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Oily Trinis, slippery morality

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 conscience. 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 hydrocarbons being the mainstay of the economy. Hodges writes: “Trinidad’s hydrocarbons appear to have solved many problems without creating substantial 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 resulting 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 Spanish 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 cocoa tended by European colonists. Naturally, this wasn’t taken seriously by the Spanish crown. But this counterpoint is an important part of Hodges’ argument.

From these origins, Hodges writes, “Energy without conscience…accompanied the rise of capitalism.” Post-emancipation, a new source of energy was introduced, by German immigrant Conrad Stollmeyer, 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 energy economy of indenture, and surpass it post-independence.

There was, again, the counterpoint to the origin of the petro-economy in the “experimental” colony, which had been founded by abolitionist-turned-capitalist Stollmeyer, John Etzler, and the British Tropical Emigration Society, in the mid-1840s, before Stollmeyer’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 educational 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-capita 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, given 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 environmentalists to acknowledge the self-evident verity of his proposition.

He eventually finds a suitable environmentalist 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 internationally 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 formation of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) circa 1990.

The arguments are sharp and aggressive. 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 and worldview which shaped his perceptions. He lived in St Ann’s, Cascade in 2010, and mingled with its denizens (many of whom he names).

The consequences of this initial contact-socialisation are as amusing as his superciliousness in dealing with local ambivalence. They include his opinions that Earl Lovelace is the “national writer” and The Dragon Can’t Dance is the “national novel” of T&T. Especially unconsciously revealing is his encounter with a UWI professor at Carnival time who was “dancing with herself, with her body, blissed out and oblivious to the world”. This pretty much describes social group whose perspective he reproduces.

Apropos of this group, he seems derisive of Naipaul, and believes Trinidadians were “still angry” over Naipaul’s Middle Passage. Perhaps if he’d understood the term “Naipaulian”, and what it means for reconciling the absurdity and reality that Trinidadians live every day, he might have seen Trinidad in a different and more revealing way.

That said, the socialisation doesn’t really affect his main argument or its integrity too much. One gets the feeling he came looking for something and found it. To find otherwise was not on the agenda.

Nonetheless, as books go, Energy Without Conscience is interesting and useful polemic. Its conclusions and even a priori assumptions are contestable, but the book is passionately and capably argued, and the historical research, though selective, was adequate to make his argument. Its value resides in the proposal that T&T be held to grown-up standards for development, and the identification of a moral dimension of economic development. Any society which wishes to think of itself as mature and sophisticated must confront basic questions such as these and Energy without Conscience is a good and necessary reminder of that failing in T&T.


Energy Without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change and Complicity

David McDermott Hughes, Duke University Press, 2017.

Continues on page A29 From page A26

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.


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