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Sights of Contestation Part I: Unconscious

Sights of Contestation Part I: Unconscious

by Isaac Thornley

Isaac Thornley
This post is the first of three in the Sights of Contestation seriesSights of Contestation explores a variety of resistances, both material and discursive, found in current pipeline debates. The authors of this series focus on different sites of contestation—Keystone XL, Line 3, and the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project—to understand the role the unconsciousbodies, and images play in the perception of these infrastructures and their linkages. Our shared interest rests in unraveling how pipeline projects, and the communities and environments they affect, are rendered (in)visible, legible, and meaningful through the intervention of various tactics, media, and discourses. The fact that pipelines are most often buried underground adds to their indiscernibility and separates the subterranean flow of oil from life above ground. We ask: What do these “sites” bring into “sight”? How do they make visible what was previously normalised and therefore invisible to many? How can attention to the unconscious, body, and images as important sites of contestation bring new insights to the politics of visibility and shifting power dynamic in current pipeline debates?

A pipeline is a symptom: a leaky object from which the unconscious of fossil capitalism and settler colonialism speak. Oil spills, blockades, and land defense highlight the cracks in fossil capital’s settler-colonial symbolic order, where fantasies of uninhabited landscapes dominated by techno-industrial mastery are ruptured. At the forefront of pipeline struggles are Indigenous peoples who have been disproportionately burdened with the (social, environmental, and health) harms of extraction and who put their bodies on the line to protect the land, water, and real “critical infrastructures”1 (the ecologies and relationships) of their unceded, traditional, and/or treaty territories.

A psychoanalytic approach to pipeline conflicts begins by confronting the paradoxical status of their visibility: pipelines are most “visible” before they are built. As Dayna Scott writes, “once built, a pipeline literally vanishes underground. Once buried, the critical social relationships and power mechanisms that are scripted in and enacted through its flows become blurred.”2 To this we could add, not only before their by no means inevitable construction, but also at any point when their flows are interrupted, the visibility of a pipeline coincides with a refusal, malfunction, or negation of the smooth transit of its flows. As Lacan said of the causal logic of the symptom in relation to the unconscious, “there is cause only in something that doesn’t work.”3

“The imperceptibility of fossil fuel infrastructures is sustained by both invisibility (of the subterranean physical infrastructure itself) and visibility (i.e., the over-saturation of material goods, images, and discourses that relate the infrastructure to an immediate point of consumption or experience).”

In another sense, the imperceptibility of fossil fuel infrastructures is sustained by both invisibility (of the subterranean physical infrastructure itself) and visibility (i.e., the over-saturation of material goods, images, and discourses that relate the infrastructure to an immediate point of consumption or experience). The symbolic order of fossil capital traffics not just in bitumen and liquefied natural gas, but also in fantasies, desires, and images that for many of us foreclose the possibilities of how we might infrastructure our wellbeing in less inequitable and environmentally degrading ways.

Infrastructures of Disavowal: The Affective Mode of Neoliberal Environmental Governance

The unconscious is constituted essentially by what is refused in consciousness and it is this emphasis on refusal or negativity that makes psychoanalysis potentially relevant for politics and critique.4 The unconscious corresponds to Lacan’s notion of the Real, the internal limit to symbolization, the cracks within a given symbolic order, where meaning fails. Ideological fantasies are mobilized to smooth over these gaps, to restore meaning and obscure antagonism.5 In the Canadian context, pipeline struggles occur at the intersection of multiple intersecting social antagonisms: settler colonialism, ecological crisis, and fossil capitalism. The leaky and contested “real” of pipelines contrasts with their phantasmatic function—shoring up ideological fantasies of techno-scientific mastery of nature, trans-continental settler conquest, and a false universalism of economic benefits in the “national interest.”

As Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen assert, settler colonialism relies on a mix of physical and “affective infrastructures,” and that “infrastructure is the how of settler colonialism.”6 However, given the emancipatory potential of building new (ecological relations to) socio-technical systems, it is important to note that “infrastructure is not inherently colonial—it is also essential for transformation; a pipe can carry fresh water as well as toxic sludge.”7 But which kinds of affect are currently sustained or “infrastructured” by fossil fuel pipelines?

“Infrastructure is not inherently colonial—it is also essential for transformation; a pipe can carry fresh water as well as toxic sludge.”

Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen

Disavowal is a simultaneous knowing and not-knowing,8 a way of coping with an antagonistic reality9 (such as climate change or colonialism). While climate change denial is an important phenomenon to analyze, it is not a belief held by the majority of Canadians, 62 per cent of whom believe in anthropogenic climate change and consider it to be a “major crisis.”10 Disavowal is a more widespread phenomenon and relates to what others have termed “implicatory denial,”11 “palliative denial,”12 and “the new denialism.”13 This is the “failure to integrate knowledge into action” or the inability to act “as if” something we know to be true is in fact the case.14 A caveat is required: social and political response to the ecological crisis is not only a psychological problem. There are concrete material constraints on most people’s ability to act as if climate change is real, irrespective of whether they “believe” in it—and this is precisely what is meant by thinking pipelines as “infrastructures of disavowal.”

“Infrastructured disavowal” names a process whereby psychological attitudes emerge from and feedback in to sustain specific materials conditions, specific ways of relating to human wellbeing, natural environments, and socio-technical systems. Disavowal also has its institutional reverberations and can be expressed at multiple scales; it is linked to what has been called the post-political mode of neoliberal environmental governance.15 The post-political frame presents climate change as a techno-managerial problem requiring compromise between economy and environment (as opposed to as a direct result of the colonial, extractive, accumulationist tendencies of fossil capitalism).

“Resistance to the TMX, one of the major Indigenous and environmental justice struggles in recent Canadian history, has formed at a crucial juncture in the relations of Indigenous peoples to the Canadian settler state and the prospect of a “just” (labour) transition toward a post-carbon economy.”

This is the approach taken by Justin Trudeau and the federal government to the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX), who approved the TMX less than one day after declaring a “climate emergency” in June 2019.16 Resistance to the TMX, one of the major Indigenous and environmental justice struggles in recent Canadian history, has formed at a crucial juncture in the relations of Indigenous peoples to the Canadian settler state and the prospect of a “just” (labour) transition toward a post-carbon economy. While official justifications for the project are couched in terms of political compromise, rational economic calculation, and an unproblematized notion of Indigenous consent, these claims have been challenged in terms of their political-legal legitimacy17 and economic rationality.18

Prime Minister Trudeau announces second approval of the TMX in June 2019, one day after declaring a “climate emergency.” Photo by Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press.

The TMX is currently under construction amid persistent and active resistance by the Tiny House Warriors (and other Indigenous and non-Indigenous environmental groups). The project plans to “twin” the existing Trans Mountain Pipeline (operational since 1953) and triple its capacity to transport bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to the pacific coast of B.C. Trudeau’s “pipeline compromise” vows to ease economic anxieties in Alberta by securing a pipeline to tidewater for international bitumen export, establish new standards for consultation with Indigenous peoples and provide opportunities for Indigenous ownership stake, and secure a revenue stream for long-term investment to transition away from fossil fuels.19

While compromising and calculated on the surface, this approach amounts to a shallow neoliberal environmentalism. As Fletcher highlights, “by disavowing the reality of neoliberal capitalism’s contributions to ecological degradation, [neoliberal environmentalism] sustains the fantasy that degradation can be redressed through the same mechanisms that perpetuate it.”20 “Neoliberal environmentalism” is, in short, the idea that market mechanisms alone can address the dangers posed by the ecological crisis; we can maintain a capitalist, growth-oriented economy if we integrate environmental costs into our modes of exchange. Neoliberal environmentalism is “the paradoxical idea that capitalist markets are the answer to their own ecological contradictions.”21

“‘Neoliberal environmentalism’ is, in short, the idea that market mechanisms alone can address the dangers posed by the ecological crisis; we can maintain a capitalist, growth-oriented economy if we integrate environmental costs into our modes of exchange.”

As emphasized by my colleague Laurence Butet-Roch, fossil fuel infrastructures require immense investments that necessitate decades of operation to realize a profit. While TMX is presented as a compromise to the problems of climate change and a fossil-fueled economy, the TMX will “exacerbate the emissions problem by incentivizing additional production growth while diverting funds that could otherwise be spent on actual emissions reduction.”22 Decisions about the location and scale of pipelines “have consequences for the spatial organization of environmental inequities in Canada,”23 which in the case of TMX involve disproportionate risks to Indigenous communities on their unceded territories in the form of environmental contamination and loss of lands due to displacement.24

The Canadian federal government’s purchase of the TMX from Kinder Morgan has been justified by appealing to an energy transition. It is claimed that the project will “generate billions in revenues each year to help fund clean energy solutions” and “help advance reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”25  However, recent financial impact analyses conclude that “there is no likely scenario in which [the TMX] will generate a net benefit to Canada” and that the purchase and construction of the project will result in a net loss.26 As project costs have now ballooned to more than $21.4 billion,27 the TMX has become arguably the largest fossil fuel subsidy in Canadian history.28 In short, it is not that the TMX is framed as a compromise between economy and environment (while openly prioritizing economic considerations); the reality is that the project might be both environmentally degrading and economically unprofitable.

