consciousness of, what he
believes to be the key issue of our time: climate change.
His book, Energy Without Conscience: Oil, Climate
Change and Complicity describes his search for an
answer as to why and how this came about.
Prima facie, it is an issue about which T&T seems
largely unmoved, which is doubtless related to hy-
drocarbons being the mainstay of the economy.
Hodges writes: "Trinidad's hydrocarbons appear to
have solved many problems without creating sub-
stantial new ones." Unlike Nigeria, where he has done
work on the oil industry, there is no artistic or social
consciousness of the phenomenon of living off the
substance that's choking the planet.
This mystifies and infuriates him, and the result-
ing book is an interesting, polemical look at T&T's
historical, economic and moral, constitution, as a
single, interdependent formation.
To make his case, Hodges identifies energy (fuel)
as a means and measurable unit of development. It
began in the era of Spanish colonialism, with Span-
ish Governor Chacón whose unit of energy was the
slave. There was an early counter to this from a
Jesuit, Joseph Gumilla,
who believed tropical
sunlight was a form of
energy, which could be
harnessed to grow co-
coa tended by European
colonists. Naturally, this
wasn't taken seriously
by the Spanish crown.
But this counterpoint
is an important part of
From these origins,
Hodges writes, "En-
ergy without con-
the rise of capitalism."
new source of energy
was introduced, by German immigrant Conrad Stoll-
meyer, who first began to exploit the Pitch Lake in the
early 1860s, and refine the pitch to create kerosene.
(The first, or one of the first, continually producing
oil wells in the world was drilled in Trinidad in 1866.)
Thus began the hydrocarbon energy economy,
which would develop in parallel with the labour en-
ergy economy of indenture, and surpass it post-in-
There was, again, the counterpoint to the origin
of the petro-economy in the "experimental" colony,
which had been founded by abolitionist-turned-cap-
italist Stollmeyer, John Etzler, and the British Tropical
Emigration Society, in the mid-1840s, before Stoll-
meyer's Pitch Lake venture. This colony was to have
created machines to perform labour using sun and
wind energy. It failed. (Robert Antoni's 2013 novel,
As Flies to Whatless Boys, tells the story.)
From establishing this dynamic using what have, till
now, been largely unexplored elements in the national
historical narrative, Hodges proceeds into the present.
He lived here in 2010, attended energy conferences
at the Hyatt, looked at the local and international oil
industry, and talked to local energy mavens---notably
Krishna Persad, the leading geologist in the country
---and environmental activists and regular people.
His Chapter 3, The Myth of Inevitability, is educa-
tional and revealing as it outlines the strategies of the
global and local oil industry to create and
maintain perceptions of petro-benignity
and sustainability. His encounters with local
environmentalists are hugely entertaining,
as he points out their blind spots: being
against a smelter or highway is self-interest.
What about being against carbon emissions
and thus the oil industry? Not much interest
ensues from the activists, he reports.
Hodges tries to derive the logic of this
posture ---why carbon emissions seem not
to matter the way, say, tobacco does---and
he gets some interesting answers. The best
answer comes from former prime minister,
Patrick Manning. To look at T&T's per-cap-
ita consumption and emissions (Manning
said) is irrelevant given our size in the highly
interconnected global energy schema.
It's a good answer, as is its corollary, giv-
en by geologist Krishna Persad, that we are
too small to effect even local energy praxis
which is internationally driven. But neither
satisfies Hodges, who continues relentlessly
on his quest to find like-minded environ-
mentalists to acknowledge the self-evident
verity of his proposition.
He eventually finds a suitable environ-
mentalist in Eden Shand, the former NAR
minister. But his inquiry doesn't end there.
Hodges also examines (Chapter 5)
T&T's double-think about fossil
fuels being institutionalised via the
strategy of positioning itself inter-
nationally as a vulnerable island
state, while profiting from being a
petro-state. This strategy came from
another former NAR minister, the late
Lincoln Myers, a key figures in the for-
mation of the Alliance of Small Island
States (AOSIS) circa 1990.
The arguments are sharp and ag-
gressive. A lot is left out, even viable
and widely-discussed counters to his
own propositions--- like the ubiquitous,
timeless Trini idea of "diversifying the
economy" to reduce oil dependency. But
no single study can capture a whole reality,
and the author admits at the start and end
it isn't a detached study: "I have employed
the condescending, judgmental tone of one
who sees the future." Lucky for him, this is
a tone Trinidadians love.
Other problems were also evident, which
were apparently not evident to Hodges. It's
obvious that he was "captured" by a class
Oily Trinis, slippery morality
Energy Without Conscience: Oil,
Climate Change and Complicity
David McDermott Hughes, Duke
University Press, 2017.
Continues on page A29
But no single study
can capture a whole
reality, and the
author admits at the
start and end it isn't
a detached study:
"I have employed
judgmental tone of
one who sees the
future." Lucky for
him, this is a tone
Links Archive April 25th 2017 April 27th 2017 Navigation Previous Page Next Page