Petrocultures and energy humanities

In this stream, we want to gather multiple developments and directions in petroculture research. We propose four sessions structured around different approaches to cultures of oil in contemporary societies. We will include perspectives particular to a Swedish petroculture but will place this in relation to a developing international research context. The stream will include historical encounters with and narratives of oil, as well as current consequences of oil cultures and practices and future visions of a fossil-free society.

Session 1. Paper session: The environmental and cultural history of oil

The first session will discuss what the environmental humanities and petrocultures research bring to the relatively scarcely studied history of oil. How does such research differ from ‘ordinary’ histories of oil? How do we analyze and problematize the history of oil from an interdisciplinary and intersectional point of view?

Paper 1.  Petrocultural shock: ‘Big Oil’ encounters the emerging Swedish welfare state, 1932-1947.

At the end of the 1930s, five multinational oil companies (Standard Oil of New Jersey, Shell, Texaco, BP and Gulf) sold 99% of all petroleum products on the Swedish market. The situation prompted the Social Democratic Party-led government to launch a series of commissions which aimed at investigating the oil companies’ cartelization and at breaking their market domination. The commissions were part of a larger plan within the party to socialize strategic areas of Sweden’s privately-owned industries. It was hoped that a socialization of the oil retail industry would lead to a more ‘rational and efficient’ import, distribution and sale of petroleum products. It acted as a ‘pilot project’ for the Social Democrats’ larger socialization plans and was therefore of vital importance for their political interests. The plans were put on hold during WWII, but in 1947, the last of the oil-related commissions proposed a socialization of the oil retail industry

The period between 1932 and 1947 thus became a pivotal time of potentially existential political contestation for the multinational oil enterprises’ subsidiaries in Sweden. The oil companies objected to the government’s socialization plans on the grounds that they threatened free enterprise and market competition – conditions which naturally led to productivity and efficiency gains which would be lost under public ownership, in their view. 

The encounter between Big Oil’s multinational enterprises and the emerging Swedish welfare state was thus fraught with sociopolitical frictions, giving rise to a sort of ‘petrocultural shock’ for both the government and the oil companies. This paper will explore how the political controversy between the foreign-owned oil companies’ and the Social Democratic-led governments of the 1930s and 40s shaped early Swedish petroculture. It will also ask what lessons can be learned from Sweden’s transition towards oil now that we require a transition away from it.

Presenter: Jens Millkrantz, Chalmers University of Technology. Contact:

Paper 2. The nation as energy: Imagining society through energy intensity

The image above, published by the International Energy Agency, claims to map the world’s total production and consumption of energy as it flows from and to innumerable origins and destinations. Although this diagram includes sources ranging from coal to wind to geothermal heat, the chart converts this plurality into a single unit deemed most accessible for thinking energy today: “Million tons of oil equivalent.” While the availability of global energy maps such as these is taken for granted today, at the mid-twentieth century such information fell within the purview of a new U.S. military program that attempted to map the global fossil fuel and nuclear energyscapes with new precision. This paper examines the energopolitical context from which this representational horizon of knowing energy extraction, translation, and use emerged, and it investigates how energy management reconfigured the way nations were mapped and imagined at the midpoint of the twentieth century.

By creating a new historical account from archival documents at the U.S. Government Archives in Washington D.C., I trace this regime of global energy mapping to the creation of the “War Detection Plan” in 1944 by the U.S. Government. Immediately following WWII, the U.S. aimed to devise a means to “control the war potential” of Germany and Japan; their solution was a new strategy of monitoring and controlling international activity through energy. I argue that this new regime of energy analysis, representation, and expertise that took shape in 1944 provided the framework for mapping ideas of “energy intensity” onto narratives of cultural progress that continues to constrain and shape the discourse of energy transition in the present moment.

