Could transitioning from Petroculture lead to political disruption?


Oil and the centrality of non-renewable resources as the source and supplier of daily modern life is often used without a second thought as people go about their daily lives. Flicking on the lights, turning on the stove, or dropping off family members at engagements are all habits and activities that have become second nature that people in modern society have become accustomed to and expect. The reliance on these necessities and the foundation and manifestation of petroculture is so deeply embedded in habits and norms that their ease of use and immediacy are not only expected but relied on, and are what has propelled the rapid advancement of society at speeds that are historically unprecedented and thus difficult to compare. Petroculture, defined as the ways in which post-industrial society today is an oil society [1], and the way that fossil fuels are “defining modernity” [2] are all attributes of the phenomenon. The way in which major energy sources present themselves through disruptions, habits and norms, is something that can also be seen through water and wind to eventually coal in the UK during the 19th century, according to Malm. [3]. The Petrocultures Research Group speaks to the multiple ways in which the forms of energy which a society depends on shape that society in fundamental ways as they speak to the critical role in determining the shape, form, and character of our daily existence, and that the “dominant form of energy in any given era…shapes the attributes and capabilities of societies in a fundamental way.” [1]. Thus, changes from non-renewable resources as the dominant energy supply would heavily impact and disrupt current norms and ways of life. The transcendence of oil into all aspects of daily modern life is one which should be incorporated further into public discourse if not to amplify the growing body of research on the topic but also to greater reflect on the potentially challenging political disruption that could arise from improperly managing and mediating challenges that will arise from dealing with and transitioning through petroculture.

Stephanie LeMenager states that petroculture is today’s modern, normative culture that is the way of life in wealthier parts of the world [4]. It is manifest in all aspects of life from highways and infrastructure, to fillings in people’s mouths, to the suburban dream in North America [4]. LeMenager’s focus on petroleum and petroculture is situated on the foundational role that it has played in the (American) imagination while cognizant of the fact that the narrative of petroleum continues to shift [11]. From exploring the motivations to switch to oil as partially motivated by lessening the workload and adding to the quality of man’s life [11], to reflecting on the boom of the middle class  in the mid-twentieth century and the social adjustments and movements that came with it such as the cultivation of public education, social movements such as feminism and antiwar activism, and the replacement of back-breaking labour associated with coal, LeMenage brings social considerations of enhanced entrepreneurial individualism and social movements into the greater conversation of petroculture [11]. Perhaps one of the best displays of the centrality of petroculture and oil in everyday life is shown through the Enbridge campaign “Life takes energy” [5] in which the company exemplifies the ready and reliable source of energy coupled with notions and imaginations that non-renewable energy has in fueling all aspects of a comfortable modern lifestyle. By taking E=mc2 and equating non-renewable energy with all aspects of modern life the campaign elevates the consciousness of the foundational role of non-renewable resources and dependence on petroleum. Not only is an unconscious reliance raised but an emotional response is aroused in each poster and film in the campaign, effectively mounting support for non-renewable energy and the social norms and actions that surround it while indicating that shifting away from the source would threaten to disrupt these comforts and norms.

A prime example of a video from this campaign shows scenes of a father cooking a meal for his young daughter and ending with the message “E=best dad ever” [6], showing a memorable and heart-warming scene. While another video example of the campaign appeals to the wonders and imaginations of childhood dreams as it shows a young boy practicing magic tricks with his brother and grandfather lounging near him in their comfortable home with the lights off.  Simultaneously and seamlessly as the young magician ushers a spell his grandfather flicks on the lights which triggers immediate joy and belief in the boys own magic. The scene is immediately followed with a focused shot of the young magician gazing in wonder at the lights above him with the message “E=believing” laid over top [7]. Here not only is the utility of lighting a home shown but also the emotional response of a grandfather bringing joy and belief to his young grandson who is mystified. Both of these videos, as well as other pieces in the campaign, end with the same adage from Enbridge as a narrator states that when the “energy you invest in life meets the energy [they] fuel it with, beautiful things happen.” [7]. With petroculture in a broad and simple definition referring to the “social imaginaries constituted by knowledge, practices and discourses resulting from the consumption of and subsequent dependence on oil” [8] it is evident that this campaign engages in displaying not only the materiality of oil in modern society but also employing the social imaginaries that it provides and shapes.

