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Renewable Societies: The World after Petrocultures

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Organizer: Casey Williams

Co-Organizer: Imre Szeman

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2025 is the year when global fossil fuel use will finally begin to decrease, ending a period of energy history initiated in the eighteenth century which has traumatized the earth and its inhabitants. Our seminar on “Renewable Societies” will bring together scholars examining the renewable world now in the process of being created, if slowly and tentatively. A world shaped around renewable energy has obvious environmental benefits. This seminar will examine the far less evident social, political, and cultural implications of this energy shift. Just what will renewable societies look like? Whose blueprint of a zero-carbon future will prevail? Who will benefit most and who will bear the costs?

Our seminar builds on the insights of research in the energy humanities. Studies in this field have identified the importance of energy—and specifically of fossil fuels—in shaping all aspects of modernity. Such analyses have provided literary and cultural critics with new intellectual resources for exploring the import of energy for understanding cultural production; they have in turn helped us to grapple with what we know and don’t yet know about what it means to be socio-culturally saturated in oil. Our seminar will highlight and develop new work in the energy humanities by expanding the critical study of energy to address the difficult question of what comes after petrocultures. Importantly, the question of ‘what comes after’ also extends to the need to elaborate original modes of critical analysis, given the degree to which existing forms of literary, cultural, and social analysis are inflected by their fossil-fueled origins.

Making sense of renewable societies requires us to answer several difficult questions. What is “renewable” about renewable energy? What political and aesthetic logics are implied by the concept of “renewability”? What geographies of extraction, production, circulation, consumption, and waste are emerging in relation to the imperative to transition from fossil fuels? How are variously situated actors—multinational agencies, national governments, workers, subsistence producers, social movements, and so on—negotiating the transition to a new energetic reality? Are renewable societies further enclosing the commons or does the transition to renewables enable new experiments in commoning? To what extent do renewable societies inherit the fossil economy’s distributional politics—reliable energy in the Global North vs. extraction, exploitation, and waste in the Global South? Finally, do social forms constituted in relation to renewable energy challenge or affirm the core hypothesis of petrocultures research—that the material features of fossil fuels exert definable pressures on the organization of modern societies and their forms of cultural expression, such that a different mix of primary energy sources would entail different configurations of space, time, and power?

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