Presenter: Lynn Badia, Colorado State University. Contact:

Paper 3. Early environmentalism and diplomacy at the birth of modern international law: The League of Nations, 1919-1939

For almost half of a century, the archives of the League of Nations in Geneva were largely overlooked by historians. Geneva’s reputation as the failure capital of early internationalism led scholars to focus on other institutions of the interwar period. However, the fall of the Soviet Empire and global challenges at the dawn of the new millennium revived the study of the League, which now stands at the heart of a fascinating renaissance. The historical primary sources, hiding thousands of legal documents, are now starting to be studied by scholars, providing the very basic elements for new discoveries which contribute to our understanding of the course of modern history.

My study focuses on different aspects in the deep involvement of the League in trying to solve various global environmental challenges and dilemmas involving environmental aspects in the 1920s and 1930s. Archival research in the Palais des Nations reveals some surprising – and relevant – correspondences and ideas of the unique role of transnational organizations, NGOs, civil society groups, and non-State actors in vigorous campaigns and intensive international efforts for the protection of nature or the environment, and for the preservation of a variety of natural resources in the period under examination. My legal historical study explores these environmental concerns which were discussed under the auspices of the League, and finds an interesting scope of early environmental diplomacy, hidden by now from environmental historians.

Here lie questions which dealt with endangered wild animals – such as the whale, needed for the prospering margarine industry, hungry for its oil, and migratory birds; or the problem of timber (needed for the completion of the Industrial Revolution); and sincere efforts for precedential transnational collective action against the pollution of the sea by oil (as an outcome of naval traffic during WWI and industrialism). All share a unique moment of the birth of institutionalized international law during the interwar period.

Presenter: Omer Aloni, Tel-Aviv University and the University of Potsdam. Contact:

Paper 4. Opening the ‘blackbox’ of the technologies of extractivism: STS/HTS inputs

The paper will introduce to an effort to integrate inputs from “Science, Technology, Society/Studies” (STS) and “History, Technology, Society” (HTS) into the Environmental Humanities (EH) in order to elaborate on all kinds of extractivism and extractive activities (all the way from the mining of coal, gas, oil and uranium to gold and other metal mining). It invites attention to an understudied yet crucial dimension of extractivism that has to do with the ‘black-boxing’ of the technologies involved. Scholarship on extractivism tends to focus on the political, economic and ideological initiatives linked to it without, however, taking into account the way these initiatives may be critically advanced by the very design of the technologies that extractivism is based on—a design concealed (black-boxed) by the way the artifacts -engines, motors, other machines, devices, machine ensembles, platforms, mechanical and other technoscientific processes and apparatuses, etc- involved in extractive activities are constructed and communicated.   In terms of empirical data, we will focus on the technologies involved in the mass scale gold extraction in Halkidiki, Northern Greece, which had been simmering for years but was actually advanced in the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2011 (exemplified by the acute Greek economic crisis of the same period).

Presenter: Giorgos Velegrakis and Aristotle Tympas, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. Contact:

Session 2. Round table discussion: The conspicuous absence of oil in environmental humanities

Scholars have pointed out that there is a conspicuous absence of oil in literature, art and popular culture, and connected this to its ubiquitous normalcy. Meanwhile, from an environmental perspective, oil is most dangerous when everything proceeds normally and when oil is treated in amoral terms – as something which is simply ‘ordinary’. We will discuss the implications of this invisibility with a particular focus on academia, including environmental humanities work.

Participants: TBD

Session 3. Experimental session. Boots on some ground: Living alternatives to air travel

Mobility of scholars is an inseparable part of the mobility and the development of knowledge. For centuries, scholars and students have been travelling and gathering to learn, initiate dialogues and collaboratively set visions and future avenues for their fields of investigation.

Such gatherings offer indeed unique professional opportunities to broadcast own research, engage in critical discussions, revive collaborations and links with peers located at other institutions and explore possible partnership with new colleagues. Furthermore, the frequency, occurrence and characteristics of these fora of knowledge exchange have changed deeply in the past century mainly because of a change in the form and means of travelling. Our means of transportation have become quicker and cheaper, enabling us to travel longer distances every year. Today, virtually no place on earth is unreachable. We live on one highly connected planet, and air travel is a convenient, fast and comfortable way to move across it. However, modern traveling has its environmental price, in heavy pollution and considerable emission of greenhouse gases. An increasing number of colleagues are therefore factoring considerations on carbon emissions and climate change in the decision-making process. Environmental scholars in particular face a principal dilemma: on the one hand, dealing with our global environmental challenges requires global concerted efforts, which are at least partially strengthened and enhanced at meetings and conferences. On the other hand, global travelling is harmful for the environment. If we consider the hundreds of academic conferences, symposia and gatherings organized annually, each scholar is provided with an incredible number of options. Personal and professional factors, facilities and means of transportation available, and employer’s administrative and mobility policies and constrains are among the drivers of the individual academic travelling behavior.

The need to discuss the pros and cons of participation in academic events is pressing and very relevant. This experimental session aims to explore this theme in a 2-part event: a combination of a roundtable and an open co-creative discussion. The first part is a roundtable, comprised of five present and remote participants, in which we shall discuss the needs, the problematics, the cons and the pros of academic traveling to conferences. The anticipated panelists (list below) come from history, biology, tourism studies, anthropology and physics, based in three continents. The participants will share both their needs of academic travelling and their reservations towards it, their considerations on flying behavior and their alternatives, solutions and justifications for it, each from his/her own personal experience and professional perspective in his/her field.

The second part will be an open workshop -like discussion, in which we engage the audience to draw a set of guidelines and recommendations for the organization of and the participation in future academic events, primarily in the humanities, but also hopefully in other academic and non-academic fields. The planned product of this session – likely together with other sessions – is an evolving set of guidelines for traveling, to be published and updated electronically on one of EH main internet platforms.


Dan Tamïr, University of Zurich. Contact:

Maddalena Fumagalli, Env. Humanities Switzerland. Contact:

Andrea Gaynor, University of Western Australia. Contact:

James Higham, University of Otago. Contact:

Peter Kalmus, University of California and founder of No Fly Climate Sci. Contact:

Session 4.  Debate. Sweden fossil free year 2025 – is it possible and what would the consequences be?

Every media report based on peer-reviewed science warns that we are increasing, not reducing, climate-altering emissions. Investment in low-carbon energy has flatlined since 2015 and remains far short of investment needed to reach a sustainable future. We are heading towards climate, social and economic catastrophe unless these and other trends reverse. 

It is necessary to act now– but it is possible? Are political bodies prepared to make radical decisions? Are reactionary forces– lobbyists and demagogues– the obstacle, or is the problem the system itself? Without political initiatives, can change arise independently in the private sector? Trends suggest the opposite. Investment in electricity networks– a key infrastructure for transition to sustainable energy– declined in 2018. Spending on renewable energy has actually decreased. In this situation, political and economic gridlock, the strongest calls to change arise from activists like Extinction Rebellion; disrupting and occupying central hubs in the fossil economy, exhorting politicians to speak the truth, calling for people’s assemblies. 

How would a fossil-fuel phaseout by 2025 reshape daily life? Could transportation, agricultural, and industrial systems downsize or transform? Which systems could most easily adapt, switching to renewable sources? Which require complete restructuring? What about healthcare, defense, and social welfare– how must they be reimagined? During the last 3,5 years, global investment in the fossil industry has totaled over USD700 bn per year. Investors expect a return in 20-30 years. By then, Extinction Rebellion and other movements may have smashed the neoliberal fossil-fuel based system. What would the consequences be of a financial loss at that scale? 

Alternative systems have been proposed– financial, technological, political. But does society have the capacity and the will to change? What does change imply for the future: a stagnating economy, a stable no-growth economy, or a prosperous “green growth” economy?


Sten Wiktorsson, arrestable hardblocker activist, Extinction Rebellion. Contact:

Torbjörn Tännsjö, Emeritus Professor of Practical Philosophy, Stockholm University. Contact:

Madeleine Hatz, artist and XR activist. Contact:

Stream organisers: Anna Åberg, Jens Millkrantz, and Susanna Lidström.