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By Dr. Danine Farquharson and Dr. Fiona Polack

Artists and engineers, rig-workers and academics, oil executives and activists, people from around the corner and across the globe, those whose ancestors have been here for millennia and new Canadians who arrived last week; we need to talk about oil.

And we need to do it now.

As NASA reported in July, each of the first six months of 2016 broke temperature records tracked since the late nineteenth century. In five out of six of those months, Arctic sea ice was also at its smallest extent since reliable satellite records began to be kept. Read the article here.

Dire statistics

These dire statistics are not news.  In 2013, the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change told us that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal.” At the 2015 Paris climate talks, the world finally agreed to aim to restrict the rise in global temperatures to well below 2 C. Even ExxonMobil has known for around 40 years that burning fossil fuels such as oil causes the globe to warm. Climate change denial has been clearly revealed as a dangerous distraction.  

Moves to combat global warming are, finally, being made. Locally, groups like Iron & Earth are retraining workers in the oil and gas industry for employment in the renewable energy sector. At the provincial, national, and international levels governing bodies are developing plans in response to the Paris agreement. However, climate change is not the collective preoccupation it desperately needs to be. 

Complex and myriad

We know we have a problem. Why aren’t we doing more to address it? 

The answers to this question are complex and myriad. The most crucial, though, is that oil doesn’t just power our transport systems and help heat our homes; oil thoroughly shapes our social, cultural, political, and economic realities. Our immersion in petroculture is so deep that the necessary task of trying to move beyond it is overwhelming.

“It is a question of recasting the very structure of society.”

Indeed, just last week, climate change activist Bill McKibben argued in the journal New Republic that the only way to rein in what is rapidly becoming rampant global warming is to “mobilize like we did in WWII.” It is not a simple matter of replacing oil with solar, or with wind power. It is a question of recasting the very structure of society.

And that is why we all need to talk about oil. The task of solving climate change is not something that can be conveniently delegated to engineers or entrepreneurs. It is an issue for all of us. We need to better understand our existing petroculture: how it came into being, and what the alternatives might be. And then, of course, we need to act.

Petrocultures 2016

From Aug. 31-Sept. 3, scholars from around the world will convene at Memorial University’s St. John’s campus to talk about the social and cultural dimensions of oil and energy. They will focus particularly, and appropriately given our location, on the role of offshore oil in the North Atlantic.

Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore presents an extraordinary opportunity to kick-start a wide-ranging and inclusive conversation about oil. And it does so in a place where questions about our energy past, present and future are particularly acute. Not only was Newfoundland and Labrador ill-prepared for the recent drop in oil prices, the unfolding debacle of Muskrat Falls clearly shows that moving away from fossil fuels, as we have to, and investing in renewable energy is not a straightforward matter.

Fully comprehending society’s complex relationships with energy requires serious and sustained thought. Petrocultures 2016 has the potential to be an important step in what must be an ongoing project.

Full details about Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore can be found here, on Facebook at Petrocultures 2016: The Offshore and by searching #h20petro on Twitter.

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