The carbon-burning system that fuels our lives is all-encompassing and unsustainable. We will have to spend forty-ﬁve trillion dollars over forty years, by the International Energy Agency’s estimate, to convert half of the world’s annual energy requirements to renewable sources (we can eliminate the other half through conservation). To achieve these goals by 2050 we will have to spend as if we are engaged in a world war. Dozens of nuclear plants, ten thousand wind turbines, solar panels in the hundreds of millions, hundreds of geothermal and biomass plants, and more, must be built every year, along with increasingly energy- efﬁcient cars, buildings, and factories.
The scale of this enterprise is more than unprecedented—the US–Russia moon race cost one thousandth as much and took a quarter of the time. Walking away from our petroleum-based life is a task that stretches the imagination, even as the imperative to do so grows.
Edward Burtynsky’s epochal photographs bring us face-to-face with the gigantism of our fuel complex: his landscapes are consumed by oil rigs, lakes of tar sands tailings, looming refineries. In each image, the magnitude of the subject exceeds the frame, defeating comprehensive perception. And apparently we have only just begun to explore the potential scale of petroleum’s built form. Mason White describes recent “utopias of infrastructure” whose purpose is to reshape the land in ever more ambitious ways. The Siberian gas industry builds instant cities made of “tankers, platforms, ports and pipe networks … urban form in a gaseous state” even as engineers in Dubai manufacture land with Dutch dredgers, creating new island communities in fantastical shapes meant to be viewed from the air. These utopias project oil’s power across vast terrains of time and space. In a kind of apotheosis of petroleum-engineering megaprojects, the terra forming will go even further in the next few decades, scraping the deepest ocean floors for methane, chewing through mountains of shale to extract oil.
These new installations advance unchecked, even as previous generations of technology fall into desuetude. Petroleum alters the land forever, leaving Paul Bunyan–sized cuts and abandoned, decaying infrastructure. In response, Kelly Doran and Maya Przybylski visualize the work that could reclaim two segments of oil’s blastscape: Canada’s tar sands and the oil rigs of the Caspian Sea. Marrying brutal realism with affirmative design strategies, they turn oil’s legacy on its head, imagining new uses for the detritus of yesterday’s petroleum technology: cranberry farms, wildlife sanctuaries, research stations. And Przybylski ponders, “Beyond that moment when the last barrel of oil leaves the seabed, the Caspian will remain. Is it possible to plan for this moment by extending the momentum generated by the oil operations into the post-oil phase of the sea, rather than passively anticipating a postindustrial wasteland?”
In many other places, the petroleum wasteland is already an all-encompassing fact. Here, distant ecological futures are made irrelevant by painful local reality. George Osodi’s photographic project—“Oil-Rich Niger Delta” is its sardonic title—reveals lives lived at the ass end of oil. Pipes and wellheads have landed in Nigeria like parasitical alien life forms, spilling and burning oil in the process of sucking it up. The oil wealth they create vanishes, but the oil itself is ubiquitous, contaminating fishponds and farmlands, literally engulfing communities in an embrace they can neither overcome nor escape. These people endure more than just poverty; they must live in the destruction caused by petroleum itself.
Fuel is more than an environmental problem. It is a matter of justice. Next door to Nigeria, Bénin also produces oil. Artist Romuald Hazoumé’s sculpture La Bouche du Roi renders oil as king, the source of all beneficence, all woe. The title references the mouth of the Mono River, the place where slave traders stowed a million children, women and men as cargo for the Middle Passage
to their new world. The medium is petrol cans, which recreate the plan of the slave ship Brookes. The work offers little in the way of consolation to Hazoumé’s fellow Béninese. Servitude is the historical continuity here. Justice is absent.
The pathologies of the petroleum economy are endemic, and their scale so vast as to confound ready comprehension, or even perception: social injustice, war, international terrorism, economic fragility, global warming, ecological devastation. There will never be a clean and final break. The work of building a future on new forms of carbon-free energy must address all of the intractable legacies of our past and present dependence on oil. Ingenuities of infrastructure conversion and environmental conservation will only take us so far. To succeed, the project must strike at the roots of energy injustice and create access to sustainable energy everywhere, not just in the rich, hyper-developed regions of the world with the ability to capitalize infrastructure conversion.
The daunting complexity of the problem of switching from oil drives an attendant fantasy: that of a total solution, a single, perfect fuel that will liberate humanity. This monological thinking is slyly satirized in Robert Kirkbride’s sculpture Culobocca, which offers the phantasm of such a fuel powering a machine of ultimate efficiency. This fantasy will itself be our downfall, if we do not learn to think in terms of massively parallel solutions instead of a magic bullet. As Imre Szeman points out, we simply can’t afford the techno-utopian “dream that a coincidence between technological discovery and historic necessity will emerge now” to save us.
Instead of attempting to somehow repeat the one-fuel logic of the oil economy, we need new ways of thinking so that we can design our way out of our current energy system and into a world of multiplexed sustainable fuels. We need to invent—and engineer—technologies for combining many energy sources, while at the same time managing the political complexity of wiring public-sector research and investment to private-sector dynamism and capacity. To truly succeed, the solutions we create will have to be accessible worldwide, to poor countries as well as to rich, for villages and for giant metropoles; and the results will have to serve the interests of citizens as well as those of capital.
In engineering the coming global energy conversion, we must reach far beyond the goal of zero carbon. In “Post-Carbon Highway” architects Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov of the firm RVTR reinvent a critical element of our economic infrastructure for an era of low-carbon energy while building-in additional orders of economic and environmental benefit. Thinking in multiple dimensions, Thün and Velikov plan an increase in the highway’s “bandwidth.” Instead of a single-speed strip of tarmac for gas-fueled vehicles, this trunkline widens, branches and blooms into multipurpose levels and corridors, not simply carrying goods and people but also generating energy, commerce, and environmental mitigation. These visionaries’ work is a convincing demonstration of how the conversion to a post-carbon world can open opportunities well beyond the mere cutting of emissions.
Chris Hardwicke’s Velo-City abandons fuel altogether. His proposal for a network of commuter bicycle tubes nested into the city’s existing fabric of road, railway, and power corridors promises a transformative means of moving through the city. Hardwicke’s bikeways would allow cycle-commute times similar to those of transit while reinventing our view of the urban scene and our way of life within it—stripping out external energy sources is a mere byproduct.
The future is energy pluralism. Once our infrastructure is able to interconnect different fuel types and distribution systems, our economies will be liberated from their damaging addiction to a single raw material. In this new era, aggressive market-based competition between sustainable fuels will flourish only in the context of publicly managed energy grids, design strategies that maximize the just distribution of energy worldwide, and government-funded long-term basic research. The correct balance will be difficult to achieve. But, as this volume suggests, rethinking fuel can open bright futures for the world.