On the frontier of fossil unreason

Alexander Klose at the University of Possibilities in Lützerath

brown coal open pit mining in Germany? In 2022? Are you serious?!

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.

location of the University of possibilities at the brim of the coal mine as part of the Unräumbar-festival Sept 22

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)

Richard Hamilton, Just What is It That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, so Appealing?, 1956

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.

©Photo taken from RWE-website. All other images by Alex Close

Data is the new Oil? – on the complex relations between fossil and digital modernity.

Presentation by Alexander Klose at Petrocultures 2022 conference in Stavanger.

“Data is the new oil infographic” ©Nigel Holmes 2012 / from The Human Face of Big Data

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)

Diagrammatic representation of Cracking process from petrochemistry textbook.

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)

»Ein Rohstoff, der spaltet«, Die ZEIT, 31/2022 vom 28.7.2022, unter Mitwirkung von Beauty-of-Oil entstandener Bericht über Ölgeschichte und Fracking in Niederösterreich.

»Die Energiekrise befeuert die Diskussion um das Schiefergas. Große Vorräte werden im niederösterreichischen Weinviertel vermutet. Aber ausgerechnet hier, wo das Herz der heimischen Erdölindustrie pocht, formiert sich der Widerstand gegen das Fracking.« Ein Beitrag von Simone Brunner, entstanden mit Recherchetips von Beauty-of-Oil. Besuch in der St. Leonhardskirche in Matzen inklusive! (download des Artikels hier)

»Towards a Chemical Cultural Theory: Speculating with Materials«, contribution by Benjamin Steininger in: Marcel Finke, Kassandra Nakas (ed): »Fluidity. Materials in Motion«, Berlin: Reimer 2022, p.165-186.

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).

»Molecular Mobilization«, contribution by Benjamin Steininger to the text series »Combustion« at the anthropocene-curriculum-publication »Anthropogenic Markers«

»How can an archaeology of the present address molecules as driving elements of the “Great Acceleration?” Benjamin Steininger, cultural theorist and also cultural practitioner, contends that the mobilization of combustion fuel molecules through the technical apparatus of catalytic chemistry has triggered a cascade of accelerations which lead to the fundamental transformation we now call the Anthropocene

»Öl! Weltgeschichte im Wiener Becken« Coverstory von Benjamin Steininger in der Wiener Straßenzeitung »Augustin« vom 23.3.2022

Vom Kahlenberg aus konnte man die Feuersäule mit bloßem Auge sehen. Sechs Monate lang hatte das Öl Tag und Nacht an der Bohrung Matzen 9 gebrannt, und nach Blitzschlag am 1.Mai 1951 hatte sich das Gas noch einmal für mehrere Wochen zu einer 100 Meter hohen Feuersäule entzündet.

Erdöl vor den Toren Wiens? Als strategischer Rohstoff? Die Geschichte von Öl und Gas im Wiener Becken ist erstaunlich unbekannt.

Erstaunlich viele Marksteine der Geschichte Österreichs im 20. Jahrhundert lassen sich im Spiegel des Öls neu und anders erzählen. Umgekehrt zeigen sich an einem unbestreitbar wichtigen Rohstoff überaschende und neue Seiten, wenn man der Substanz in Ortschaften wie Zistersdorf oder Matzen nachspürt. (pdf des Beitrags hier)

Rezension des »Erdölatlas« von Dietmar Bleidick in »Der Anschnitt. Zeitschrift für Montangeschichte 73 (2021)«

»Wer sich darauf einlässt, dem bietet der Atlas der Petromoderne ebenso wie dem Rezensenten ein reichhaltiges Spielfeld für unerwartete Entdeckungen und neue Perspektiven, auch wenn man den Assoziationen nicht unbedingt folgen muss. Er regt jedenfalls zum Nachdenken und zur thematischen Auseinandersetzung an und das ist wohl das Beste, was ein solches Buch überhaupt zu bieten vermag.«
Dietmar Bleidick, Bochum

Dietmar Bleidick in: Der Anschnitt 73 (2021), S.248. (pdf hier)

Out now! Штайнингер/Клозе: »Нефть. Атлас петромодерна«! Unser Erdölatlas in russischer Übersetzung! Zum Preis von 1210rub. Eine Kooperation mit dem Goethe-Institut Novosibirsk, dem Verlag logos/lettera und der Buchhandlung Gnosis Moskau

Order here! Hier bestellen! Купить здесь! (книжный магазин Гнозис)

Беньямин Штайнингер, Александр Клозе: Нефть. Атлас петромодерна

М.: Издательство “Логос”, ООО “НПТ”. Москва 2021. – 324 с.
ISBN 5-8163-0088-9 (Серия: letterra.org/off-university)

Стоит 989 р.

Перевод и издание книги осуществлены при поддержке Гёте-Института

Нефть (Erdöl) вездесуща, преобразуется в множество личин и состояний (вот она как «топливо», а вот как «полиэтиленовый пакет», «помада» или «воздушный шарик»), оставаясь при этом невидимой. Одновременно чудесная и роковая субстанция, она по преимуществу символизирует как надежды и соблазны, так и угрозы и страхи нашего времени. И чтобы вновь освободиться от них, нам нужно уметь понимать, с чем мы имеем дело в наших двигателях, лабораториях и телах, в наших науках и мечтах. В этом богато и тонко проиллюстрированном Атласе рассказаны 43 истории о Нефти как «материальном бессознательном современности»: о глубоком бурении и космических путешествиях, о роскошных телах и прирученных молекулах, о невероятном богатстве, молниеносной войне и разрушении ценностей. Потому что Нефть – это больше, чем просто сумма ее молекул: это солнечный свет, накопленный за миллионы лет, это концентрированная история Земли, это чудодейственная смазка, позволяющая крутиться «колёсам» петромодерна, нашей нефтесовременности – вопреки (и благодаря!) всей ее противоречивости.

»Нефть. Атлас петромодерна« am Stand der Buchhandlung ‘Gnosis’ auf der Buchmesse non/fiction#23 12/2021, Moskau (Fotos: Oleg Nikiforov)

“Загадочная книга…..” (“ein mysteriöses Buch…”) Rezension auf gorky.media (link hier)