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  • The Aesthetics of Petroleum, after Oil!
  • Stephanie LeMenager (bio)

In a subversive comic book that might be titled "Style Guide for the Long Emergency" but is instead titled Fashion 2012, cartoon characters ponder the role of aesthetics in a near future that delivers the convergence of peak oil and global warming.1 Geologists suggest that the peak in global oil production already may have occurred, just as climate change forecasts point to the likely necessity of intensive energy consumption as we adjust to new, extreme weather. Though 2012 refers to the supposed end of the world by the Mayan Long Count Calendar, Fashion 2012 posits not apocalypse but rather "people living, global warming, economic change" (Herbst 1). "I just don't know how to dress anymore," one character muses, "They used to say 'dress for success.' With the new reality, what is success when no one is getting rich?" (9). Another thinks, "I can't afford to drive my car anymore . . . am I a failure?" (10). The small book pivots upon the brighter assertion of a third character that, "There are other things I can be" (15). But, as we turn the page, the cartoonist, Marc Herbst, introduces his own primary question, "What does that look like? . . . That is a question for artists" (16).

Artists and environmentalists both face the challenge of powering down to create smaller-scale, post-oil economies with imagination and courage. On YouTube, Rob Hopkins, founder of the "Transition Towns" movement for a sustainable post-oil future, urges us to remember that, although oil may be running out, imagination is not. "There's no reason that the imagination and ingenuity that got us up to the top of the peak in the first place is going to disappear when we have to start figuring out how we're going to get down the other side."2 Peak-oiler James Howard Kunstler [End Page 59] vividly represents modes of fabrication not reliant upon petroleum infrastructures in his recent post-oil novel World Made by Hand (2008). For example: "Larry Prager was our dentist. With the electricity off most of the time, he did not have the high speed drill anymore. He got ahold of a 1920s pulley drill in Glens Falls, and Andrew Pendergast helped him rig it up to a foot treadle which Sharon could operate like a pump organ as she assisted her husband" (35). Kunstler's post-oil bricoleurs animate a sentiment of hope within a future of diminished resources, just as Hopkins's "transition tales," which he tells to adults on YouTube and to children in public libraries, intend to create feasible, if imaginary, infrastructures for post-oil possible worlds. As Frank Kaminski argues in the first article to be written about post-oil fiction, post-oil authors recognize that people need "to be moved emotionally, as well as through their senses" (n.p.). Narrative art will be a key actor in establishing the ecological resilience of the human species. By Rob Hopkins's definition, the resilient community must be flexible enough to reinvent its fundamental infrastructures, releasing itself from oil dependency to produce, largely by hand, all that it consumes. Holding a liter of petroleum, Hopkins gestures toward us with it from the visually dense YouTube screen. The pale brown contents of the glass liter bob up and down: "This liter of petroleum contains the same amount of energy that would be generated by my working hard physically for about five weeks. . . . The best place for this is to stay in the ground" (n.p.). What might that look like? The specificity of Hopkins's "five weeks" of hard human labor generates muscle memory and an emotional drag upon his salutary call for post-oil environmental imagination.

This article offers a speculative treatment of the aesthetics of petromodernity, where petromodernity refers to a modern life based in the cheap energy systems long made possible by petroleum. Literature and film serve as my means of archiving sensory and emotional values associated with North American oil cultures of the twentieth century. My glosses, which are intentionally associative to express the newness of post-oil criticism, draw upon the work of environmentally sensitive social scientists...


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pp. 59-86
Launched on MUSE
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