Review Essay: New Perspectives on Energy

New Perspectives on Energy

“In one version of this dictionary, wood – fuel – would be the only entry,” Karen Pinkus writes in Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (2016: 109). “Today the continent of Africa receives 90 percent of its power from wood,” she continues, “Fuel…is etymologically related to the focalia, the ancient law of the right to gather wood.” Fuel is a wonderful, idiosyncratic book, which compiles past and future fuels. Fuels are the stuff of energy, but not energy itself, as Pinkus warns us, though the terms have become interchangeable in the English language. Akin to Jorge Luis Borges’s renowned Chinese encyclopedia, which offers an unusual classification of animals, Fuel presents an alphabetical lexicon, and seeks to rearrange the order with which we approach fuels. The book draws on novels such as George Eliot’s (1861) Silas Marner, Jules Verne’s (1874) The Mysterious Island, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s (2009) The Wind Up Girl, to imagine the possible shapes our fuels might one day take. Wood is perhaps the most fundamental, but Pinkus writes poetically about “air,” “albatross,” “biomass,” “goat,” “theology,” or “Zyklon B,” attesting to the potentiality of each entry in the dictionary, and faithfully representing each letter. The book posits the possibility of reading as a developing argument, but then offers the option to look up individual sections as one would when reading a dictionary. “What can we give back to fuels?” Pinkus asks, and seeks to open up possibilities for “engaging with them in more imaginative, perverse and creative ways” (2016: 114).

I read Fuel in the air-conditioned rooms of the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas – the private collection of Dominique and John de Menil, which has been open to the public since 1987 in a museum designed by Renzo Piano. The founder of the museum, Dominique de Menil, was the daughter of Conrad Schlumberger, who with his brother Marcel, patented a device that drastically changed petroleum exploration, starting the world’s largest oil services company, Schlumberger, which now operates in 85 countries. Geoffrey Bowker, a historian of science and technology, has written an incisive history of the company titled Science on the Run (1994), noting how the two founders had to convince the public that their technique of being able to locate oil underground through electrical prospecting was not magic. “Geophysics in order to establish itself as a science had to expel the magicians from the temple of science,” Bowker proposed (1994: 28). Even after the Schlumberger brothers’ technological interventions, which enabled humans to better visualize the underground, determining exactly where the reservoirs lie, oil refused to enter into our senses. As Pinkus reminds us in her entry on oil, consumers rarely think about the process of its extraction. We choose not to know much about our fuels. Others have agreed with this perspective. In an important review of Abdelrahman Munif’s seminal oil novel, Cities of Salt (1989), which describes the production of a fictional oil town in the Arabian Peninsula, Amitav Ghosh (1992: 29) asked why the oil encounter did not produce more literature, and argued that oil resists cultural representation, “verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic.” The Menil Collection does not gesture at its oil-based history in its collections. Situated in a multi-centered suburban metropolis made possible by inexpensive oil (see Melosi and Pratt 2007), it nevertheless remains a significant monument to transformations in energy production.

On a bench at the Menil, I mainly read in preparation for a summer class I was teaching at Rice University, called Social Studies of Energy. The students in my class were completing a Master’s degree in energy economics, and I was worried about how they might react to books like Karen Pinkus’s Fuel. Much of their coursework focused on the shareholder’s perspective, concentrating on international oil companies. It was likely that they would work for these companies after they graduated. And here Pinkus was arguing that perhaps we could see the world through the eyes of fuels, wondering how we could give back to them. Together, my students and I would try to find a different way of engaging with resources, and analyze underrepresented perspectives of the energy world. In this context, Pinkus’s innovative and eccentric book proved to be the perfect gateway, destabilizing existing narratives about fuels.

Along with Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary, my students and I would read other examples of critical studies of energy. Some of these were Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid, Martha Menchaca’s The Politics of Dependency, and Timothy C. Winegard’s The First World Oil War. All three texts had been published in 2016, as climate change and energy issues were becoming more and more difficult to ignore. They are indicative of the shift in thinking about energy, a topic that has attracted renewed academic interest over the past ten years, leading to the production of, among many other works, a compendium edited by Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman entitled Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2016). Scholars in the social sciences and humanities have been keen on addressing the dual problem of energy scarcity and climate change. Like the various pieces in the Energy Humanities volume, this particular selection of books approached the question of energy from very different perspectives, participating in a series of debates that seems to only emerge at times of crisis.

