Imre Szeman: “An intentional transition is premised on equality, on the right of all peoples and communities to adequate energy resources for survival.”

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The Beam interview series, edition 4: Imre Szeman

To lighten up your week and give you even more energizing thoughts, we publish interviews from our partner The Beam twice a week.

The Beam takes a modern perspective at the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.

This week Anne-Sophie Garrigou, a journalist at The Beam, interviewed Imre Szeman, director of the collaborative group research project, After Oil: Explorations and Experiments in the Future of Energy, Culture and Society, about this book and his views on how oil affect our day-to-day life.


The Beam: Hello Imre Szeman. You are one of the organizers of the 2015 After Oil School. You conducted the research “After Oil: Explorations and Experiments in the Future of Energy, Culture and Society.” What is the goal of this research and who worked on it?

Imre Szeman: After Oil is part of Petrocultures, a larger project that a number of us have been working on since 2011. What makes the research activities of the Petrocultures Research Group unique is its insistence that artists, cultural producers, and researchers in the humanities and social sciences have a key role to play in understanding our relation to energy and the environment. By examining cultural discourses and narratives, we hope to generate new knowledge about energy resources past, present, and future. Put simply: one of the key problems of the environment has to do with the energy we use. If we are going to change the energy we use, we have to understand how and why we make use of energy.

In the book After Oil we can read: “An intentional transition is premised on equality, on the right of all peoples and communities to adequate energy resources for survival.” How did oil create inequality and how does the transition to renewable energy sources create a more equal world?

In A Theory of Justice, political philosopher John Rawls famously begins his elaboration of the principles of social justice by articulating a thought experiment  —  the “original position”  —  a hypothetical ground zero from which liberal societies principles were re-constituted. How might we develop social justice if we had to start from scratch, shrouded behind a veil of ignorance, unaware of what position we were going to occupy in society, or our ethnicity or gender, or anything at all? What principles of justice might we establish that would value each of us for who and what we are qua being human? What if we were to add energy to the issues that had to be addressed in this original position?

Rawls never speaks to energy as an issue of social justice. And while he is not a strict egalitarian in his understanding of how goods, capacities and abilities should be assigned in a society, he does identify the need for their to exist a social minimum available to each and every person such that they can achieve their version of the good life however they might want. In the assignment of how much energy each person should have available to the, its unlikely that those in the original position tasked with creating the principles of social justice would think it fair or reasonable that there be vast differences in the amount of energy available to each person: it would mean vast differences in the capacities and opportunities for individuals; it would also mean huge differences in environmental impact across communities, with those using very little energy having to live in an atmosphere poisoned by those using a great deal.

The average per capita energy use across the globe is 1,640 W. Might this represent the beginning point of a discussion over what global energy justice might look like? If everyone on the planet used the same energy as a Canadian, total planetary consumption would be 74 terawatts per year  —  six times as much energy as we currently consume. That’s an impossible figure. The figure of 1640 W per capita is close to current energy use in places like Uruguay and Iraq; and even this figure is too high given the need to limit energy even further due to increase of population and, of course, impact on the environment.

A transition won’t create a more equal world on its own. But because a transition means that, finally, we have to take energy seriously and discuss who has access to energy and why, it’s more likely that the future won’t consist of pockets of energy riches and energy poverty as the world does today.

Read the full interview.

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The Beam

The Beam Magazine is an independent climate solutions and climate action magazine. It tells about the most exciting solutions, makes a concrete contribution to eliminating climate injustices and preserving this planet for all of us in its diversity and beauty. Our cross-country team of editors works with a network of 150 local journalists in 50 countries talking to change makers and communities. THE BEAM is published in Berlin and distributed in nearly 1,000 publicly accessible locations, to companies, organizations and individuals in 40 countries across the world powered by FairPlanet.

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