After Oil


Angelina Smolynec
BA Political Science major & Communications minor
McGill University

At the very heart of the social challenges named by climate change is the way we use fossil fuels across the globe. Any realism sensitive to climate change is therefore sensitive to the ways in which fossil fuels have shaped human societies. Any efforts to map the transition away from fossil fuels are also efforts to map a climate realism, both a normative one and a speculative one.

After Oil is an inter-disciplinary research project that discusses the necessary factors in a full-scale transition away from our dependency on oil. The project looks at our current petroculture, or what the research collective calls the material, cultural, and economic systems structured by oil, and how to move away from it. One area of focus is that of the arts and humanities. How can words, images, and performances help us transition to a society after oil? We have to change how we see, hear, think, and imagine in order to envisage that future. We must confront the inadequacies of our oil cultures through philosophical and cultural critiques, evaluating the language we use and the values we hold dear.[1] After Oil acts as a letter to scholars and artists on what they can do to aid in this transition, which seems impossible to many.

What are some of the ways that the arts and humanities can become primary sites of energy transition? Activists and artists can both reframe the relation between energy, culture, and economy, and they can intervene materially in the ways these things overlap. For instance, ‘Liberal Tate’ is a project where artist-activists crashed an event at the Tate in London and spilled gallons of oil all over the ground, then proceeded to don BP ponchos to poorly clean up the mess. This was an artistic critique of BP’s sponsorship of the Tate, a merging of art and petroculture. By performing this work of art in front of a large audience, in a setting otherwise inappropriate for such a performance, the artists reframed the art institution as a site of complicity and a source of critique. This cultural critique forced the audience to address the messiness of dirty oil, the failure of corporations like BP at tackling issues like spills, and the stakes of divestment campaigns.

In all of this, After Oil focuses on the representation of climate in art in our current petroculture. To alter infrastructure is not enough; to change the government in power is not enough. The true transition comes with the change of opinion, of language, of values. The project asks readers to imagine a Cinderella story where oil is the magical component. Cinderella therefore drives an Audi to the ball, which, at the stroke of midnight, turns into a carriage pulled by 220 horses. That kind of imagery draws to the forefront the question of necessity, how, in our Canadian culture, as in many other countries of the world, oil truly is the magical component and a world without it seems impossible.

The point of the Cinderella story is to historicize the seamlessness with which more and more energy comes to saturate everyday activities, forms of mobility, and modes of consumption. It’s very easy to move through a day in a city like Montreal and not even recognize the energy intensive nature of contemporary life. Using images and words to extract this hidden truth is the job of scholars and artists to counter the many social challenges named by climate change. Taking a 220 horsepower car to a ball seems completely normal. Our goal is to change what that normal is, from something that demands the use of oil, to a normal that is after oil.


[1] Petrocultures Research Group, After Oil (2016), 42.