As Dominic Boyer (2014) argues, social scientific and humanistic study of energy is currently experiencing its third boom. The first generation was defined foremost by the work of Leslie White (1943, 1949, 1959, 1987), who attempted to resurrect evolutionary theory through his research on energy in the 1940s. For him, energy was the conceptual key to understanding everything about human life and history (also see Peace 2004). He suggested that everything in the universe could be described in terms of energy, including civilization or culture. According to White, a social group’s energy use defined its standing in an evolutionary cycle (also see Adams 1975, 1978). The second generation of anthropologists of energy, a generation trained in the aftermath of the energy crisis of the 1970s, was interested in highlighting the cultural and social impacts of energy development. Following Laura Nader’s (1978, 1980, 1981) work on energy experts, they brought energy into important, wider debates over the rights of indigenous communities (Nordstrom 1977, Robbins 1980, Robbins 1984, Kruse et al. 1982, Jorgensen 1990), energy science (Gusterson 1996, Traweek 1988), and environmental impacts of resource exploitation (Coronil 1997, Sawyer 2004). These debates remain central to the contemporary studies of energy.

The past two decades have set the stage for significant questions regarding if and how long humans can rely on conventional energy sources (Rogers 2015b, also see Guruswamy 2011), questions that have mainly risen due to environmental issues. Most of the scholarship on energy focuses on oil (Appel 2012, Apter 2005, Barry 2013, Black 2000, Breglia 2013, Ferguson 2005, Guyer 2004, Huber 2013, Kirsch 2010, LeMenager 2014, Limbert 2010, McDermott-Hughes 2017, Mitchell 2011, Negarestani 2008, Reed 2009, Rogers 2015a, Shever 2012, Vitalis 2006, Watts 2008, Wenzel 2006, Weszkalnys 2015, Zalik 2010) while also touching upon coal and gas production and consumption (Barak 2015, Scott 2010, Mason 2005, 2007, Mason and Stoilkova 2012, McNeish and Logan 2012) and nuclear experimentation (Masco 2006, Masco 2010). Yet the intensification of conversations around many different aspects and consequences of energy use have led to a proliferation of scholarship on the concept the energy (Coopersmith 2010, Gold 2010, Smith 1998), green design (Anker 2010, Günel 2019, Halpern 2015, Höhler 2015, May 2008, Myers 2015, Rademacher 2017), renewable energy and clean technology (Akrich 1994, Barber 2016, Boyer and Howe 2016, Cross 2013, Henning 2005, 2008, Howe and Boyer 2016, Jacobson 2007, Krauss 2010, Love and Garwood 2011, Verdeil 2014), electricity infrastructures and blackouts (Cohn 2017, Degani 2013, Hughes 1983, Kumar 2015, Mains 2012, Nye 1992, 2010, Özden-Schilling 2015, Pinkus 2017, Schivelbusch 1988, Slayton 2013, Sneath 2009), and climate change expertise (Barnes and Dove 2015, Callison 2014, Crate and Nutall 2009, Edwards 2010, Fleming 2010, 2016, Günel 2016c, Lahsen 2013, Rojas 2015, O’Reilly 2011, Oreskes 2004, 2010, Pinkus 2008, Whitington 2015). Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid, Martha Menchaca’s The Politics of Dependency, Karen Pinkus’s Fuel, and Timothy C. Winegard’s The First World Oil War have been published in this scholarly context.

Anthropologist Gretchen Bakke’s The Grid is a very accessible book that maps the contemporary problems of America’s electrical grid – an infrastructure the author describes as “the largest machine ever invented.” In her introduction, Bakke foregrounds how the wires and cables that make up this machine do not even disturb our views of a sunset. We barely notice them. As consumers of electricity, we manage to remain oblivious to this greatest engineering feat of 20th century. This point parallels the “refusal to enter into our senses” that Pinkus discusses in relation to oil. Scholarship on infrastructure in general underlines how systems tend to disappear into the background when they function well (Leigh Star 1999, also see Larkin 2013). In response, The Grid wants to reveal the infrastructures that we need for our everyday habits, and disclose how they might work, while Fuel asks us to look only at inputs, as if they existed in some ideal, pure state, prior to systems that use them up (also see Pinkus 2017).

