Peak Oil in the Popular Imagination

Caroline Edwards

In the 21st century, we remain beholden to the oil economy. Oil shapes our geopolitics, our economic forecasts, the global transportation of our commodities, and impacts upon the costs of day-to-day living. Since the invention of the internal combustion engine, the petroleum industry has risen to such prominence that we cannot understand modern capitalism outside of its history as petro-capitalism. And yet, surprisingly, literature (and the humanities disciplines more generally) has had little to say about the dominance of oil in our lives. The recent emergence of ‘petrocultures‘ as an academic field of enquiry seeks to redress this apparent silence, opening up a space within literary, artistic and cultural production to consider the cultural role that oil plays. How, for instance, is oil depicted in the novel? In what ways can literature imagine a world without oil, where our movements are restricted to the pace of walking? And what opportunities for a more engaged democratic citizenship does the cultural critique of oil afford? As Amitav Ghosh has argued, ‘the history of oil is a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic’ (Ghosh 139).

Household Oil

The unspeakable ubiquity of oil: why is it so hard to interrogate oil within our daily lives and cultural production? 

[Image by Steve Snodgrass under a CC BY license]

This simultaneous ubiquity and absence, or silence, of oil within the cultural imaginary makes it both especially important, and equally challenging, to unearth or uncover the role that oil plays in our lives – at the social, political, cultural, and aesthetic levels. In this article, I’d like to reflect upon the following questions which I argue are shaping the emerging discourse of petrocultural literary studies: What are the cultural forms of oil capitalism? Are there specific texts, or clusters of texts, that we can identify as engaging with the issues surrounding our oil consumption? As Frederick Buell notes, ‘unlike most of today’s theory-inspired advances in cultural study that have focused on race, colonialism, gender, class, sexuality, and, most recently, the environment, the study of oil does not uncover a large trove of important old literature, even though it does feature a growing body of contemporary art, literature, and popular cultural work”’ (Buell 70). This is perhaps surprising, given the intimacy of oil within our everyday lives – something that literary forms such as the novel and poetry have traditionally been accorded privileged access in their interrogation of subjective and emotional relations. 

The ‘violent frontiers’ (Barrett and Worden xxi) of the oil economy – with its increasingly unsustainable and ecologically dangerous deepwater offshore drilling, fracking and bitumen production – thus inform our understanding not only of modern capitalism as dependent upon oil (petrocapitalism), but also of technological modernity as premised upon the cheap production of energy systems (petromodernity), and modern liberal democracy as enabled by the political power, affluence and stability of national sovereignty that oil has afforded the United States (petrodemocracy). Within this petrocultural reading of modern industrial capitalism and the technological rationality that underpins its ceaseless expansion, as well as the specific political forms it engenders, some critics have recently suggested that we need to uncover an ‘aesthetics of petroleum’ in literature of the period. For instance, in its dramatic perceptual reorganisation of sensory experience the kineticism and spectacle of early cinema reproduces the exuberant energetics of fossil-fuel extraction (Buell 289). In effect, films such as Dziga Vertov’s electrifying 1929 city symphony montage Man With a Movie Camera or Walter Ruttman’s classic of the genre, Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (1927), are the cultural correlatives of an energy system predicated on mechanical power, consumption of natural resources and an irresistibly unrestrained momentum of progress and development. More recently, the growing number of photographers in the 21st century challenging conventional landscape aesthetics with their often sublime, elevated perspectives of oil fields, or of the utterly drenched petro-landscapes of Los Angeles strips – with their billboards, ubiquitous gas stations, itinerant travellers, hotel chains, and heavy traffic – reveals to us the crystallisation of a visual syntax dedicated to uncovering our complex relationship with oil in the 21st-century. Such readings encourage us to think about a ‘poetics of oil’ which beings into uneasy alliance the forces of dynamism and stability. Lurching from one oil crisis to the next, this ‘oily dynamism’ enables destructive technologies and machineries during wartime (such as TNT, mustard gas and diesel submarines in WWI, and the development of tanks and aeroplanes in WWII) but also serves to stabilise and strengthen our dependence on oil in peacetime through an ‘oily stability’ (the post-WWII manufacture of petrochemical goods such as plastics is a key example here, as are pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and cosmetics) (Buell 289-90).

