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Reviewed by:
  • After Oilby Petrocultures Research Group
  • Gavin Bridge
After Oil. By the Petrocultures Research Group. Edmonton: Petrocultures Research Group, 2016. 77 pp. Notes. C$12.99 paper.

This pocket-sized manifesto squares up to a planetary problem: how to transition to a world after oil. First among equals in the unholy trinity of fossil fuels, oil's economic significance is well known, as are its multiple indictments on environmental, social, and political grounds. The book wastes no time rehearsing these complaints and instead focuses on the challenge of transitioning away from an energy source that not so much fuels society as fully saturates daily experience. After Oilrejects the usual menu of transition pathways—techno-optimism, environmental exhortation, state reform, or localization—as mindsets forged, and critically constrained, by the age of oil. These are inadequate to the task of transition, which is nothing less than the unmaking and remaking of our social, material, and cultural relations to energy. After Oilmay be small to hold and quick to read, but at its core is a big ask: embrace the uncertainty of an energy future in which oil no longer dominates, and find courage in the creative capacity of the arts and humanities to imagine a world full of more human possibility "after oil" than the one we will be leaving behind.

After Oilis a collaborative piece of writing from the Petrocultures Research Group at the University of Alberta. It draws upon the ideas and inspiration of 35 international humanities scholars and artists who convened in Edmonton in 2015 to explore the way postindustrial society and culture are comprehensively shaped by oil. The book is organized around a number of "key questions" participants in the Edmonton meeting were asked to consider and comprises six short chapters. Three premises hold After Oiltogether and sustain its argument. First, the condition of petromodernity: oil and its multiple infrastructures so significantly shape the experience of space and time, and influence social values, habits, and norms, that the term "petroculture" diagnoses who and what we are. Second, energy transition involves more than swapping fuels and infrastructures, and will require thinking anew about cultural values and ideals: reworking ideas about wealth, community, and success, rather than replicating with renewables the cultural heritage of the age of oil, is the real opportunity of transition. Third, After Oilargues that the humanities have a unique capacity for making sense of petrocultures and informing the projects of cultural and social change that a full energy transition requires.

The Great Plains is arguably front and center in the struggle to shape what will come after the age of oil. Its landscapes and ways of life have been comprehensively shaped by oil (and gas) consumption. And it is witness, from the Barnett Shale to the Bakken, to a resurgent domestic oil industry that, echoing earlier oil booms in the Prairie Provinces, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, again extols the assumed virtues of petro-modernity. But it is also a landscape from which have sprung alternative modernities that, like the organic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright or the agrarian socialism of Oklahoma in the early 20th century, have sought to channel modernity's creative capacities toward more humane and thoughtful ends. So too with After Oil, whose signature move is to center "the quality of human experience under the fossil economy" as the basis for critically understanding— and then creatively reworking—petroculture. On this point After Oilis urgent, poetic, and insightful. Collaborative writing requires compromise, and some lingering tensions remain in the book, such as around the political character of petroculture transformation and whether "after oil" also means "after capitalism." But this is not surprising: 35 independent people are unlikely to move in precisely the same direction, and the book offers a collective statement [End Page 41]of position rather than a road map to a destination. Throughout, After Oilpositions the humanities as a vital space for creativity and imagination, and a critical social tool for foregrounding the human values we want our energy futures to hold.

Gavin Bridge
Department of Geography Durham University (UK)

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Additional Information

ISSN
2334-2463
Print ISSN
1052-5165
Pages
pp. 41-42
Launched on MUSE
2019-03-06
Open Access
No
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