As Bakke notes, there is something special about electricity as a commodity: it is not exactly like bananas, or other goods that can be boxed, stored, and shipped. Others have also investigated the particularities of electricity infrastructures (Gupta 2015, Kale 2014, Özden-Schilling 2015, Özden-Schilling 2016, Winther 2008, Winther and Wilhite 2015), providing accounts of how electrical networks impact social life in diverse geographies, such as the United States, India, and Tanzania. In these accounts, authors note how electrical energy looks and feels the same regardless of where it is generated, and can be traded in global markets in any quantity. Yet it must be used as soon as it is generated, which means that the supply of electricity in a network should match the demand at a given time. While many other commodities use already existing infrastructures like roads or ports for their transport, electricity needs its own unique network – the electrical grid – that makes it costly to transfer from one place to another. This grid distributes the power generated at various facilities, such as coal- and natural gas-burning power plants, hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants, wind turbines, and solar panels, to end-users over long distances. Grid operators and utility companies work with these generators in balancing supply and demand. Once electricity is produced, the power generators use transformers to convert the low voltage electricity to high voltage, so that it can be carried across transmission lines most efficiently. When electricity is close to end-users, another transformer converts it back to a lower voltage, a process followed by the distribution of this low voltage electricity to consumers.

In the United States, the grid is comprised of three main networks, the Eastern, Western, and Texas Interconnections, and is fueled by power generated in more than seven thousand power stations across the country. We learn from Bakke’s book that natural gas and coal are essential to the grid, generating two-thirds of America’s electricity. Nuclear energy accounts for one-fifth of our electrical generation. Renewable power makes up about 13 percent, with hydropower accounting for six percent of our electrical generation, wind 4.7 percent, biomass 1.6 percent and solar less than one percent. Less than one percent of electricity is generated by oil. Solar and wind power stations are the fastest growing energy generation mechanisms in this mix, and are becoming more affordable. As Bakke notes, in 2014, 53.3 percent of new generation installed in the US was either wind or solar. By 2050, Texas seeks to generate 75 percent of its energy by relying on renewables.

One example that my students and I found fascinating was about renewable energy generation in Texas, where nine percent of electricity production relies on wind power. Bakke explains how there is so much wind on some days that the local balancing authority needs to compensate wind power companies to shut down their operations and in the meantime pay large industrial facilities to use more electricity. Utilities companies do this because excess power causes harm to the grid, and forces it to shut down in self-defense. As a result, on a particularly windy day in September 2015 in Texas, the price of electricity went down to negative 64 cents. Given how renewable energy sources produce power for the grid in uneven ways – unlike coal or natural gas plants that produce the same amount of power each day – they make new demands on electricity infrastructure that utilities operators have not encountered before.

While much of environmental activism focuses on the production of renewable energy power stations, not so many people discuss the much-needed renovation of the grid. Yet Bakke reminds her readers how the expanding renewable energy and clean technology solutions will require a comprehensive reconstitution of the grid. One of the most important points in the book is how “the more we invest in ‘green’ energy, the more fragile our grid becomes” (Bakke 2016: xvi). In short, Bakke demonstrates that this large machine is aging, and needs an upgrade in order to adapt to new technologies, producers, and consumption habits. In addition to advocating for renewable energy power stations, we need to construct a new grid that can uphold these emergent power mechanisms. For instance, distributed energy sources, such as rooftop solar panels, necessitate that the grid moves electricity from consumer to consumer, rather than from producer to consumer. But America’s grid was not designed for consumer-owned generation facilities, which are becoming more prevalent, for instance in states like California, Vermont, and Hawaii. In this context, Bakke (2016: 252) underlines that we need to invest in grid-scale storage systems that unlink generation from consumption, and give users more flexibility. Energy storage, she argues is “the holy grail because it allows us to build an electric world that functions otherwise, that has the flexibility to move and change with whatever the twenty-first century will throw at us” (2016: 252). This might also make the grid more inclusive.

Another topic my class found interesting was the significance of expertise in thinking about energy infrastructures. As Bakke explains, utilities companies do not attract the kind of staff Silicon Valley companies may attract. My students concurred that it never occurred to them to work for utilities, because they seemed so outdated. For them, the grid was not the place where innovation happens. However, Bakke proposes that we utilize some ideas from digital systems in solving the analog problems of the grid, and calls for a platform that might be able to measure generation and consumption patterns of multiple nodes. In other words, she calls for smartness (see Slayton 2013 and Von Schnitzler 2013).