A large body of research exists on the reality and embedded prevalence of petroculture. Contributing to the advancement of this field, the Petrocultures Research Cluster at the University of Alberta focuses on and supports research that is focused on the “social and cultural implications of oil and energy on individuals, communities, and society” [9]. In the Canadian context, a significant amount of political and media discourse has been dedicated to issues concerning energy politics and the oil industry but the broader concept of “petroculture” has all but been left out of these broader conversations, having yet to permeate mass media and public discourse. The dominant, hegemonic form of energy at present is petroleum [10], and the concept of petroculture ascertains that the current way of life has been shaped by oil in physical and material ways, through influence on values, practices, habits, and beliefs, and that overall it is difficult to isolate the ideals of autonomy and mobility from this entity. Essentially, the capacities and freedoms of modern life have been shaped by the role of fossil fuels and the social aspect of oil. As Szeman says, the way in which systems “go” is not only a result of “raw stuff of fossil fuels” but also the “ideas and ideals” that drive our agreed upon freedoms [10]. This includes, but is not limited to the ability of individuals to travel where and when they like, as well as international trade and cultural exchanges. Further to this Szeman points out that modernity has rarely had the “massive expansion of socially available energy” (in this case fossil fuels), and the “redefinition” of practices, behaviours, and beliefs as a result. Overall, the omission of petroculture in the discourse and consideration surrounding modern life could be argued as resulting in a “lack of a full understanding” of energy and the politics, culture, and social norms that surround it [10].

With the source and driver of modern society being a finite resource it is clear some major shift in energy supply will be needed in the future. In June 2015 G7 nations declared that “the era of fossil fuels would end by 2100” [1]. In this short period of time the goal is daunting with the scope being the whole of Earth’s population, and the scale impacting global infrastructure [1]. The movement towards this goal indicates a faster replacement of the primary energy source and social transformation that would outpace the speed at which fossil fuels and petroculture came to fruition (if measured starting in the 1850s). This would constitute a bigger economic, political, and social shift than that which ushered in petroculture. With daily reminders and activities embedded in the culture of petroleum and transnational commitments to move off of fossil fuels in less than one hundred years the viewpoint of the Petrocultures Research Group that this is an ambitious social transformation which lacks historical precedent is not far from the mark.

The intent of this article is not to argue one way or another in terms of the direction that thought leaders, politicians and government and industry should act on the energy industry but rather to speak to the research underway and the scientific realities as well as imminent political disruption. While the job losses that are directly dependent on the fossil fuel industry in Canada and the economic disruption and direct political impacts as a result of this may be a clearly visible impact of shifting away from fossil fuels are may be the most clear and evident impacts, what will be more difficult to quantify however are the social disruptions that will arise as a result and impact aspects of daily life that are not commonly spoken of. With campaigns such as the one highlighted in this article, it is clear to see that material dependency and emotional associations are part of this current petroculture and that shifts in the industry and thus culture are likely to impact norms and ways of being and comfort that could ultimately result in high levels of political disruption. Just as fossil fuels reshaped and redefined who had access to what capital, freedoms that we associate with the liberal world view and order, and norms and cultures shaped in the modern world in unprecedented ways, an impending energy source shift will likely engage in similar adjustments and disruptions. The shift in energy supply and transformation of the dominant energy source will shift these parameters and norms. Regardless of if the transition is smooth or littered with hurdles, the limited value of the resource dictates that a new energy source must eventually take over,and in a petroculture in which citizens are not only materially dependent on the good but also have it embedded in their norms, practices, and in some cases emotional responses (as is shown by the Life takes energy campaign), politically it is bound to be disruptive in one way or another.

Lhori Webster is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa pursuing her Joint Honours BA in Political Science and Communications.


[1] Petrocultures Research Group (2016) After Oil. Petrocultures Research Group. Department of English and Film Studies. University of Alberta. Edmonton, A.B., Accessed February 6, 2019.

[2] Wilson, S. (n.d.). Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture. MQUP.

[3] Malm, Andreas. (2013) “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Winter to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Historical Materialism 21.1 (2013): 31

[4] Hartman, Steven., Norman, Peter., Birgersson, Anders., LeMenager, Stephanie. (2017) “What is Petroculture?” Bifrost Insights. Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[5] Enbridge (2019) “Life takes energy” Enbridge, Home, About us. Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[6] Enbridge (2019) “E= best dad ever” Enbridge, Home, About us, Life Takes Energy. Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[7] Enbridge (2019) “E=believing” Enbridge, Home, About us, Life Takes Energy. Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[8] Baptista, Karina. (2017). “Petrocultures.” Global South Studies: A Collective Publication with The Global South. Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[9] Petrocultures Research Cluster (2018) “Petrocultures” Petrocultures Conference. University of Alberta.  Accessed April 22, 2019. Accessible here:

[10] Szeman, Imre (2017) “Conjectures on world energy literature: Or, what is petroculture?” Journal of Postcolonial Writing. 53(3) p. 277-288.

[11] LeMenager, Stephanie. (2014) Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Oxford University Press.