Scapegoat Fantasies: “Foreign-Funded” Environmentalists

The underside of a “win-win” neoliberal environmental governance strategy is the death drive of extractive populism.29 What makes disavowal “palliative” (at least in the short term) is that it entails a deferral of confrontation with antagonism, i.e., the social and ecological consequences of expanding the scale of fossil fuel extraction and consumption. As Andreas Malm argues, while denial might temporarily manage the anxiety, eventually it must find an outlet, which can take the form of scapegoating.30 A scapegoat is a particular kind of fantasy that displaces an antagonism intrinsic to a social-ecological relation onto an “other.” A “fantasy is a means for an ideology to take its own failure into account in advance” and this element of “failure” is often expressed in the form of an external, “foreign” entity.31 Appeals to various scapegoats, foreign threats, and conspiracies have been integral to Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s rise to power and to his strategy of mobilizing consent for oil sands development. Against the discursive backdrop of external threats, Kenney’s government has launched a “rapid response war room” to “rebut every lie told by the green left”32 as well as a “Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.”33

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaking at the Alberta United Conservative Party Annual General Meeting in December 2019. Photo by Dave Chidley, The Canadian Press.

The “Alberta War Room” (officially named Canadian Energy Centre) is an “independent provincial corporation” with a mandate “to promote Canada as the supplier of choice for the world’s growing demand for responsibly produced energy.”34 With a budget of originally $30 million per year (since reduced to $12 million per year), the War Room is essentially an arms-length government PR organization that promotes the province’s largest industry while insulating itself from accountability (with news media prohibited from using freedom of information laws to peek inside).35

The “Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns” (a.k.a. the Allan commission) was a two-year, $3.5 million inquiry completed in July 2021 that was launched to inquire “into all facets of the foreign-funded and directed attempts to landlock [Alberta] energy.”36 The inquiry found no evidence of illegal activity, but determined that $54.1 million of foreign funding went towards “anti-Alberta resource development activity” between 2003 and 2019.37 As Max Fawcett observed, on a yearly basis, that is comparable to the amount that the Allan commission cost tax payers, and a drop in the bucket compared to annual oil industry revenues.38

“Feeling unfairly targeted is more compelling than feeling ignored and powerless in the face of shifting global-ecological and political-economic conditions well outside of the control of the average Canadian.”

Kenney’s position on “foreign funding” is fundamentally inconsistent; he presents it as an excessive and undemocratic influence on ENGOs, but takes no issue with the fact that “foreign shareholders own almost half (44%) of the $645 billion in oil sands assets, 2.7 times the economy-wide average.”39 While Jason Kenney courts international investment for the oil sands he simultaneously uses “foreign funding as a scare tactic to distract the public from climate change and to discredit, silence, and intimidate environmentalists.”40 The foreign funding conspiracy theory appeals to those people who feel left behind by telling them that they are actually at the centre of a global conspiracy to undermine their economic well-being. Feeling unfairly targeted is more compelling than feeling ignored and powerless in the face of shifting global-ecological and political-economic conditions well outside of the control of the average Canadian.


Thus far, I have described how disavowal can be “infrastructured,” locking some of us into specific ways of relating to each other, our sense of wellbeing, our environments, and our socio-technical systems, but there are surely opportunities for interruption and transformation. Various practices (embodied resistance, land defense, and direct action, but also discursive strategies, images, and media) can interrupt the flow of this cycle by rendering the relations and networks of extraction visible. As my colleague Alexandra Watt Simpson discusses, embodied activism is vital both to defend land and block pipeline development, but also for stoking visibility – monitoring the “out of sight” sites of environmental contamination and documenting forms of state violence used against land defenders and activists. Moreover, Laurence Butet-Roch considers how “harnessing the subjunctive voice of photography” through “polyphonous juxtapositions” can render visible the crucial connections between disparate times and places. The future of the TMX and of Canada’s fossil fuel industry remains uncertain. What is certain is that public investment in infrastructure will be contested (and rendered visible) as long as the economic and environmental risks remain fundamentally inequitable.

Isaac Thornley is a PhD student at EUC and a communications professional interested in building a more socially and environmentally just future in Canada (and beyond). His professional experience has centered around writing, research, web development, and communications for organizations that advocate for affordable housing, provide services for homeless and street-involved people and support families affected by mental illness. His research focuses on energy infrastructure projects in Canada, specifically the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion project. This article was originally published by the Network in Canadian History & Environment (NiCHE).


1 Spice, Anne. “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines.” Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9 (2018): 40-56.

