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Oily culture: Editorial on how fossil fuels have influenced the psychological moorings of society

So much so that cultural expressions, languages as well as abstract concepts — the societal understanding of identity, for instance — have all been tinged with oil, so to speak

The Editorial Board Published 11.02.24, 08:27 AM
Representational image

Representational image File picture

The global discourse on energy has been marked by two particular traits: the quantification and the commodification of energy sources such as coal and oil. This is not surprising. Energy has served as a crucial commodity in shaping politics, its attendant conflicts, as well as the changes such conflicts have wrought all over the world. For instance, the United States of America was the predominant supplier of oil before the Second World War, but it ceded space to the Middle Eastern and North African nations in the post-War era that also cemented petroleum’s triumph over coal. This led to the inception of the Great Game in the energy sector, with American oil companies playing proxy for the US’s political establishment, often ushering in bloody regime changes in other corners of the world in order to maintain America’s dominance of not only the energy trade but also geopolitics. The unequal access to and lopsided distribution of oil also resulted in the creation of inequality in vast swathes of the globe.

The economic and the political implications of the energy war have been so momentous that yet another relevant aspect has laid largely dormant in the public domain. This relates to the way fossil fuels have shaped the human mind, influencing the cultural and the psychological moorings of society. So much so that cultural expressions, languages as well as abstract concepts — the societal understanding of identity, for instance — have all been tinged with oil, so to speak. Interestingly, the concealment of energy’s sharp psychocultural edge was made possible because the sites of production of popular culture, arts and aesthetics were not exactly immune from energy’s arc of influence. From film stock to inks used in the printing of books to Hollywood, the hold of petroleum — the mother material — on the world of art and culture has been formidable. Consequently, it took a while for art to wake up to oil’s deleterious cultural consequences of which there are many. The glorification of toxic masculinity — male labour being central to the extraction-based character of oil — and the marginalisation of women and their simultaneous idealisation as submissive members of the petro-State architecture are but two examples of oil’s sticky footprints on the fabric of global culture. The scholarship investigating this despicable legacy is both emergent and illuminating. There is a case to argue for greater investment by the fields of humanities and social science to expedite a deeper investigation of the links between fossil fuels and cultural orthodoxy.


However, another churn is evident in the realm of energy. Alternative sources — green energy — are battling fossil fuels and their influential lobbyists for recognition, acceptance and subsidies as environmental crises and climate change become existential threats for the planet. What would be interesting to see is how these emerging, newer forms of energy condition the culturescape, including gender, race, language and identity. Would the cycle of calcification of cultural production continue during the reign of alternative energy? What strategies can be adopted by the discourse on alternative energy to stem this corrosion? The world awaits the answers.

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