A cultural approach to energy

Imre Szeman, professor of Communications and English at the University of Waterloo. | Photo courtesy of Imre Szeman

Space travel, medical advances and the digital age are all trends we associate with the modern era. Yet an underlying theme, modern man’s access to energy, is rarely considered a major driver of history. Imre Szeman, professor of Communications and English at the University of Waterloo and co-director of Petrocultures, wants to reshape discussions on modern culture around man’s relationship to energy. He will be presenting Transitions: On Energy, Pipelines, Art and Justice at the next Visual Art Forum held at Emily Carr University on Feb 8.

When we search in real life how significant and important [energy] has been to shaping modernity in the last 200 years, we are surprised by how little attention there has been,” says Szeman.

Fuel sources shaped what it means to be modern. Yet, popular discourse on energy is often limited to issues around sustainability and the environment. Szeman believes that a more profound discussion on energy is required to form a broader and fuller picture of the modern world.

He uses the subject of cars as an example. In discussions about cars and energy usage, people rarely make the case to outright end driving. Instead, debate revolves around car technology and reducing a vehicle’s consumption of fossil fuels. Szeman wants to drive the discussion deeper. The first step is to understand that the car is a product of modern society’s coevolution with energy. Another step is to recognize the ideals that a car stands for in modern society – values such as mobility, freedom, independence and autonomy.

“The big question about energy is not ‘Can we have electric cars’,” he says. “It is ‘How did we develop this thing called the car and why is it so important to us?’”

Conversations on energy and transitions

Recognizing mankind’s reliance on energy is difficult because of the transparent nature of energy. Szeman points out that most city dwellers do not see hydroelectric dams, nuclear facilities or other sites of extraction. Therefore, energy appears as if by magic and remains at the edge of our consciousness.

“If we had skipped fossil fuels entirely and gone somehow straight to solar panels, we would have a very different kind of culture,” he says. “We would have a culture that is really attuned to weather, where everybody wouldn’t expect to use an indefinite amount of energy. We would have a greater sense of energy’s relationship to us, because we would see it around us all the time.”

Szeman’s talk emphasizes transitions – from fossil fuels to other forms of energy, and from a culture accustomed to limitless energy to one defined by limited energy. He hopes to engage social communities and members of the public in exploring how energy shapes culture, intellectual life, geopolitics and society.

“What we haven’t had a discussion about is our lack of awareness of the importance of energy to us,” he says. “And how that energy transition is potentially also going to involve social, cultural and political transitions.”

Energy and social change

A common reaction upon recognizing one’s dependence on energy, is to count what would be lost when energy is no longer as abundant. Szeman argues, however, that the transition does not have to be traumatic. In fact, it is an opportunity to re-examine areas of modern life.

For example, the proliferation of social media is powered by large amounts of energy. Data centres, the backbone of social media where information is stored, are projected to consume three times more energy in the next decade. At the same time, recent research highlighted negative aspects of social media such as increased depression and cyberbullying. A discussion around energy and social media could explore new forms of social media that better fit the values and energy needs of society.

“It’s important to recognize that another way of being as a society does not have to be a loss,” explains Szeman. “Maybe we will have a different relationship to time, to ourselves, to communities. And that could be a transition that many of us hope for and struggle for through other means.”

For more information on Szeman’s lecture, please visit www.ecuad.ca/calendar