2 Scott, Dayna Nadine. “The Networked Infrastructure of Fossil Capitalism: Implications of the New Pipeline Debates for Environmental Justice in Canada.” Comparative Research in Law & Political Economy (2013): 1-13.

3 Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller. New York: Norton., 1998.

4 Ibid.

Žižek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso, 1989.

6 LaDuke, Winona and Deborah Cowen. “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure.” South Atlantic Quarterly 119, no. 2 (2020): 243-268.

7 Ibid.

8 Weintrobe, Sally, ed. Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2013.

9 Fletcher, Robert. “Beyond the End of the World: Breaking Attachment to a Dying Planet.” In Psychoanalysis and the Global, edited by Ilan Kapoor. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018, 60-74.

10 Canseco, Mario. “Most Canadians and Americans Agree on Climate Change Fight.” Research Co., June 26, 2020.

11 Norgaard, Kari Marie. Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011.

12 Malm, Andreas and the Zetkin Collective. White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso, 2021.

13 Daub, Shannon, Gwendolyn Blue, Lise Rajewicz, and Zoë Yunker. “Episodes in the New Climate Denialism.” In Regime of Obstruction: How Corporate Power Blocks Energy Democracy, edited by William K. Carroll. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2021: 225-247.

14 Lertzman, Renee. Environmental Melancholia: Psychoanalytic Dimensions of Engagement. New York: Routledge, 2015.

15 Swyngedouw, Erik. “Apocalypse Forever? Post-Political Populism and the Spectre of Climate Change.” Theory, Culture and Society 27, no. 2-3 (2010): 213-32.

16 Mabee, Warren. “Cognitive dissonance: Canada declares a national climate emergency and approves a pipeline.” The Conversation, June 20, 2019.

17 Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade (INET). “Standing Rock of the North: The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project Secwepemc Risk Assessment.” INET, October 2017.

18 Gunton, Thomas, Chris Joseph, and Daniel Dale. “Evaluation of the Trans Mountain Expansion Project.” School of Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University, March 2021.

19 Wherry, Aaron. “Like it or not, Trans Mountain is what a pipeline ‘compromise’ looks like.” CBC News, June 18, 2019.

20 Fletcher, 2018.

21 Büscher, Bram. “Payments for ecosystem services as neoliberal conservation: (reinterpreting) evidence from the Maloti-Drakensberg, South Africa.” Conservation and Society 10 (2012):29-41.

22 Hughes, David J. “Reassessment of Need for the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project: Production Forecasts, Economics, and Environmental Considerations.” Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, October 2020.

23 Scott, 2013.

24 INET, 2017.

25 Government of Canada. “Trans Mountain Expansion Project.” Accessed on February 21, 2022.

26 Gunton, et al., 2021.

27 Stephenson, Amanda. “Cost of Trans Mountain pipeline expansion soars 70% to $21.4 billion.” The Canadian Press, February 18, 2022.

28 Leavitt, Kieran and Alex Ballingall. “‘It’s much, much more’: Trans Mountain pipeline expansion cost jump to $12.6 billion.” Toronto Star. February 7, 2020.

29 Gunster, Shane. “Extractive Populism and the Future of Canada.” The Monitor (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives) 26, no. 2 (2019): 13-15.

30 Malm et. al., 2021.

31 Žižek, 1989.

32 The Globe and Mail Editorial. “Alberta’s government has met the enemy, and it is its own ‘war room.’” The Globe and Mail, February 17, 2020.

33 Government of Alberta. “Public inquiry into anti-Alberta energy campaigns.” Accessed on February 21, 2022.

34 Canadian Energy Centre. “About Us.” Accessed May 28, 2020.

35 Thompson, Graham. “$3.5-million provincial inquiry into ‘anti-Alberta’ activities struggles to find a bad guy.” CBC Opinion, October 22, 2021.

36 Government of Alberta. “Premier Kenney launches public inquiry into foreign-funded campaigns – July 4, 2019.” YouTube video, 46:33. July 4, 2019.

37 Allan, Steve. “Report of the Public Inquiry into Anti-Alberta Energy Campaigns.” Government of Alberta, July 2021.

38 Fawcett, Max. “Anti-Alberta energy inquiry is an outrageous 657-page ‘nothingburger.’” Canada’s National Observer, October 22, 2021.

39 Environmental Defence, Équiterre, and “Who Benefits? An Investigation of Foreign Ownership in the Oil Sands.”, May 11, 2020.

40 Garossino, Sandy. “A data-based dismantling of Jason Kenney’s foreign-funding conspiracy theory.” National Observer, October 3, 2019.