Re-reading literary and cultural texts within the specific context of the oil industry allows us to interrogate the way in which oil is embedded within cultural production in frequently overlooked ways. But the question remains as to the different directions in which petrocultural readings may take us. To what extent, for instance, can a petrocultural reading of a text (whether a novel, poem, immersive play, photograph, film, videogame, or piece of music) uncover our hidden and complex relationship with oil  in the way, perhaps, that Edward Said uncovered the hidden imperial unconscious at work in the spatial practices of Jane Austen’s domestic novel, Mansfield Park, in his foundational post-colonial analysis in Culture and Imperialism (1993)   and to what extent can we find or construct, a set of petrotexts? The implications of a petrocultural reading of the literary canon to reveal the so-called ‘energy unconscious‘ (as scholars in the energy humanities call it) could thus reshape our understanding of literary history and the relationship between various formal innovations and their specific modes of production as read via the paradigm of energy. As Graeme Macdonald has written: ‘Can we think … of modernism outside of an oil-electric context? Of Realism without steam or coal? Romanticism without wind or water?’ (Macdonald, 2013: 6).

Pumping an Oil Well

During America’s Golden Age of oil, cheap energy and petrochemical goods enabled a new kind of capitalism

[Image by Boston Public Library under a CC BY license]

The penetration of oil into people’s daily lives transformed America during the ‘Golden Age’ of oil – becoming ‘the foundation for a whole phase of capitalism premised on cheap energy, petrochemical goods, and risky modes of accumulation’ (Barrett and Worden xxiv). The hyperproduction of commodities and the construction of a compelling vision of petroleum-based progress and prosperity led to what critics call ‘petroconsumption.’ This kind of consumption was thus fundamental to the stabilisation of the oil industry and – like the whaling industry before it – entered into the intimacy of the home and the family. Daniel Worden has written about this imbrication of ‘oil culture‘ and familial relations, in which petrol invades our lives in insidious ways that are far removed from the distant manufacturing processes of drilling or refining we might typically associate with oil. The reason that we find ourselves almost incapable of imagining a post-oil future, Worden suggests, is because oil underpins normative visions of family, work and social belonging in late 20th-century US culture:

Mowing the lawn, taking a road trip, getting a personal space at work, and teaching an adolescent child to drive all connote social belonging and are imbued with a ritualistic, affective charge (Worden 109).

We even have, of course, exemplary texts which examine the family in the light of the oil industry – the 1978-91 TV soap opera Dallas (with its revival in 2012-14), which became an international success both during and after the 1979 oil crisis; and There Will Be Blood, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!. Both the oil industry, and the institution of the nuclear family, enter a period of crisis in the late 1970s in the United States – with oil crises in 1973 and 1979 and fears of scarcity, and the rising divorce rates as marital relations become increasingly subject to feminist critique and ‘no-fault’ divorce laws are passed in most states of the US by the early 1980s. As Worden concludes, ‘oil’s hold on our imagination of family belonging is distortive and parasitical’ (Worden 125) – and in order to imagine a future outside of the hegemonic hold that fossil-fuel futurity has wielded over the popular imagination throughout the 20th and into the early 21st century, we will need to rethink also the ideals of family belonging.


Dallas: a paradigmatic text of the oil industry crises in the 1970s as well as the crisis of the American nuclear family

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

Turning from the soap opera to the science fiction adventure story, we find that the post- or peak-oil imaginary is sublated into the broader questions of galactic exploration or apocalyptic destruction. H. G. Wells writes in A Modern Utopia (1905) that: ‘It is unlikely that there will be any smoke-disgorging steam railway trains in Utopia, they are already doomed on earth, already threatened with that obsolescence that will endear them to the Ruskins of tomorrow’ (Wells 37). Although Wells’ narrator clearly condemns the pollution emitted by coal-fuelled locomotives, he evades the harder question of what mode of transportation might replace them, with the dismissive aside that the new railways ‘may be double railways or monorails or what not – we are no engineers to judge between such devices’ (Wells 37). However, Wells’ utopian transportation system is equally expansionist and conforms to what we have come to think of as science fiction’s complex relationship with industrialised modernity. If we take a petroculturalist stance, post-Wellsian ‘Golden Age’ SF (usually periodized from the late 1930s to mid-1940s) comes to look very much like an era of uncomplicated petrofutures, whose adventure narratives and strong masculine heroes (in spite of queer re-readings from critics such as Wendy Pearson, 1999) fail to imagine a different kind of production and consumption. As Graeme Macdonald has argued: ‘no one seems to question the seemingly abundant (and presumably “clean”) levels of post-fossil energy powering the vast spaceships and megacities of utopian fiction, especially the multiverse energy worlds of Space Opera’ (Macdonald, 2013: 13f).

