“After Oil: Explorations and Experiments in the Future of Energy, Culture and Society” is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research partnership designed to explore, critically and creatively, the social, cultural and political changes necessary to facilitate a full-scale transition from fossil fuels to new forms of energy. A foundational premise underpins the work carried out by the “After Oil” research team: energy plays a critical role in determining the shape, form and character of our daily existence. The dominant form of energy in any given era – in our case, fossil fuels – shapes the attributes and capabilities of societies in a fundamental way. Accordingly, in addition to the adoption of renewable, ecologically sustainable energy sources, a genuine shift in our energy usage today demands a wholesale transformation of the petrocultures in which we live.

What do we mean by “petroculture”? We use this term to emphasize the ways in which global society today is an oil society through and through. It is shaped by oil in physical and material ways, from the automobiles and highways we use to the plastics that fill up every space of our daily lives. Even more significantly, fossil fuels have also shaped our values, practices, habits, beliefs and feelings. These latter can be difficult to parse. It might be easy to point to a highway interchange and understand why it is an important part of our oil culture, but much harder to name and isolate the ideas and ideals of autonomy and mobility that have become essential values to people around the world. In a very real way, these values are fueled by fossil fuels, as are so many of the other values and aspirations that we have come to associate with the freedoms and capacities of modern life. It is in this sense that we are a petroculture; and it for this reason, too, that transitioning from fossil fuels to other sources of energy will require more than new energy technologies. We will need to transform and transition our cultural and social values at the same time.

In August 2015, thirty-five artists and researchers came together in Edmonton for the inaugural After Oil School. They were invited to think collectively about the challenges living in a petroculture poses for energy transition. Over four days, they were asked to discuss, debate and to provide answers to four key questions:

  1. Considering historical precedence, what cultural strategies are available to trigger and expedite a large-scale transition of energy regimes?
  2. How does the problem of energy force us to rethink our traditional notions and categories of political agency?
  3. How is the use of energy entwined with representations and narratives about modernity and the environment?  Correspondingly, how do artistic productions reflect, critique, and inform our understanding and use of energy?
  4. What range of scenarios is currently on the table for imagining our future with energy?

This short book includes the answers to these questions, organized in sections that correspond to the order of the questions above:

  1. Triggering Transition
  2. Energy Impasse and Political Actors
  3. The Arts, Humanities and Energy
  4. Energy Futures

The first chapter explores how we might begin the process of energy transition through social transition, concluding with a set of principles for an effective, intentional energy transition. The second elaborates the most common narratives that we have about our fossil fuel society and the forms of political action that are set out in each of these narratives. These varied understandings of how we define the problem of fossil fuels and a transition from them gives us an insight into the multiple levels at which political action will need to occur for a genuine transition to take place. The third chapter describes the unique critical capacities of the arts and humanities in making sense of our Petrocultures. Finally, we reflect on energy futures and consider how looking ahead might help to lead us to a new kind of society—one for which it would no longer make sense to use the term “petroculture.” These chapters can be read on their own or as contributions to a larger argument about all of the issues and problems we will need to consider as we try to move to a time and place After Oil.

One of the many things that make this short document distinctive is that it is a collective document, the product of intensive work by thinkers committed to addressing the difficult questions we will need to pose – and answer – if we are to ever get to a world after oil. It is this kind of collective work that will be needed over the coming years and decades to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and from a petroculture to the new global culture that we can see just over the horizon.

—Imre Szeman, Lynn Badia, Jeff Diamanti, Michael O’Driscoll and Mark Simpson
Organizers of the 2015 After Oil School(August 19-22, 2015) /


Next Section: 1. Triggering Transition

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