How to Dream beyond Oil

Energy sources shape, rather than simply serve, our social and cultural imaginaries. Recognizing this poses a different set of challenges for how we might contend with our current planetary emergency.

“Truth is, as long as most of us desire modern conveniences,” argues Mike Fernandez, senior vice president for Enbridge Energy, “what is in Line 3’s pipeline will be needed to drive, cook, heat our homes, fly on planes and manufacture products.”1 Fernandez’s remarks appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune this past January, as part of a deliberate campaign to counter opposition to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline. How could one protest a pipeline, Fernandez argues, while “what is in [it]” is something (he does not say oil) that we all “need”?

Pipelines, and the fuels they transport, Fernandez understands as responses to our collective desire for certain “modern conveniences.” The cultural critic Imre Szeman’s work—as demonstrated recently in two books, On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture, and Energy and Energy Culture: Art and Theory on Oil and Beyond, the latter coedited with Jeff Diamanti—turns that formulation on its head. In his essay “How to Know about Oil,” for example, Szeman notes how oil has become so naturalized that we’ve learned to think of it only as “a material resource squeezed into a social form that pre-exists it, rather than the other way around.” Instead, Szeman argues, oil constitutes those social forms (suburban homes, consumer choice, cheap flights, etc.). What that means is that Fernandez is wrong: the oil that Line 3 transports generates the very desires it is said to satisfy.

The “truth” that Fernandez draws on is, at best, incomplete. But that is not all.

The truth is that Line 3 is part of a system of oil pipelines called Lakehead, which traverses western Canada and the American upper Midwest. As the pipelines snake their way toward petrochemical refineries in the US and Canada, they skirt all the Great Lakes, while completely encircling Lake Michigan. Lakehead was originally constructed as part of the infrastructural boom of the 1950s and ’60s, as a way to transport oil from vast reserves newly discovered near Edmonton, Alberta. At one time, in fact, it constituted the longest network of pipelines in the world. But today the Lakehead system—owned and operated by Enbridge—is aging, leaking, and, in a rational world, heading toward obsolescence.

The truth is also that energy sources shape, rather than simply serve, our social and cultural imaginaries. Recognizing this poses a different set of challenges for how we might contend with our current planetary emergency. It demands that we look beyond the techno-utopian hope for sustainable energy substitutions that cause minimum disturbance to currently existing social, economic, and political systems.

After all, even companies like Enbridge, as Fernandez is quick to point out, claim to be committed to that sort of transition. This claim demonstrates that what capitalism really wants to preserve isn’t so much fossil-fuel combustion as it is the particular set of desires and social arrangements that “oil capital” has produced.

The truth—as Szeman shows—is that our world is materially and ideologically built on oil. And so, to think beyond such a world, the first step is seeing how oil shapes everything from our economic systems and policy decisions down to our individual desires.

The contention over Enbridge’s Lakehead system started 10 years ago. At that time, Line 6B, which runs from west to east across the state of Michigan, ruptured near the city of Marshall, releasing over a million gallons of diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. It took five years and a billion dollars to clean it up, even while oil remains in the riverbed and monitoring activities continue. The spill made apparent, almost for the first time, Enbridge’s operations in the region.

Now, in Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians has filed a lawsuit to force Enbridge—which continues to operate its nearly 70-year-old Line 5 despite an expired easement—to remove the pipeline from tribal land. In Michigan, the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, recently revoked the company’s easement to operate Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac. This bold step was taken in response to grassroots pressure and broad public concern over the possibility of a catastrophic spill in the world’s largest body of freshwater. And in Minnesota, local conservation and indigenous groups have mobilized in fierce opposition, in the courts and on the ground, to Enbridge’s plans to replace its aging Line 3. This the company wants to reroute through ecologically sensitive areas, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River and lands sacred to local tribes.2 And at the end of 2020, novelist and poet Louise Erdrich, member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, penned an op-ed, published in the New York Times, declaring solidarity with Minnesota activists who call the new Line 3 pipeline “a tar sands climate bomb.”3

It was specifically in response to Erdrich’s public endorsement that Mike Fernandez wrote the company’s response in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He asked readers not to “get caught up in a novelist’s narrative,” but to consider, instead, “the project’s truths.”4 These truths, according to Fernandez, mean regulatory and permitting processes, environmental assessments, market demand, and so-called tribal participation. No doubt Fernandez—or the public-relations team who crafted the op-ed in his name—found this a clever rhetorical move.

And yet, by casting the company’s dispute with Erdrich as a conflict between truth and fiction, Fernandez’s op-ed unwittingly exposes itself. Indeed, it is these exact questions of truth and fiction that Szeman calls “the epistemology and social ontology of energy.” These are the conceptual frameworks—like the idea that oil satisfies desires for convenience, rather than creating desire for that convenience—that condition our understandings of both the battles taking place in the Midwest (and elsewhere) over energy-infrastructure projects and the global energy future more generally.

