Anthropological Approaches to Energy

Authored by: Peter Wynn Kirby

Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  August  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138782877
eBook ISBN: 9781315768946
Adobe ISBN: 9781317667964


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Energy—its production, its consumption, its very conception and articulation—circulates at the core of human endeavor, and yet as a topic of anthropological scrutiny it has been relatively overlooked until recently. This scholarly neglect is both puzzling and regrettable, as the value of an anthropological approach to energy is its rigorous focus on the sociocultural conditions of energy, as well as attention to the dizzying range of phenomena that might constitute ‘energy’ variously defined. (These include carbs, kilowatt-hours, kerosene, chi, chakra, chili peppers, tonics, ginseng, fat, feng shui, fuel rods, aphrodisiacs, animism, and Keynes’s ‘animal spirits of capitalism,’ to name but a few.) The fluid and wide-ranging methodology of ethnographic fieldwork generally does a very good job of sketching out the complex sociopolitical situation of energy beyond its narrow material or technical/thermodynamic specifications. For this reason, anthropologists attend to both the ‘material substance’ and the ‘environmental and social context’ of forms of energy (Strauss et al. 2013: 20) in order to understand the complex of factors that drive energy matters. Hydrocarbons like coal and oil, for instance, have been so lucrative and sought-after since the nineteenth century that they have had the potential to transform whole regions—witness the grave socioeconomic and ecological distortions caused by coal mining in 1860s Colorado or by extraction in the Alberta Tar Sands of Canada and the Niger Delta of West Africa in this century.

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