Fossil energy, phew… The driving force of industrial capitalism, of our every day life, of the global movement of people and goods and money and knowledge. Linked to catastrophes or their predictions: ecological, economical, political, climatic, cultural. Want to give it up, but difficult to think or know contemporary world without fossil energy. Yet, in what ways do we actually know this form of energy? Or perhaps rather, in what ways does it know us? This day-long lecture series suggests: in multiple, conflicting ways, sideways, hidden ways, highways, in circles and loops, in compromised, urgent and paradoxical ways. The seminar questions the impression of an information overload on fossil energy, and raises issues not too present or not at all present in the current mainstream media sphere. It brings together very diverse perspectives and registers of energy-knowledge.
The expressions ‘information overload’ and ‘energy crisis’ were popularized in the same year, 1970, not an irrelevant fact. In the current mode of production the flows of energy and information are both essential, and interlinked. Energy with capital E and Information with capital I are both abstractions which disregard how and where the particular energy-information emerged or was produced, and what are its effects. These abstractions are not mental but embedded in the machinery of production and in structures of everyday life. Thermodynamics and the fossil-fuel powered industrial capitalism begat Energy (read: abstract labor, or labor power) in the mid 19th century, when this concept replaced energies of various sources and uses. Information with capital I pertains rather to the 20th century cybernetic paradigm with its fantasies of dematerialized circulation, yet is also inseparably connected to a division of labor and an carbon-based industrial scale exploitation of material resources. Both abstractions seem problematic, at least in that they obscure conflicts and disagreements that went and still go daily into their making, hidden under their smooth operations. So how can we make a break with them? This seems a complex task pertaining simultaneously to the orders of knowledge, praxis and material relations.
We might know that we have an ‘addiction’, but why is it so difficult to give up? Perhaps due to an entire carbon-based lifestyle and an infrastructure of the everyday, that have produced an insistent ‘common sense’ dictating politics, habits and structures of feeling. How to uproot that? Fossil energy is furthermore surrounded by all kinds of fetishistic and magical beliefs. Oil particularly has dark powers, it corrupts whole countries by itself, its evil forces drive nations to war. Can we know better, beyond these 3-penny economist beliefs? We would perhaps fare better if we’d know energy as circulating social obligations among people and other nonhuman beings, as the Alaskan’s of the Yukon flats do, and not as a fungible ‘natural resource’, as the energy companies know it, against whom the Alaskans struggle on their lands.
Even if we’d stick to a more or less modern scientific-industrial notion of energy, will it be a ‘thing’ that ‘we’ have to save, fight or pay for? Discussions of ‘peak oil’, ‘energy crisis’ and ‘energy security’ often forget or conceal the fact that limits are not external but historical, relational and socio-technical. Positing a ‘we’ in energy debates is particularly problematic in a landscape dominated by transnational energy corporations and governments of developed nations. But does taking a perspective of class conflict in this issue amount to a human-centered idea of history (perspective of the worker, of the producer), or to an understatement of the fossil-fueled environmental catastrophe?
Latest since the 1973 ‘energy or oil crisis’, manoeuvred by the international oil corporations, the dominant energy-knowledge has been framed by the narrative of scarcity. This scarcity, both of energy and of informations concerning it, is on the one hand a careful construction by the oil and military interests (uncertain reserves, threatening futures etc). On the other, it is also a flood of crisis-knowledge, crisis measures and devices all the while truly troubling shortages of energy-information are being generated elsewhere in some way or another. Firstly, because energy-knowledge is typically assigned to ‘experts’: to think tanks, economists, corporate and national actors, even military organizations, whose views the mainstream media merely tend to echo. There is also shortage of information because of the strict separation between localities of production and consumption of fossil fuels. This means that we don’t know how our electricity, fuels or in fact any goods that depend on global oil-powered logistics, are produced. Did you for instance know that Germany, famous for its ‘energy transition’, produces electricity increasingly from coal that is imported from problematic mines in Columbia and West-Virginia in the US? A knowledge-shortage is also connected to the so-called ‘unconventional’ techniques of extraction, which applied to shale gas, tight oil and tar sands, are currently causing largely unknowable environmental damage mostly in North-America. Now also European and African nations are allowing these methods to be tested, despite their obvious risks. Would this constitute a kind of imminent ‘peak knowledge’ concerning fossil energy?
Perhaps peak knowledge is not a very useful term in the last instance. The seminar offers a platform to find this out, as well as to explore other aforementioned questions together with different speakers and with other seminar participants. The lectures are available anywhere, where internet access is provided. However, the issue of location is raised by some topics related to Germany, place of broadcasting, as well as through an additional program for the participants in Cologne. The event is part of the artist Aino Korvensyrjä’s (FIN) ongoing research into the relations fossil energy/ information/forms of knowing. As such it is a format for study. It is unorthodox in what comes to the diversity of registers of energy-knowledge or -information and the people it aims to bring together. The production format is compressed, marathon-like, flexible to attend, as suits the topic. The archive of lectures will also be available online afterwards for other tempos.