What can climate justice organizers learn from the 'energy humanities'?

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Image: Mariah Barnaby-Norris of Kobot, used with permission of Just Powers.

Sheena Wilson is a professor of media, communications and cultural studies at the University of Alberta. One of her many roles is leading an initiative called Just Powers, described on its website as "an interdisciplinary and community-engaged network of research projects focused on climate justice issues" and "on creating socially just approaches to energy transition and more livable futures for all." Scott Neigh interviews Wilson about the ways in which energy systems shape our social world, about the Just Powers project, and about what climate justice activists can learn from the area of interdisciplinary scholarly work called the "energy humanities."

Most of us -- or at least, most of us who are not preoccupied with fantasies that deny the science of it all -- recognize that addressing the climate crisis will at a minimum require technical changes related to burning less fossil fuel. Many of us recognize that it will probably also have some sort of impact on our individual consumption and ways of living. And at least some of us have a sense that really doing these things -- really reducing emissions in a substantive enough way to avert the more terrible consequences of a climate crisis that is already underway -- will require something more. "System change, not climate change," the slogan goes. It's a common enough idea, but in our complex world shaped so powerfully by settler colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and all the rest, we're still mostly just figuring out what it really means.

Sheena Wilson grew up in Alberta, and much of her family works in agriculture and in the oil industry. Her academic roles include serving as the co-director of the Petrocultures research group, which brings together researchers who work on questions related to the social, cultural, and political implications of oil and energy use. In doing this work, the Petrocultures group has played an important role in creating the energy humanities.

An important premise of Wilson's work and of the energy humanities is that a society's energy system is integral to everything about how that society works. We currently live in a "petroculture," and everything from our economic relations, to our political system, to how our communities are socially organized, to the ways that power works at all sorts of different levels are shaped by our reliance on fossil fuels. And all of us are implicated in this. While there may be good reasons to make this or that individual choice around fossil fuel consumption, we cannot undo our complicity in petroculture through such choices. It requires system change -- and not just change to our energy system, but to everything else as well.

Wilson's own work focuses on feminist issues, decolonization and other questions of power as they pertain to energy systems and transitions. Her work on Just Powers in particular brings together scholars from a range of disciplines as well as community organizations, Indigenous communities, and others to discuss and engage in research and action on related issues.

One kind of project under the Just Powers umbrella involves helping communities think through how to make changes in their energy systems in really grounded, local ways. Another Just Powers project is called Speculative Energy Futures, and it works to bring together research and arts practices to spark new ways of understanding and intervening in the social and cultural impacts of energy transition. IDoc is a project that uses video interviews with activists, engineers, scholars, policy analysts and more to document and further catalyze discussions related to energy transition. Feminist Energy Futures seeks to record and build feminist knowledge related to environmental justice and energy transitions. And so on.

Wilson warns that while it is urgent that we shift away from fossil fuels, we have to recognize what that requires and what it can and can't accomplish. No energy system is inherently just, so a shift away from fossil fuels to some other source of energy will not automatically lead to greater social and environmental justice. Energy transition will come sooner or later, whether we want it to or not, but just energy transition -- energy transition that will truly address the crises that we face, rather than simply shifting the burden around -- will only happen if we work deliberately, collectively and consciously across our diverse movemets to make it so.

Image: Mariah Barnaby-Norris of Kobot, used with permission of Just Powers.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list. Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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