The age of oil is ending. I am currently chronicling this transformation of the known world with a focus on the end of oil’s dominance as a fuel, as an industry, as a driver of markets, and as a way of life. This project has many parts; it is a puzzle of sorts. Some pieces look like ethnography others like trade or public facing writing; some are mere whimsy. Some, somehow, artful. Witness the various beginnings.

“Market Street, Aberdeen 2014” pen and ink sketch by © Sue Jane Taylor

Sociocultural Transformation at the End of Fossil Fuels

It is widely agreed that the first 50% of the transition toward net zero emissions can be done with what we have, while the second 50% will be “transformationally different.” Where we end up by following this path remains unimaginable in the present. As an anthropologist my interest is in how activity in the present forges the cultural patterns, social values, conceptual frameworks, and material relations that will enable future carbon neutrality. One can approach this through the lens of crises, collapse, chaos – but such an eye toward catastrophe often fails to recognize the many less-dramatic transformations already well underway. These slow shifts of habit, infrastructure, material, transit, and attitude are my interest here, as I trace how ‘forms of living’ change as we begin our transformations to post-fossil-fueled societies.

Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, Shetland

Slow Migrations of the North Sea

As oil dependency declines globally much of the world is grappling with interrelated challenges and changes in economic structures, transportation infrastructures, the shifting natural world, while attempting to imagine and engineer of new realities. What differentiates the Scottish communities of the North Sea where this research will be conducted is that there the effects of the end of oil are both intensified and already pressing, for residents, for climate stressed marine species, and for the oil industry. Fieldwork will be conducted in the rural communities of the Shetland Islands in their engagements with the sea and with oil and in the former oil boomtown of Aberdeen and its offshore assets. Care is taken to understand the interconnected well-being of sea creatures, offshore infrastructures, oil workers, and regular folks as each contends with changing environments that force movement upon even the most recalcitrant entities (from mollusks to Shell). My goal is to understand how this change is happening as a mode of investigating the pragmatics of a life no-longer premised upon oil as both adaptative and proactive responses come to characterize to the end of this long historical epoch.

Gas Stations and Power Plants, Berlin 2020

Gas Stations as Ideographs, Berlin 2021-2051

During the corona virus pandemic, I began a project to map and photograph gas stations and fossil fueled power stations in Berlin once a decade to see what becomes of them -literally- as fossil fuel dominance in transport, power, and heating fades. The map for this project is finished and photography began in 2020. The goal is to document a 100 locations, to be revisited in 2030 and 2040 (and 2050, if I am still alive), creating a photographic archive of fossil fuel infrastructure drifting from dominance and perhaps also replaced in the urban landscape. Two questions dominate: What will be there when the gas is gone? Can I make a truly lovely picture of a gas station?

Toft Ferry Terminal, Shetland

The Fossil Pastoral

I sat one long afternoon at the Toft ferry terminal on Shetland and watched the machines. They were dredging. Dump trucks came and went, there was a barge with a digger (and another on land) motorboats and the ferry to Yell coming and going every 30 minutes, huge in the background, disgorging cars and trucks and motor bikes; refilling with the same. It was beautiful, with rhythms as sure as the tides; with grinding noises all of a type. A slight stink to the air. I thought how much we might miss it, this fossil pastoral. Men at work. Connected to the project above, with an eye toward nostalgia I have been wondering how to capture the banal exceptionalism of the fossil fueled present, preserve its grace and timing even as its colors fade in the timely autumn of hydrocarbons’ long goodbye.

Whale Afloat, Postcard

From the Body of the Whale: A Thriller

Before the mass-extraction of petroleum became feasible and profitable in the mid-1800s, spermaceti —a buoyant waxy substance found in the monstrous head of the sperm whale – was the best, most thermally-stable, and least-frictive lubricant in the world. It is rumored even that it lubricated the pumps, looms, and engines of early industrialization, a process that was largely complete before the discovery of drilled oil in 1859. Once extractable, however, rock oil (petroleum) almost immediately overwhelmed all other lubricating materials, eliminating them both from machine works and also largely from the historical record. Indeed, histories of lubrication from antiquity to the present readily admit that we do not yet know what materials slid slippery through those early industrial gears.

Figuring this out would seem a simple historical problem with a simple answer. On the one side, spermaceti—“highly prized…and [the] most expensive lubricant of the day” (Dowson 1993: 263)—has whispered away. On the other side, some unspecified substance(s) slid between the joints of metal machine parts that demand lubrication to function. It is precisely in its elusive quality that the ‘missing link’ between these two stories has become something else. In today’s world characterized by an overabundance of information, a gap in knowledge is not simply an absence or a lack: it is indicative of a thing defying study. What has emerged as the most interesting element of this research is not the answers per se (though I do still seek them), but rather the ‘potentiality’ that marks a disappearance of narrative capacity at the moment spermaceti turns into a commodity and in places of softness and slipperiness inside hard, and fast mechanical systems. The persistence of these twin disappearances gives rise to a very different set of questions that center on how objects or persons carry a story.

All mimsy were the borogoves

“Blood and Sand” drawing by Sarah Wassel

The Art of the Bar 🍸

I am a careful mixer of drinks. Ask my friends, they have suffered (with smiles) six, nine, twelve months in which I make the same drink again and again searching for the smallest shifts of ingredient or quantity, seeking alternative recipes, inventing this and that until I find it perfect only to begin the same process again with the next. This project is an on-going exploration of palate; it is fine homemade cocktails in bottles gifted but rarely (yet) sold; it is scheming and tasting; and it is the phantasm of a book, Cocktails We Love to Drink, an endlessly receding project; it remains forever but one year in the future.