The Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at Georgetown University in Qatar launched its newly-formed Energy Humanities research initiative with this webinar panel discussion titled “Everyday Energy: Approaches to Lived Experience.” The event featured three area experts in the field of Energy Humanities and was moderated by GU-Q faculty members, Victoria Googasian, Trish Kahle, and Firat Oruc. The Energy Humanities initiative is a new project under the CIRS Environmental Studies thematic cluster and aims to provide new understandings of the influence and impacts of energy in everyday lives and stimulate new conversations in the scholarship.
Dominic Boyer, Founding Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences, Rice University.
Sara B. Pritchard, Associate Professor in the Department of Science & Technology Studies at Cornell University.
Jennifer Wenzel, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University.
Victoria Googasian, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
Trish Kahle, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
Firat Oruc, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University- Qatar.
Good evening and welcome to the CIRS panel discussion entitled “Everyday Energy: Approaches Delivered Experience.” My name is Ahmad Dallal, I’m the Dean of the Georgetown University Doha campus. This panel discussion is part of the CIRS, the Center for International and Regional Studies, newly formed research initiative on Energy Humanities, which is being led by three Georgetown University faculty members, professors, Victoria Googasian, assistant professor of American Literature at GUQ. Professor Trish Kahle, assistant professor of history at Georgetown University Qatar, and Professor Firat Oruc, assistant professor of world literature at Georgetown. Building on the previous research and scholarly record of CIRS, the thematic focus on environmental studies continues to address central questions related to climate change and other issues of environmental concern. Today’s Energy Humanities Initiative is a new project under the CIRS Environmental Studies’ thematic cluster that aims to generate new scholarly conversations on the importance of everyday energetic life to the study of energy’s past, present, and future. For today’s discussion, we are honored to have three scholars renowned for their work in the field of energy humanities. Professor Dominic Boyer, professor of anthropology and founding director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Science at Rice University. Professor Sara Pritchard, associate professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. And Professor Jennifer Wenzel, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature and of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. I graduated from that department. Just one little remark I was asked to mention that at the bottom of the screen, at the very right, that is an icon, which says CC, which will enable you to have a live transcript if you need to. So you could click on that icon to have a transcription of the lecture. Right now, without further ado, there is a very rich conversation ahead of us. I will hand over to Vicky to start the show, and welcome.
Hi, everyone, and welcome once again on behalf of myself and my co-organizers, Trish and Firat to this kickoff webinar for CIRS’s New Energy Humanities research initiative. I’m also just going to speak very briefly so we can get the show on the road and hand things over to our distinguished panelists. But I did want to just say a few words about the project. Very, very briefly before we get started. So we’ve conceived of this project as the title of the panel and the webinar suggests in response to what we perceived as a need to consider the lived experience of energy. And I want to explain what we mean by that phrase. Though, of course, we’re hoping that our panelists can help us think through it in greater depth as well. So here in the Gulf, I think it’s not surprising that scholarly approaches to energy have often been concerned with the sort of big picture issues of state security, political stability, global economic relations, that arise out of the production and consumption of energy. And this is really the zoomed-out view of energy, as it were. But our goal for this project is to use our position as humanists, as humanities scholars, to add just another layer of nuance and texture to that study of energy by bringing the scale of everyday life, everyday life of individuals and communities into focus. Which is not to say that we’re trying to reject or ignore the other scales at which states or economic systems and energy infrastructure operate. But we hope to connect these big structures that govern the flow of energy in our world to everyday experiences of ordinary people both in this region and beyond it. As you may know, the energy humanities is a rapidly expanding field of research, and we think that humanistic approaches are particularly well suited to answering these kinds of questions about the social and cultural dimensions of energy. We expect this panel to be the first in a series of conversations, so we’re inviting everyone here to keep an eye on the lovely new website that our colleagues at CIRS have put together for us, where you’ll find podcast episodes and other content forthcoming as the project continues to get to gather momentum. But tonight, we’re very pleased to be hosting this trio of experts whose work covers a wide range of fields, topics, geographical regions, all of whom have already made vital contributions to the study of lived experience of energy. And we’re excited to think with them about this topic tonight. So without further ado, I will hand things over to our first panelist, Dominic Boyer. Dr. Boyer, take it away, whenever you’re ready.
Thanks so much, Vicky. And thanks to all the organizers of this event. I think it’s really quite historically important, this initiative that you are that you’re developing. And I just feel humbled and honored to be a part of it. Thank you so much. So my background is in anthropology and especially in historical and political anthropology. And so, part of thinking about everyday energy for me is thinking about how we came to the kind of relationship to energy we have today, which, according to fellow historical anthropologist David Hughes, is one of energy without conscience. We use incredible amounts of energy, especially in the Global North, often without thinking very much about its consequences. So what I’d like to reconstruct in my few minutes here is a very brief glimpse of that bigger history. You see an image here which shows a kind of macrocosmic visualization of the United States energy system. Two things could strike you. One, how huge it is, 100 quadrillion BTUs worth of energy in one year flowing to the United States. And 80 percent of that is still fossil fuels. Only one percent is solar. So, you know, if we had started listening to scientists some 30 years ago, maybe that would be inverted. But the fact that it hasn’t suggests that these historical legacies are very important in terms of setting conditions of possibility for contemporary everyday energy experiences. And so that’s what I like to sort of highlight a little bit today. Now, I think that the history of modern energy, maybe counterintuitively actually begins in the European colonies, in the so-called new world, and particularly in the sugar and coffee plantations. This has been documented through a substantial amount of historical and political anthropology, that have looked at these relationships that, you know, the colonists came to the new world with the ambition to start growing things. And this precious commodity of sugar was one of their first ambitions. Columbus carried sugar cane clippings with him on his very first…his second voyage, rather. And as the conditions proved ecologically ripe for this kind of development in the 16th and 17th century, first the Portuguese and then the British and French created thousands of plantations across the Caribbean with the aim of exporting these precious commodities back to Europe. African slaves were brought in by the millions to power to offer the labor power for these plantations. And they were treated, as David Hughes argues, as a kind of fuel, as an expendable resource. They were literally worked to death in this process. And so for him, our relationship to energy today sort of begins in that lack of concern with human welfare in the plantation system, and with the fact that, as Kathryn Yusoff has put it, Europeans learned how to treat human beings as expendable and extractable energy properties through this experience. Now, sugar itself had a dramatic influence back in Europe. It transformed both middle-class and working-class diets. It helped create the industrial worker who could work longer, faster, harder than before, whose diet might still be poor. But having these stimulants always at the ready really helped. And indeed, to this day, we see the kind of emphasis on stimulants and labor connected to sort of capitalist modernity. So this changed over time, of course, but it changed in part because of the restriction of the slave trade. The abolition movements definitely deserve credit. But above all, it was the uprisings of slaves against the plantation system that were decisive. And in this respect, the Haitian revolution