Consider This — Imre Szeman: From Petrocultures to Other Cultures

Imre Szeman — Professor, Department of English and Film Studies, Faculty of Arts

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Image by Edward Burtynsky

Five years ago, my colleagues and I established the Petrocultures Research Group to participate in what has become a vibrant, international research endeavor — what my colleague Dominic Boyer and I have termed the “energy humanities.” We are 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.

What is petroculture? Petroculture is the global culture in which we find ourselves today: it is 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. 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, footballs, detergents, parachutes, panty hose, aspirin, dyes, yarns, nail polish, plastics, dentures, bandages, linoleum, hair coloring, surf boards — in a word: everything.

The term “petrocultures” also captures something more about the nature of the societies we inhabit: it’s not just that our physical infrastructures depend on oil and gas, or that our social and economic practices have been organized around easy and cheap access to fossil fuels. And it’s not only our social structures that are shaped by fossil fuel habits. The relationship is deeper, more pervasive, and constitutive: to say “petro-cultures” is to say we are fossil fuel creatures all the way down. Our expectations, our sensibility, our habits, our ways of being in the world, how we imagine ourselves in relation to nature, as well as in relation to one another — these have all been sculpted by and in relation to the massively expanded energies of the fossil fuel era.

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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 have not been able) to recognize. That access to — and struggle over — energy has had a role in shaping modern geopolitics is evident. 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, molded 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 1 billion in 1800 to 7.4 billion in 2016, has been animated by the growth in the availability and accessibility of energy. And this — more people each using more and more energy — has in turn had a decisive impact on the state of the environment. One of the principle causes of global warming has been the emission of CO2 produced by the burning of large quantities of fossil fuels. It makes sense that there would 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.

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However, as an increasing number of researchers have insisted, the challenge of addressing global warming isn’t only a scientific or technological one. Environmental scientists have played a crucial role in identifying the causes and consequences of global warming. The next steps will have to come from the humanities and social 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. What we need to do is, first, grasp the full intricacies of our imbrication 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 than to reimagine 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.

The refigurations to which the energy humanities draw attention go beyond changes to driving habits, policies on emissions and the energy efficiency of new homes. The more difficult changes that we point to are those that are hard to see, name or grasp: those zones of experience and expectation generated by our energy systems that we take as equivalent to normal life. And yet, it is here 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 have used up to this point in history.

Imre Szeman — Professor, Department of English and Film Studies, Faculty of Arts

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Imre Szeman is Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and Professor of English, Film Studies and Sociology at the University of Alberta. He conducts research on and teaches in the areas of energy and environmental studies, literary and cultural theory, social and political philosophy, and Canadian studies.

Imre Szeman presented on the the transition from petrocultures to other cultures at the University of Alberta on April 18, 2016, as part of the Mindshare conference titled “What’s Fueling our Future?”Imre Szeman presented on the the transition from petrocultures to other cultures at the University of Alberta on April 18, 2016, as part of the Mindshare conference titled “What’s Fueling our Future?”