Artists and Energy Transitions

This post is part of an ongoing series of occasional musings about the larger context in which we currently find ourselves: an energy transition, of which there have been several throughout human history. I have chosen Barry Lord’s important book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes as our guide, because it sheds much-needed light on the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions through the ages. I also draw inspiration from the emerging field of Energy Humanities, led by Imre Szeman and his colleagues at the University of Alberta and the University of Waterloo in Canada. For previous posts in this series, please check here and here.

A common thread throughout Barry Lord’s book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, is that energy transitions overlap. This may seem obvious and redundant. But readers of this blog will appreciate that the social and cultural tensions inherent to these decades-long (sometimes centuries-long) energy transitions – when the new trumps the old – inevitably result in profound changes across all sectors of society: transportation, architecture, agriculture, industry, politics, warfare, and culture. These shifting tectonic plates, if you will, have inspired artists throughout the ages – in the past as in the present – to respond with bold new methods of expression.

What’s different today, of course, is that 21st century artists are not just responding to the current transition from non-renewable fuels to renewable sources of energy. They are primarily responding to the much broader context in which the current energy transition is but one part: the global climate emergency that has triggered the sixth mass extinction. The stakes have never been higher. We need artists of all stripes and colors on board, ASAP.

A tsunami of artists from all disciplines and from all corners of the globe have already risen up; many have found a home here on the Artists and Climate Change platform. But for those artists and writers who have not yet “found their voice” within the global climate movement, I’d like to suggest that they take a closer look at energy transitions as a source of artistic inspiration – as did JMW Turner in the middle of the 19th century. Turner witnessed the dying days of the “age of sail”, as tall sailing ships were replaced by smaller, polluting coal-powered steam ships that were not dependent upon the whims of the trade winds.

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1839. Oil on canvas, 90.7 x 121.6 cm Turner Bequest, 1856. NG524. Downloaded from the National Gallery.

An excellent place for artists and writers to begin reading about energy transitions is Barry Lord’s book. It artfully weaves together the history of the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions over the millennia. This book provides valuable insights to help contemporary artists understand the current energy transition within a historical and cultural context.

Lord shines a light on artists who played pivotal roles in previous energy transitions by influencing (how I loathe that word!) social and cultural values that contributed, either directly or indirectly, to broadening the consensus for cutting-edge “alternative” energy sources. And, as each previous energy transition has already demonstrated, it is only a matter of time before these so-called “alternative” energy sources dethrone the formerly dominant energy source(s).

The same can be said for today’s renewable sources of energy – wind, water and sun. While no one (yet) can predict how long fossil fuels and renewable energy will co-exist within the global energy mix, one thing is for sure: renewable energy will eventually dethrone fossil fuels to become the world’s dominant energy source. It’s only a matter of time. But time for the climate is running out…

Moreover, the critically important questions of who controls the future production and distribution of all this clean energy, and its geopolitical consequences, are beyond the scope of this post. For those interested in a deeper dive into the energy humanities, I suggest the recent January 2021 special issue on “solarity” in the South Atlantic Quarterly.

My goal in this post is simply to encourage artists to recognize the historical precedent of previous generations of artists who, intentionally or otherwise, helped contribute to successful energy transitions by influencing the perception of and the cultural values associated with the “alternative” energy source. The current energy transition is no exception. Once again, artists can help us get there more quickly.

Nina Simone said it best: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”

And how the times have changed! I only recently discovered that coal was initially considered an “alternative” energy source, i.e., alternative to renewables. Wood, wind, water, animal power, and human slavery were the dominant energy sources (all renewable) from the earliest human settlements right up into the middle of the 19th century. So it is quite remarkable how quickly this new “alternative” coal became the world’s dominant energy source: by the late-19th century, coal was crowned “king,” fueling the Industrial Revolution. Coal’s heyday lasted approximately 200 years, until it was usurped by oil and gas in the post-WW2 era. Although coal’s contribution to the global energy mix has been declining ever since, it still generates nearly 40% of global electricity.

Having photographed the renewable energy transition for more than a decade, I’m eager to convince other artists and writers that energy transitions are truly fascinating and a rich source of inspiration! Not just from a technological perspective, but from many inter-connected social, cultural, historical, and political perspectives. Let’s be clear: today’s energy transition is definitely not just about solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, and battery storage. As promising as these solutions are, technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make. What’s missing is the social or human component.

I’ve started calling this missing component of the current energy transition the “human transition.” By this I mean an awakening, a renaissance, an unquenchable thirst to break free from the chains of our lifelong addiction to fossil fuels. To fully embrace, in Lord’s words, the tantalizing possibility of a shift away from a “culture of consumption” (proscribed by the age of oil) towards a “culture of stewardship” (inherent to the age of renewables).

This is where global artists come in: to wake us up from our stupor, like the protest music of the 60s and 70s.

Without music and poetry, without the deceptively simple lyrics and melody of the next “Imagine” which will be forever seared into our collective consciousness, I fear that the current energy transition will not evolve quickly enough. Technology alone can not do it for us.

This profound shift in social norms and cultural values requires nothing less than revolutionary transformation – at both the individual and collective levels – of the way our violent extraction-based society is organized. More urgently, it requires looking at ourselves in the mirror to confront the ghosts of acquiescence: why and how we have allowed ourselves to remain numb for so long to the unspeakable violence, injustices, and inequalities to both the human and non-human worlds throughout the entire fossil fuel era. Without critical self-reflection, a truly Copernican transformation seems unlikely.

Technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make.

As we have learned from previous energy transitions, artists can and must use their creative energy to question the past and envision the future. I’ve purposely left out many of the more complicated and thorny geopolitical issues that are so well addressed by energy humanities researchers Imre Szeman and Darin Barney, co-editors of the previously mentioned special issue on solarity.

With their blessing, I’d like to end here by quoting directly from their introductory chapter in that journal. It is impossible for me to paraphrase: their words are so powerful, going straight for the jugular. Please take note.

The solarity we envision is committed to the core impulse guiding left politics, which is the struggle for equality and social justice against the rapacious force of extractive capitalism. The realities of environmental racism and the implication of energy extraction in ongoing colonial histories mean that any concept of solidarity worth the name must begin from the experiences of those whose bodies and relations have been made expendable through the brutality of extraction, and who stand to suffer most greatly from the accelerating climate and environmental effects of fossil fuels (citing Kathryn Yusoff, 2019).

This means that solarity begins in solidarity with Black and Indigenous people in the Americas and elsewhere, with racialized and impoverished communities in the so-called Global South, with women, with care-workers, with those who have been disabled by their environments, and with the non-human others previously relegated to the exploitable domains of mere objecthood (citing Jamie Cross 2019; Sarah Jaquette Ray 2017; Sheena Wilson 2018; and Kyle Whyte 2017).

The first imperative of solidarity in relation to these will be to stand aside and accept their leadership in the struggle against the global fossil fuel regime, and in the development of radically alternative practices, relations, and infrastructures of solarity. This might include putting our (in our case: white, male, affluent) bodies and our accustomed ways of living on the line, as others have done for so long with theirs. As Nandita Badami argues in her provocative essay in this issue, we may need to turn from Eurocentric ideas about the sun and “enlightment” to a solarity of endarkenment.

The second imperative is to think and work together to develop political and economic forms that facilitate, nurture, and manage egalitarian societies, as an energetic base for even more widespread social transformation. A solarity animated by solidarity will require humility, patience, and courage, especially on the part of those for whom petrocapitalism has delivered mostly comfort, convenience and impunity. This, and not just our fuel source, has to change.”

Very powerful words, indeed. Thank you Imre and Darin.

(Unless otherwise noted, all photos by Joan Sullivan.)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and member of @WomenPhotograph, focused on the energy transition. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her grief about climate breakdown. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

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