Historical context is important here. As oil’s scarcity became more apparent by the 1950s and 1960s, the ‘glittering techno-utopias of Golden Age science fiction’ have become, as Gerry Canavan observes, increasingly ‘replaced by their psychic opposites: apocalyptic, post-peak oil horrors of deprivation and ruin’ (Canavan 332). In 1956, oil geologist M. King Hubbert predicted that US oil production would peak between 1965 and 1972. When oil production did in fact peak in 1970/1 (following petroleum production peaks during the 1960s in various countries, including Venezuela, Germany, Iran) he became nationally famous. Peak oil in the US led to global oil shortages exacerbated by a subsequent embargo inflicted by the Middle Eastern OPEC countries (in response to America’s support of Israel during the 1973 Arab-Isaeli/Yom Kippur war); and in 1979 another energy crisis was triggered during the Iranian Revolution when the oil industry collapsed as the new regime took control of the country. These global oil crises were mediated in the popular imagination through a discourse of limits and scarcity. Imagining a world of oil shortages led to imagining the collapse of civilization, and the post-apocalyptic landscape of George Miller’s first Mad Max film (1979) stages the disaster in the Australian outback. With its anarcho-primitivism and battling communities of motorcycle gangs, the film brings together the genre of the ‘outback Western’ – usually featuring a drifter helping a small community against violent marauding intruders – and a camp yet violent Hobbesian ‘state of nature’ (Lipschutz 65) in which post-apocalyptic SF-action-western meets bondage-meets-steampunk aesthetic (goggles, makeshift vehicles, retractable telescopes).

Mad Max Ripoffs

Futuristic oil wars: Mad Max spin offs in the 1980s and 1990s constitute a substantial cache of peak oil films

[Image used under fair dealings provisions]

And we shouldn’t forget that Miller’s original Mad Max trilogy inspired a mini-industry of knock-offs during the 1980s and 1990s – from the adaptation of Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin’s punk comic about desertification and kick-ass feminism, Tank Girl (1995, Dir. Rachel Talalay), to the post-apocalyptic pandemics and pirated cars of The Last Chase (1981) and the warlords and mercenaries of petroleum scarcity in the science fiction B-movie Battletruck (1982, Dir. Harley Cokeliss, released as Warlords of the 21st Century in New Zealand and Destructors in Italy).

Although peak-oil films have arguably received more attention for their visually arresting images of dystopian futurity, there have been a number of novels that can be considered within a growing corpus of peak oil fiction since the late 1990s and early 2000s. This might include John Seymour’s Retrieved from the Future (1996), S. M. Stirling’s adventure novel, Island in the Sea of Time (1998), Caryl Johnston’s After the Crash: An Essay-Novel of the Post-Hydrocarbon Era (2004), Alex Scarrow’s Last Light (2007), Andreas Eschbach’s 2007 bestseller Ausgebrannt [“Burned Out,” although the novel has not yet been translated], James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand (2008), Steve Alten’s The Shell Game (2008), Holly Jean Buck’s Crossing the Blue: A Post-Petrol, Post-American Road Trip (2008), Douglas Coupland’s Player One: What Is To Become of Us? (2010), and Kurt Cobb’s Prelude (2010).

Peak Oil Novels 3

Peak oil fiction: how are contemporary writers interrogating our reliance upon cheap energy?

[Images used under fair dealings provisions]

As Frank Kaminski has noted, the growing corpus of post-oil novels already suggest a number of interesting congruences, falling into two kinds of narratives: (a) present-day texts which show the beginnings of the crisis; (b) in the future after the crisis has played itself out, demonstrates what a post-oil world might look like. These novels are predominantly appearing within the European tradition and have primarily been authored by male writers (this is also often true of the pundits in the peak oil debate). Writers of post-oil futures, Kaminski observes, seem to come from a range of professional and genre backgrounds – including self-sufficiency gurus, video game graphic artists, social critics, hardboiled speculative fiction writers (Kaminski, n. pag.).

David Mitchell’s recent novel The Bone Clocks (2014) is an interesting case study to consider within the literary oeuvre of post-oil, post-apocalyptic novels. The near-future of Holly’s narrative in the novel’s final section ‘Sheep’s Head’ is set in 2043 as civilised societies around the world break down after oil and electricity have almost run out. This final section of Mitchell’s story – which spans a 60-year period between the 1980s and 2040s, populated by Mitchell’s signature transmigratory spirit characters locked into an ‘atemporal’ war across the centuries – offers his readership an ecological counter-time to modernity: this is alluded to when Holly listens as ‘the sound of waves dies and gives birth to the sound of waves, for ever and ever’ (BC 558). This cyclical sense of natural time is further reinforced by Mitchell’s reference to Shelley’s poem “The Cloud” (1819) (BC 538-9), which Holly’s granddaughter Lorelei is learning by heart, and which reflects upon the immortal personification of meteorological processes as a guiding pilot infused with Spirit (‘I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores; / I change, but I cannot die’ ll. 75-6).

