At the forefront of a new field of study | Work of Arts
At the forefront of a new field of study | Work of Arts

At the forefront of a new field of study

by | September 25, 2014
Photography by Richard Siemens/Illustration by Shannon E. Thomas
English professor Imre Szeman and the Petrocultures research team explore the habits, beliefs, knowledge, practices and institutions involved with oil and energy to determine how we can build a sustainable energy future.

From our cars to our economies, modern-day societies are dependent on oil. Despite knowing our oil supply will run out and that its over-usage contributes to climate change, we still aren’t taking significant steps to avert an impending crisis.

Scholars describe this perplexing situation as an “energy impasse,” and it’s one of the central areas of focus for the Petrocultures research cluster based at the U of A. Formed in 2011 by Imre Szeman from the Department of English & Film Studies and Sheena Wilson from Campus Saint-Jean, its aim is to support research related to the socio-cultural aspects of oil and energy.

12607-08-077-2“It seems to us that there is a challenge here that is as big as any we’ve ever faced in human civilization,” says Szeman, who holds a Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies. “[We] need to make huge changes in advance of a crisis, and do it on a global scale in a world where countries compete against one another.”

While people often look to science and technology for solutions, Szeman says that scientists are turning to the humanities. He and his colleagues believe this is because the new field of study that has emerged from their work – known as the “energy humanities” – has a crucial role to play in figuring out how to enact sweeping social change.

“There’s a growing sense amongst a lot of scholars that it’s important to think about the typical kinds of things the humanities look at — questions about knowledge and belief and ethical behaviour and the cultural products we produce — in relation to energy,” he explains.

This includes analyzing the way oil has shaped our lives — the practices we engage in and the beliefs we hold — as a starting point towards finding a new way forward. For example, our modern idea of freedom is closely linked to mobility. “Are we able as a society to… re-map some fundamental ideas of freedom?” Szeman asks. “It isn’t that we become less free; it’s that maybe freedom isn’t connected to driving a car with the wind in your hair.”

12607-08-033Momentum for energy humanities at the U of A began to grow when the first Petrocultures conference was held in 2012, attracting 120 researchers from 12 countries. A follow-up conference, which took place in Montreal in February 2014, received a “fantastic response” from government and industry — groups Szeman says are often eager to hear insight from humanists and social scientists.

Researchers at the U of A are also working in conjunction with partners around the world to develop “After Oil: The Future Cultures Project,” one of the first major research projects in the field of energy humanities.

“There’s a growing sense amongst a lot of scholars that it’s important to think about the typical kinds of things the humanities look at… in relation to energy.”

English professor Michael O’Driscoll, who will be a co-investigator on the project, believes it has the potential to generate new and unpredictable ways of imagining our energy future. “This will be a world-leading hub of expertise in the energy humanities, bringing…a deeper understanding of those social and political structures that stand in the way of transformation, that make transformation unimaginable,” he says.

“We know we have to change, we know the world around us is changing, and ‘After Oil’ is about helping Canadians and the world make that change productive and positive.”

WOA Petrocultures Illustration_PRINT

Petrocultures research in the Faculty of Arts

A growing number of Arts researchers are exploring the social and cultural dimensions of oil and energy.

Sociology professor Sara Dorow, for example, studies labour migration and notions of community in Fort McMurray, the urban centre that serves the northern Alberta oil sands. She has unearthed some of the tensions that accompany the increasingly complex web of mobile work in the region – workers that temporarily re-locate to the region from across the globe, fly-in and fly-out from homes in other provinces, or make the long daily commute out to site.

“Being situated at the edge of the largest mega-project on the planet and touted as the ‘economic engine’ of Canada means that Fort McMurray is sort of torn between being a place to live and a place to work,” says Dorow.

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