Talking about the social, cultural, and political aspects of the energy transition with Imre Szeman
“We have to understand that 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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Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou
As the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies and Professor of English, Film Studies, and Sociology at the University of Alberta, Imre Szeman conducts research and teaches in the areas of energy and environmental studies, critical and cultural theory, and social and political philosophy. Szeman is also the director of the collaborative group research project, After Oil.
The Beam: Hello Imre Szeman. You are one of the organizers of the 2015 After Oil School. You conducted the research “After Oil: Explorations and Experiments in the Future of Energy, Culture and Society”. What is the goal of this research and who worked on it?
Imre Szeman: After Oil is part of Petrocultures (www.petrocultures.com), a larger project that a number of us have been working on since 2011. What makes the research activities of the Petrocultures Research Group unique is its insistence that artists, cultural producers, and researchers in the humanities and social sciences have a key role to play in understanding our relation to energy and the environment. By examining cultural discourses and narratives, we hope to generate new knowledge about energy resources past, present, and future. Put simply: one of the key problems of the environment has to do with the energy we use. If we are going to change the energy we use, we have to understand how and why we make use of energy.
We wanted to get the message about the work that we’re doing and to communicate the ideas we have about energy, culture and society. The short book, After Oil (which can be downloaded for free from www.afteroil.ca), is the result of an intensive, three-day session of thinking and writing on the part of more than thirty academics, artists and even a former politician involved in Petrocultures. We wanted to explain fully the way in which fossil fuels have shaped our culture — and what we need to do to create a society no longer dependent on oil.
“Oil is not only something you put in your car. It is the foundation of our political identity and institutions, and it profoundly shapes our society and environment.” After Oil
The research points out that the transition is not only a question of technology, it reveals the necessity to work on the social, cultural, and political aspects of the energy transition. Can you develop for us please?
This issue lies at the heart of all my work over the past few years. We have tended to imagine energy as a neutral input into a society that pre-exists it. In other words, we haven’t really imagined that our societies are shaped, in the deepest way possibility, by the kinds of energy we use. And so we ask the wrong kind of questions about energy. We expect that technology will come to the request, developing (for example) electric cars to replace our gas-guzzling ones. What we should be looking at is why we imagine we need a car at all. Automobiles have become a key index of the good life — of mobility, individual and freedom. In many parts of the world, one becomes an adult when one gains access to the mobility offered by a driver’s license. Energy transition has to involve a thoroughgoing social transition, too. It means reimagining what it is to be modern in the deepest possible way.
“Oil composes space and shapes culture. It modulates our lives, including the clothing we wear, the objects we use, the buildings we occupy, the spaces we move through, the daily routines that structure everyday existence, our habits and perceptions, our commitments and beliefs.”
How did fossil fuels have not only shaped our energy consumption, but also our values, practices, habits, beliefs, and feelings?
I’ve already touched on this above, but let me go at it again from a different direction. In 1800, the population of the world was around 1 billion and was growing very, very slowly. In 2016, global population is estimated to be 7.3 billion. What made this massive transformation possible? A key part of the story — but one that is only now starting to be told — was the growth in the availability and accessibility of cheap, readily available, amazingly powerful energy — first coal, and then oil. We are creatures of energy, using far more energy than any hitherto existing societies. Whether we know it or not, the character of our values, ethics, political practices, and socio-political imaginaries have been deeply shaped by fossil fuels.
We have to understand that 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.
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.”
“To imagine a society after oil means first understanding what oil is to us — how it shapes current desire, identity, and practice, comfort and pain, consumption and penury.”
Why is it so important to establish a different social framework in order to implement the transition to this “After-Oil” era we need to build?
At the present time, we believe that energy transition means switching from fossil fuels to other sources of energy — and that’s it. We hope and expect to continue to use energy at the same rate and with the same intensity, even perhaps to be able to use more energy, since the expanded use of energy means an expansion in our ability to do things. We are placing a lot of faith in science and technology to be able to address a problem that is actually social in character. I’m reminded of E.F. Schumacher’s comment in his influential book, Small is Beautiful: “It is always possible to dismiss even the most threatening problems with the suggestion that something will turn up.”