Irish Sunset

What would the dystopian post-oil future look like? Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks offers a compelling vision of rural Ireland in the mid-21st century

[Image by final gather under a CC BY-ND license]

The juxtaposition of clock time with natural time that Mitchell’s novel offers a stark warning about the dangers of subscribing to a model of linear progressive time which assumes the inevitable and ongoing teleology of ever-perfected modes of production and consumption predicated upon an oil-based ‘petroculture.’ This measurable linear time of the capitalist extraction of profit within a world of fast-dwindling non-renewable resources is explicitly addressed by Holly in the novel’s closing near-future dystopia, as she reflects upon late twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century attitudes towards progress and technology: 

For most of my life, the world shrank and technology progressed: this was the natural order of things. Few of us clocked on that ‘the natural order of things’ is entirely man-made, and that a world that kept expanding as technology regressed was not only possible but waiting in the wings (BC 566).

Time has literally run out in Mitchell’s vision of 2043, and the linear narrative of industrialised progress is reversed as Holly’s ageing generation acknowledge the better lives they have enjoyed, which their children and grand-children can no longer hope for. The ‘cold wind of the near-future’ (BC 579) weighs down the narrative present with hunger, insecurity, lawlessness and the return of a Medieval age of religious fanaticism and the erosion of atheism, rationalism, and access to medicines. As a young militiaman tells Holly: ‘Your power stations, your cars, your creature comforts. Well, you lived too long. The bill’s due’ (BC 571). The Bone Clocks ends with a compelling vision of our post-petrol near-future as enacting the final assault upon linear time through a return to the cyclical time of pre-modernity. As the Horologist Esther Little predicts (in 2025): ‘ “Wait till the power grids start failing in the late 2030s and the datavats get erased. It’s not far away. The future looks a lot like the past” ‘ (BC 478-9). 

With the recent fourth installment of George Miller’s Mad Max franchise, Fury Road (2015), it seems that the oil panics of the 1970s are returning into our popular consciousness and with them the earlier aesthetics of a post-disaster paradigm. As Gerry Canavan has recently argued: ‘The first oil panic of 1973 is now forty years in the past, but we seem no further from the Mad-Max style ruins of a world without oil’ (Canavan 343). In this sense, the energy of Mitchell’s novel is instructive. Whilst the whittling of rights and public service utilities masks the true threat to the settled pastoralism of Holly’s Irish near-future (which is, of course, the tectonic shift of geopolitical power as the hegemonic Chinese Pearl Occident Company withdraws from Ireland leaving the region in a bloody state of civil war), Mitchell’s use of humour throughout the novel similarly undercuts any straightforwardly moralizing tone (unlike, for instance, Jeanette Winterson’s didactic ecological message in her post-apocalyptic 2007 novel The Stone Gods). The novel is unabashedly funny: and that’s the odd thing about it. It left me wondering whether humour might be a productive strategy for confronting peak- and post-oil scenarios.

Blood Car: can the genre of horror comedy open up a new way of thinking about post-oil near-futures?

Alex Orr’s 2007 indie film, Blood Car, achieves this balancing between depicting disaster in an environmentally-engaged narrative that is also extremely funny – within the horror comedy genre. As Dana Och has argued, in horror comedy ‘the simultaneous process of distancing and mimicking, elements of both comedy and horror with their shifting identification processes, moves both genres into a register of thought’ (Och 201). Cleaving a space for reflective critique between the fuzzy generic boundaries of horror and comedy – or (in Mitchell’s case) between transmigrational thriller, Bildungsroman, and post-apocalyptic near-future – may offer us a welcome new direction within the growing discourse of peak oil narratives that can move beyond the simple dichotomy between SF escapism and dystopian despair.

CITATION: Caroline Edwards, “Peak Oil in the Popular Imagination,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 4 (2015): n. pag. Web. 7 September 2015,

Dr Caroline Edwards is Lecturer in Modern & Contemporary Literature at Birkbeck, University of London. She is completing a monograph titled Fictions of the Not Yet: Time in the Contemporary British Novel and is co-editor of China Miéville: Critical Essays (Gylphi, 2015), Maggie Gee: Critical Essays (Gylphi: 2015) and A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (Routledge, 2017). Caroline is Founding & Commissioning Editor of Alluvium and a Co-Director of the Open Library of Humanities.

