Beyond Petromodernity

In an op-ed piece about economic recovery in the wake of the corona-caused lockdowns published in Time Magazine, the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz stressed the "polarizing and oversimplified" public discourse on climate change in relation to economic questions: "We are frequently told that we face a choice between saving the economy and the environment. This is false. We can tackle climate change, transform our economies and at the same time be better off than before." "We will not make progress by suddenly trying to change what we are doing," he continued, but by "changing how we do things going forward—sourcing from renewable energy, building with biodegradable materials, powering our travels with synthetic fuels, reducing CO2 levels through carbon capture and other promising technologies."

At first, this might all sound rather, well, sound. However, Kurz's track record tells a different story. After all, he has been a member of the Austrian government since 2013 (with a seven-month break in the wake of Ibizagate). In that timespan, greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by a whopping 1.25%. Prior to the pandemic-induced breakdown of the economy, Austria was one of only four EU member states expected to miss its 2020 climate goals. And based on Austria's action plan for the next ten years, it is also very likely that none of the major 2030 goals will be met. Austria's current goal is to become climate-neutral by 2050—according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that will be two decades too late.

In addition, Kurz's Time piece reveals how "progress" (which all too often is interconnected with the idea of continued economic growth) defines policy-making and exposes the inability to imagine alternatives to fossil fuels. This aspect becomes particularly apparent when he envisions the reduction of CO2 emissions through carbon capture technologies rather than by cutting the use of fossil fuels. Here, Kurz seems to become the epitome of a politician "roaring drunk on petroleum" (Vonnegut 2013: 185) and unable to move "beyond a petroleum economy […] while there's petroleum there" (Simmons 1990: 392). This failure to imagine alternatives is because "petromodernity has enveloped the Euro-American imagination to the extent that 'oil' has become implicitly synonymous with the world […] we know" (LeMenager 2012: 61). As such, oil is "a cultural logic that dares any writer to express its real, not as some character or passing reference, but as a very mode of referentiality, a texture in the way stories get told" (Hitchcock 2010: 86). Socially, oil is "psychologically ultradeep," implicated in "the affects and emotions lodged in gasoline fuel, cars, and the thousands of everyday items made from petroleum feedstock, from lip balms to tampon applicators, dental polymers, and aspirin tablets" (LeMenager 2014: 13).

"If the art of living without fossil fuels is one kind of survival amidst dominant forms of extinction," Kathryn Yussof has remarked, "then there is a need to […] block certain fossil collaborations even as they compel us" (2013: 791). This special issue will heed this call. Indeed, as Graeme Macdonald and Caroline Edwards stress in their introduction to the Open Library of Humanities collection on "energy sources in science fiction and fantasy," speculative fiction is of particular relevance in connection with "the future-orientation of energic concerns," as the transition to a carbon-neutral world depends, in large part, on the imagination; on our ability to imagine alternative energy futures (cf. Streeby 2018). Yet whereas science fiction's toolbox allows us to speculate about possible futures, its future orientation, which is—more often than not—anchored in the present and/or the past rather than a vision of the future, also somewhat undermines its potential for imagining actual future change. In fact, the intricate ties between sf and petroculture beg the question of to what extent sf is imbricated in the petroimaginary; whether the science-fictional imagination is not more of a symptom of, rather than an antidote to, petromodernity. And, if this is the case, what work falls to the writers, readers, and scholars of science fiction to challenge sf's complicity in the petromodern. According to Gerry Canavan, imagining the end of petromodernity means imagining "the crisis that breaks the world to ruin but also the opportunity out of which the possibility of another world might emerge" (2014: 345). Drawing on insights generated in the energy humanities (e.g. Barrett and Words 2014; Johnson 2014; Malm 2015; Schneider-Mayerson 2015; Szemen and Boyer 2017; Szeman, Wenzel, and Yaeger 2017; Wilson, Carlson, and Szeman 2017) and combining these with first forays into science-fictional energy futures (e.g. Macdonald 2014; Macdonald 2016; Williams 2019; Lynall 2020), this special issue sets out to critically examine both sf's capability to truly imagine alternatives to petromodernity and its entrapment in the petroimaginary.