Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity
David McDermott Hughes is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and the author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging and From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier.
Lakeside, or the Petro-pastoral Sensibility
Oil’s natural quality shields it from a degree of interrogation and fear. The entire hydrocarbon fuel system generates no new substances. Human actions, in other words, only amplify petrolic activity that preceded industrial life. Of course, the vast strip mine amid Canada’s tar sands overruns boreal forest. Observers near and far criticize these oil fields as a form of atrocity. Less extreme cases attract less criticism than one might expect. In Texas, Oklahoma, and California, pump jacks sway like horses, a metal rodeo bucking up oil. To the resident, this oil land is home: a mosaic of water, soil, plants, animals, and a gooey mineral widely sought and contentedly consumed. Such an imaginary—which I call the petro-pastoral—shaped my entire ethnographic experience in Trinidad and Tobago. Inflected by the petro, Trinidad’s pastoralism applauds the oil well, rather than the village water well. Even when the well damages human health, ecosystems, and the climate, petro-pastoralism underwrites a surprising tolerance. Environmentalists—who defeated an aluminum smelter in 2010—neglected to criticize the oil and gas industry. This chapter traces the almost-but-not-quite antioil politics of various anti-industrial movements in Trinidad. Ultimately, their success promoted a love of place alongside disregard for the planet.