Petromelancholia and its discontents

Fossil fuels have driven prosperity, technology and politics but have also created possibilities for waging war and destruction.

Wieczorek Hard coal mine in Katowice, Poland.
Wieczorek Hard coal mine in Katowice, Poland. dpa

In 1944, one year before the end of World War II, the Russian- Ukrainian biogeochemist Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky (1863– 1945) published his final paper. The text, titled “Some Words on the Noosphere,” holds that science and technology have created a new, geohistorically significant layer: the noosphere. Although “knowledge is not a form of energy,” mankind has become the Earth’s “greatest geological power,” and the world war is evidence of this to a drastic degree.

Vernadsky’s diagnosis is being widely discussed in today’s political circles, wherein the climate crisis and biodiversity are but two catchwords. Geologists and cultural theorists speak of the “technosphere” and the “Anthropocene,” a new geological era that follows the Holocene and denotes the period beginning when human activities have first been determined to have had a noticeable and significant impact on the Earth. And it is clear that the industrial use of geohistorical energy in the form of coal, oil and gas has transformed humankind into a geohistorical force.

CO2 is a symbol to act

The ability to think in biogeochemical terms is thus no longer a privilege reserved for scholars such as Vernadsky. Today, CO2 is much more than just a molecule studied by chemists; it is a symbol of the dire need for political decision-makers to think in terms of chemistry.

After all, chemical processes in refineries and engines have defined the process of history in the modern age and will continue to resonate in our planet’s biogeochemical processes. Politics, science, industry and societies across the globe are facing the challenge of changing the course of history.

Resources are running dry

Historically speaking, this situation is new. Neither the taming of fire, nor Europe’s plundering of the Americas, nor the advent of industrialization nor the Manhattan Project were considered to have exceeded planetary boundaries. In those cases, we humans sought to achieve whatever appeared feasible to us.

Today, however, it is vital that we rethink our actions, not because our resources are running dry, but because the consequences of the unrestrained burning of coal and oil will ultimately be fatal to us all.

Fossil fuels have defined prosperity

We must act with urgency to combine development goals with climate goals. But we must also understand how we became what we are now. Since their initial use around 1800, fossil fuels have defined the standards of prosperity, technology and politics in ways both positive and negative. The outlawing of slavery and child labor was not only the triumph of ethical achievement and fundamental human rights; it was also a byproduct of engines and power stations obviating the benefits for such exploitative industries.

On the other hand, energy derived from fossil fuels has created new and unhealthy dependencies as well as new ways of waging war and wreaking destruction.

The explosive power of fossils fuels

We are only now beginning to recognize the explosive power – both literally and figuratively – of fossils fuels, their intrinsic importance for concepts such as growth and individual liberty, and thus also for the time after fossil energies. In recent years, a new discipline called “energy humanities” has emerged – most prominently from petroleum engineering centers such as Houston, Calgary and Edmonton, but also increasingly on the international stage – that seeks to examine the interplay between energy, society and history.

Much like in a system of communication tubes, all societies are interconnected in their way. Fossil-fuel pipelines form one such system. All raw material economies, including Canada, the Gulf States and Russia, are directly or indirectly linked to the producers and consumers associated with industrial and refinery economies in Europe and Asia. And we are going to need knowledge from all strands and facets of this system in order to develop the next, essentially sustainable system.

Fossil-based energy has the effect of technologically uniting various political, economic and social systems. Capitalist and communist societies, democracies and dictatorships as well as state-supported high culture and counterculture – they are all petromodern entities.

From democratic countries to despotic regimes

It’s not just America’s urban sprawl and its petrochemical sector’s penetration into all areas of life that falls under the petromodern umbrella. Model social democratic countries such as Norway, which invests the earnings it receives from its state-owned oil and gas industry directly back into the welfare of its population, also constitute the petromodern mosaic, as do despotic regimes in the Persian Gulf, where oil and gas profits cripple all social progress, as they function merely to cement the unjust conditions so pervasive in these states.

In historical terms, all parties to World War II can be described as petromodern states. While Nazi Germany managed – through considerable technological effort and innovation – to use coal to extract liquid hydrocarbons for its ships, tanks and aircraft, this process proved insufficient to sustain the needs of its military. With the US and the Soviet Union – the two most prolific oil-exporting countries during the war – as its foes, Baku remained out of reach for the Nazi war machine.

Read the whole text on The German Times website

Benjamin Steininger is a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin

© The German Times