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Cultures of Energy

Cultures of Energy brings writers, artists and scholars together to talk, think and feel their way into the Anthropocene. We cover serious issues like climate change, species extinction and energy transition. But we also try to confront seemingly huge and insurmountable problems with insight, creativity and laughter. We believe in the possibility of personal and cultural change. And we believe that the arts and humanities can help guide us toward a more sustainable future. Cultures of Energy is sponsored by Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS, pronounced ‘sense’). Join the conversation on Twitter @cenhs and on the web at culturesofenergy.com
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Now displaying: August, 2016
Aug 26, 2016

Dominic and Cymene discuss air conditioning, fathers who don’t listen, and share certain VC-ready ideas for revolutionary technology. Then (10:04) we welcome to the podcast esteemed and delightful Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen to talk about his recent book Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change (http://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/O/bo25051909.html) and the collaborative research project from which it originated. We talk about intertwining crises of economy, environment and culture in the context of the mind-boggling acceleration of social change over the past 25 years. Thomas muses on how modernity has lost its nerve and faith in progress as endless cheap energy has finally turned against us. This brings us to the double-bind of modernity between growth and sustainability and why today’s goals for development should focus more on improving relationships than on securing material luxuries. Thomas concludes that we need more political imagination about what constitutes a good life. We then turn to his fieldwork in Gladstone, Australia, a city “marinated in fossil fuels,” and its struggle with “solastalgia,” the sense of loss connected to the rapid deterioration of natural environment. Thomas agrees that it’s no accident the Overheating project is based in Norway given the country’s somewhat paradoxical situation—“the vegetarian that runs a butcher shop”—as a petrostate strongly commitment to environmental sustainability and future-oriented ethical investment. We close by musing on how increasing climate refugeeism might impact European multiculturalism in the future. Concerned that the treadmill of modern life is moving ever faster? Then this episode is for you.

Aug 19, 2016

This week’s episode takes a close look at New Orleans and shines some light on the legacies of Hurricane Katrina and the impacts of climate change as Louisiana suffers under another round of mass flooding. Our guest and guide (11:39) is the brilliant Shannon Lee Dawdy—Professor of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, author of Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans (U Chicago Press, 2008), and a 2010 MacArthur Fellow—who weaves together anthropological, archaeological and historical methods in her research and writing. We talk about her most recent book, Patina: A Profane Archaeology (U Chicago Press, 2016) and what it teaches us about the importance of materiality and narrative in the history of New Orleans. We talk about New Orleans’s distinctive critical nostalgia and how it challenges the temporality and utilitarianism of the fast capitalism that surrounds it. We talk about collective care of objects and responses to trauma. And we talk about contemporary ruins, living with ghosts, how Louisiana’s relationship to the oil industry and riverine commerce has undermined its environmental stability, and whether the levees will hold in the future. We agree on the revolutionary potential of everyday practices and small acts. We then (58:00) turn toward her current ethnographic research and film about contemporary American death practices, which Shannon convinces us is a happier topic than it sounds. We touch on popular ontologies of the afterlife, the rise in green burial practices, cremation and carbon footprint, and the beauty of cemeteries. The takeaway: death affirms life, but also reminds us that what we do with our finitude makes all the difference. So, dear listeners, please send energy and support to our brothers and sisters in Louisiana and tend to the people and places you love.

Aug 12, 2016

Your co-hosts wonder why coal seems so sinister and they’re pretty sure it has something to do with all those Santa-related threats. Then (8:51) we welcome University of Chicago environmental and intellectual historian Fredrik Albritton Jonsson to the podcast to discuss his two remarkable books, Enlightenment’s Frontier: The Scottish Highlands and the Origins of Environmentalism (Yale, 2013) and Green Victorians: The Simple Life in John Ruskin’s Lake District (co-authored with Vicky Albritton; U Chicago, 2016). Fredrik takes us back to mid 18th century Scotland and 19th century England to discuss the deep historical roots of contemporary concerns about fuel, growth and the natural limits of growth. We talk about competing energy and environmental visions in 18th and 19th century political economy and natural history. We touch on 18th century climatology, the nuances of Adam Smith’s value theory and how British imperialism contributed to undermining the importance of land and population in economic theory. We debate whether physiocratism is on the rise again and Fredrik let us eavesdrop on his conversations with Dipesh Chakrabarty about how to think about the Anthropocene. Finally (51:10) we turn to art historian and renegade political economist John Ruskin, whose concerns about anthropogenic climate change in the 1860s and 1870s led him to form an early “post-carbon” community in Britain’s Lake District. Yet, surprise surprise, his “simple life” turns out not to have been that simple after all :) Are fossil fuels really the edifice of modern notions of equality and freedom? Listen on! PS -- Special thanks go to Anthony Penta from UChicago Creative for producing this episode and to Elise Covic, Deputy Dean of the U of Chicago’s College for helping to set up the recording.

Aug 5, 2016

Cymene and Dominic test out the identity of “semi-professional podcasters” by reeling off impressive sounding words like “load-shedding” and “blackout” and then (10:21) we welcome University of Washington political scientist Sunila Kale to the podcast. She indulges our twin fascinations with electricity and India by discussing her landmark book—wait for it—Electrifying India (Stanford, 2014). We discuss the colonial legacies that shaped the making of India’s power system and also the important regional differences that explain why in some states in India only 30% of homes have reliable access to electricity. We discuss the differential experiences of grid in India and how the middle-classes have adapted to an unstable electricity supply with inverters and generators. We touch on why the recent flood of international green energy investment has not been able to successfully address the complex social and political questions around electricity distribution. Indeed, Sunila’s new collaborative research focuses on how India is coping with a growing abundance of expensive green electricity, innovations in demand side management and a new political emphasis on increasing competition in the electricity market. We talk about Akhil Gupta’s argument that countries like India cannot repeat the mistakes made by the Global North as they increase their electricity usage and Sunila points out that India is already diverging from the northern model in terms of the supplementation of grid by batteries and rooftop solar. Sunila finally debunks the argument that more coal-powered electricity will be vital for India’s future social and economic development. What will it take to make energy a civil rights issue in India? Listen on!

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