A Pandemonium of Hope: Oil, Aspiration, and the Good Life in Alberta

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Wed, 01/15/2020 - 16:20

Judith Ellen Brunton is a doctoral candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion and a Chancellor Henry N.R. Jackman Graduate Fellow in the Humanities. Her research project at the JHI explores how oil companies, government agencies, and community organizations in Alberta use oil to describe a set of values about land use, labour, and aspiration. Oil, in Alberta, is a key symbolic element in imagining what a good life is. Most of the text of this post was provided by Judith.

At a recent Fellows’ Lunch, Judith gave a presentation that worked to add to our ongoing conversations on land use, energy, and climate change by providing an overview of the archival and ethnographic case studies she’s exploring in her project A Pandemonium of Hope: Oil, Aspiration, and the Good Life in Alberta. The talk was also an opportunity to model how the kind of inquiry we do in the study of religion can help provide insight into the questions brought about in the environmental humanities—giving us different questions to ask about how people organize their lives meaningfully towards certain values. In each of the case studies Judith described, she provided an overview of how different community organizations, corporations, or government agencies were using oil as an allegory to describe what a good life was, and how to live it, in Alberta. As a whole, these different case studies describe sites of meaning making that contribute to circulating semiotics and narratives of the good life in Alberta’s oil public. A public in which oil shapes the boundaries of possibility for imaging goodness and wellbeing.

Harold Town Drawing in the Imperial Oil Review
Harold Town drawing in the Imperial Oil Review

Each of the case studies Judith discussed present different opportunities to observe how the good life is being described using oil. The first case study was based on archival work and used the example of Imperial Oil to think about how oil companies were describing virtue and goodness. Through studies of Imperial Oil’s 20th century publications and public relations materials she discussed how the company articulated the good modern Canadian life through themes of empire and discovery, harvest and agriculture, and modernity and civilization.

Her second case study outlined how heritage organizations and the Alberta government’s culture and tourism agency use historical imaginings of oil to describe the virtue of past Albertans, and how they situate contemporary Albertans. In energy heritage sites, and other heritage spaces, the good life of contemporary Albertans was framed with the virtues of historical Albertans working in resource extraction, situated in a grounded materiality in which resources and the land are conflated, and oriented within a cosmic timeline that articulates the inevitability of energy work in Alberta.

"A Mile Below the Wheat" (1949). This film shared by the Glenbow Museum is about the 1947 discovery of oil at Leduc, Alberta and the developments that followed.


For her third case study, Judith described how some corporate initiatives and events in Calgary depict the good life for Calgarians through oil, in particular Calgary Economic Development’s “Be part of the energy” campaign and slogan. Their narratives are a window into corporate working culture in Calgary more broadly. The energy they, and other groups, describe is one in which someone who works and thrives in Calgary is someone who: has the hardiness and the self-motivation to endure hard work and to sacrifice; navigates the world with a kind of casualness, anti-formality, and an interest in play; and, that they have access to success through a kind of luck, or fate, or adventuring.

"Be Part of the Energy" signage
"Be Part of the Energy" signage

Judith ended her presentation by discussing her fourth case study, the Calgary Stampede. She described how many of the narratives from the previous case studies are present in this context, and how they are articulated through the Calgary Stampede as notably western values.

Entrance to the 2018 Calgary Stampede
Entrance to the 2018 Calgary Stampede