Works Cited: 

Barrett, Brendan. ‘Reality of Peak Oil Enters Our Fictions.’ Our World, 21 January 2011 (accessed 16 May 2015): 

Barrett, Ross and Daniel Worden (eds.) Oil Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Buell, Frederick. ‘A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance.’ Journal of American Studies 46(2) (2012): 273 ­-293

Canavan, Gerry. ‘Retrofutures and Petrofutures: Oil, Scarcity, Limit’ in Oil Culture, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 331-349.

Ghosh, Amitav. ‘Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel’ in Incendiary Circumstances: A Chronicle of the Turmoil of Our Times (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 138-151.

Greenberg, Paul. ‘Recipes for Disaster: Review of World Made By Hand by James Howard Kunstler.’ New York Times Sunday Book Review, 20 April 2008 (Accessed 16 May 2015): 

Kaminski, Frank. ‘The Post-Oil Novel: A Celebration!’, 12 May 2008 (accessed 16 May 2015):  

Lipschutz, Ronnie D. Political Economy, Capitalism, and Popular Culture (Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).

MacDonald, Graeme. ‘Oil and World Literature.’ American Book Review: Petrofictions 33(3) (2012): 7, 31

MacDonald, Graeme. ‘Research Note: The Resources of Fiction.’ Reviews in Cultural Theory 4(2) (2013): 1-24

Mitchell, David. The Bone Clocks (London: Sceptre, 2014).

Och, Dana. ‘ “The Sheep are Revolting”: Becoming-Animal in the Postcolonial Zombie Comedy’ in Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, ed. Dana Och and Kirsten Strayer (New York: Routledge, 2014), pp. 193-208.

Pearson, Wendy. ‘Alien Cryptographies: The View from Queer.’ Science Fiction Studies 26(1): 1-22

Said, Edward ‘Jane Austen and Empire’ in Cultural and Imperialism (New York: Vintage, 1994), pp. 95-115.

Wells, H. G. A Modern Utopia (London: Penguin Classics, 2005).

Worden, Daniel. ‘Fossil Fuel Futurity: Oil in Giant’ in Oil Culture, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), pp. 109-128.

Please feel free to comment on this article.

4 Replies to “Peak Oil in the Popular Imagination”

  1. Fascinating stuff.  I think you're on to something with your examples that show how the petrochemical imagination is more likely to make itself felt through popular forms.  There's one major omission – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was made and released shortly after the 1973 oil crisis.  It's relevance to your argument can be seen in an article in Gothic Studies from a few years ago, in an issue dedicated the Materialist Gothic.  Chuck Jackson's 'Blood for Oil: Crude Metonymies and Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre'  proposes that the film 'is a predictive analysis of the present political moment: a spiraling narrative of fear in which two inarticulate and goony sons take directions from a sadistic father who demands that they hoard gasoline and sell bodies so that the family can maintain the illusion of power and safety'.

  2. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that Said projected his own need for the "presence of the absense" onto Mansfield Park.  In point of fact, the Empire is absent in Jane Austen's work simply because the type of people she wrote for and about (and was) simply didn't think about it much unless they had some direct, practical personal reason to do so — family interests in Jamaica, or working for the East India Company, something of that sort.  Even then they mostly just collected the money and gave only the most superficial thought to the source unless something went wrong.  No elaborate investigation is needed; what you see on that matter is what you get.

    It's an occupational deformation of subaltern groups to imagine that their overlords are as obsessed with them as they are with the overlords, but in point of fact this often isn't the case.  That's emotionally unacceptable to people like Said, who rage at the thought they're not only dominated but complacently -ignored-, but it's quite common.

    Incidentally, if there's one thing a century or so of science fiction has proven is that science fiction writers are just as bad at predicting the future as professional futurists, or possibly even worse; possibly as bad as politicians.  They're bad even at technological projection, much less social, economic, cultural or political predictions.  I don't know what's going to happen, neither do you, and neither does anyone else.

    There are a number of reasons for that, the most basic of which of course is that it's not even theoretically possible to predict the future.  Human history is a chaotic (in both the common and technical sense of the word) mass of feedback loops and individual agency, and not only does this make calling the outcome futile, it makes trying to analyze the causal chains afterwards extremely problematic even in hindsight.  You can say why something happened… but the same causes run over again would probably produce a different outcome as the iron butterfly flaps its wings. 

    Hence the vast and rapidly growing field of alternate history.

    And that's not even taking into account the hatreds, fears and psychological quirks which motivate most prophetic utterances — the crypto-puritanical loathing of appetite which underlies a lot of the lip-smacking sadomasochistic relish of much "peak oil" fiction, for instance, in which "the future" is used to exact vicarious, imagined revenge on all the people the author hates in the present.

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