To put this another way, Fernandez’s appeal to the ostensibly neutral rational ground of “truth” obscures the narrative from which his own position derives. In the broadest sense, we might simply call that narrative, following Walter Mignolo, “modernity”: a fantasy of progress and civilization building that masks the violence of its “darker side.”5

Or, following Szeman, whose generous and indispensable work at the intersection of cultural theory and public policy has helped shape the energy humanities, we might prefer the more specific term “petroculture.” Szeman’s On Petrocultures and Energy Culture both seek to make legible “the cultural narratives that shape our understanding” of fossil fuels. And they do so even as they interrogate “the assumptions and presumptions that animate our relationship to energy.” Thus Szeman and the writers and artists he’s gathered together help expose, for instance, the false binary between “narrative” and “truth” that underpins the kinds of claims advanced by the industry executive Fernandez in his response to the novelist Erdrich.

Energy sources shape, rather than simply serve, our social and cultural imaginaries. Recognizing this poses a different set of challenges for how we might contend with our current planetary emergency.

Szeman’s work also asks us to grapple with some harder questions: How can we begin to disentangle ourselves both from the sources of energy that have made us and from the ways they have made us? How do we refashion our desires? Where can we look for “new forms of being, belonging, ethics, and politics”?

Framed this way, controversies over infrastructural development emerge as imaginative, not just practical problems, such that “a novelist’s narratives” may be precisely what we need. Energy Culture, for instance, is the fruit of a residency program sponsored by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, Canada, which in 2016 brought together scholars and artists to explore “the form and character of the energy culture that shapes us.” Such an ambitious project requires both critical and creative approaches, multiple vectors of inquiry that examine, collaboratively, the historical, political, material, and conceptual, as well as affective and aesthetic, dimensions of energy.

This is a “multimodal” approach to the problem of energy. It echoes and focuses the work of those theorists on the ground—conservationists, climate activists, indigenous groups, landowners, and concerned citizens—engaged in various forms of collaborative resistance against Enbridge’s Lakehead projects.

Collectively, these theorists are engaged in activist forms of what Jennifer Wenzel, in the context of literary-critical practice, calls “rescaling”: “reading from near to there: between specific sites, across multiple divides, at more than one scale.”6 Energy rescaling includes efforts to connect infrastructural development to obscured histories (settler colonialism, racial capitalism), and also to present urgencies (climate change, indigenous sovereignty, environmental injustice) and speculative futures (a habitable planet, a just world).

Rescaling, then, showcases concepts and contexts that political and regulatory processes are structured to exclude. Szeman terms those exclusions “system failure”: the ways in which “our existing social systems are inoperative,” designed for “successful” failure.

Pipeline-expansion projects, for example, are typically required by state or federal agencies to seek approval on the basis of public need. And yet, for regulatory purposes, “need” is almost always coterminous with market demand. In this context, “need” does not represent that which might best serve the needs of particular communities, ecosystems, nonhuman life, or the planet.


Energy “Realism” Is Climate Fatalism

By Sophia Kalantzakos

Similarly, recent state and federal legislation has aimed at identifying and protecting what is often called “critical infrastructure.” And yet, this very infrastructure, as the Tlingit scholar Anne Spice has argued, might be better understood as “invasive” for many indigenous and marginalized peoples.7

Or consider Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen’s characterization of pipelines as “Wiindigo infrastructure.” In Anishinaabe traditions, the Wiindigo is a monster figure, often depicted as cannibalistic, that “embodies ‘imbalance and unhealthy relationships.’”8 When it comes to fossil-fuel infrastructure, LaDuke and Cowen locate the Wiindigo “not in the system’s failure”—such as a spill—“but in its smooth operation.”9

LaDuke’s Native-led organization Honor the Earth has taken a central role in the fight against Line 3. This new pipeline threatens archaeological sites, treaty rights, and the waterways and wild-rice beds that have long sustained Ojibwe lifeways, on and around the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota, where LaDuke lives. Among other interventions, Honor the Earth and Minnesota grassroots groups (such as the Friends of the Headwaters and a collection of Youth Climate Intervenors) sought to persuade the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The goal was for the commission to consider not just tribal traditions but also the climate impacts of a newly constructed Line 3, the main purpose of which is to transport tar-sands oil extracted in Alberta, Canada. An environmental-impact study in the case determined that greenhouse-gas emissions from the line’s lifecycle would be significant.

But at the same time, the study undermined its own claims by stating that the oil would find its way to market regardless of whether the pipeline was built. That unhelpful analysis allowed the PUC to disregard climate assessments and to grant Enbridge a certificate of need.

How do we refashion our desires? Where can we look for “new forms of being, belonging, ethics, and politics”?

The Minnesota PUC decision, currently under appeal, highlights the difficulties of rescaling. This is because the work of rescaling must confront regulatory procedures predicated upon what we might call descaling. To descale is to actively discourage (or procedurally disbar) synthesis. (This, in a different context, is what the political ecologist Jason W. Moore calls “world-historical thinking.”) Every effort of rescaling, that is, occurs within systems and processes that exist to facilitate and enable, rather than to thwart, infrastructural expansion.