really deserves our attention as a geopolitical event that, in the specific sense, brought to an end France’s new world ambitions, led to the Louisiana Purchase, and the doubling in size of the United States, but also led to an increasing concern among those who operated plantations about what to do with this unruly labor force, and an interest in investing in machine labor as a way of replacing it. So, a lot of the innovations and machine labor that we credit as being associated with the industrial revolution begin to take shape within the plantation system first. Then those ideas come back to Europe. And there’s a wonderful book, a wonderful work of energy humanities by Cara Daggett called “The Birth of Energy,” that explains how in Victorian Britain you get a coming together of steam engine technology, imperial ambitions, new thermodynamic science and Presbyterian moral values that helped to redefine energy, which, up until then had been sort of a sense of dynamic virtue. It gets redefined and specified as being associated with work. Energy as work. And it’s work within a universe that seemed to be prone always to tending towards entropy, towards dissipation, towards waste. So human beings have to organize themselves to work even harder to make something of what the divine has bequeathed them. That leads, of course, to a tremendous investment in civilizational hierarchies and definitions that the Victorians are famous for. All arranged by capacities to use machines and to produce work and energetic racism, as Dagget describes it, that legitimates further imperial expansion and dispossession and that naturalizes fossil fuel use and wage labor as social necessities for human improvement, reinforcing the capitalist obsessions with work and growth. But of course, all of this is known already in the Caribbean. It doesn’t get invented in England. It really gets worked out in the new world. If you look at the old plantation manuals, you see how they already were conceiving of human beings as machines, of plantations, as machines, where they had to manage energy and productivity in very careful ways. Well, to bring this story a little bit closer out of the “sucro-political” into what I call the “carbo-political” era, with the spread of machines throughout Europe, comes an increasing need for the energy density of high carbon fuels. Wood will no longer do, and coal, by the end of the 19th century, becomes the dominant enabling fuel behind a European imperial modernity. And along with it, comes a sort of new regime of production and a new regime of commodities and consumption; what some have called the democracy of things, that suddenly, the “thingly” life around us becomes enriched and people demand and feel entitled to goods that they wouldn’t have had before this era. So the carbo-politics has a kind of dramatic shaping of what we think of as modern life and the affordance and luxuries that it involves. But as Timothy Mitchell tells the tale in his fabulous book, “Carbon Democracy,” there were limits to the sort of evolution of coal. And it really wasn’t about the pollution, which, we all know that burning coal is polluting and unpleasant, but it was less about that dimension of coal use that was problematic than the political, the labor politics of it. It takes a lot of people to mine coal and move it around. And those people have to go underground in dangerous conditions. And they become, they develop a sense of fraternity and identity and they start making demands, demands that we now call maybe, perhaps “social democratic” demands for labor rights and safe labor conditions. And, in fact, a lot of the the labor improvements that occur in the 20th century are owed, according to Mitchell, to the work of coal miners specifically. So he argues that in the post-World War Two redesign of the global economy, there’s a deliberate shift from coal to petroleum. Petroleum requires much less labor. It’s quite flexible in terms of how can be moved around the oceans via shipping and pipelines. And also it has these material properties that petrochemicals can produce plastics. A whole new regime of consumer goods becomes possible. And so the global modernity that typifies where we are now really takes shape in the middle of the 20th century, driven by petro-culture, driven by consumerism and again, cheap goods and rampant energy use without much regard for environmental and social consequences. So, it really just brings us to where we are today. And this is my last slide, hopefully on time, where, you know, the question that all of us are interested in is: what comes post-petro and how will that intersect? Given our topic here today with our everyday expectations, uses, ideologies, understandings of energy. Can we shift away from this model of energy as work? Do we have to shift towards something that Daggett calls “energy as freedom,” liberating energy from work? Do we have to shift our energy sources from the heavy reliance on petroleum and other high-density sources towards solarity? Which is something that a lot of people are talking about. How can that be achieved? What are the cultural forms that will come along with a solar revolution? These are things that I think we’re going to talk about in the discussion to come, so I’ll just stop there. Thank you.
Thanks so much for that history, as you kick us off, and for those questions. And I do think we will come back to you. I just want to remind our attendees that you can post questions at anytime, using Q&A button at the bottom of the screen. And we will have time to get to those questions at the end of tonight’s webinar. So now I will go ahead and hand things off to our second panelist, Sara Pritchard. So, Dr. Pritchard, the floor is yours.
Yes, I think I know how to do this after all this time with Zoom, sorry. This was working a minute ago. Hopefully this is working now. OK. Can you see this? Is this working now? Great. Thank you. So I’m delighted to be here and thank you for the invitation and honor of being part of this launching event. It is an exciting and important initiative. Very briefly, as some of you know, my areas of interest include environmental history, the history of technology, and environmental science studies. So, most broadly, I’m interested in the relationships between, and dynamics among, people, the environment, and technology in the past, but also with an eye to the present and the future. First off, as a historian, I very much appreciate the roundtable’s and thematic project’s interest in everyday energy and lived experience for a number of reasons influenced by social history, labor history, and other subfields. These themes encourage us to think about energy not just from elite perspectives, political, economic, and intellectual elites, but they push us to consider a much wider range of historical and also contemporary actors. This is sometimes called a bottom-up history versus top-down history. These themes also call attention to race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, and other categories and historical processes such as colonialism, which all can shape experiences with, and ideas about, energy. If we put these very broad concerns in conversation with energy specifically, I think we can consider the experiences and voices of energy workers, users, consumers, mediators, as well as of non-users, those who opt out, but particularly those who are outside dominant energy systems or made outside these systems. Overall, everyday energy and lived experience encourages us to engage with a much wider set of actors, consider the role of agency of these groups. They nuance our understanding beyond simplistic generalizations, and they open up conversations and windows onto contestation and debate. All are really important. Now, as I was reviewing the prompt and trying to collect my thoughts and comments, I have to admit that I kept finding myself sliding back into energy systems and infrastructures and regimes, which in many ways is the opposite of this initiative. So my comments here, and I think there’s synergies with Dominic’s presentation, focus on the intersections of these issues. I want to think a little bit about how energy systems or these higher-level analyses certainly shape and limit, quote-unquote, everyday energy without being either deterministic or outside historical change. But at the same time, how a more social history approach to energy infrastructure and regimes yield important insights about the limits and constraints of these systems. So I want to make five brief points. When we think about technological systems, especially so-called high-tech systems, I think it’s really easy to focus on the technological stuff because systems are by definition large scale and are composed of many constituent parts. So if we think about nuclear reactors to produce energy, we might think about uranium fuel rods, cooling towers, power lines, and so forth. But as historians of technology and others have shown, large-scale systems also depend on workers, not just experts, designers, and engineers, but operators, technicians, and other everyday workers. Often these workers become more visible, or quite visible, during crises, such as the operators who desperately tried to manage the reactors at Fukushima in the hopes of preventing meltdown, which didn’t happen. Or in February of this year, an unusually cold winter storm settled across Texas and much of the American South, and utility operators initially initiated what were intended to be rolling blackouts to prevent a catastrophic failure of the grid. Workers also contend with crises and emergencies and their complex aftermaths, often at considerable risks to themselves. So here we might think of Fukushima’s eighteen thousand cleanup workers. The large point I want to make here is that workers are really essential to high-tech energy systems and, therefore, consumers’ ability to use energy. Workers have particular lived experiences with energy and energy systems as laborers, and consumers and users ultimately rely on energy workers’ knowledge, skill, and labor. The second point I want to make is that, in some parts of the world—and I think we have to be careful about generalizations— energy systems are certain forms of energy and their associate systems have become so, so normal and systematized that they basically become invisible or taken for granted. Electricity is a good example here, say, in Europe and North America. Several scholars have analyzed how energy production and consumption is increasingly separated both spatially and socially. So many of us are fortunate to just be able to flip a switch to turn on electric lights rather than spending days and weeks making candles for winter. But as scholars of infrastructure have argued, infrastructure becomes so normalized, it becomes an invisible, assumed backdrop—until it fails. So the point I want to highlight here is that normal accidents—to borrow the phrase from Perrow—disasters really, so-called disasters, and failure, put everyday dependency on energy and energy systems into sharper relief. However, scholars have also shown how it takes concerted work and effort to normalize and institutionalize energy systems. For instance, Chris Jones has discussed how people had to be taught how to use and burn anthracite coal in the domestic sphere. It wasn’t self-evident. And he has these wonderful multipage manuals teaching servants for wealthy East Coast families basically how you put anthracite coal in stoves. I love this example for a couple of reasons. For one, that it highlights domestic workers and their labor generally, but particularly their labor around energy specifically. Yet another example, electrification was much slower and funkier than confident proclamations by inventors, utilities, and promoters at the time suggest. So we need to look at rhetoric versus reality. And what I want to highlight here is how energy systems and infrastructure are neither inevitable nor permanent. They take work. In my view, one of the most important issues is the uneven or unequal distribution of social and environmental costs, risks, and vulnerabilities associated with energy infrastructure and regimes, both during normal operations and crises. For many marginalized groups, this is a defining feature of energy as lived experience. So to give two examples from colleagues: Andrew Needham has shown how dramatic demographic growth and suburbanization in the US Southwest, where it’s very hot, depended on a lot of energy in part to support centralized air conditioning. Yet the so-called livability of these suburbs relied on coal-fueled electricity. Electricity produced on Diné or Navajo lands And it was these communities who experienced the disproportionate environmental and health effects of coal-fired plants. Or we could look at an example from atomic energy workers, Gabrielle Hecht, who’s looked at uranium mining in Africa and the short-term and long-term hazards nuclear workers faced through exposure, even though they weren’t seen as part of the nuclear age or nuclear world, that at times, this extended into families and communities with radioactive clothing or using scrap metal from mines to make shacks or other buildings. So my take-off point here is I think, frankly, it’s irresponsible to analyze energy systems and energy without attending to social and environmental justice. Quickly, my fifth point: energy systems are obviously dependent on organic and or inorganic energy sources, but these systems are always located in environmental contexts that both shape and are shaped by those systems. And this is encapsulated by the concept of an “envirotech” subfield in the history of technology and environmental history. And we can certainly hear considerable lived experiences of both humans and non-humans in these energy landscapes. Certainly, hydroelectricity is probably one of the most obvious cases here. So I’d like to highlight that this complete separation of environment and technology is an erroneous and even dangerous ideal. So to quickly close as we are now in year two of the pandemic, I want to acknowledge the vital energy of human labor, particularly essential workers and caregivers in these extraordinary times, but also, as Gabrielle Hecht calls it, extraordinary times that have revealed and deepened existing problems and inequalities both nationally and globally. And I look forward to our conversation.
Thanks so much for those remarks and those points that we’ll bear in mind moving forward tonight. So finally, I’d like to hand things over to Jennifer Wenzel, who will close out our panelists’ opening remarks. So, Dr. Wenzel, take it away.
Thank you very much. And I’d like to add my thanks to the organizers. It’s such an honor to participate in this inaugural event. And I’m particularly enthusiastic about the specific focus you’ve chosen for your energy humanities initiative: the theme of everyday energy. To me, the central idea of the energy humanities is that neither climate change nor the various economic and environmental challenges associated with fossil fuels are merely engineering problems. Rather, are political problems, narrative problems, and ultimately problems of the imagination. My own expertise is in narrative, not just literary narratives, but also the implicit unspoken narratives that shape cultural imagining and everyday experience and how we think about, or more importantly, don’t think about, issues like oil and fossil fuels. This is the idea of normalization that Sarah was just talking about. For many people who are fortunate enough to inhabit what the Niger Delta poet Ogaga Ifowodo calls the “chain or ease” enabled by fossil fuels, the primary mode of thinking about energy is not having to think about it. In this fossil-fueled cultural imaginary, oil is at once everywhere and nowhere. Indispensible, yet largely on apprehended, not so much invisible, as unseen. And I borrow this line from my introduction to “Fueling Culture.” I’m bringing my screen up now. My introduction to this book, Fueling Culture, which is a compendium of keywords on the intersections between energy and culture that I coedited with Imre Szeman and Patricia Yaeger, and Dominic has a piece in this collection. One of the key concepts in Energy Humanities is “impasse,” the predicament that Imre Szeman has described as knowing where we stand with regard to environment and energy, but being unable to take action at a scale adequate to the situation. Impasse is a problem for politics. But I’d argue that it’s also connected to esthetics, by which I mean ways of seeing and sensing how we learn to see or not to see. How we learn to regard some things as ugly and other things as beautiful. Think wind turbines. The future might hinge on whether we can convince people that wind turbines are beautiful, solar panels as well. How we learn to regard some things as pleasurable or desirable. These questions of pleasure and desire are central to the question of everyday energy. No matter what we think about oil, every one of us derives some kind of pleasure from the world that fossil fuels have built, including the ways that our own bodies interact with and are shaped by the world around us. It’s not that we love oil itself, which is, after all, kind of smelly and sticky, but that we all have some embodied attachment to the things that oil makes possible. I hear air conditioning is pretty important to a number of the hosts of this event. So for some people, this sense of embodied petro-pleasure comes from the smoothness and sheen of plastic. For me, the smell of my dad’s butane lighter, when I was a kid. I’ve even written an essay on how I love to fly. I think I remember it vaguely, how I love to fly. Of course, it’s not the indignities of post 9/11 commercial air travel that I love, but rather the thrill of exhilaration when the pilot hits the gas and my body is jolted back in the seat. I love the technological sublime of an active airfield, the many kinds of labor that bring a plane from the sky to the gate, and the sea of twinkling blue lights on an airport runway at night. I first described my love of flying for the students in my class on literature and oil. I asked the students to write what I call an “oil inventory,” a creative, open-ended assignment in which they make an inventory. In other words, a list or an accounting of the significance and presence of oil in their lives. Some describe their relationship to oil over the course of a single day. Some wrote a biography of their oil lives so far. I came up with the idea of the oil inventory, when I read this passage from Edward Said’s introduction to Orientalism, where he writes: “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is, and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical process to date, which is deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory… Therefore it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.” And I love the kind of sedimentary imagery of history depositing these traces in you. So the fundamental gesture of the oil inventory is this active process of knowing oneself in relationship to fossil fuels. Here’s my own academic biography in the form of an oil inventory. So the oil inventory challenges students— and I should say that I wrote this academic bio on a dare from Stephanie LeMenager, another wonderful scholar of energy humanities. So the oil inventory challenges students to acknowledge their love for some part of the world that oil has made—something they would not want to lose. Rather than focusing only on guilt, shame, or fear, which don’t seem a promising way to break through impasse and to lean toward transition. Such negative emotions can lead to a gesture that’s all too easy of pointing out energy hypocracy, whether one’s own or others. As if anyone who drives or flies or eats food comes from a factory gives up the right to wonder and worry about fossil fuels. We are oil subjects who inhabit a society built upon fossil fuels. That’s the big picture the oil inventory invites students to glimpse. But one of the less encouraging lessons that I take from the historical work of scholars like Matt Huber is that the oil inventory was actually invented by the oil industry. And here’s one example of Huber’s argument about advertising campaigns launched by U.S. oil companies dating back to the 1940s that explicitly invite consumers to consider the indispensability of petroleum products in their lives. So I think here we see some of the ideological and imaginary work of normalization. Look, there’s oil in your food. Isn’t that great? Don’t worry about it. And I would say that the same strategy is at work in this recent ad campaign by Exxon Mobil, which is called Energy Lives Here. And I’m going to play an ad from this campaign, which is fortuitously enough called Enabling Everyday Progress. And I’ve Lost. Here it goes. I’m going to go ahead. I’m not totally sure the audio is going to come through. You don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible. Because we do. We’re Exxon Mobile and powering the world responsibly is our job. Because boiling an egg isn’t as simple as just boiling an egg. Life takes energy. Energy and lives here. So ad this offers a perfect example of Huber’s argument that the energy industry in North America creates knowledge and awareness of consumers’ dependence on energy precisely in order to ensure passivity. Right. It’s not that they don’t want us to know about energy. They want us to know that we need it. So notice how the ad invites viewers to forget the revelations offered by the ad’s visual mapping of all that is involved in boiling an egg. So we hear “you don’t need to think about the energy that makes our lives possible because we do.” So the lesson that I draw here is that critical studies of energy in the Energy Humanities must reclaim the oil inventory from the oil industry in order to disrupt the settled habits of mind that surround the energy regimes of the present. Thus, the need for oil inventories of a more complete and complex kind than those that Exxon Mobil are offering. But this task is made harder by the fact that capitalism understands the workings of desire and the imagination better than we would like. Thus, the need for critical investigations of everyday energy. Thank you.
Thank you so much to all of our speakers for those really wonderful opening remarks. Now we’re going to move into a section that will offer some questions and hopefully get a discussion going. Among them, please do feel free to respond directly to each other as well as to the questions. And I’m also going to try and incorporate some of your remarks into the questions as we go. And so the first is to really think about method by trying to and — I’m sorry that my cat just decided that this was the time she was going to come and try and bother me. So we’ll see if she cuts off. But in any case, how your discipline, in particular, understands the concept of lived experience, because I was really struck in your talks by some of the different ideas that came through, the ideas about social revolution, about work, about sensory life. And so I’m just going to offer that as perhaps a starting point to thinking about that, that particular ways that you approached lived experience in your disciplines. Whoever would like to start off.
Well, I guess I could start. I mean, I think that anthropology, really the premise of anthropology, is the study of lived experienced in its many, many complexities. So I would say for us at least, this is very familiar territory. But what makes it unusual — just many thanks to my co-panelists, Sara and Jennifer, for these amazing opening remarks — they showed how many layers there are to thinking about energy. You need to think about the forms of knowledge involved, the forms of desire, the institutions, the infrastructures. So I think that it’s not even, I mean, lived experience captures a lot. And I think as we want to explore it, we have to think about what are the strategies for maybe revealing some of the habits we have that are so ingrained and so under-analyzed in some ways that we don’t even think about it. I do agree with what Jennifer said, that that’s kind of the premise of the Energy Humanities is to take what’s invisible and to sort of flip it over and to try to turn it on its back and look at all that’s there. Is there anything other panelists would like to add on? Well, I was trying to. Oh, look, we’re unmuting at the same time. I think that the kind of the go-to answer for this from the perspective of literary studies — and I should say that I’m a student of narrative.
Right. And so someone who works on poetry might object to my answer. But I would say that I think that the general assumption is that it’s realist fiction that is the genre that is meant to capture whatever it is meant by lived experience, whether psychological realism or social realisms, a narrative that gives the effect of real life. But to echo what Dominic said, I don’t think that it has been the case all the time. I wouldn’t say that it is only in the past decade or so that literary scholars, anthropologists, et cetera, are becoming cognizant of energy. But I do think what Sarah said about crisis, bringing the indispensability of labor and infrastructure into visibility has a corollary effect in literary studies. But I think what has passed for realism may well have included plenty of details that tell us about energy, but we have tended not to notice them. Right. And so I think that even what counts as realism is up for grabs in terms of the extent to which we grapple with the indispensability of energy and the unevenness of energy. My colleague Imre Szeman has a kind of wonderful phrase for talking about this, which is “fictions of surplus,” which he uses to describe both the historical fiction that the surplus of energy that has been made possible by fossil fuels over the past two centuries is anything but an unrepeatable historical anomaly. But the literary aspect of fiction of surplus is that literary fiction has not done anything to challenge that kind of fiction and bring it into visibility. I guess I’ll just out a couple of small things. I think I alluded to this a bit in my comments. And first, as a sidebar, I’m just intrigued and love the synergy’s across our three comments, which were entirely uncoordinated. But it’s amazing how there’s lots of ping-ponging and productive in generative ways. Thank you.
I alluded a little bit to social history really accessing lived experience and in important ways versus top-down history and also hinted at rhetoric versus reality in terms of thinking about what sources that we use, which voices we access and Jennifer’s presentation, talking about ads and idealized representations versus what things look like on the ground for different groups. So I think those are two important points just to draw those out again. But also one of the things that I’ve been thinking about is the “we.” I mean we’ve been using “we,” our actors use “we” and really starting to challenge and pull that apart. And also the political-strategic use of “we” in order to evade politics or keep power in the institutions and groups that already have them. So I think that asking questions about the “we” and generalizations that helps us get lived experience, but precisely looking at lived experience and everyday energy helps us problematize the “we” historically, contemporaneously, ethnographically in terms of policy, all those kinds of things in some really important ways. Yeah, I think this really connects to some of your recent work for all of our panelists, which have really drawn out these key concepts or metaphors. And I think we also saw some new ones tonight with the ideas of impasse, visibility, the idea of the non-user. But some of the ones from your recent work: the concept of solarity, the idea of an endscape, or the concept of extractivism. And I think given what you’ve all just said, it would be interesting to maybe reflect on the utility of these big ideas for organizing these really diverse ranges of lived experience, as well as to sort of think about the way they allow us an entry point into diverse forms of everyday life that we otherwise might not see.
