Abstracts below (in alphabetical order by author):
Catherine Alexander (Durham U) “Cleaning up and moving on: Kazakhstan’s nuclear renaissance”
A huge territory in north-eastern Kazakhstan was used as the main Soviet nuclear bomb test site. Legacies from this period are disputed, as is what should be done about them. At the same time, Kazakhstan is currently pitching to become a global leader in peaceful nuclear energy and research. Based on fieldwork in the small ex-military town abutting the test site, which hosts the National Nuclear Centre, the paper is concerned with tensions between these different temporalities and ways of knowing the site. The significance is twofold. Constructions of Kazakhstan as victim of the past and Kazakhstan as cheerleader for peaceful nuclear applications (e.g. energy, medicine) of the future are both deployed as legitimation exercises by the current government; but they do not slot easily together. I suggest that at the heart of these conflicts, between and among scientists, residents of the town, the government etc. is not just a variety of ways of producing knowledge – but the consequences of different epistemologies. One serves to erase its object; the other to keep it alive as an expanding, only partly comprehensible question.
Gretchen Bakke (McGill U) “The Immaterialization of Power: The Case of Electricity”
One could say that since the oil crises of the 1970s the trend in the US has been for increasing control over domestic electricity production. Oil was replaced by coal; coal is currently being replaced by natural gas. A second concern for control, however, also dates back to this period as individuals, municipalities, states, and even regions attempted to wrest control of electricity from the utilities. This has been done in many subtle ways, including “going-off-the grid,” protesting nuclear power plant construction, vociferous support of increasingly stringent environmental and safety regulations, leasing or buying of rootop solar, and Not-In-My-Back-Yardism. Rarely considered as an aggregate these activities have a constant thread: the visible, material side of the infrastructure is protested while immaterial or invisible forms of power are lauded and invested in. Wind power and solar power, the invisible fuels, are the clearest example. Though even wind turbines, with their obtrusive, moving, physical presence garner much more vociferous opposition than the largely invisible presence of rooftop solar. It has also become difficult to build new long distance, high voltage lines as individuals do not want these in their lines of sight, while strong arguments are bing made for burial of distribution systems under city streets, hiding them thus from view. Even on the smallest scale, wireless charging stations are now being built into furniture doing away with outlets and internal cords and prototypes exist for entire home systems with ambient electricity. In this paper I trace out these trends attempting to link ideologies of control to technological processes of dematerialization, moving from era of solids (coal, wood, plutonium) to liquids (oil, liquefied natural gas) to immaterials (wind, sun, wireless transmission and distribution).
Chantal Bilodeau (Artist and independent scholar) “Communicating Climate Change”
What is the role of the arts in communicating climate change? Whether it is sounding the alarm, celebrating the beauty of the natural world, making the science visible, or giving agency to local communities to develop readiness plans for climate change impacts, more and more writers, painters, musicians, dancers, and others are finding creative and effective ways to communicate climate change to the public. What can we learn from these strategies? Can they be applied to other spheres such as politics? How are they shifting cultural norms and/or advancing the conversation?
Jenny Carlson (UT-Austin) “Taking-place in the glasshouses: Non-representational perspectives on Germany’s energy transition”
In this presentation, a walk through a ruined plant nursery furnishes new perspectives on renewable energy development in northern Germany. These ramshackle greenhouses—or “glasshouses,” as locals call them—could be profitably converted into a solar array, and the owners’ reluctance to do so is a bone of contention in a village on the path to energy sustainability. This ruined (yet still-becoming) site unsettles commonsense narratives of the energy transition and its promises, pointing to futures beyond utopian sustainability or dystopian collapse. By engaging these recalcitrant materials and their atmospheres, I consider how more-than-representational approaches transform our understanding of energopolitics and, by extension, our ways of “doing politics” in the energy humanities.
