Imre Szeman is Canada Research Chair (Tier 1) of Cultural Studies and Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. In 2015, he was awarded the J. Gordin Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research, Alberta’s most prestigious award recognizing research excellence in humanities, social sciences, law, education and fine arts. Szeman’s main areas of research are in energy and environmental studies, social and political philosophy, and critical theory and cultural studies. Forthcoming books in 2016 include: After Oil, The Energy Humanities Reader, Fueling Culture: 100 Words for Energy and the Environment and Petrocultures: Oil, Energy, Culture.
Energy and Neoliberal Futures
In 2012, the average resident of the U.S. used 313 million Btus of energy per capita; in Haiti, the figure was 3.13 million Btus—a one-hundred-fold difference. The history of colonial exploitation and postcolonial growth (when and where it exists) can be retold as a narrative about the every-expanding use of energy in some parts of the world and the limited and controlled growth of energy use in others. One of the looming crises of the 21st century concerns the limits that will be placed on the expansion of energy use on a global scale, due both to the decline of fossil-fuel resources and attempts to reign in CO2 production. Access to energy—especially the huge amounts of relatively inexpensive energy provided by fossil fuels—has been fundamental to on-going processes of modernization, democratization and the expansion of social freedoms. As such, limits to the expanded use of energy on the part of countries and the regions in the global South constitutes yet another impediment (at once material and geopolitical) to their expanded freedoms and capacities of their citizens. This paper will offer an overview of the place of oil and energy in our neoliberal present and futures to come, with an emphasis on the different (and conflicting) positions occupied by global North and South in relation to energy and the environment. Are there ways that we might enable development while also attending to the consequences of our global petroculture?