Can I do that annoying political debate thing of answering my panelists, ignoring the question momentarily, and then getting to the question? Yeah. I mean, I think that Sara’s point about the “we” is incredibly important. And I also saw, I think maybe a question from Jeff Insko, which I feel is kind of maybe getting to this as well. And I can say that my own training from graduate school as a scholar of post-colonial literatures, specializing in Anglophone literatures of Africa and South Asia, has really…the way I think about the specialty of my work has changed entirely as I have begun working more on energy humanities. Right. So it’s Nigeria that got me into thinking about oil to begin with. But it has become almost impossible to ignore my own institutional location in North America, which is also the kind of it’s the center of gravity of well, I might get some pushback in this audience. But I tend to think of it as the center of gravity of the fossil fuel industry and also the center of gravity of the energy humanities. And so I think my work has become increasingly contrapuntal between the United States and places where I had been trained in graduate school to think about. Right. So the Mississippi Delta to the to the Niger Delta. And I think that’s all about not necessarily abjuring or disavowing the “we,” but thinking about the different textures of different kinds of we. Right. And another thing that I would say is that I don’t think it’s enough to say North America or the United States. And my thinking in energy humanities has been really shaped by two kinds of locations. One is the classroom. And I am in what now passes from my classroom, right in my home. But one is the classroom. And I think that that is very much the site of thinking about the we of a class and how it connects to these other spaces. And the other is my former institutional location at The University of Michigan, which was about forty-five minutes drive from Detroit. And so I think my students in Michigan had a very different understanding of what it means to think about oil and energy than my students in New York. And I started thinking about energy, you know, in the kind of downturn after the bankruptcy of Detroit. And so I think my students had a sense of a different kind of petro-violence than the petro-violence that I thought I was teaching them about, about the Niger Delta. I will now — sorry Trish, to have ignored your question — I will now take it up. And I would answer just very quickly. And I think that you’ve asked me to talk about extractivism. And the very quick thing that I would say about that is that if anything, I understand myself at this particular moment, as I’m not sure anti-extractivism. — and by that, like, of course, we’re all anti-extractivism — but what I mean by that specifically is suspicious of that category as a category of analysis, because I perceive in it a kind of conceptual creep where it’s it’s becoming a synonym for capitalism writ large. Right. And so losing the texture of what I had understood that word to mean. And here again, I’m cribbing from a piece that I co-wrote with Imre Szeman over the summer. And I think my favorite part of that piece is footnotes six or something like that, which I wrote to claim what had been commons, but would ask whether a dam is extractivist in the same way as a coal mine. And I don’t think that it is, even if we can think about all of the kind of harms and costs that dams inflict on on communities. To me, there’s a value in holding onto a particular kind of materiality in the concept of extractive, which I feel is being how do you say, metaphorized? Turned into a metaphor, in all kinds of directions. But I appreciate the question. Sorry for going on.
Thanks, Jennifer. I guess I could jump in and talk a little bit, speak to the sort of the concepts, in particular solarity as a concept that I think a lot of people are beginning to think with in the energy humanities as a kind of an opposite from petro-culture or something. We’re not quite sure. And, you know, I guess I would tell the parable of one of the early critical theorists in our European intellectual heritage, Karl Marx, who famously never really defined what, you know, a post-capitalist society was supposed to look like communism for him was the negation of the capitalist society of his era. It wasn’t the sort of newly formed, fully formed world that was supposed to follow it. And that’s caused a lot of confusion. And then a lot of people pointed and said, you know, you’re a lazy thinker, an incomplete thinker for this reason. But he was a Hegelian, and Hegelians don’t believe you can really understand things until you’re living in an experientially saturated way through them. So. what I would say about solarity is I don’t think we know what the post-petrol world is going to look like exactly I think what we can do, though, is we can both, on the one hand, think about the values that should inform that world. And we can also think about the kinds of acts of de-systematization of petro-culture that we can all participate in. What I call sabotage. I mean, the acts of sabotage that could be riding a bike instead of, you know, driving a car or flying less or demanding that your political representatives support decarbonization measures. There are a lot of ways you can participate through direct action or indirect action in that process. And I think that as a solarity comes, and we’ve seen this throughout time, many times, again, that something seems impossible to imagine until suddenly it’s there. And then you’re like, oh, of course, we should have known all along that this is what it was. And I think that one of the things I would say, and I’m saying this from a place of Houston, I’m saying it from the beating heart of petro-culture to you — is that the fossil fuel economy will end faster than we think. It’s already decisively on its way out. And in 20 years, we might be amazed to look back and say we didn’t see how fast it was going to end. So solarity is coming in some form or another. But I think to speak to the environmental justice question that was raised in Jeff’s question in the Q&A, that is the key issue: how not to fall into the grooves of the extractivism of the past, how not to build wind parks and solar farms in ways that dispossess people that don’t have. Create meaningful connections to landscapes and communities that prioritize the interests of global capital over the needs of people who live near to these installations. Those are the sorts of habits that we can actually have to work on to unmake so that we don’t end up creating a sort of solarized dystopia going forward. And that’s something that I think is or is a legitimate fear. I guess I’ll comment briefly on the concept that you alluded to Trish in terms of… I had this extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime trip to a small bard in Norway north of the Arctic Circle in January 2019 which seems like a billion years ago now, particularly given travel and pandemic and everything, during Polar Night. So it’s January during Polar Night. And I wrote a piece about the experience of being there and what it was like and thinking about energy and the landscapes of energy north of the Arctic Circle. And so I was playing with the concept of “endscape,” which builds on Dolly Jørgensen’s concept of “endling.” With “endling” being the last the last animal of the species that’s about to go extinct. So I was playing with the idea of endscape, of landscapes that are on the cusp of disappearance or are on their way out. Which, obviously, the Arctic is ground zero for that. And part of the point of the piece was also thinking explicitly and making visible my own implication in that very process at Svalbard. Right. Because I flew a gazillion miles and it took three days to get there and all this kind of stuff, as well as the other people who are part of this conference on darkness. I think I guess what I want to… there are two things I want to say about that that are related is, that “endscape” can be a very privileged category in terms of the futurity of landscape, rather than thinking about how many places are already endscapes or were endscapes 10 years ago or more. Right. And so anxieties about sea-level rise, say, on the coast of the United States versus islands or other parts of the world, which are already experiencing extensive change. And wrestling with the social and economic and political implications of that and so forth. So I haven’t really played with or developed this concept more. But I think what one of the things that’s important to me is to not take for granted that many people, particularly vulnerable people in North America and around around the world, are already living in endscapes, so to speak, and not imagine this is something that’s in the future, whether in your future, or just in the future. I think all of these comments and this sort of first chunk have really underscored something you had said earlier, Sara, right. Which was, you know, getting at this idea that the everyday can really give us strong insights into really profound questions about justice and ensuring justice. And so I want to invite our participants…our attendees, rather, to go ahead and begin sending in questions. I’m going to sort of shift to another round of questions. But we are going to open it to the audience very soon. And that will be great to have a good list of questions to start from. And so now I want to sort of talk explicitly about something that I think has come up in all of the answers, but to really come directly to this problem of futurity. And I think, you know, just taking a little bit of a shift, I was wondering if we could think about even just the idea of lived experience beyond the human right, so theorizing the lived experience as opposed to anthropocentric category, how we might conceive lived experience to include non-human forms of experience as well as human. And so that might be obviously the energy realities of the present as well as future modes of relationality with non-humans. I guess I could jump in on this. It’s a great prompt. Thanks so much Trish.
