Text on screen: [Mindshare logo, Inspired thinking on the future of energy]
Text on screen: [Petrocultures to Other Cultures: On the Social Transitions Connected to Energy Transition]
Text on screen: [Imre Szeman, Canada Research Chair of Cultural Studies and co-founder of Petrocultures, University of Alberta]
Imre Szeman: Five years ago, my colleagues and I here at the University of Alberta established the Petrocultures Research Group. Petrocultures has been an active research group over its relatively short existence, hosting speakers and planning research projects; organizing well-attended public discussions and debates; and initiating a biennial conference distinguished both by the number and quality of the participating scholars. Through all of its varied activities, Petrocultures has been a key participant in what has become a vibrant international research endeavour. What my colleague Dominic Boyer and I termed the energy humanities in an OpEd in University Affairs in 2014.
To put it direct—as directly and as simply as possible, the energy humanities constitute an attempt to take seriously the significance of energy forms and systems on the broad social, cultural, and political shape and character of our societies. One might have expected such research to already exist, and indeed, to have a research presence via large numbers of books and articles, but this isn’t the case. And so energy humanists are striving to fill in a largely blank picture, even as many of them worry that they’ve undertaken this task too late in the day. We’re in the midst of a crisis related to our use of energy, a crisis that reaches across the globe, and our response to this crisis would be helped enormously by a sharper understanding of how we are made and shaped by the ways we use and abuse energy.
So just what is a petroculture, the culture that our research group has been studying? Well, a petroculture is the global culture in which we find ourselves today, nothing more, nothing less. It’s the name for a society that has been organized around the energies and products of fossil fuels, the capacities it engenders and enables, and the situations and contexts it creates. We in Canada are a petroculture. And so too, if in different ways and to different degrees, are those living in other countries on the planet, including those still striving to have their societies transform into ones that use fossil fuels with anything like the intensities of countries in the global north.
Why we use the term petroculture, and not petrosociety. I expect that there might be less objection to the latter term than the former. It’s hard to argue that modern societies have come to depend on fossil fuels to energize the systems that have grown up in conjunction with their use. From use in industrial production to home heating, from transportation networks to the consumer system to which we have given the shorthand globalization, the planet runs on fossil fuels. Our societies have come to depend not only on the energy produced by fossil fuels but also on the products made from petroleum: ink, tires, vitamin capsules, eyeglasses – I love these lists – footballs, detergents, parachutes, pantyhose, aspirin, dyes, yarns, nail polishes, plastics, dentures – the rest of my talk isn’t just this list, but let’s go on a little bit more – bandages, linoleum, hair colouring, surfboards – in a word, everything. When we pose the question of what might fuel our future, we are also pondering the environmental consequences of our present source of energy. This will continue to concern more and more of us in and outside of the academy as we struggle to adopt new forms of energy and redefine the physical infrastructures and social systems that we’ve built around fossil fuels.
We are definitely, then, petrosocieties. However, the term petrocultures captures something about the nature of the societies we inhabit that might otherwise be missed if we didn’t put culture front and centre. It’s not just that our physical infrastructures – it’s not just our physical infrastructures that depend on oil and gas, or that – it’s not just that our social and economic practices have been organized around easy and cheap access to fossil fuels. And it’s also not just that our social structures – and it’s not only our social structures that are shaped by fossil fuel habits. The relationship is deeper, more pervasive, and constituitive. To say petrocultures is to say that we are fossil fuel creatures all the way down. Our expectations, our sensibilities, our habits, our ways of being in the world, how we imagine ourselves in relationship to nature as well as in relationship to one another – these have all been sculpted by and in relationship to the massively expanded energies of the fossil fuel era.
The sharpest critics working on oil and culture today have explored the depths of our being in relation to our era’s dominant form of energy. Just to give you some examples of people working in energy humanities, energy systems are shot through with largely unexamined cultural values with ethical and ecological consequences, writes Stephanie LeMenager in her book, Living Oil. Nowadays, writes cultural critic Friedrich Buel (ph), energy is more than a constraint; it, especially oil, remains an essential and, to many, the essential prop underneath humanity’s material and symbolic cultures. And in his assessment of the cultural significance of oil, the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty has noted almost as if – almost as if in surprise, the mansion of modern freedom stands on an ever-expanding base of fossil fuel use.
Most of our freedoms are energy intensive. It turns out that anyone interested in understanding the material, social, and symbolic operations of an issue as important as, in the last instan—in this last case, for instance, of human freedoms, must take into account the significance of fossil fuels in enabling the very possibility of these freedoms. And they certainly must do so if they want to grapple with the continuation or extension of these freedoms in an era of environmental limits and diminishing energy resources.
Much of modern critical thinking over the past two centuries is bound together by the its assault on the self-certainties of knowledge. It has sought to unnerve our blind faith in the march of progress and our tendency to imagine that it is inevitably taking us in the right direction. From Karl Marx’ interrogation of political economy to Sigmund Freud’s investigation of rationality and subjectivity, to Judith Butler’s examination of the construction of gender, many of our most important thinkers have advanced claims about the order of things to unsettle scientisms and simple positivisms, all those knowledges that we all too quickly take as the – to be the same as reality itself.
