Skip navigation
In my opinion

The rise of energy humanities

Breaking the impasse.


We’ve become all too familiar with bad news stories about the fate of the humanities. Whether as a result of student desires for an education that translates directly into a career or aggressive actions by governments that look only to the bottom line, many have begun to imagine that the 21st century might be the time when the humanities wither and disappear.

We’d like to offer an alternative perspective to all this bad news about the humanities. Our story is about an area of humanities research that is being recognized by the sciences, by government, indeed by industry. And not only that, this research field shows that the humanities are contributing directly to the solution of an immense “real world” social problem: how to find our way toward a sustainable energy future.

“Energy humanities” is a rapidly emerging field of scholarship that overcomes traditional boundaries between the disciplines and between academic and applied research. Like its predecessors, energy humanities highlights the essential contribution that the insights and methods of the human sciences can make to areas of study and analysis that were once thought best left to the natural sciences.

Energy is a perfect example of an issue that exceeds the traditional division of labour within the university. As the fact that humanity has entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene sinks in, experts and publics across the world are wondering: how can we cope with a rising demand for energy when our current portfolio of energy sources is already inducing global warming, ocean acidification and climate change?

An October 2013 report by the World Energy Council (WEC) offered two possible scenarios for the energy supply mix that would develop by the mid-21st century: an “affordable and accessible” one and a “sustainable” one. In the WEC projections, by 2050 we are likely to be using 60 percent more total energy than we are using today, with the bulk of that increase to come from coal, oil and gas. Even in the “sustainable” scenario, we would be using 27 percent more energy, though nuclear, biomass and renewables would make up more of the total than they do now.

Given these numbers, it is not an exaggeration to ask whether human civilization has a future. Neither technology nor policy can offer a silver-bullet solution to the environmental effects created by an energy-hungry, rapidly modernizing and expanding global population. What we energy humanists contend is that today’s energy and environmental dilemmas are fundamentally problems of ethics, habits, values, institutions, belief, and power – all traditional areas of expertise of the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

The impasse afflicting humanity – the gap between knowledge and action, insight and involvement – is an impasse that has repeatedly been addressed in post-Enlightenment humanist thinking. And thus, it follows logically, solving our dilemma requires the humanities’ involvement – not as an afterthought to technology and policy, but as a forerunner researching the cultural landscape around us and imagining the future relationship between energy and society that we need to strive toward.

We’ll make a bold, upright claim: The humanities are key to moving this civilization forward. Without greater insight into these areas of impasse that research in humanities can provide us, it is all too likely that we’ll lazily opt for “affordable and accessible” instead of “sustainable,” and never get to where we need to be in the constitution of our future social lives.

The good news is that this is not just a story we humanists are telling ourselves about why we are so important. When energy humanists start talking with scientists, engineers, government officials, and even the energy industry, we often discover that they have been waiting for us to arrive. Those who are closest to the blunt necessity of energy for our complex, modern societies are aware of the enormous challenges of mitigating the environmental effects of energy use. They are looking for change. But when it comes to how they might participate in change, or how the public would react to policies that might necessitate significant transformations in their daily lives, they realize they need insight and guidance from humanists and social scientists.

To quiet the concern from our scholarly colleagues that this is just a new kind of applied research or humanistic consulting work, energy humanities is already producing theories that any hardcore scholar would love. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy, for example, on how the Keynesian model of growth depended fundamentally on a cultural understanding of oil as an inexhaustible, inexpensive resource, has had an immediate impact on research across the disciplines. Stephanie LeManager’s book, Living Oil: Petroleum and Culture in the American Century, constitutes a rich archive of the omnipresence of petroleum in daily life and the way in which energy shapes affect, belief and belonging. Geographer Matthew Huber’s Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, traces in detail the ways that an existence organized around property, mobility and entrepreneurship is linked directly to the presence of cheap and seemingly inexhaustible forms of energy. We can no longer fully understand developments in culture, society, politics and economics without paying attention to the role played by energy in each domain.

In “Meet the Humanities,” Mike Hulme, a professor of climate change, notes that the research cited for the third Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was dominated by the natural sciences. Dr. Hulme thinks this is a big mistake, and we do too. We can only solve our current energy and environmental dilemmas by making humanistic research part of the conversation – and a big part. Once its contributions to the fight against climate change are given the credit they are due, it may be much easier to persuade anxious students and skeptical politicians that the humanities are absolutely strategic and vital to the future of the planet.

Dominic Boyer is director of the Centre for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Imre Szeman is a professor of English, film studies and sociology and holder of the Canada Research Chair in Cultural Studies at the University of Alberta.

Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *