Commissioned and hosted by foresight departments at Evonik and Deutsche Bahn and co-curated by Beauty of Oil-member and speculative designer Bernd Hopfengärtner, the conference took place in a beautiful building in Potsdam, the former “Kaiserbahnhof” at the south end of the palace gardens of Sans Soucis. Beauty of Oil-member and cultural researcher Alexander Klose was invited to give a talk on petromodernity and BoO’s activities as opener of the conference’s second session “Tipping Scales – tracing links from particle to planet”.
Here’s what Bernd Hopfengärtner wrote as introduction to this session: “Sometimes, the biggest changes take place in the smallest details. In the 19th century, organic chemistry discovered fossil hydrocarbons, the basic building blocks of petromodernity. The consequences of this discovery – the unleashed availability of energy and the ability to shape material into basically any form – still make up our reality: leisure, freedom, division of labour, nutrition, knowledge society and Tupperware parties on the one hand; geopolitical conflicts, exploitation of people, natural disasters and climate change on the other. What the historical mobilisation of hydrocarbons was to energy and materials, the emerging manipulation of quantum states might be to information, or the designability of genetic functions to life. A petro-modern perspective on the history and present shows us how important it is to look for connecting lines between the very small and the very large. What does this perspective tell us about current future technologies? How can we imagine the implications of bio and quantum technologies? What approaches and tools can we use?” (conference program)
And here’s the abstract of Klose’s talk: “Molecular mobilization and molecular history—the accumulative powers of the very small entities in machines and in societies—go hand in hand and reach planetary dimensions in the petromodern era. Its dynamics are composed by the hard powers of science and technology, industry and economics, as well as the soft powers of habits and pretensions, thoughts and beliefs. It is an era of excess: In order to understand what we might have to leave behind, we should not only study energy production and scenarios of scarcity but also consumerism and the promises of abundant lifestyles. If we don’t consider the latter, the molecular dynamics of petromodernity will prevail, even without petroleum.”
Petromodernity and its Tenacities,download presentationhere.
»The satellite image above shows the Port of Rotterdam, the biggest harbor in Europe. At Maasvlakte 2, an artificial island just off the coastline, the world’s largest tankers are able to dock. Around 100 million tons of crude oil reach Rotterdam each year, half of which are processed on-site in five petrochemical refineries, including Europe’s largest, the Shell refinery at Pernis«. (link to the English essay here)(link zum deutschen Text hier)
Alexander Klose at the University of Possibilities in Lützerath
Lützerath is a village in the western Rhineland that had to make place for one of Germany’s most contested fossil fuel projects. Since the 1980’s citizens, politicians and NGOs like BUND have been fighting against the plans of North Rhine-Westfalia’s energy giant RWE to double the size of a hundred year old brown coal mine in order to take out a couple of hundred million tons of brown coal. Dozens of law suits, government changes, parliament hearings, demonstrations, climate agreements, climate catastrophes (the Erft valley area that was so heavily flooded in the summer of 2021 is right around the corner), occupations and evictions later, the situation has still not been settled.
A temporary stop has been put to the enlargement plans, but not all of the territory and the villages on it, destined to be destroyed according to the initial plans of RWE and the then social-democratic government of North Rhine-Westfalia are secured. Despite the political decision to completely end the use of coal as energy source in Germany until 2038, or even 2030. In 2015, Ende Gelände startet its direct actions of civil disobedience against coal extraction and combustion with blockades in the Garzweiler mines. Human ecologist and climate activist Andreas Malm mentions them a couple of times in his book How to blow up a pipeline, a plea for direct militant actions like blockades and sabotage to flank the peaceful mass protests of Fridays for Future and the like in order to enhance their assertiveness.
Lützerath has become a hotspot for the struggle when one of its old citizens refused to sell his house and stayed while RWE started to demolish houses and tear out streets and infrastructure around in January 2021, inviting activists to stay with him. In Sept 2022 this last man standing left after having finally lost his law trials against eviction in March. Since then the camp has been officially turned into an illegal squat, and the squatters have proclaimed the ZAD Rheinland in Lützerath, following the example of the militant Zone à défendre (zone to be defended) in France, The Netherlands, and Switzerland.
I had been invited to talk about our work with Beauty of Oil in the framework of a “University of possibilities”, a series of workshops, presentations and experimental discourse formats intended to accompany and maybe even ground activism with philosophical and speculative thought. “Philosophy can also be direct action,” as Lee, one of the initiators who had invited me, told me in the evening when she toured me around camp after my talk.
Here’s the abstract of my talk:
Just What is It That Makes Today’s Lifes So Different, so Appealing? – on the tenacity of petromodern claims and ways.
Presentation and discussion by/with Alexander Klose
(Research collective Beauty of Oil, Berlin/Vienna; Office for precarious concepts and undisciplinary research, Berlin)
Living in the plastic world / Living in the plastic world / Plastics, plastics everywhere / Where I walk and stand / PVC, PVC everywhere.
This is how A+P, an early German Punkband, put it in 1980.
Artificial matter, artificial fertilizer / Artificial grass / Artificial life / False teeth, false eyelashes / False love / All false here.
We have been living in petromodernity—the era of petrochemically based fuels and materials saturating all regions of life—for more than 100 years. Plastics is the new prima materia of this age, embodiment and incarnation of a second nature. For more than 50 years, people around the globe, but especially in the north-western heartlands of the petromodern civilization process have gotten increasingly aware that some things are fundamentally wrong with this time and its ruling principles. Starting in the late 1960s, the emissions of factories and cars transmuted from a sign of progress into one of imminent dangers, and plastics from the most modern material and guarantor of luxury for all into a cypher for everything that was a lie in the modern promises.
Yet, the dynamics of petromodern and—in a larger picture—fossil economics, claims, life styles, and belief systems haven’t been decelerated. Quite the opposite: the Great Acceleration has been continuing more or less full force, with the amount of consumer goods, cars, transport, energy use, plastification, extraction, and toxic emissions increasing globally against all objections or better knowledge.
Why is that so? And how can it be overcome?
The research collective Beauty of Oil works on understanding these petromodern dynamics in their tenaciousness. My talk introduces our projects, core theorems and approaches, and discusses possible future perspectives between technological fixes, ecological socio-economic reform and radical revolution.
Presentation by Alexander Klose at Petrocultures 2022 conference in Stavanger.
The talk tracks the relationship between the „digital age“ and petromodernity. As much as data is called the new oil today, oil has been the new data from the 1950s onwards. There may even be a homology of how these technologies tackle with and bring forward new realities, if you compare cracking–as the core petrochemical operation in which the molecules of hydrocarbon substances are torn apart and their atoms are recombined in new molecular compounds–with the way digital computers symbolize and re-organize material realities. Today, the worlds of social media and gaming are mostly keeping the petromodern promises for individual empowerment and entertainment. Fossil capitalism’s logic of extractivism has been extended both to new raw materials that are needed for the lightweight technology and to the consumers whose behavioral traces have become the “new oil”. What are the chances, what are the dangers of a media and energy transition „beyond oil“ that prolongates petromodernity?
IT and industrial technology have never been separated as the story of a new digital age seems to imply. Quite the opposite, the oil industry has been one of the most important drivers of digital technology development from early on, namely for oil exploration.
The mining and development of “tough oil” reservoirs would not have been possible without computers. As much as data is called the new oil today, oil has been the new data from the 1950s onwards.
Action in the digital sphere happens in „the cloud“ – a metaphor that evokes lightweight molecules and accumulations in thin air. As we all know, the truth looks distinctly different: the global digital technosphere is made of millions of kilometers of cables and megatons of concrete, plastics, steel and silicium.
If the internet were a country, it would range third in electricity consumption after the U.S. and China. (Research Group Digitization and Social-Ecological Transformation, Berlin 2019.)
Even if the new very large data centers run on renewable energy, the carbon footprint of digital technology as a whole has become frighteningly significant.
While the use of these devices differs considerably, the material and technological resources that contribute to their “functionality” have a shared substrate in plastic and copper, solvents and silicon. Electronics typically are composed of more than 1000 different materials, components that form part of a materials program that is far-reaching and spans from microchip to electronic systems. (…) to produce a two-gram memory microchip, 1.3 kilograms of fossil fuels and materials are required.
(Jennifer Gabrys, Digital Rubbish. A Natural History of Electronics, Ann Arbor 2011)
Cracking paradigm The operational approach of informatics—to convey and calculate everything through discrete symbols —equals the operational approach of industrial chemistry—to rip complex materials in their smallest parts, molecules and atoms, and to recombine and optimize them.
Elements become isolated, analyzed, synthesized, and enter into circulation as deterritorialized bits of information that can be traded in complex, global ways. From soil to minerals to chemicals, their scientific framing and engineering is also a prelude to their status as commodities. (…) The periodic table is one of the most important reference points in the history of technological capitalism. The insides of computers are folded with their outsides in material ways; the abstract topologies of information are entwined with geophysical realities.
(Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, Minneapolis 2015)
Digital Culture keeps unfullfilled petromodern promises
Understood in this expanded sense, extraction involves not only the appropriation and expropriation of natural resources but also, and in ever more pronounced ways, processes that cut through patterns of human cooperation and social activity. The prospecting logics (…) in the case of literal extraction take on peculiar characteristics here – since they refer precisely to forms of human cooperation and social activity.
(Sandro Mezzadra/Brett Neilson, »On the multiple frontiers of extraction: excavating contemporary capitalism«, Cultural Studies 2-3, 2017)
“We live in turbulent times, and the role of petroleum is at the heart of global and local political debate about how we should rebuild after COVID-19 and address our worsening crises of climate and international stability. A transition to a world without oil as its primary source of fuel and energy is vital if we are to reach the climate targets set by the Paris Agreement, but the pathway, feasibility, and timing of such an unprecedented transition is still hotly debated. We know that oil will come to an end, but whether its closing date is set by emptied reservoirs, greener alternatives, or political decisions, is still to be determined. Recognizing that the “age of oil” is being challenged, petrocultures2022 invites scholars and artists, journalists and activists, politicians and business actors to engage critically in the debate and the transition to alternatives. The conference will be held at the Norwegian Petroleum Museum and a nearby conference venue in Stavanger, the energy capital of Norway.“
We spent 4 days and nights at the first physical meeting of the international Petrocultures researcher crowd since Glasgow 2018. It took place in the conference rooms of the Oljemuseum and on a historical ship, the MS Sandness, which used to commute between Bergen and Stavanger. About 300 people attended the conference. The program was packed, and often the conference rooms – among them the lovely breakfast room and second class salon on the boat – were so, too. Keynote speeches were given on thursday, friday and saturday morning at Stavangeren, a former church assembly room in the old city of Stavanger.
»The chemical industry knows no waste«, claims an industry propaganda film from the GDR in 1968. Today, the whole Earth seems to have been turned into a planetary plastic waste heap. Thus, the statement sounds weird. Nevertheless, it carries some reasonability in a country and economy relying on stewardship of its scarce resources. Doesn’t that also sound familiar? A good twenty years earlier, a US propaganda film for its war-boosted chemical industry preparing to become civic again had announced that the depicted “world of the molecule belongs to us all. It is yours to explore, your new frontier.”
The plastic turn had a utopian potential that actualized in different political ideologies. From a certain historical point, to be modern meant to be living in plasticized environments. But the problem with plastics, one may assume, was not caused mainly by its “supernatural” materiality, but by the social and economical organization of its distribution. Consumerism was the civil religion of the American century. Also the socialist regimes gave in to it as a means of manifesting freedom and prosperity in a modern society. That may have been one major nail in their coffin, as a communist idealist might argue. It certainly was another milestone in the advent of the plastocene.
The talk traced the course from plastic crazes in West and East to today’s global plastic waste crises and further to queer and square plastic futures.
The talk took place on the first day of the three-day-symposium Wast3D-Care, on friday july 8, at 5:30 pm. Festival and symposium Wasteland were conceptualized and organized by Yannik Güldner & Leon Lapa Pereira.
July 8, 5:30 pm
The Grey Space in the Middle
2512 BP, The Hague
In the context of the congress »Unearthing the Present« (19.5.-22.5.2022), one of the final events after ten years of Anthropocene research and debate at HKW, together with the members of the Anthropocene-Working-Group Barbara Fiałkiewicz-Kozieł (PL) and Neil Rose (UK), Benjamin Steininger will be giving the seminar »Combustion: Reading the Ashes« on Friday, 20.5.2022, 5 pm. It is part of a series of presentations on Friday.
Microplastics in bodies of water or organisms or the accumulation of radionuclides from nuclear weapons tests – anthropogenic markers have a political, technological and ecological history behind them. Developed from the online publication Anthropogenic Markers, researchers of the Anthropocene Working Group, humanities scholars and artists provide an insight into the laboratory practice of “Anthropocene forensics.” Eight sessions examine chemical and biological fingerprints as demarcations for the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene. Registration for individual workshops is now open.
The volume is the final publication of the DFG funded research network Fluidity. Materials in Motion, which was active from 2019 until 2022. Authors among others: Kassandra Nakas, Marcel Finke, Inge Hinterwalder, Friedrich Weltzien, Jens Soentgen, Franz Mauelshagen (get the book here).