Despite their everyday invisibility, systems like electricity grids are easy to notice when they break down (Gupta 2015, Larkin 2013, Von Schitzler 2016). At times, the dysfunctionality of infrastructures, particularly energy infrastructures, represents how people’s expectations of modernity dissipate (Ferguson 1999). In The Grid, Bakke illustrates the multiplicity of the reasons why the grid breaks down. Some of these are reasons are technological. For instance, falling trees or squirrels gnawing on transmission lines lead to interruptions (also see Bennett 2010, Nye 2010). But larger problems stem from inefficient devices, big centralized generation systems, and the lack of innovation in utilities management. For Bakke, an ideal system would be dotted with small generation plants that still power a shared grid, and that communicate information to one another. We would eliminate cables from our lives altogether, and perhaps use air as a mechanism for long-distance wireless electricity transmission, à la Nikola Tesla (Carlson 2013). Small-scale generation facilities and storage options would reorganize how we see the future of utilities. Overall, Bakke suggests, “we’d like systems change to be more about responding to the powers to come and less committed to maintaining the powers that be. We’d like some power over how our power is made and also some legible way to understand how it is used. Despite all this we’d also prefer a grid – an electrical system – in common” (2016: 285). Bringing together detailed historical and ethnographic material, Bakke demonstrates how the large electric grid is unfit for today’s electricity supply and demand, and has to adapt to the new power generation systems. By writing for a general audience, she manages to popularize her call for an updated, inclusive, and reliable grid.

Anthropologist Martha Menchaca’s The Politics of Dependency is complementary to Bakke’s The Grid. While Bakke’s book shows the significant infrastructural linkages between households and power generators in the US, Menchaca foregrounds how the nation-state as an analytical unit may not be the most comprehensive way of thinking about sharing energy. Her book studies the codependency of the US and Mexico “by examining two energy resources that are important to both nations: Mexican crude oil and Mexican farm labor” (2016: xi). Not only does the book go beyond the nation-state as a category, it also expands the definition of energy, and discusses human labor and fossil fuels in the same framework – a move that is not very common in the social studies of energy (for other examples of this, see Günel 2014, McDermott-Hughes 2017). In a passage early on in the book, Menchaga notes that her book illustrates how “crude oil in Mexico has been traditionally treated as a more valuable commodity which must be protected and regulated, in comparison to lesser efforts to protect the energy of Mexicans who try to sell their labor to the highest bidder” (2016: xiv). This, as later chapters demonstrate, is a crucial point in thinking about Mexico’s relationship to the US. In showing how farm labor and crude oil weave together the economies of the US and Mexico, Menchaca carefully analyzes first, how US agriculture requires a constant flow of Mexican laborers for its efficient functioning, and second, how Mexican crude oil supplies have been critical for matching domestic demand in the US. All in all, the book rewrites the history of Mexico by analyzing the interwoven developments of the oil industry and Mexican farm labor, an innovative analytical lens.

One of the most useful chapters in The Politics of Dependency examines the birth of the Mexican oil industry. In it, Menchaca uses the “case of the Mexican oil industry to illustrate how Mexican elites during the Porfirian period became economically dependent on US investments” (2016:19-20). The Porfirian period refers to the years 1876-1910, the era when Porfirio Díaz held power as president of Mexico, and ends with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Menchaca describes how US investments were imbued with a magical quality in this period, and seen as the only way through which Mexico could modernize. She also demonstrates how the elites collaborated with external powers in order to amass wealth and retain their positions in society. After the Mexican Revolution, however, social and political conditions slowly changed for the oil industry.

An important event in the decades that followed the revolution is the nationalization of the oil industry in 1938, where the holdings of all international oil companies were expropriated by the Mexican government, led by President Lázaro Cárdenas. Menchaca (2016:60-66) sums up the logic of the expropriation: Despite having developed the oil industry in Mexico, foreign companies had already retrieved their original investments, and now it was time for the profits to flow to the Mexican government. This decision received support from across Latin America. It was perceived as a means for the culmination of the revolutionary movement that had started in 1910, and would be followed by a large agrarian reform program. Menchaca underlines how the forthcoming World War II emerged as an opportunity for negotiation for the Mexican government. Germany was supportive of Mexico’s decision to overthrow international oil companies, and imagined the country as its ally in the Americas. Fearing that a strong intervention would push the Mexican government to collaborate with Germany, the American government did not react violently to the nationalization of the oil companies, and imagined that this would be a temporary situation. Accordingly, this historical moment resulted in the production of Pemex, the Mexican oil company that provides much of the tax revenue for the Mexican government today. In our discussion, my students were quick to recall Pemexgate, where the Vicente Fox government (2000-2006) accused Pemex of funneling funds to the Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Francisco Labastida Ochoa for the 2000 Presidential Elections. As the book describes in detail, referring to some of the actors that were involved in the scandal, Pemex would be opened for foreign investments later in the 20th century, working against some of the primary motives of the expropriation campaign (2016:154-186).

The Politics of Dependency is also an important corrective to contemporary isolationist public opinions, which perceive Mexican immigrant workers to be exploiting US resources or stealing American jobs. In fact, as the book shows, both countries are deeply dependent on one another. For instance, in its third chapter, the book takes the readers to the mid-twentieth century to analyze the bracero agreements. Offering regulations for manual labor from Mexico, the bracero agreements emerged during World War II and guaranteed adequate living conditions to farm workers. As a result, according to Menchaca in the early 1960s, “braceros picked 72 percent of US lettuce, 52 percent of cucumbers, 49 percent of sugarcane, 42 percent of tomatoes, 29 percent of citrus and fruit, 24 percent of sugar beets, 22 percent of strawberries, and 7 percent of cotton” (2016: 90). The bracero program ended in December 1964, but American farmers’ dependency on Mexican farm labor persists. Menchaca argues that there are three reasons behind this dependence. First, historically speaking, World War II and the Korean War caused labor shortages in the US. Second, American farmers began to rely more and more on this cheap, dependable and vulnerable labor force, which eventually became, as Menchaca puts it, “a way of life for American corporations” (2016:67). This labor force allowed the farmers to maximize their profits. Third, Menchaca suggests that American nationals have been unwilling to do farm labor starting from the 1970s to the present, a condition that has resulted in labor scarcity.

While anthropologist Menchaca’s book foregrounds how and why oil is significant to US-Mexico relations, the military historian Timothy Winegard’s book The First World Oil War takes this claim a step further, and argues: “Oil is the epicenter of the global economy and the balance that provides homeostasis to world finance, economic markets, and war. Oil is the brokering leverage of international geopolitics” (2016:286). Overall, The First World Oil War seeks to show why and how oil dominates all aspects of modern life, instigating global conflicts, wars, and geopolitical crises, following in the footsteps of well-known works like Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (1990). For Winegard, an analysis of World War I is critical in responding to this question, especially because as he claims this war, “transformed the art of war and ushered in an age of unprecedented slaughter fueled by manpower, mechanization, industry and oil, which supplanted coal as the world’s industrial, economic, military, and political power source” (2016:4). According to Winegard, the World War I was “the first conflict to be fueled by oil” (2016: 6). And in fact, as some would argue, Germany lost this war due to oil shortages. Winegard continues by claiming that “Oil initiated a complete transformation in the art of war, and oil wars became wars worth fighting” (2016:17). For him, this war also allowed the Seven Sisters (that is Anglo-Iranian Oil Company [now BP], Gulf Oil [later part of Chevron], Royal Dutch Shell, Standard Oil Company of California [SOCAL, now Chevron], Standard Oil Company of New Jersey [SO of NJ, Esso, later Exxon], Standard Oil Company of New York [So of NY, later Mobil, now part of ExxonMobil] and Texaco [later merged into Chevron]) to control 85 percent of the world’s petroleum. The book also features a helpful diagram that illustrates the development of the Seven Sisters (2016:283).