Given the environmental and social repercussions of getting energy transition wrong, it is irresponsible of us to hope that something will turn up to deal with our looming energy crisis. If we understand that fossil fuel energy has produced modern society, and that we need to transition away from fossil fuels (due to their diminishing supplies as much as its environmental impact), doesn’t it make sense to take a deep look at modern society — about how we have organized social life and the physical infrastructures we inhabit?
“Fossil fuels have made possible the greatest era of social, technological, and economic growth this earth has ever seen.” After Oil
Do you think we need to lower our living standards if we transition?
Whose living standards are we talking about? Per capita energy use in Canada is close to twenty times greater than in Benin and Haiti and twenty-five times greater than the Democratic Republic of Congo. The colder climate in Canada doesn’t begin to account for these differences in energy use, which are connected instead to histories of colonialism, underdevelopment and global political and economic power; even in petromodernity, large swathes of the planet are powered by animal labour and the labour of bodies. As of summer 2016, more than 25 First Nations in the province of Ontario alone continued to rely on diesel for power in their communities. Much of the world has yet to experience full modernity — which is to say, the use of energy at the same rate as the most developed parts of the developed world.
In answering this question, I also think that it’s important to put pressure on the idea of living standards. How do we measure our current living standards? By GDP per capita? By the amount of free time that individuals have or meaningful work they engage in? The levels of energy we use are connected to rhythms of the day and habits of life that have been established in conjunction with capitalist and its claims on our minds and bodies. In 2013, the average global per capita use of energy was 1,640 W; in Canada, we used close to 10,000 W per capita in that year. It’s easy to see why one might imagine a reduction in energy use from the levels used in G20 countries to the global average to constitute a severe impingement on living standards. But this is still to imagine energy transition as just being about a shift from gas cars to electric cars. Instead of lamenting the fact that we might only be able to use our cars once a week, in the social transition that will accompany energy transition we will ask questions about why we each need to individually commute to work, what the work we engage in accomplishes socially, and so on.
Finally: energy transition isn’t a choice. It’s not a matter of whether we transition or not — there’s no ‘if’ involved. We will have to transition. The question is whether we are able to successfully do so, and do so in a just manner. My hope is that if we come to understand that energy transition is also a social transition that we’ll have rich and wonderful lives, if very different ones than those we have now.
“An intentional transition is premised on equality, on the right of all peoples and communities to adequate energy resources for survival.” After Oil
How did oil created inequality and how do the transition to renewable energy sources should create a more equal world?
In A Theory of Justice, political philosopher John Rawls famously begins his elaboration of the principles of social justice by articulating a thought experiment — the “original position” — a hypothetical ground zero from which liberal societies principles were re-constituted. How might we develop social justice if we had to start from scratch, shrouded behind a veil of ignorance, unaware of what position we were going to occupy in society, or our ethnicity or gender, or anything at all? What principles of justice might we establish that would value each of us for who and what we are qua being human? What if we were to add energy to the issues that had to be addressed in this original position?
Rawls never speaks to energy as an issue of social justice. And while he is not a strict egalitarian in his understanding of how goods, capacities and abilities should be assigned in a society, he does identify the need for their to exist a social minimum available to each and every person such that they can achieve their version of the good life however they might want. In the assignment of how much energy each person should have available to the, its unlikely that those in the original position tasked with creating the principles of social justice would think it fair or reasonable that there be vast differences in the amount of energy available to each person: it would mean vast differences in the capacities and opportunities for individuals; it would also mean huge differences in environmental impact across communities, with those using very little energy having to live in an atmosphere poisoned by those using a great deal.
