June 23, 2023
Keywords: energy dynamics, energy sovereignty, interdisciplinarity, feminist political ecology, reimagining modernity
When I first approached this research project for the Energy Today Lab (ETL), I was thrilled to be a part of it but a little unsure about exactly what “energy humanities” are, and their correlation to and interaction with environmental humanities. I quickly found a helpful description of the role that they can play: “not as an afterthought to technology and policy, but as a forerunner researching the cultural landscape around us and imagining the future relationship between energy and society that we need to strive toward.” I also realized that resources within this domain can start to reconcile the vast divide between individual vs. collective understandings of energy sovereignty, a divide that is similar but nuanced in the US and France. In both countries, however, the same questions are relevant: who has the right to decide who has access to energy, what lengths must we go to in order to produce it, and what are the economic, social, and environmental costs of doing so? In addition, there is also the question of how human energy – the labor we put in, whether as a paid employee or in a less-visible context – is valued (or not) in society.
With these general threads and several others as guiding research principles, early on it became apparent that energy humanities is a vast field with multiple, complex possibilities for transforming our energy dynamic – an understanding that can make approaching it somewhat overwhelming. But I think the fact that this field is so overwhelmingly rich is why it presents so many possibilities from an interdisciplinary perspective. This interdisciplinarity can be seen both in how energy humanities dialogues with technology and policy, as the description above indicates, as well as how this field overlaps with and draws from other social movements. For example, during this project I learned more about feminist political ecology, which brings feminist theory, objectives, and practices to political ecology and is closely linked to ecofeminism’s foundational ideas. In fact, I found that examining our energy dynamic from a feminist perspective is a recurring, relatable theme: women’s presence in environmental struggles, such as those involved in mining conflicts in different regions all over the world, provides a deeper understanding of how energy activism is often highly gendered.
From more of a “purely” humanities perspective, I also discovered how fictional representations of our energy dynamic are also evolving as well as contributing to formulating future goals. One example is the emergence of extractive fiction, literature and other cultural forms that make visible the “sociological impacts of extractive capitalism and problematize extraction as a cultural practice.” To me, this is an amazing and actionable illustration of the power that cultural production within energy humanities can have to bridge the gap between policy and personal participation. It also offers a lens through which to grasp that energy sovereignty and the questions at its core are dependent on two equal perspectives: the ability of a political community to have the authority to manage its own energy needs, and the right of conscious individuals and communities to make their own energy-related decisions.
In the big picture, it has become clear that a necessary path forward will require envisioning “modernity” in a different way, one that is not inextricably linked to how much energy is at our disposal. To that end, I think the two most important things that energy humanities offer us is the hope that we can create this new definition, and examples of the imagination that will be necessary to do so. As his efforts to create a new urban model have shown, the British professor and permaculture specialist Rob Hopkins seeks nothing less than that we use our imagination to envision this better future. The expansion of energy humanities and a deeper reliance on them to help course-correct our energy dynamic can shine a light on where we go next and how we do so in a manner that favors both social and environmental justice.
Now that this initial research effort is over, I want to say a huge thank you to Dr. Stepanov and the early ETL team for such a positive, enriching experience and I look forward to seeing all the ways this lab will contribute to the energy conversation - and conservation - in the future.