This conflict is on vivid display in Michigan. Currently, Enbridge is seeking approval from that state’s Public Service Commission (MPSC) to relocate the portion of Line 5 that crosses the Straits of Mackinac. To do so, they propose to place the pipeline inside a concrete tunnel drilled deep in the lake bed. Enbridge—and, troublingly, the MPSC’s staff counsel—sought to limit the scope of the proceedings to an extremely narrow set of questions. Such descaling would have excluded from discussion not only the project’s climate impacts, but also the condition and need of Line 5 in its entirety, and even, if you can believe it, the tunnel itself. What sort of technocratic imagination does it require to abide such fine-grained partitioning, such radical decontextualization, such an impoverished conception of what constitutes “truth”?

Thus, when environmental groups seek to expand the scope of review to include the exigencies of human-caused global warming; or when they ask the commission to consider the project within the context of the long energy future; or when tribal groups speak of historical injustice, spiritual practices, indigenous relationships to the nonhuman world; or when these groups explain their present responsibilities toward people seven generations into the future: in all these attempts, they are making more than just legal and procedural arguments. They are engaging in what Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience,” or decolonial attempts to “change the terms of the conversation, not just the content.”10 They are exposing, in Szeman’s phrase, “the gaps and limits of statecraft in relation to the environment.”

Recent events signal the success of these efforts. The MPSC will consider the climate impacts of the Line 5 tunnel. And the language of President Biden’s executive order revoking the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, as much as the act itself, offers another measure of hope. “The United States and the world face a climate crisis,” the order reads. “That crisis must be met with action on a scale and at a speed commensurate with the need to avoid setting the world on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic, climate trajectory.”

Seizing upon such expressed commitments to swift action, anti-pipeline activists have already begun to appeal to the president to act as decisively elsewhere. A group of some 30 Minnesota state legislators, for example, sent a letter in February calling upon Biden to halt construction on Line 3. Another letter, signed by celebrities as well as activists, exerts similar pressure on Biden to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline pending an environmental review.

But while a potential ally in the White House may well signal a promising shift in national energy policy, such singular reliance upon executive action is hardly the stuff of which real political transformation is made. We’re still left with the intractability of fossil capital, the fact, as Andreas Malm observes in his recent book, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, “that the ruling classes are constitutionally incapable of responding to the catastrophe in any other way than by expediting it; of their own accord, under their inner compulsion, they can do nothing but burn their way to the end.”11 For Malm, that means that the political tactics, within legal and regulatory systems and without, such as the peaceful but disruptive protest actions now taking place in northern Minnesota, just as they did at Standing Rock, might not be enough.


A Messy Utopia Is All We Might Get

By Deanna K. Kreisel

Malm’s provocation thus raises again what may be the central questions of Szeman’s work: What might a renovated left politics, one that is “appropriate to our petrocultures,” look like? How do we form collectives across boundaries of difference—racial, national, human and nonhuman? Where do we turn for new social narratives that might help us generate something like infrastructural justice?

Minnesota activists are currently gathering at construction sites. They also recently organized an “Art Storm to #StopLine3.” This latter action, for some, might seem as impractical as a novelist’s narrative. But that may be precisely the kind of collective imagining and envisioning that is a necessary step toward mobilizing people to demand and materialize a better future.


This article was commissioned by Gretchen Bakke. icon

  1. Mike Fernandez, “Counterpoint: Poetry and Fiction Don’t Tell the Whole Line 3 Story,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 10, 2021.
  2. Just as the Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River was overshadowed by the BP Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico the same year, the almost decade-long resistance movements and activism around the Lakehead system have been largely overshadowed by the political battle over the Keystone XL pipeline and the protests at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline. But that attention has shifted recently. Last fall, for example, a number of candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination publicly expressed support for decommissioning Line 5, a position also publicly taken by author and well-known climate activist Bill McKibben.
  3. Louise Erdrich, “Not Just Another Pipeline,” New York Times, December 28, 2020. Even more recently, former vice president Al Gore tweeted his support for those opposing Line 3.
  4. Fernandez, “Counterpoint.”
  5. Walter Mignolo, The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options (Duke University Press, 2011).
  6. Jennifer Wenzel, The Disposition of Nature: Environmental Crisis and World Literature (Fordham University Press, 2019), p. 2.
  7. Anne Spice, “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures: Indigenous Relations against Pipelines,” Environment and Society, vol. 9, no. 1 (2018).
  8. Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen, “Beyond Wiindigo Infrastructure,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 2 (2020), p. 253.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mignolo, Darker Side of Western Modernity, p. 224.
  11. Andreas Malm, How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire (Verso, 2021), p. 8.
Featured image: Rally against the Dakota Access Pipeline in St. Paul, Minnesota (2016). Photograph by Fibonacci Blue / Flickr