The Cultures of Energy Podcast: 2017 Year in Review

Posted by on Dec 27, 2017
The Cultures of Energy Podcast: 2017 Year in Review

On December 23, 2015, Rice University’s Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe launched the inaugural Cultures of Energy podcast with science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi as their first guest. Since then, the podcast has run 104 additional episodes featuring a diverse range of activists, historians, scientists, anthropologists, politicians, and artists as guests. Cymene and Dominic have brought the podcast overseas, recording episodes in Iceland and continental Europe, and have had the opportunity to interview some of the most influential contributors to the discourse on climate change and the energy humanities.

Year two of the Cultures of Energy podcast has been a crazy one to say the least. We, along with so many others, have had to cope with the emotional roller coaster and daily crises that have defined the first year of the Trump administration. Part of this has been figuring out how much political commentary it would be appropriate to offer on the podcast. We had to consider whether we should be covering urgent threats like the dismantling of the EPA under Scott Pruitt, or whether we should maintain the trajectory from year one, offering a mix of different topics in the energy and environmental humanities. Beyond the radically transformed political environment, though, we have also come face-to-face with the realities of a changing natural environment this year. From the splitting of the Larsen C ice shelf to the back-to-back-to-back super storms that hit the US to the record-breaking Southern California wildfires, the effects of anthropogenic climate change have been felt profoundly by many across the country and abroad. This all hit home for us when we found ourselves recording in the middle of Hurricane Harvey, something we certainly never expected to be doing when we started this podcast. It thus became something of a constant balancing act throughout the year as we sought to engage with the daily barrage of news without sacrificing the diverse viewpoints and variety of expert knowledge that has come to define the Cultures of Energy podcast thus far.

Overall, 2017 was a great year for the podcast. We look forward to growing our audience even further in 2018 and will continue to think about new ways to use the podcast to create community. As always, we welcome and encourage suggestions from you, our listeners, as to how we can improve the podcast moving forward.

As a way to look back on the year of podcasts, each of CENHS’s predoctoral fellows were asked to choose their favorite podcast and write a brief reflection on the episode they chose.

Click the image from each featured episode for a link to the podcast.


Episode #89: Naveeda Khan

Clint Wilson III

On September 7th, the Cultures of Energy podcast featured Naveeda Khan, associate professor of Anthropology at Johns Hopkins University. The episode highlighted what makes the podcast so special: namely, the range of topics surveyed, which at first seem disparate and random, but ultimately underscore the imbrication of its many discourses and dialogues. From the UN’s COP meetings to a fascinating juxtaposition of the flooding in Houston and Bangladesh, from a semantic analysis of the word “refugee” to a brief overview of Islamic cosmology and eschatology, Khan leads the conversation into a number of rich, complex territories. Attentive to the ways in which scale and history reconjugate ecological and cultural “points of convergence” (25:43), Khan’s work with rivers carries forth the critique she proposes in the podcast. Her work seeks to incorporate the river’s point of view, as a form of life that is equally imbricated in the climatological crises and discourses mounted in today’s culture. The Jamuna River, one of Khan’s primary case studies, is precisely one such convergence—a dynamic site of contrasts constituted by diverse forms of life, matter, and being. And this site is also shaped by commensurately dynamic historical pasts. When considered in deep time, Khan argues, “The [Jamuna] river is actually a trace of a series of earthquakes” (27:13). The river as “a trace of a series of earthquakes,” our planet as a “trace of a series of changes,” our atmosphere as a “trace of a series of toxins.” Khan’s wording left an indelible impression on me: that our task as scholars, activists, or writers is to see a given object as the remainder—the trace—of histories that are yet to be unpacked and fully understood.

Episode #83: Jennifer Lieberman

Kevin MacDonnell

Scholarly work on science and technology typically falls within one of two methodological camps. There are those who privilege the affect of non-human agents on social and cultural development, and then there are the social constructivists who attribute the production of discursive and non-discursive systems to social, political, and economic forces. In Jennifer Lieberman’s thoughtful discussion of electricity, though, she draws from both approaches to provide a more robust account of how electricity has come to not only transform modern American culture, but also be shaped itself–materially and conceptually–by the technoscientific, economic, and imaginary infrastructures of the last two centuries. As Lieberman points out, electricity’s conceptual status as both natural substance and man-made product lends itself to this kind of approach by challenging our ability to distinguish between what counts as natural and what counts as a technology. In her conversation with Cymene and Dominic, Lieberman discusses her book Power Lines: Electricity in American Life and Letters, 1882–1952 (MIT Press, 2017), as well as her recent article co-written with Ronald Kline in Configurations, “Dream of an Unfettered Electrical Future: Nikola Tesla, the Electrical Utopian Novel, and an Alternative American Sociotechnical Imaginary” (2017). The conversation ranges from explaining how electricity has been integrated into the American literary tradition in the works of writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jack London, and Mark Twain, to exploring the way major figures of electrical innovation like Nikola Tesla were influenced by and in conversation with contemporary utopian writers imagining worlds with limitless supplies of universally accessible electrical power. And in what is perhaps the most insightful moment in their discussion, Lieberman discusses how electricity has come to function not just as a metaphor for twentieth-century thought, but also as “a decoder of philosophical systems,” capable of providing a material correlative to the theoretical networks, grids, and systems developed throughout the modern era.

