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Culture for the future

Recent studies on oil culture have reinvigorated the wider cultural approach to energy history. The emergence of ‘Energy Humanities’, a term increasingly used to designate a large body of energy studies written (mainly) by arts and humanities scholars, shows that the cultural approach now informs a wide range of energy scholarship (Buell, 2012; Szeman, Wenzel and Yaeger, 2017). More importantly, many recent scholarly contributions to the cultural aspects of energy history share the conviction that culture is not just an analytical framework, but has also become a point of intervention for the active creation of our energy future. In the introduction to Energy Humanities: An Anthology, Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer (2017) suggested that energy humanities scholars should play a greater role in shaping our energy future. While acknowledging the crucial role of environmental scientists in identifying the causes and consequences of global warming, Szeman and Boyer claimed that ‘the next steps in addressing the environmental crisis will have to come from the humanities and social scientists – from those disciplines that have long attended to the intricacies of social processes, the nature and capacity of political change, and the circulation and organisation of symbolic meaning through culture’ (p 3). This recognition calls on humanities and social sciences scholars to take greater responsibility in today’s discussion about energy. Indeed, research councils across countries have started to substantially invest in energy history projects that connect energy, technology and culture throughout history and into the future. Some examples are the Euratom-funded HoNESt project (see Butler’s article in this volume), the UK ESRC/EPSRC-funded DEMAND Centre (Dynamics of Energy, Mobility and Demand) and several energy-related research projects funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council’s ‘Care for the Future’ initiative.[1] More fundamentally, Szeman and Boyer’s (2017) statement signals a reversal in the causal link between energy and culture. Early commentators on energy and culture, like Leslie White (1943), believed that cultural development was largely the effect of increased human command over energy resources. By contrast, the rise of energy humanities points to the growing scholarly conviction that cultural change can create alternative energy futures.

The reversal of causation in the relationship between energy and culture is not an entirely new idea. In his 1936 speech ‘Power and Culture’, Lewis Mumford stated: ‘every increase in the power denominator imposes an ever graver duty to increase the cultural numerator… As machines become more powerful and automatic, their rulers must become more self-controlled and more humanized’ (Mumford, 1938, p 173). The energy history of the twentieth century can be characterised as one of humans losing control over their desire to consume energy without engaging in commensurate efforts to nurture an awareness of the ‘graver duty’ to control energy use. So far, we have yet to succeed in humanising energy. However, collectively, the general trajectory of recent energy literature suggests that scholars are gradually awakening to the importance of Mumford’s early exhortation.

Authors' note: This article forms a part of a larger research project on energy history, the ‘Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption and Everyday Life in the Twentieth Century’ (UK AHRC, AH/K006088/1).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180912/004