Duncan Connors (Durham U) “The economics of nuclear power generation as the industry evolves to meet the societal challenges of the twenty first century”
This paper will outline the future economic potential of nuclear fission reactors in light of recent decisions made in industrialised countries concerning the future of the industry. It will start by providing an overview of the economics of nuclear reactor technology from the early developments in the United States, United Kingdom, Russia and Canada and the ubiquitous Light Water Reactors, the Pressurised Water Reactor and the Boiling Water Reactor used in most industrialised nations. It will then follow a counterfactual path by discussing recent research undertaken in Durham on the economic justification of the non-light water fission reactor sector, looking at the development of MAGNOX and AGR gas cooled, graphite moderated reactors in the United Kingdom and heavy water reactors based on the Canadian CANDU design, as well as other indigenous technology developed in countries such as Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and Argentina. This is becoming an important area of research, as the major industrial nations are working together to develop 4th Generation Reactors employing designs that use technologies not based upon the Light Water, Pressurised Water and Boiling Water Reactors, and the economics of the new technologies need to be analysed before construction to guarantee the designs are viable and to allay any potential public concerns about safety, cost and long-term viability of the nuclear industry.
James Elliott (Rice) and Kyle Shelton (Rice) “The Regulatory Nature of Urban Ports: The Case of Houston”
Classic urban ecology contends that cities grow by connecting economically with other places. As they do, local zones of similar land use emerge, producing natural areas. While still valuable, this paradigm and recent efforts to rehabilitate one of its core concepts – succession – fails to adequately explain how certain urban zones, born relatively free of government regulation, come to be increasingly defined by it over time. The present study engages this lacuna and its relevance to urbanization generally. Using the case of Houston’s Ship Channel, we investigate how a locally important zone develops politically through successive regulation intended to contain risks associated with its own development. In this way we extend insights of urban ecology by examining how government regulation shapes the creation of urban zones and the interactions among them and local residents.
Rania Ghosn (MIT) “The Geographies of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline”
Oil urbanism has rested on the industry’s capacity to appropriate and centralize flows while divesting itself of the environmental transformations brought about by the global expansion of the extractive frontier, what economists commonly refer to as “externalities.” This paper argues that the spatial apparatus of such externalization is the abstraction of the “carbon arteries,” the oil transportation infrastructure that links extractive regions and refineries or terminal ports. To counteract such violence of abstraction, this paper draws out the geographic transformations brought about by the cross-border Trans-Arabian Pipeline (Tapline). Operating between 1950 and 1975, the pipeline carried part of its sister company’s crude from the Aramco wells in Saudi Arabia across Jordan and Syria to a Lebanese port on the Mediterranean. Although often represented as a “short-cut in steel,” the pipeline did not merely overlay the land to vanish into the horizon. To make possible the flow of oil, the company deployed an infrastructural operation of procuring labor force, materials, and machines to survey, map, build, service, and secure the line in previously un-developed ‘resource frontiers’. The Company drilled the necessary groundwater wells, provided medical services along the right-of-way, planned the towns adjacent to the pumping stations, as well as contributed to other infrastructural developments in the area. Through these insertions, the Tapline inscribed, not without friction, a new territory through which international oil companies, transit and petro-states, and populations negotiated their political rationalities. The geographic account of this pipeline highlights the processes of making things flow in a regional economy as well as the spatial and political transformations that the inscription of flows brings about.
Damian Hampshire (Durham U) “The European fusion energy reference laboratory for superconducting materials in Durham”
This review paper gives an overview of the research capability available at Durham University aimed at the development of superconducting materials for use in future nuclear fusion reactor designs. Superconductivity is the enabling technology for the Fusion Energy. The ITER tokamak currently being built in the south of France is the world’s most developed magnetic confinement system. The ITER project will be followed by the DEMO project that will provide 2 GW of electric power. The Durham team’s world-leading research portfolio, test facilities, international partnerships, key research findings and their contribution to realising the ultimate goal of energy generation from nuclear fusion on national grids, are discussed in this paper.
Matthew Huber (Syracuse U) “Energized Politics: Neoliberalism and the Ecology of Entrepreneurial Life”
It is common to speak of the neoliberalization of energy markets. From the Deepwater Horizon to the fracking boom, we see how deregulation combined with corporate cost cutting puts communities and environments in peril. Yet, we often don’t think about the relationship between energy and the larger neoliberal political project itself. In this talk, I argue that energy intensive suburban life created the material conditions for a wider neoliberal populism focused on a politics of privatism and a larger critique of government and taxes. More broadly, I suggest neoliberal ideology is founded upon a critique of centralized power and a spatial imaginary of the market as a perfect decentralized mechanism with no need for central direction. Drawing from Foucault’s discussion of the significance of the “enterprise form” to neoliberal ideology, I suggest postwar American suburbanization created the material conditions for an ideology of “entrepreneurial life” – the idea that lives are individually made entities severed from collective or public forms of sociality. Like the neoliberal celebration of the market, this ideology also reproduces an ideology promoting the decentralization of power (much like life itself in the suburbs requires decentralized patterns of settlements). I conclude, by suggesting that the ideology of decentralization is not simply the domain of “neoliberals” or those on the “right”, and has had significant power in the shaping ideological and organizing trends on the left.
David Hughes (Rutgers U) “Why Oil Can’t be Stopped (or so they say)”
Oil comes packaged in a powerful, increasingly deadly jargon – and nowhere more so than in the petro-state of Trinidad and Tobago. Petroleum professionals speak of “upstream” and “downstream” as segments of an uninterruptable commodity chain. Such crustal-fluvial ideas took hold long before the science of climate change – even before the combustion of petroleum for mechanical purposes. This presentation explores three moments of consensus on the inevitability of hydrocarbon flows. The heaviest hydrocarbon came first. At the turn of the 20th century, Trinidad’s Asphalt Industry Commission described bitumen as visibly flowing but ultimately limited. By the 1960s, this double accounting underwrote the entire global economy of petroleum. Oil companies “prove up” an endowment of resources into marketable reserves. I examine this discourse during a crisis, beginning in 2009, when Trinidad considered the depletion of its oil and gas reserves. The fluvial model made a course of action clear: discover more hydrocarbons and allow geo-economics to lift them. Finally, in the third consensus, Trinidad’s leading independent oil producer turned the stream into a circle. He designed and tested a means of injecting carbon dioxide into underground reservoirs to as to produce oil. This enhanced form of oil recovery sequestered carbon underground – for the good of the atmosphere –but ultimately expelled more into the atmosphere. Again, the process appeared inevitable, even good for the environment. Under the logic of streams, the oil was coming up anyway. As a discourse then, the oilstream represents fossil fuels as unstoppable and irreplaceable – damn the consequences!
Adrian Ivakhiv (U Vermont) “Cinema, Ecology, and the Death of Carbon Capitalism”
This paper thinks through the intersections of three developments: (1) the much debated “end of cinema” and its replacement by what has (lazily) been called “post-cinema”; (2) the future end of carbon capitalism and its replacement by something yet to be named; and (3) an upsurge in speculative philosophy that reconceptualizes sociality, materiality, and semiosis in novel and challenging ways.
Chris Jones (Arizona State) “The Forgotten King: Coal in the late 20th Century”
Energy history is usually told from the perspective of the victors. As with allied fields such as the historical and social studies of science and technology, analyses of innovation dominate the literature. Yet as David Edgerton’s Shock of the Old (Oxford, 2011) compellingly argues, the “old” remains a vital topic of analysis. This paper uses the history of coal in late 20th century America to reverse the standard accounts of our energy systems. Despite its decreasing perception in everyday life, American coal consumption actually increased throughout the twentieth century, with more being consumed at the dawn of the twenty-first century than at any prior time. My paper explores why this has been the case and what we can learn by placing “old” energy systems at the center of the analysis.
Toby Lee (NYU) “Single Stream: Waste & the Politics of (In)visibility”
In this presentation, I discuss Single Stream, a video work I made with Paweł Wojtasik and Ernst Karel. Single Stream is a visual and sonic exploration inside a recycling facility, which ultimately aims to shed light on our contemporary culture of waste. Through the presentation of short excerpts from the work and discussion of its production process, I bring out the ways in which the video formally engages with the questions of technology, materiality and temporality that are raised by processes of recycling. Bringing together Benjamin’s notion of the optical unconscious with a discussion of the social unconscious and the politics of (in)visibility, this presentation reflects on the larger political economy of waste — and political ecology of video production and circulation — in the 21st century.
James Nisbet (UC-Irvine) “On the Energiatype and Photography’s First Decade in England”
“I would like to present on the relationship of early photography and the theorization of light as a form of energy in the mid nineteenth century. Based on archival research that I conducted at the Ransom Center in Austin this fall, I’ve found a fascinating pocket of work in England that falls between the formal invention of photography in 1839 and the emergence of ideas about thermodynamics and the electromagnetic spectrum in the 1850s and 1860s. These early photographers were also scientists, or “natural philosophers” as they called themselves, who were not only versed in optics, but also were themselves conducting experiments on the chemical action of light. Specifically, they were interested in determining precisely which aspects of light were producing photographic images. I will focus on one major hypothesis formed in response to this problem that sought to identify what was variously called the “actinic” rays of light or “Energia.” This notion of energy doesn’t link up precisely with how we think about energetics today, and because of which, it provides a telling account of the relationship between advanced science and photography as an epistemological technology.”