It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite energy humanities projects, environmental humanities projects that I’ve done in my life, which was working together with collaborators in Iceland and my partner Cymene Howe to create the world’s first memorial for a glacier lost in Iceland to climate change. The first of Iceland’s major glaciers to disappear to climate change. And we had a lot of interesting discussions talking about how do you mourn something that… How do you mourn the death of something that was never properly speaking alive? And how do you blend together sort of the the deep human traditions of thinking about Earth beings and their existence in places? And glaciers in Iceland have meant many different things in different times. And how do you acknowledge that alongside, accommodate it to human ritual and human understandings of death? And I’ll say that that whole process was incredibly, you know, powerful for me and really made me think a lot about how at least in terms of the losses that we’re experiencing, we have to be more present for them and we have to create communities of mourning around the changing world, the damaged planet that we inhabit now. And I actually think that the experience of attending to and really thinking about, say, the loss of a glacier is like something like the loss of a friend or some kin. It’s something that actually, I think has the potential to make us more engaged in the process of making sure that all the glaciers don’t go in the same way. So I do think that attention to the non-human, the anthropocentrism is very deeply set in us, especially in the north, in terms of thinking about, you know, how we relate to the world. But that’s something that we really have to try to disable as we move forward or try to find other ways of being human. I’ll say as an anthropologist, you know, the kind of European modernity that I was discussing in my presentation is pretty much a huge outlier to the rest of human cultures across time in terms of its, you know, its contempt for nature, its contempt for other species, frankly. And I think that’s something that, again, suggests that where we’re going is not simply just tweaking the existing system by putting up some solar panels and wind turbines, but we actually have to engage in a process of civilizational transformation at a more fundamental level. And that’s something that’s frightening. But also, when you think about it, very exciting, because this civilization has a lot of blood in its on its hands, if you will. And I think there’s a chance to make something better. I can jump in. I think there’s a synergy between what you just raised and something that I wanted to bring up kind of as a sidebar. There’s the classic question and history of science and particularly science studies about voice and representation or spokesperson and questions about who speaks for the non-human. Do scientists speak? What does that mean, particularly given that we know the ways in which science and scientists are shaped by cultural, historical, and other kinds of contexts. But that’s kind of a sidebar. What you’re just saying, I think about cultural abnormality of the West. That’s my exaggeration, exaggerated summary of what you just said. I was just thinking about the ways in which this question, which I really appreciate, is already predicated on certain assumptions and places and cultures and contexts. And I’m thinking about the ways in which this question wouldn’t make sense for many indigenous communities. And so what does it mean to be reflective, even about these categories like living, non-living, human, non-human. The question of kin and who are what counts as kin. And certainly there’s been a lot of work in environmental humanities about this, but also some debate between it and digital scholars and environmental humanists in terms of what does it mean to appropriate indigenous notions of kin to describe more complex relationships between the human and non-human and the more than human. So by way of response or engagement with this really important question, I actually just want to encourage us to think about the ways in which it’s already culturally defined in particular ways, and that that of itself, I think is important. Sorry. Yeah, I think I appreciate what Dominic was saying about a sense of loss. And I think that the words that resonate for me in this question are “relationality,” or the word is is “relationality” rather than “experience.” And perhaps, for the moment, I want to locate myself within a kind of European mindset in order to say that I am not confident that I can theorize non-human experience. Right. And I’m thinking partly with Dipesh Chakrabarty, who says that actually we humans can’t experience ourselves as a species. Right. And so relationality is therefore the word that really kind of that resonates for me in terms of understanding our relationship to energy as a multi or understanding relationships to energy as multi-species relationships. And maybe I’ll see if I can share my screen for a literary example that comes at this question in a different way. This is, I think, if I’m not mistaken, this is the very end of Italo Calvino’s story, The Petrol Pump, which is ostensibly a story about pumping gas, like pumping gas during the 1970’s oil shock. The first one in Italy. But as this protagonist is pumping gas, what he is imagining is, as you can read, the day in the future, when “the earth’s crust reabsorbs the cities, this plankton sediment that was humankind will be covered by geological layers of asphalt and cement until in millions of years’ time it thickens into oily deposits, on whose behalf we do not know.” And what I so love about this passage in the story is that it takes the geological fact of fossil fuels as tiny dead creatures, right, fossil fuels as fossilized life, and imagines a future in which humans become fossil fuels for another life form. Right. And so it uses the resources of fiction to imagine what a future human relationship to fuel as fuel might look like on behalf of another species.
Thank you all so much. That was really reminiscent, actually, of my environmental history students working through Bathsheba Demuth’s “Floating Coast,” this year. And just its a really wonderful and provocative discussion to have. So before we move over to audience questions, I’ll just pose one question, bring it all back around and let you give some, I guess, wrap-up comments before we move to the audience questions, which is just to think about really explicitly what role the study of history and culture can play in bringing about a just energy transition. I know we’ve already reflected on this quite a bit, but.
Okay, I can get started here. I can speak really specifically to the risk research that Cymene and I did on wind-power development in southern Mexico, the densest concentration of onshore wind parks anywhere in the world, primarily built upon ancestral indigenous lands of the binnizá and ikojts peoples. And without, you know, getting into the weeds on this too much, just to say that it’s been incredibly impressive in terms of just decarbonizing electricity, it’s been impressive from that standpoint. It’s a terrific development of over two gigawatts of clean electricity. So from that perspective, very impressive. But it’s also been extremely politically contentious, in part because the people who developed these projects had no understanding whatsoever of the specific history of this region, of the indigenous cultures there and of their long relationship to various extractivist projects in the past. So even if you’re only thinking of this from a pragmatic point of view of how can you create clean energy projects that people don’t hate? History and culture have an enormous role to play in this, as we found. And that’s simply, you know, trying to engage these communities in a serious way and understand where they’re coming from would have gone a long way towards creating trust and goodwill. And just to speak to Jennifer’s point about relationality. It’s all about relationality. This is all about trying to be in good relation to other beings, human beings, to human beings, us, to us as a species, to the ecologies that sustain us, and so forth. And I think history and culture are not perfect, but just the commitment to trying to understand, to try to communicate, to try to empathize with peoples and other beings with different histories, I think is really valuable in terms of getting out of the habit in which we’re trying to dominate the world. Right. Extract its resources and use it to feed our machines of productivity and prosperity. Because we’ve seen where that is going to go, and it’s going to go to ecocide and ultimately to the collapse of the civilization. And so it’s all too clear that we’re on that path. So I think that history and culture actually are incredibly important valuable lessons in information and ethics to offer us in that struggle to not allow that future to be foretold. I can go next, I guess. I mean, I’m thinking with my fellow panelists in terms of things that have already been said, and I think that, you know, the kind of classic transition from plantations to petroleum in the U.S. Gulf Coast is, you know, it kind of haunts my understanding of history, of energy transitions. And so what that tells us. And again, I’m stuck with Jeff Insko’s question on my screen. Right. So what that tells us is that the past is not past. Right. And Sara Pritchard has also invoked the really important idea that for so many people, a future of less energy or the costs of the current energy regime is already here. Right. And has been here for a long time. So the past is not past. The future is already here. And so I think I’m leaning actually more to the history than the culture part of the question. I think that the question of how one frames a narrative, how one frames a narrative of history, and how one tells the story of how we got here and who counts in that “we” is crucial to what transition looks like in the future. And so an idea that has stuck with me since I first read it is from the Nigerian writer and public intellectual Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who says that what is important, or the narrative mode that entrenches injustice is starting the narrative from “secondly.” Right. And what she means by that is you begin the narrative when the violence has already happened and is normalized. Right. And so to refuse a historical narrative that begins from “secondly,” that begins with the violence already baked in, I think by analogy, I think it helps to chart a way toward a future where those modes of violence are not always already assumed. It’s hard to figure out how to add and build on to those great comments. So much has already been said. I think one thing I would add is the way many humanists are attentive to power. This is a super simple point and comment. But sometimes simple matters. Multiple forms of power in different kinds of contexts and different kinds of ways, but understanding how that works historically, culturally, and so forth, then helps us have a richer understanding when we’re debating the contemporary moment. I was kind of twitch about the lessons of history. I mean, yes, there are lessons of history. But then also, you know, I think all historians are trained to twitch at that. But I think if we have a much richer, deeper understanding of these layers and sediments of structures and power and violence and also opportunities and resistance, there are spaces there for thinking both creatively and pragmatically, to kind of link my two co-panelists’ comments.
