Tag Archives: Dr Caroline Edwards

Petrocultures explored: The oil dependency of contemporary life

This post was contributed by Sami Salo, who is currently studying the Cultural and Critical Studies MA at Birkbeck’s School of Arts

Microsoft Word - Petrocultures Panel Poster.docx

Microsoft Word – Petrocultures Panel Poster.docx

Oil is the ‘energy unconscious,’ the often unspoken, yet, constantly present component in most key functions of modern society. As well as being present in my immediate surroundings – in the plastic of my computer keyboard, in the lotion I rub on my hands – the energy from oil underwrites the agribusiness that produces cheap food for an ever-increasing global population, and, perhaps most significantly, oil fuels our communications, the transport systems that shrink space and enable the unprecedented movement of people and goods around the globe.

Considering this ubiquitousness of oil, it is striking that the role of oil is not discussed more in our culture. The Arts Week panel discussion Environmental Futures: Oil, Ecology, Petrocultures, held at Birkbeck on 18 May, centred on questions about the oil-dependency of contemporary life and the ways in which this dependency can be represented.

Peak oil and science fiction

Dr Caroline Edwards talked about peak oil in the popular imagination. Peak oil is the idea that oil production has peaked and the amount of oil that will be available for extraction in the future will be on an irrevocably decreasing trend. What effects will this decreasing availability have on capitalism, on technology and on liberal democracy? How are these effects imagined in popular culture?

Science fiction and horror are genres that have often been seen to explore anxieties about issues that are difficult to discuss explicitly. Dr Edwards’s research into science fiction suggests that awareness and anxiety about peak oil and global warming are reflected in the narratives used in science fiction.

Prior to the 1970s oil crisis, imagined futures often depicted masculine explorations into space powered by abundant new forms of energy. More recently, as a decrease in available energy is looking more likely, speculative fiction has moved away from visions of energy-abundant utopias to depictions of collapse instead.

Resources and cultural production

Dr Graeme MacDonald explored the connection between resources and cultural production in more general terms. As well as producing anxiety, the oil industry also produces and subtends culture in tangible ways. The oil industry’s sponsorship of universities and arts institutions are some of the ways in which oil actively produces culture.

Dr MacDonald’s current research is in ‘petrofiction,’ but what exactly this petrofiction entails is hard to pin down. Just as the ties between capitalism and oil are everywhere, so are ‘oily moments’ in fiction. Putting on a polyester shirt, grabbing a Starbucks or getting on the tube are all acts enabled by oil but where do we draw the line in looking for the significance of oil in these events?

Dr MacDonald exhorts us to engage with oil and see the ways in which it produces culture. Questions of peak oil and global warming can seem like purely scientific questions of temperature thresholds, extraction rates and feedback loops. At the same time, we continue to extract and burn oil even though we know what the environmental effects are. What is the role of culture in our persistent reliance on these harmful practices?

Citizen sensing and environmental practice

Exploring this challenge of reading scientific data against our everyday experience is Dr Jennifer Gabrys’s project “Citizen Sensing and Environmental Practice: Assessing Participatory Engagements with Environments through Sensor Technologies.”

One part of the project investigates citizen participation in monitoring air pollution at fracking sites along the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. As well as producing data on pollution levels, residents participating in the project are asked to keep a log book of their experiences. This project challenges our notions about scientific data by democratising the collection of data while at the same time connecting this data to the experiences of the people living in a rapidly changing environment.

Oil-inspired poetry

A different experiential engagement with oil was provided by the poet Michael McKimm whose reading of oil-inspired poetry wrapped up the panel. McKimm’s poetry took us to some of the industrialised rural landscapes of oil pipes and refineries that usually remain invisible to us but whose existence is vital to so many of the functions of our society.

This panel posed crucial questions about our culture’s engagement with oil and suggested some new ways in which individuals’ relationship to energy sources can be democratised. As our harmful use of fossil fuels shows no signs of abating, it is clear that the nascent academic field of petrocultures will become an area of increasing academic and cultural interest in the future.

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