The Shaughnessy Cohen Prize Series, with Andrew Nikiforuk
This year marks the twelfth iteration of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The prize rewards the year's finest book tackling a political subject of interest to Canadian readers.
Our final interview is with Andrew Nikiforuk, the author of Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America's Great Forests (Greystone Books). In addition to the Shaughnessy Cohen Award, Empire of the Beetle was also short-listed for the Governor General's Literary Award, the Alberta Book Award and several other prizes.
Andrew talks with Open Book about how good political writing is like a fairy tale, his favourite past prize winner and his upcoming project.
Tell us about the book for which you were shortlisted.
The Empire of the Beetle is a weird and wonderful story about the collapse and renewal of aging systems. It explores the unpredictable geography of “global heating” and tells the story of a charismatic creature in the woods that can change landscapes faster than Canadian engineers. Bark beetles are ancient insects that co-evolved along with pines and spruces. Contrary to popular opinion they perform like a good fire. They take the old and the drought stressed and begin a process of renewal. However, the beetle logging company competes with big conglomerates and works in timeframes not licensed or approved by big government. Therefore their surprising appearance caused the biological equivalent of financial panic in BC and Alberta. Both governments, which called the outburst a “Holy Crap” event, wasted billions by clear-cutting landscapes, destroying watersheds, poisoning trees and subsidizing logging companies. In the end government did more damage to the land, roads and local communities than the beetle. Many scientists suspect these unprecedented insect outbreaks are just a preview of our collective political futures in an overheated planet.
In your opinion, what qualities or characteristics signify that a book can be considered political writing?
All writing is political, but good political writing is as rare as hen’s teeth. It’s almost never about one individual, expert, party or ideology. In fact good political writing most closely resembles a dark yet accurate fairy tale: it’s about ordinary or extraordinary group of people (the small and improbable) realising that they can overcome great wealth and power and thereby slay some very nasty monsters.
C.K. Chesterton, a truly great political writer, once pinpointed the weakness of politicians: “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It’s that they can’t see the problem.”
A good political book starts where the politician goes blind and fails.
The prize is presented at an evening event in Ottawa called Politics and the Pen. What are you most looking forward to about P&P? Have you attended before?
I’ve attended once as a judge and I found it to be a grand and surreal affair. As the grandson of Russian peasants, there was too much power and ambition in the room for my liking. Given work commitments, I won’t be able to attend this go around.
If you were to recommend one past finalist or winner of the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize to readers, which title would you choose?
Dark Age Ahead by Jane Jacobs. A brilliant book.
What can you tell us about your next project?
My next project, The Energy of Slaves, is about how oil changed America, economics, city-making and our conception of happiness over the last 150 years. North Americans abused this very versatile and energy-packed resource the same way ancient Rome abused slaves. In fact slavery was one of the world’s great energy institutions. It greatly influenced the way we deployed hydrocarbons to feed the inanimate slaves that now order daily life. A bark beetle might consider the book an engaging if not terrifying read on an unpredictable human epidemic.