Well, thank you so much again for talking through these ideas. I have so many more questions that I could ask. But I’m going to turn it now over to my colleague Firat to go ahead and moderate the discussion with our audience questions. Thanks Trish. And thanks to our panelists for the really remarkable reflections that they have provided us. And of course, as a price comes questions. I would like to start with one question I think related to our current moment of the pandemic and also related to one question we had in mind. This is from my Education City colleague Peter Martin. How does or might energy humanities engage or position the notion of well-being and thinking of Dominic’s concept of rebellion, Sara’s evident enjoyment of dog sledding and other experiences of Arctic darkness, Jennifer’s reading fiction, watching films for the planet. What is the value of playfulness and games for the energy humanities? So that’s the fun part in certain ways, right? We could see our interest in lived experiences that turn away from the high seriousness of global energy politics. Is there a political value in that affective shift and make us feel better?
I could start us off here, I mean, I think Jennifer has already talked about the importance of narratives and counter-narratives and creativity and imagination and the ways in which that can all be motivating or constraining. I think some of this affective shift when I was thinking about this question, for me, I think it helps us get out of declensions narratives or nihilistic narratives, even if we — again, asterisk, who’s the “we” here — We are facing daunting circumstances in many ways that this affective shift may provide more motivation or creativity in terms of creative responses to various challenges versus a threat of inaction. I think there’s the line about “if the ship’s sinking, let’s just party as the Titanic goes down.” Right. And the other thing that I was thinking about is actually going back to William Cronon’s “The Trouble with Wilderness” article. He has this line about there’s a problem with seeing all human use as abuse because it doesn’t…it fails to differentiate between different kinds of anthropocentric engagements with the natural world or non-human or more than human world or worlds. And therefore, it becomes a simplistic binary. If we act or change, that’s bad. Untouched wilderness supposedly is good, except that never existed anyway. So I think this more playful register — also, I was thinking about Holly Jean Buck’s idea of the “Charming Anthropocene” — that maybe it provides greater motivation for people rather than feeling overwhelmed, or the scale of issues is fundamentally not changeable or inactionable…unactionable? I don’t know, whatever. Maybe I can pick up on Sara’s last point. Sara, thanks so much. And this idea of sort of feeling trapped in the condition, you know, watching the train in slow motion, you know, collide with the car and not being able to feel like you have any agency to change things. And I do think that goes back to some of the earlier comments that we had about, you know, about can sort of sense of impasse and also the sense of sort of imaginative, you know, failure and where is I rooted? One of my suggestions is that, you know, what we’re up against — and we should realize that we’re up against it — is that petro-culture has filled our — for those of us privileged enough to have an abundance of energy at our disposal to live with this energy without conscience lifestyle — petro-culture has provided us with this rich sense memory archive of all these thrills and indulgences and conveniences and luxuries that petro-culture has given us. So when you talk about a radical break or a shift, immediately, I think people say, but I don’t have memories of this low-carbon future. I don’t I certainly don’t have positive memories, but I don’t have any memories of this low-carbon future. And so thus we tend to kind of retreat back to a sense of well, it must be impossible — or if it’s possible, it’s a dystopia of some kind. And so we fear it. And so it’s sort of easier to imagine apocalypse than the end of petro-culture. Just people said that about capitalism. I think the same goes for petro-culture. But this is why the humanities and especially the arts are so important. — speaking to the artists out there — because the arts have these amazing speculative and performative techniques for creating experiences and ideas and narratives and images that could be associated, that can kind of give us memories of these futures that we need…so desperately need. And I think there’s just you know, I enjoy the work I do with artists, maybe more than any, because I think that this is where you can maybe begin to sort of map out the possibilities for low-carbon pleasures. And honestly, you know, when you begin to think about it, many of the best things in life are low-carbon anyway. If you really begin to think about it, you know, the walks outside in the sun, the intimacies, you know, with your friends and partners and so forth. These are beautiful things that don’t require a lot of high carbon. When you begin to sort of re-rewire your pleasure circuits a little bit in that way, I think it can help a lot to sort of create the sense of possibility. So it’s this again. I don’t think it is one thing. It’s incremental work sort of reorganizing our desires and imagining sort of positive futures that are associated with low-carbon lifestyles. So I think this is the work that has to be done. Yeah, I can definitely build off of that with regard to what Dominic says about, you know, having no memories of low-carbon futures. One of my favorite ideas from Graeme Macdonald is reading 19th-century fiction and doing what he calls chronological backflips to understand what a low-carbon future might look like based on reading, you know, an earlier version of that. And so he reads 19th-century novels for an account of what it means to have to walk everywhere. And it’s a kind of delightful thought experiment. And I’m thinking of a Gayatri Spivak’s description of the work of the humanities as the non-coercive rearrangement of desire. And that’s kind of echoing what Dominic was saying about rewiring desire. And it seems to me that transition is coming. You know, whether we like it or not. And so I think one of the fundamental questions about energy in energy humanities is “what kind of transition do we want?” And so thinking about what a mindful transition to kind of echo the language of well-being, what a just transition would look like it, and how to take incremental steps toward getting there. And so I think that this means a redefinition of what well-being is and what we mean by well-being. What counts as well-being. And I think it would involve those kinds of relationality is that we’ve been talking about, and recognizing that well-being may not be the same as pleasure or what we have thought of as pleasure may be inimical to well-being. So I guess the last thing I would say to try to invoke the question of play is that, maybe it was two…it must have been actually two years ago now I was at an event — I think Dominic must have been there as well — on solarity And what I did in my solarity workshop was, with the help and in the company of others, I, in theory, in actuality, but I in theory made my own solar panel. And I say “in theory,” because it didn’t work. My solar panel didn’t work. Other people’s solar panels did work. And so I think part of what was so wonderful about this experience of making my own solar panel was letting go of the idea that what I do is, some kind of mastery. Right. And kind of leaning into a kind of DIY mode in which I was doing things I didn’t know how to do. Right. And in the sense of play. And I think part of what was powerful to me as I was struggling in frustration to make my solar panel was the idea that the way that solar panels work is that, you know, the electrons are bouncing on these surfaces and they’re incredibly inefficient. Solar panels, they kind of they transform into usable energy only a very small percentage of what’s actually happening with those electrons. And I have kind of held onto that as a metaphor for letting go of the demand for productivity. Right. Letting go of the idea that every electron bouncing in my mind must lead to something. So I think this gets both to the question that Firat raised about play. Where is the place of play? And I think play might be partly about letting go of that Cara Daggett idea of energy that Dominic mentioned that’s all about work. And we’re worrying about waste. Right. And so to think about a way of being that isn’t just about work. And that is about play. And it is about doing things that we don’t know how to do yet. Right.
