Energy without Conscience

In Energy without Conscience: Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity (Duke University Press, 2017), David McDermott Hughes draws on his ethnographic work in Trinidad and Tobago to analyze the disregard, apathy, numbness with which most people interact with climate change. He highlights the banality of the complicities that connect people with energy, specifically with hydrocarbons (as he refers to oil, coal, natural gas, and bitumen), and he suggests that a moral response to climate change must redesign relationships with energy and replace complicity with conscience. In lieu of a book review, here are a few summary quotations from the book.

Menacing as it increasingly is, climate change has yet to become a moral issue for most people. Energy without Conscience seeks to explain this persistent banality. (1)

Let us see not-feeling-climate-change as a concrete thing. It sits among us like an antiquated superstition, too customary to discard but too backward to celebrate. I wish to expose that belief as retrograde and wrong. With this historical and ethnographic study, I hope to crack the chalice of disregard still cradling oil, its producers, and its consumers. (25)

From energy to fuel, so much has been lost. Anthropologists frequently lament the attrition of languages, religions, and cultural customs of all sorts. These aspects of culture live on, but frequently as curiosities and performances for tourists. How many people dance only for cameras in hotel lobbies, selling revelry, lust, or anger as a global commodity? These practices still mean something—possible more than before—but they lack conscience. Commerce has hollowed a thickness and density once palpable around us. Energy has thinned in the same way. What was a multiplex notion of divinity, life, and rightness now denotes oil—or, at its most plural, a small portfolio of fuels. […] Energy now fills a tank. In the United States, traces of the former holism still remain: the energy in a yoga studio or the energy of New Age crystals. But these references bulk small: they are hollow in the sense that they hardly offset the overwhelming drivers of what has been called fossil capitalism. Modernity runs consistently on a planet-destroying fuel. I am hopeful, though, that shards of other cosmologies—recognized and again respected—will inform energy policy. (28)

With dreams, experts might fashion energy into a tool for reform, liberation, or justice. Or would the first combustible hydrocarbon serve only as a fillip for production? At the very birthplace of the oil industry, Trinidad and early Trinidadians wavered between inspiration and indifference. (41)

Oil is always already a cynical category. […] Except when oil spills locally, one treats it as a means, an instrument toward the things that really matter. Useful as it is—perhaps, like money—oil only rarely touches questions or moral worth. Banally and too easily, hydrocarbons flow and spill everywhere. (60)

This is the most widespread, least reproachable form of complicity: an earnest pursuit of local, immediate, rather ordinary concerns in the run up to apocalypse. Like stewards rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, one can easily lose a sense of proportion. (62)

Sustainability, then, benefits from attention and mindfulness to objects and the energy consumed in making them. In this form, we might find an attainable utopia: a way of treasuring the ability to do work. (150)

Humor and wonder and science and art—as well as outrage and rage in the streets—will move the world to burn far less fossil fuel. Conscience will replace complicity. (152)


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