A Boom in Oil Studies

  • Sheena Wilson (Editor), Adam Carlson (Editor) and Imre Szeman (Editor)
    Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Bart Welling

For the past several years, high-carbon oil from the bitumen deposits of northern Alberta has been one of Canada’s top export commodities. The bitumen industry has brought thousands of high-paying jobs to the boreal forest, but at a terrible long-term cost. As numerous commentators have argued, this cost must be measured both in terms of regional and national concerns—e.g., massive pollution, cancer deaths, violations of Indigenous rights, lost biodiversity, and widespread economic exposure of Canadian governments and citizens to the volatility of the oil market—and with an eye to the impacts that burning so much carbon-rich petroleum, not to mention using vast amounts of energy to transform tarry bitumen into commodifiable oil in the first place, will have on global warming. The leading climate scientist James Hansen has singled out Alberta’s bitumen sands as a potential source of atmospheric carbon so huge that continuing to exploit the sands could make the “climate problem . . .  unsolvable.”

Fortunately, Canadian academics troubled by the social and ecological costs of petroleum seem to have been just as busy of late as the hydrocarbons industry. Canadian scholars in the liberal arts and social sciences have dramatically boosted global “exports” of brilliant analyses of the often-hidden costs, meanings, and socio-political influences of petroleum dependency in modern societies, and they have rapidly mobilized an international network of “petrocritics,” most of whom seem dedicated not just to producing scholarship about fossil fuels but also to theorizing how oil-dependent societies can transition to renewable energy sources—and, potentially, become more equitable and fulfilling cultures in the process. The strong and wide-ranging collection Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, which is based on presentations delivered in 2012 at the inaugural Petrocultures conference at the University of Alberta, will provide readers interested in the development of the “energy humanities” a snapshot of this swiftly evolving field as it was first coalescing. But the book also offers a wealth of still-relevant insights into how oil shapes every aspect of the modern world, and how scholars in disciplines that have heretofore not occupied seats at the energy/climate table can join in the crucial work of rethinking modern humanity’s ways of powering our lives.

The claim encoded in the neologism petrocultures and articulated by the volume’s contributors is brilliantly summarized in the book’s cover image, Marco Verch’s New York Skyline. It shows white skyscrapers in silhouette against a black sky. On the left side of the cover, the blackness comprises a harmless, two-dimensional negative space. This space takes on a decidedly more menacing form on the right side, however, where the blackness gathers into seemingly three-dimensional trompe l’oeil rivulets of oil that drizzle down out of the background into the foreground, partially obscuring the title and threatening to erase the white city . . . and maybe to get all over readers’ hands. The transformation of negative space into oozing muck reveals that the supposed emptiness (air) between the buildings is actually a presence (not just petroleum but, perhaps, carbon from burned fossil fuels), a presence that reveals modern civilization’s abject dependence on, and vulnerability to, its repressed energy Others. What petrocultures means is that a substance that most residents of the developed world have been trained to think of (or, more accurately, not think of) as a minor background “issue”—one that only becomes interesting or worrisome when it costs too much or too little, or escapes the structures we have built to “safely” process it and deliver it where it supposedly belongs in internal combustion engines, plastics, and petrochemicals—has actually constituted modern life as we know it, and currently has the potential to destroy civilization and most non-human life on the planet.

All of the chapters in Petrocultures deal to some extent with problems involved in foregrounding aspects of oil that modern societies work hard to keep in the background (speaking economically, politically, and culturally as well as ecologically). But none of them indulge in what contributor Brenda Longfellow calls “the simple rhetoric of denunciation or declamation,” merely shaming eco-villains in the oil industry and championing non-existent easy solutions to petro-dependency. Longfellow, a filmmaker, describes the challenges associated with creating projects that simultaneously call out petro-capitalists and manage to factor in everyone else’s “toxic dependency on oil,” “implicat[ing] the viewer” in such seldom-represented forms of extractivism as offshore drilling. Graeme Macdonald shows how photographs of pipelines, and pipelines themselves, conceal the tremendous violence of petroleum extraction in places like Nigeria, but can also reveal a “fundamental dependency” on a system that is “enabling” as well as disastrous. Darin Barney and Mark Simpson deftly eviscerate arguments made in support of bitumen sands and pipeline development. Nevertheless, while Simpson’s and Barney’s essays, like standard environmentalist exposés of oil industry malfeasance, are committed to spotlighting pro-oil rhetoric’s contradictions and deceptions, they do not merely demonize the industry and those who support it; rather, they model the kind of even-handed, patient sifting of evidence that people in every oil-dependent country should be engaged in. Janine MacLeod’s fascinating and beautifully written contribution likewise avoids demonizing industry, but then takes a further step that I think is crucial in the study of petrocultures in an age when, as Bruno Latour has argued, we need to learn how to “love [our] monsters”—i.e., care for the unexpected and undesirable by-products of technological advancement. A meditation on the deeply problematic relationships between water/life on one hand and the myriad hydrophobic (“water-hating”) substances derived from fossil fuels on the other, MacLeod’s chapter ends by asking how we could treat discarded plastics, petrochemical toxins, and other easy-to-hate remains of Hydrocarbon World “more hospitably.” After all, as both MacLeod and Michael Truscello observe, these “monsters,” or unwanted guests whom we have unwittingly invited into our bodies and life-places, are going to be with us forever.

MacLeod’s essay is one of many eminently readable/teachable parts of Petrocultures, including the editors’ introductions and the chapters mentioned above, along with those by Michael Malouf, Cecily Devereux, Glenn Willmott, Joshua Schuster, David McDermott Hughes, Georgiana Banita, and others. The collection features some welcome comic relief in the form of Geo Takach’s mock radio transcript (from “Radio Petro’s A Scary Home Companion”), and ends on a hopeful note with Allison Rowe’s account of effectively exposing ordinary people to “uncomfortable knowledge” about the oil industry in a non-alienating “comfortable space”: a “mobile museum” that she calls The Tar Sands Exploration Station, which is based in her 1982 camper van. Perhaps inevitably, given that many of the contributors to Petrocultures are English professors and the collection focuses on incredibly thorny problems, some of the chapters bog down in unresolvable paradoxes and tangles of jargon that non-academics will find off-putting. But, as a participant in three of the four Petrocultures conferences convened thus far (including the latest, which was held not in Canada but in Scotland, a country that is making huge strides towards carbon neutrality), I am happy to report that the field inaugurated by the contributors to Petrocultures is not advancing in the direction of hyperspecialization and ivory-tower-ism. Rather, it is moving towards greater public engagement, more robust interdisciplinarity, more inclusive internationalism, and more urgent attentiveness to the climate-wrecking impacts of fossil-fuel-powered life. Any scholar interested in making a difference in our overheating world would do well to get involved in the conversation, and studying Petrocultures would be an excellent way to start.

This review “A Boom in Oil Studies” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 8 Feb. 2019. Web.

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