When the social historian Bruno Latour reminds us that we have never been modern, it is because the reality of the modern has always been other than it has proclaimed itself to be. Under the shining surface of a modern world that we imagine as being ever more advanced, of having progressed technologically and scientifically with each and every year, of having resolved all manner of social problems, lies a world still riven by inequalities and facing problems produced, in large part, by the self-certainties of the modern itself.
Petrocultures has engaged in a similar exploration of the modern and of the gap between how it imagines and understands itself and what is really going on just under the surface. Excuse the kind of connection, but I’ll do it anyway. Just as Freud exposed the roiling unconscious energies beneath the façade of the rational, modern human being, investigations of our petrocultures highlight that, when it comes to energy, we are very different creatures than we tend to understand ourselves to be. Energy is part of what we might describe as our social unconscious, something fundamental to who and what we are but whose broad cultural and social significance we have preferred not – or not – have not been able to – to recognize. The capacities and freedoms that are connected to the modern, from the opening up of leisure time to expectations of almost unfettered mobility, are the consequence of a world awash in the kilocalories generated by fossil fuels.
While the story of modernity isn’t reducible to the use of energy on an ever-greater scale, an account of modernity’s developments, transgressions, and contradictions that fails to address the role played by energy in shaping its infrastructures and subjectivities and everything else in between can’t help but misrepresent the forces and processes shaping historical development, especially over the past two centuries. That access to and struggle over energy has had a role in shaping modern geopolitics is evident. Witness the protracted struggle over power in Africa and the Middle East and the role played by access to oil in shaping conflict, for instance in the Second World War. What is less evident, however, is the degree to which the energy riches of the past two centuries have influenced our relationships to our bodies, moulded human social relations, and impacted the imperatives of even those varied activities we group together under the term culture.
In the modern era, the rapid expansion of humans on the planet from an estimated population of one billion 1800 to 7.5 – 4 billion in 2016 has been animated by the growth in the availability and accessibility of energy. And this – more and more people each using more and more energy – has in turn had a decisive impact on the state of the environment. If we need today to add energy to our accounts of the modern experience, it is because it offers us a new vantage point on global warming and environmental crisis. One of the principal causes of global warming has been the emission of CO2 produced by the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels. The problem of global warming is thus, at its core, an energy problem.
The link between energy use and global warming may seem to be obvious enough: the operations of industrial capitalization and the civilization it has brought into existence have had a deleterious impact on the global environment. It makes sense that there would then be a focus in environmental studies on shifts in how we employ fossil fuels, or on the transitions away from fossil fuels to other forms of renewable energy. Too often, however, these changes are envisioned as narrowly technical ones. Much of the contemporary discussion about energy in relation to the environment imagines energy as a neutral input into modern social and material processes that doesn’t alter their character or nature very much, if at all. It’s seen as little more than the gas that runs the engine of a society whose shape and form is largely independent of oil.
But just as energy is essential to a fuller understanding of modernity, its crucial role in shaping existing social structures, lived and material infrastructures, and even cultural practices, points to those sites in which change – changes will have to take place if we are to address global warming. Even if it envisions difficult, large-scale shifts in the dominant source of energy, the existing language of energy transition is most often defensive, insisting on changes in input – electric cars, for instance, instead of gas-fuelled ones – insisting then on changes in input in order to preserve global capitalism and its systems of property and profit. We need to move beyond the limits of such affirmations of the present state of things and speak instead to the widespread social, cultural, and political changes that are necessary if we are to truly address global warming and its multiple consequences.
As an increasing number of researchers have insisted, the challenges of addressing global warming – the challenge of addressing global warming isn’t fundamentally a scientific or technological one. Environmental scientists have played a crucial role in identifying the causes and consequences of global warming, including projections of what might occur if we fail to keep increases in global temperature to less than two degrees Celsius, as it appears we are poised to do. However, the next steps in addressing environmental crisis will have to come from the humanities and social scientists – sciences, from those disciplines that have long attended to the intricacies of social processes, the nature and capacity of political change, and the circulation and organization of symbolic meaning through culture. This constitutes an enormous challenge, and is one that we’ve barely begun to take up.
What we need to do is, first, grasp the full intricacies of our embarkation with energy systems, and second, map out other ways of being, behaving, and belonging in relation to both old and new forms of energy. The task is nothing less, then, than to re-imagine modernity, and, in the process, to figure ourselves as different kinds of beings than the ones who have built a civilization on the promises, intensities, and fantasies of a particularly dirty, destructive form of energy. It’s a large enough challenge that many engaged in research in the energy humanities wonder whether we have the conceptual, effective, material capacities to truly take it on.
The refigurations to which the work of petrocultures and other researchers in the energy humanities draw attention go beyond changes to driving habits or the establishment of stricter policies on emissions and the energy efficiency of new homes. The more difficult challenges that we point to are those that are hard to see – hard to see or name or grasp, those zones of experience and expectation generated by our energy systems that we all too often take as equivalent to everyday life. And yet it’s here that we need to turn our attention as surely as to developing new or more efficient forms of energy, or better ways of capturing or sequestering carbon. Without changing who and what we are, we will never manage to make the shift from petrocultures to other cultures, cultures whose way of being in the world requires and expects less energy than we’ve used up to this point in history. Thanks.
Text on screen: [Mindshare logo, Inspired thinking on the future of energy]
Imre Szeman, Chaire de recherche du Canada en études culturelles à la University of Alberta, étudie les répercussions sociales, culturelles et politiques des ressources énergétiques et pétrolières.
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