Thank you so much. We have about five to six minutes left. So in the interest of time, I’ll try to sort of put some of the questions in a thematic cluster. I think in a way they all point out at the unevennesses of lived experiences of energy, especially in the Global South. I think the questions that Petra, Diana, Danya, Jeff, in particular, have been asking center around that question. So to start with Petra’s question, do you agree that an everyday approach helps acknowledge fragmented experiences that are based in different energy regimes that coexist, not just oil, and allows for complexity of historical agency of energy actors, who are never only producers or consumers of energy? Danya Saleh’s question: What do the panelists working in Energy Humanities think about the different green new deals, peoples Green New Deal, Red Deal from the Red Nation, they might they map out ways forward beyond riding bikes and also center reparations to the Global South. Diana’s comment also is in that line in differentiating extractivism — coal versus dam — are we also differentiating petro-violence versus hydro-violence? And finally, I think Jeff’s question, some of it was and in certain ways, but worth asking still, how do we work toward a post-petrol, that is also a just one.
I can start and just be very quick. I’ve actually oh, there it is. I had lost Petra’s question, but I want to answer it by way of a photograph from Ed Kashi. This is in the collection. Curse of the Black Gold: 50 years of Oil in the Niger Delta. And this image is so powerful to me because it is an image of energy simultaneity. Right. So we can understand that these enormous tanks here contain fossil fuels that will be piped elsewhere and not for use in Nigeria. And so we see the kind of muscular labor of these men chopping wood to burn. So we see kind of two energy regimes operating at the same time. And so I think that I’ve lost her question again. But I think that thinking about the unevenness in one place is, a really helpful way of thinking. And about the question of violence, I would say…I think somebody else had asked about dirty-clean fuel and petro-violence versus hydro violence. And I think that the very quick thing I would say about that is that it feels to me, and this might not be right, but it feels to me that there is a tendency toward violence that is inherent in scaling up. Right. So I think many kinds of energy become violent or dirty through this process of scaling up. And I don’t know what to do about that. Right. But I feel like scale is important in thinking about those problems. I could follow on that a little bit. That’s a really interesting point, Jennifer, the last point about the violence of scaling up and I think that there definitely is, this is another one of David Hughes’s arguments as one of the things that the plantation system did was to weave violence into sort of what we would think of as globalization in a very fundamental way so that you couldn’t have that transatlantic capitalism without a whole lot of violence being waged. And so and that’s sort of a legacy that we haven’t really come to terms with a lot of ways in terms of how much it’s fed into globalization more generally. The sense that, you know, the translocal flows are more important than what might happen to people in the communities where resource frontiers. And I think that’s always been an issue. And so a couple of thoughts. I mean, you know, one thought — and this comes out of a German solarity thinkers like Hermann Scheer — is to really sort of move towards hyper-local energy, to really focus on, you know, you use the energy you can make in your community or you can make in your home and that you don’t need the sort of apparatus of sort of long-distance energy systems. In fact, as he saw, like a lot of state violence and was really wrapped up in sort of, you know, managing those long distance flows, like why else is the United States invading the Middle East all the time, if not to guarantee its petro-political, you know, sort of systems? So I think that’s one model. And then there’s another model, which may be more utopian, but I think as we’re thinking about, is are there ways we could move towards more ethical kinds of globalization, more ethical kinds of trans-local relationships? Are they necessarily violent? Can we imagine that there are other models available? And I think that there are some that are out there, you know, that that might exist as alternatives that could be explored. But I think on the whole, you know, it’s probably an issue, as you say, Jennifer, that really has to be thought of as a problem of scale and how we can scale the energy transition in a way that reduces the violence of the previous energy systems. Again, the danger of going last, a lot’s been said, but Dominic, you just used the word ethical. I’m not sure if I have a lot to add in terms of of unevenness, in equality, power, justice, and so forth, because that’s definitely been a thread running through our presentations and the conversations and questions. And so I’m left with the question of how do “we” — again, the problematic “we” — how do we get people to care about ethics and justice and others, whether it’s local, others or just… And also acknowledge the ways in which many of us are already, you know, are implicated in systems that are dependent on unevenness and extraction and violence in order to have energy or convenience or ease of luxury elsewhere.
Thank you so much. Our time is now up. My colleague Danyel Reiche had asked, and I won’t expect you to answer this question, but his question was, what are the issues unique to Qatar and the Gulf when discussing lived everyday energy experiences? I’ll keep this question is an excuse to bring you to Doha when conditions permit. But it is also a question that, as a research group, we are aiming to delve into in detail. Now, I would like to hand it over to Dean Dallal to provide his conclusion or remarks.
Thank you so much for this extremely interesting discussion and the great launch for our project. I hope the audience will join us in future activities and I hope we will, before long, we’ll be able to host you here in Doha. Thank you so much.
- Energy Humanities: An Anthology, edited by Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer
- Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, by Dominic Boyer
- Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, edited by Imre Szeman, Jennifer Wenzel, and Patricia Yaeger
- Confluence: The Nature of Technology and the Remaking of the Rhône, by Sara B. Pritchard
- New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies, edited by Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard
- Technology and the Environment in History, by Sara B. Pritchard and Carl A. Zimring
- The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature, by Jennifer Wenzel
- Bulletproof: Afterlives of Anticolonial Prophecy in South Africa and Beyond, by Jennifer Wenzel
- Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century, by Stephanie LeMenager
- Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, by Sidney W. Mintz
- A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, by Kathryn Yusoff
- The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work, by Cara New Daggett
- Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell
- Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, by Matthew T. Huber
- The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters, by Charles Perrow
- The Multichannel Retail Handbook, by Chris Jones
- Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of the Modern Southwest, by Andrew Needham
- The Work of Invisibility: Radiation Hazards and Occupational Health in South African Uranium Production, by Gabrielle Hecht
- The Oil Lamp: Poems, by Ogaga Ifowodo
- Orientalism, by Edward W. Said
- Curse of The Black Gold: 50 Years of Oil in the Niger Delta, by Ed Kashi
- Wenzel, Jennifer. “How to read for oil.” Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities 1, no. 3 (2014): 156-161.
- Cronon, William. “The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature.” Environmental history 1, no. 1 (1996): 7-28.
- Buck, Holly Jean. “On the possibilities of a charming Anthropocene.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 105, no. 2 (2015): 369-377.
- Not Ok – Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer