Reading List #1: Arts, Culture & Energy Transitions

Over the last year, I’ve written occasional posts about the cultural dimensions of energy transitions, past and present. We’ve seen how artists throughout the millennia – including William Shakespeare, Herman Melville, JMW Turner, and, more recently, Olafur Eliasson, Jessica Segall, and Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen – have contributed in a variety of ways, either directly or indirectly, to the energy transitions of their respective époques, by creating works that ultimately helped shift the cultural and aesthetic values associated with the incipient, “alternative” energy source.

The initial inspiration for this series came from the 2014 book Art and Energy: How Culture Changes by Barry Lord. Lord’s hypothesis is that “major cultural shifts have accompanied each energy transition since our mastery of fire.” From this perspective, contemporary artists should recognize that today’s so-called energy debate has less to do with politics or technology, and more to do with a conflict of cultures. Echoing this point, novelist Amitav Ghosh wrote “… let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” in his 2016 non-fiction book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.

“And who’s best equipped to show us this reimagined landscape? Artists, of course,” concluded Ghosh.

These two books by Lord and Ghosh are probably the most dog-eared and underlined books in my library. A close third would be Robin Wall Kimmerer’s magnificent Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.

These three books do not have a permanent spot on my bookshelf. Rather, they seem to migrate frequently between my desk, my night table, and my backpack. But if I have to choose only one book to bring on an overnight trip, I almost always reach for Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass for its timeless – and timely – wisdom. Below is what I consider to be the most important paragraph in her visionary work:

The importance of reciprocity: from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, page 272

My attachment to these three books is… fervent. Each has profoundly influenced my thinking over the past few years – not just about energy transitions, but about all types of transitions: wars, pandemics, social movements, climate change, etc. These (and other) authors have helped me to understand that our volatile and disorienting moment in history is a liminal space, the outcome of which is unknown, up for grabs, and will depend upon the collective choices we make – or fail to make.

Liminality can be described as the ambiguous space that lies between two ways of being or two ways of seeing the world. According to philosopher Samantha Earle, “liminal space is a time of radical uncertainty where the foundational concepts of the way in which we’ve been living, and around which society is organized, no longer makes sense.”

So I wondered: In this liminal space, without a script to follow, what books do other artists keep by their bedside and return to, time and again, to embrace the humility of the unknown? Which authors can help us visualize this transition as a passage of becoming rather than of being, full of danger yet simultaneously full of possibility?

Unable to answer these questions, I’ve decided to compile a “reading list” about the role of arts and culture in this transitional moment, as we navigate the bridge between two worlds: one in which we remain tethered to underground fossil fuels, the other in which we turn our gaze upwards towards the Sun, not only as the center of our universe but as the center of our energy strategies.

Photo by Joan Sullivan, 2020

My hope is that other artists and scribes will feel motivated, over time, to contribute to this list, turning it into a collective project that will benefit anyone interested in the liminality of our current predicament. While I will continue to focus primarily on energy transitions, this is not a requirement for others who may simply wish to suggest a book, poem, article, music, podcast, or tweet that has inspired his/her/their creative process with regard to pivotal, transformative moments throughout history. Perhaps we could update this list annually, in an “end of year” post on this platform, Artists and Climate Change.

So here it is, my first “reading list” for arts, culture, and energy transitions. I’m keeping it simple: the three books already mentioned above, plus the three books I’m reading at the moment, in no particular order:

  1. Art and Energy: How Culture Changes by Barry Lord (2014)
  2. The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh (2016)
  3. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)
  4. Energy: A Human History by Richard Rhodes (2018)
  5. The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers (1991)
  6. Storm by George R. Stewart (1947)

I’m currently switching back and forth between the last three books as part of my research for a keynote speech that I will deliver virtually in August during the annual Aboagora symposium at the Sibelius Museum in Turku, Finland. (More about this in a future post.)

My intention is not to write a formal review of each book, just a brief introductory paragraph, as follows:

Energy: A Human History, by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Richard Rhodes, is a recent purchase and a fascinating read. I’m using it primarily as a reference book in preparation for my Aboagora presentation. It is chock-full of historical and technical details about the implacable evolution of energy technology across four centuries. But we also come to appreciate the complex role that energy has played throughout history in the shaping of culture and society. An excellent resource!

The Power of Myth, while unrelated to energy transitions, is all about journeys – rites of passage – which are, by definition, liminal. The problem is that no one knows how long we’re going to be in this liminal space: how long before we transition to a post-carbon future; how long before the climate stabilizes. I’m re-reading The Power of Myth in order to better understand Campbell’s life work articulating the universality of human experience as a link between past and present cultures. According to Campbell, “artists are the mythmakers of our day.” In the Anthropocene, we need myths more than ever before, because myths are stories that show us how to move forward in the face of chaos.

Storm: I am particularly smitten by Stewart’s Storm, written 75 years ago. Considered the first eco-novel ever written, Storm takes us on a trans-continental journey that follows the life – literally, the birth, adolescence, mature adulthood, and eventual whimpering out – of a massive albeit non-catastrophic storm for which the cast of human characters was either unable or unwilling to prepare. In this regard, Storm can be read as a metaphor about climate change, fueled by the folly of hubris and our collective passivity. While reading Storm, I was reminded of Moby Dick, in the sense that the protagonist of both hybrid-novels is nonhuman, with far more agency than the humans it is dealing with. We need more stories – myths – like this that speak to the interconnectedness of all beings sharing this planet, both animate and inanimate.

Bonne lecture!

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. 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 eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.

2 thoughts on “Reading List #1: Arts, Culture & Energy Transitions

  1. I got to wonder about that phrase “the collective choices we make” — as in, who is this “we” and how does it make these “collective” choices?

  2. Joan, great posting. I like the idea of a reading (and listening) list. I have a list of 20 + books and blogs I follow but if I were to list only 2 I would say

    I recently went through the 39 exercises in this book and it is a transformative experience, essentially grounding the reader in his/her complicity in modernity while proposing ways to transition out of it. It’s hard work and not ‘solution’ based but it’s the real thing and I strongly recommend this book and the accompanying content on the web site, Gesturing Towards Decolonial Futures. I plan to do a series for my conscient podcast on this work one day, you know, when I grow up 🙂

    The other is :

    This podcast does it all in terms of ecological/cultural conversations. Choose the topics you like : every episode has the same deep research and engaged animation. I also recommend Kamea’s which is a substack to read essays by Kamea and go further in her research.

    I’ll add more later but these two will keep folks busy as they are both dynamic resources, always adding new content and enriching our understand and dare I say ‘hope’, in the sense that by doing the hard work, we can figure out how to survive and thrive.

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