Episode #82: The Climate Media Net

Sherry Ya-Yun Kao

Cymene and Dominic talk with producer Nick Comer-Calder, formerly of the BBC and Discovery Networks Europe, about how to approach the public with the issue of climate change. Climate change is not easy to talk about—people tend to get irritated or bored by the hard and sometimes even vague subject. Climate change is complicated; very easily people get frustrated with the sciences, public policies, values, international relationships involved. Yet it is such an important issue. So how should we approach it to open up the conversation without all the above negative reactions? Comer-Calder suggests comedy and drama on TV is a good way to start. After all, “everybody wants a laugh.” If we can emotionally engage people, then we have a better chance to shift their opinions, even just a bit. Comedy and drama on TV, then, seem to be a pretty brilliant idea. Cymene also points out how much people care about whether in daily life already, so we can also figure out creative ways to incorporate climate change into the message. Challenge is the great opportunity to improve. Climate change, though a daunting subject, is a great opportunity for us to exercise creativity and push our limits for better.

Episode #95: Gretchen Bakke

Katie Ulrich

One especially thought-provoking and “electrifying” podcast was Cymene and Dominic’s conversation with Gretchen Bakke, anthropologist and author of The Grid: The Fraying Wires between Americans and our Energy Future (Bloomsbury, 2016). We learn about some of the underlying, twentieth-century premises that have shaped how we understand and approach electricity consumption—and how we might need to start rethinking many of these premises in moving forward with more sustainable energy practices. Gretchen points out how we are at an intervening moment where consumers are having to grapple with aspects of their electricity use that they didn’t have to pay attention to before, like the assumption of having access to the same amount of electricity at all times of the day. We are in the process of changing a century’s worth of relationships between consumers and the power industry, Gretchen says. In another interesting point of the conversation, Gretchen, Cymene, and Dominic confront the fact that “electricity isn’t a banana.” Gretchen elaborates on this point from her book, that electricity is not a thing and can’t be stored, and thus must be engaged differently than other commodities. Indeed, the current excitement and appeal of batteries, she argues, is that they allow us to think of electricity as a thing. As you switch on holiday lights, install endless batteries into new toys, and sneak into the fridge a little more frequently in the coming days, this is a great podcast to tune into to consider how our worlds might need to change in the coming years if we’re going to move toward more sustainable energy practices.

Episode #55: Gabrielle Hecht

Magnús Örn Sigurðsson

In this great episode the nuclear acts as a catalyst for discussions on energy, toxicity (Flint), climate change, and aerial analytics. Historian Gabrielle Hecht, professor of nuclear security at Stanford University, gives remarkably clear answers to Cymene and Dominic’s questions regarding the status of nuclear energy today and the possible, or rather not-so-possible, nuclear renaissance in relation to climate change mitigation. They discuss the nuclear industry in France and Hecht mentions a 1975 French billboard message that she also brought up in her book The Radiance of France: “In France, we may not have oil, but we have ideas.” What did it mean to have ideas instead of oil in 1975? And what ideas could or should be had instead of oil as we close the year 2017?

Episode #101: Joe Masco

From mutant ecologies to national security, Joe Masco has long studied the politics of nuclear testing, warfare, and radiation exposure in the United States. Cymene, Dominic, and Joe start off the episode by commenting on current rhetoric and geopolitical relations in the Trump era. Conversation regarding biosecurity and national imaginations of terror quickly develops into discussion of nuclear imaginaries and their role in crafting a relationship between climate change and national security. At a time where the validity and use for scientific information is questioned, Joe, Cymene, and Dominic unravel the “intertwining logics of nuclear and ecological crisis.” This episode quickly becomes a question of scale, where Masco fascinates us with radioactivity’s hidden ontology—its temporal, aesthetic, ecological, and geological rendering of our everyday lives. How can radiation and nuclear employment radically alter temporal dimensions of warfare and geographic markers of national security? How did radioactivity birth the Earth Sciences and influence our definitions of ecology? How might we rethink our Anthropocenic positioning through traces of plutonium? From half-lives to “nuclear technoaesthetics” this episode is rife with musings about our current geopolitical framework and our relationship with radioactivity’s footprints.

Episode #85: Jason Moore

 Andrew Johnson

As a historian of the early modern era, one of the central problems I consider is the way European colonialism remade the world. After reading Jason Moore’s brilliant Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), I was glad to hear he not only had a new book coming out with Raj Patel but was also going to be on the podcast. Moore’s work spans disciplines and is incredibly broad in scope, but also analytically tidy (the history of the modern world in seven “cheap” things?!). I found Moore’s discussion of his conception of “frontiers” especially useful. For most historians these days, the idea of a “frontier” is so fraught with intellectual baggage as to make it almost useless, except as a foil, but Moore’s weaving together the historical search for ways to make market production with the goal of surplus cheaper—spatially, ecologically, culturally, etc.—offers us a way to historicize his bigger concept, world-ecology. As an introduction to Moore’s work of transdisciplinary import, his interview on the podcast is a great place to start. And if this were not enough, our CEHNS colleague, Clint Wilson, also reviewed A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things (University of California Press, 2017) on the blog.


Episode #96: Matthew Burtner

      Joe Carson

Composer of three full length operas—including the world’s first climate change opera—Matthew Burtner is a creator, artist, and explorer of “ecoacoustics, embodiment and extended polymetric and noise-based systems.” His work has won a variety of awards ranging from the Musica Nova International Electroacoustic Music Competition, to the IDEA Award to various international music competitions. As he discusses in the podcast, Burtner is born and raised in Alaska; in many ways, the sounds of the Alaskan landscape materialized as an early tutor for Burtner’s musical education. Burtner’s memory of learning to play saxophone and to master circular breathing to play along with the Alaskan wind (as he practices the saxophone on the back of a fishing ship no less) struck me as a beautiful, foundational studio space informing his later work. His “Alaskan New Media Opera Triptych”—Winter Raver, Kuik, and Auksalaq—not only decenters the human but challenges the limits and conceptions of theatrical space. Utilizing audio and video streaming, Auksalaq’s performance weaves together different performance spaces from across the globe! Burtner’s podcast, and his broader work, is a great listen and, perhaps best of all, challenges the way we hear things.