Roy Scranton (Princeton U) “The Compulsion of Strife”
As we consider how various cultures of energy relate to global warming, we can see differing visions of the human future already sparking into conflict. Climate wars and drought-driven fighting threaten civic stability from Raqqa to the Chukchi Sea. Approaching the existential problem of learning to live in the Anthropocene in terms of both the political structures of energy production and the mediating forces of social energetics, I argue for the value of philosophical contemplation, or more substantially learning to die, as a necessary practice of interrupting what Greek philosopher Heraclitus called “the compulsion of strife.”
Janet Stewart (Durham U) Nuclear Power? Nein, Danke!: Nuclear Energy in the Austrian Cultural Imaginary
In December of 1978, the Austrian National Assembly passed a law prohibiting the use of nuclear energy in Austria (Atomsperrgesetz), following the results of a national referendum on whether Austria’s first nuclear power station – located in Zwentendorf, which lies to the northwest of Vienna – should be brought into service. The referendum returned a narrow decision against (50.47% of the vote cast). Vienna, however, remained the seat of the International Energy Authority, a role for which the city was chosen in 1956. In the 1950s and again in the 1970s, nuclear power was a hotly debated issue. More recently, “being anti-nuclear” has been identified as part of the Austrian cultural imaginary, with Zwentendorf taking on the mantle of a key site of memory (Strohmaier, 2004). This paper sets out to investigate the construction and curation of cultural responses to nuclear energy in Austria since Zwentendorf, contextualizing the discussion in relation to the country’s energy mix.
Neyran Turan (Rice) “Resources Geographies in the Imagination”
In March 1994, a dramatic accident occurred in the Bosphorus Strait. Nassia, a 100,000-ton tanker carrying crude oil from Russia, collided with a cargo ship at the northern exit of the Strait. The cargo ship exploded, while Nassia immediately caught fire and released over 13,500 tons of oil into the sea.
The 1994 tanker accident occurred at a delicate moment in the history of the Bosphorus Strait. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the Caspian oil reserves in the 1990s, the Strait became one of the six busiest “choke-points” (i.e. international oil-shipping routes) in the world, along with the Suez Canal, the Straits of Malacca, Bab el-Mandab, the Strait of Hormuz and the Straits of Dover. Compared to the other routes however, the Bosphorus Strait stands unique by passing through the heart of Istanbul, a city of fourteen million citizens. What complicates the matter even further is the geographic form of the Strait, with its sharp and narrow turns, making it one of the most narrowest and difficult channels to navigate in the world.
While the amount of oil transit at the Bosphorus doubled since the 1990s to 123 million tons of oil transit in a year (approximately 28 tankers a day), the image of the colossal tankers has been almost flattened as part of the Bophorus picturesque. Only the occasional accidents have briefly shattered this complacency and revealed the Bosphorus terrain as a risk zone in the very heart of a dense city. Contemporary environmental concerns regarding the transit of colossal oil tankers through this narrow navigational route have been conflicted with disputes around transnational energy pipelines in the region and with various other large-scale infrastructural and urban transformation projects.
Through the presentation of this case study, I will show the role of resource geographies in the imagination and the study of cities and the environment at large. My broader ambition is to discuss the importance of a “geo-historical” approach in this context, which would be situated at the intersection of environmental history, urban history and STS. I will argue that a geo-historical approach is crucial insofar as we are able to transcend dichotomies such as nature vs. culture, urban vs. wilderness, or national vs. international and further articulate the spatial framing of their dispositions. More specifically, for architecture and urbanism, I will argue that it is only through a geo-historical framework that urban research can reveal unconventional spatial relationships and design can disturb the consensus on techno-scientific/positivistic fixes of urban management and climate change while bringing these frameworks into public and disciplinary imaginaries.
I will end with a brief presentation of my upcoming solo exhibition titled “Strait” that dwells on the abovementioned research. (Exhibition opening: June 2015).