The average per capita energy use across the globe is 1,640 W. Might this represent the beginning point of a discussion over what global energy justice might look like? If everyone on the planet used the same energy as a Canadian, total planetary consumption would be 74 terawatts per year — six times as much energy as we currently consume. That’s an impossible figure. The figure of 1640 W per capita is close to current energy use in places like Uruguay and Iraq; and even this figure is too high given the need to limit energy even further due to increase of population and, of course, impact on the environment.
A transition won’t create a more equal world on its own. But because a transition means that, finally, we have to take energy seriously and discuss who has access to energy and why, it’s more likely that the future won’t consist of pockets of energy riches and energy poverty as the world does today.
“Our present circumstances amount in part to a crisis of desire whose resolution may depend less on ending new, less ecologically destructive forms of energy, than on restraining or curbing what looks to be a limitless desire provoked and fuelled by consumerism.”
How did oil created desires among societies and do you think that the transition to more renewable energy sources would change the consumer demands? Are consumerism and capitalism the main responsibles for what’s happening today?
Fossil fuels societies are defined by growing energy expenditure. Over the course of the 20th century, we experienced a four-fold increase in world population, a 17-fold increase in the production of carbon dioxide and a 40-fold increase in industrial output. These increases are certainly linked to capitalism and to its close companion, consumerism. Capitalism is a system that functions properly only when there is an increase in the system’s total output. In 2014, it was estimated that the gross world product — the combined gross national product of all countries in the world — was just over US$78 trillion. If the measure for 2015 were the same amount, there would be a crisis, even though there had been a vast, vast amount of productivity.
The desire for ever more products, and the nature of the products that we desire, animate the expansion of the capitalist economy. The social transition that I have been arguing must accompany energy transition will likely include a redefinition of consumerism and of the valuation of economic success through endless expansion. I can’t see how we could have a capitalism fuelled by renewable energy, though this s certainly the hope of capitalists everywhere today: that solar and wind can replace fossil fuels so that they can keep their fortunes and the system that generated it. One element of the social transition will be to reconsider how and why we measure social and economic success through expansion, as opposed to other measures, such as economic justice and equality.
“Only by breaking a much broader system of capitalism can we achieve transition out of carbon-based energy reliance. In other words, there is an intrinsic link between justice struggles and energy transition.” After Oil
Do you think that we need to change the political and economical systems in order to solve the energy problem? How is this realistic?
Without question. The environmental and energy problems we face at the current time are, in fact, social and political problems. What global warming should be telling us is that there is absolutely nothing “realistic” about the configuration of our present society. It operates by producing inequalities rather than equalities; its everyday, normal operation is imperilling organic life on the planet. There’s no future in continuing to do things the way we have been doing them. It’s essential that we remember that political and economic systems are human creations: they had to be brought into existence, and so they can be brought to an end, too.
There are people who benefit from the way things currently are. These people are the ones who argue that everything has to be the way that is, that it’s “unrealistic” to suggest that we change things. Their ideologies have been incredible powerful tools in obtaining the consent of most of the people in the world, despite the fact that it isn’t really in their interests to keep things as they are. As the environment deteriorates and as we experience greater and greater dislocations and crises, it will make it more and more difficult for those with wealth and power to claim that capitalism is the best way for forward.
“We will not make an adequate or democratic transition to a world after oil without first changing how we think, imagine, see, and hear.” After Oil
What is the role of disciplines such as art, history, philosophy, cultural studies, religious studies, and so on, in the so-called transition?
Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change, has pointed out that research cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is dominated by the natural sciences. The small amount of non-scientific materials that is included came almost exclusively from economics. Hulme thinks this is a big mistake and so do I. The disciplines that you mention — disciplines like art, history and philosophy — are fundamentally about values and choices. Historians of energy help us see that the development of a fossil fuel society isn’t natural or normal, but came about as a result of as series of struggles and contestation (we forget, for instance, that there were electric cars before there were gas powered ones; the oil companies made sure that the electric ones disappeared from the market, again and again). Artists, philosophers and others who study culture can help us to understand how we have made ourselves into creatures of fossil fuel, and to understand, too, the values and commitments that might enable us to become very different kinds of creatures in the twenty-first century.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou