Energy Humanities

October 6, 2020

Casey Williams

Just what are the Energy Humanities?

The Energy Humanities attends to the ways energy resources, systems, and use patterns shape the material, social, and cultural conditions of modern life. Its foundational insight is that energy—defined technically as capacity for work, and colloquially as fuels that “make us go”—is not a physical thing but a social relation. The social relations of fossil energy have dominated from the mid-nineteenth century to the present (sometimes referred to as “petromodernity”), and modern economies, states, cultures, and subjects register the demands and affordances of fossil fuels in profound ways. Understanding what it means to live in a fossil-fueled world—at a moment when planetary warming compels a transition away from fossil energy—is a chief task of the Energy Humanities.

The Energy Humanities includes work from artists and scholars across many disciplines (Literature, Film and Media Studies, Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Philosophy, Critical Indigenous Studies, History, Art History, etc.) who study energy’s social forms, aesthetic mediations, and role in cultural production. In many cases this work contests petromodernity’s self-narration by considering how fossil fuels, even as they promise abundance, mobility, and progress, dispossess people, restrict their freedoms, and obliterate their futures. Looking forward, the Energy Humanities orients research towards an intentional and just “energy transition.” Against the view that energy transition means plugging wind turbines and solar panels into existing infrastructures, Energy Humanists contend that building a world “after oil” demands sweeping processes of social and cultural transformation. What new habits, values, desires, and forms of life and art might obtain in a world “after oil”? How might our work bring such a world into view?

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