Yet Winegards’ book is more a military history than a history of oil. In its first seven chapters, it explains the various geographic and historical episodes of WWI, moves on to discuss the peace treaties that followed the war, and concludes with two chapters that shed light on the effects of the war on today’s political arena. It is concerned with the realpolitik of the war, and therefore provides vivid accounts of the critical battles and the vital negotiations that characterize the war by drawing on a plethora of archival research. For instance, in the sixth chapter of the book, Winegard describes the landing of the Dunsterforce party (an Allied military force named after its commander, General Lionel Dunsterville) in Basra, detailing how the soldiers enjoyed the grand bazaar, tasted the local cuisine and were disturbed by mosquitos. After Basra, the soldiers make their way to Baghdad, and start traveling to Baku over Persia. Winegard uses this story as evidence for how “securing the Caucasus oil was…a principal British war aim” (2016: 177). Some of the archival images in the book show the early state of the oil industry, capturing the environment in which the war took place. For instance, an image (2016:101) illustrates the hang-dug oil pits near Mosul before WWI. Another image (2016:20) shows a Mesopotamian oil worker in the same geographic area and historic moment. A third image (2016: 249) illustrates the impact that these nascent practices of oil extraction have on war technologies and proves how oil extraction has become essential in waging wars, and pictures an Royal Air Force plane flying over Mosul, weaving together a narrative. For Winegard, the battles, negotiations, and the ensuing peace agreements that constitute WWI are metonyms of the aspiration to control oil resources. Interestingly, in making this argument, the book roots itself in the literature on the early twentieth century history and military history, rather than the literature on oil. For instance, despite the book’s parallels to Timothy Mitchell’s (2011) arguments in Carbon Democracy, a significant analysis of twentieth century oil production and consumption that demonstrates the links between politics and resources, there are no references to this important work. In other ways, the book follows the thesis of Rolf Peter Sieferle’s Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution (1982), which studies energy transitions in Europe, and analyzes how a change in fuels demands and produces a change in the associated technologies – in Winegard’s case machines of war. While claiming that the thirst for oil redraws the political maps of the world, Winegard is less interested in oil itself, and remains focused on military action and diplomacy. For readers who are looking to learn more about oil, this choice might at times seem unsatisfying.

As each of these books shows in its own ways, certain technologies, such as energy, embody the possibility of being modern. Their unreliability may indicate the disappearance of that possibility (Archambault 2012, Ferguson 1999). Interventions to keep infrastructures intact or to build new projects can be used to represent state or corporate power, enabling new fantasies and novel means of control (Chalfin 2010, Harvey 2012, Limbert 2010, Mains 2012, Meehan 2014, Sneath 2009).

After reading these texts in an energy metropolis, my students and I paid a day-long visit to the brand new ExxonMobil campus located 20 miles north of downtown Houston, which hosts about 10,000 employees in a 150-hectare area. There, we listened to presentations about the future of energy from company representatives, laying out the main findings of their 2017 Outlook for Energy. The presentations pointed to how 1.3 billion people in the world lack access to energy today, claimed that increased access to energy would be the key to prosperity and the expansion of the middle class, and demonstrated how energy demand would increase (also see Guruswamy 2011). “Global demand for energy is expected to climb about 25 percent by 2040,” the report suggests, and indicates that the necessary facilities that would supply this demand were already in the making. Moreover, “Recent technology advancements have provided an abundance of supply and unprecedented range of energy choices – from the oil and natural gas in America’s shale regions to the deepwater fields off the African coast; from new nuclear reactors in China to wind turbines and solar arrays in nations around the world.” The report continues, “These advances have stimulated a new “age of abundance” in energy supplies, which is good news for billions of people seeking to advance their standards of living.” For the presenters, progress and human development required energy, most likely supplied by international oil companies (see Zalik 2010). Technological fixes would reorganize social and political relations, and ensure that humans could freely consume (see Mitchell 2011, also Günel 2016a).

Yet the authors of the texts reviewed above question the various forms energy futures might take by encouraging readers to consider the multiplicity of perspectives that govern this field, and seek to divert us from such techno-optimist narratives. At the end of our class, my students also recognized this multiplicity, and saw the ExxonMobil presentation as one of the various pathways available to our planet. How can humans construct fair, equitable, and viable energy futures? In order to produce a rigorous response to this question, humanists and social scientists should document and analyze divergent contexts, ranging from fictional representation of fuels to the bureaucracies that manage electricity grids. Such narratives cannot take the meanings of progress and development for granted, especially in an age that is marked by climate change. These four books have developed fresh empirical and analytical insights that will help understand and perhaps resolve a significant global question, expanding social sciences and humanities role in tackling a difficult yet pressing task.

Gökçe Günel, University of Arizona 

Reviewed in this Essay

Bakke, Gretchen. 2016. The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and Our Energy Future. New York: Bloomsbury USA

Menchaca, Martha. 2016. The Politics of Dependency: US Reliance on Mexican Oil and Farm Labor. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

Pinkus, Karen. 2016. Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Winegard, Timothy C. 2016. The First World Oil War. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


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About Matthew Wolf-Meyer

Matthew Wolf-Meyer is an anthropologist and historian of science and medicine in the United States. He is author of The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life (UMN Press, 2012), Theory for the World to Come: Speculative Fiction and Apocalyptic Anthropology (UMN Press, 2019), and Unraveling: Remaking Personhood in a Neurodiverse Age (UMN Press, 2020). He blogs at and

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