Material ecocriticism and the petro-text

Authored by: Heather I. Sullivan

The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138786745
eBook ISBN: 9781315766355
Adobe ISBN: 9781317660194


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Our current geological epoch, provisionally called the Anthropocene, has come into being with the increasingly intensive extraction and utilization of fossil fuels by human beings. One might say that the Anthropocene is the era of humanity writ large across the planet (Crutzen; Crutzen and Steffen; Zalasiewicz et al., “We Are Now Living”; Zalasiewicz et al., “New World”). While it seems that we humans (or industrialized humans) are the power bringing about the changes, it would be more accurate to say that much of industrialized human power in this new geological era is enabled by the access to and use of concentrated forms of energy driving our technologies, global transportation systems, and modern agricultural practices. Timothy Morton states that however problematic the term “Anthropocene” is, it nevertheless de-emphasizes human exceptionalism so that “the Anthropocene is the first truly anti-anthropocentric concept” (“How I Learned” 6). There are numerous nonhuman factors influencing our era, including other life forms and all kinds of active matter such as carbon dioxide, various types of pollution and waste, shifting weather patterns bringing drought and floods, and the warming climate, among others. Some of the most significant agents of change in these flows of energy and matter are, to reiterate, fossil fuels; indeed, high-tech industrialized (human) culture since the eighteenth century is now being described as an “oil culture” or a “petroculture” (Barrett and Worden; LeMenager). This chapter addresses the impact of fossil fuels on cultural productions with the help of material ecocriticism, the branch of ecocriticism that analyzes how human and nonhuman agencies exchange energy, matter, and information.

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