Ecologies of Energies (Graduate GEOG/ENV Studies)

Course Designer: Max Ritts

Walter de Maria “Lightning Field.”

Course Description: 

            From pipeline struggles to power-grid provision; good receptions to bad exposures – contemporary environmental thought is suffused with questions of energy. Yet, at the same time, many mainstream environmental theorists continue to downplay the energies that many actors understand to be operating in the world, their work, and their bodies. There are perfectly good reasons for this division of interests, yet the analytic separation no longer seems tenable for developing a critical environmental scholarship in a planet undergoing the varied energetic transformations of anthropogenic global warming. Meanwhile, the stakes appear to be rising. The diverse ways energy is being measured, resourced, described, and experienced by different actors and institutions today is making energy increasingly contested, and hence, political. But what exactly is energy? And what might its study tell us about the politics of nature today? In this course, we pair the investigation of ecologies about energy with a consideration of ecologies of energy to arrive at a new understand of energy’s mattering to our environments. 

            The goal of this course to scrutinize the intimate connections and contradictions of energy, environment and society in order to render energy more conducive to critical discussion, analysis, and environmental debate. The discussions are oriented across recent debates political ecology, environmental policy, and cultural geography – a triad which allows us to move more seamlessly across the eco-politics of electricity, electromagnetism, low-frequency sound, wind power, 5G internet, and beyond. After a survey of some key concepts, we consider some of the diverse “energy subjects” that populate our contemporary world – from the “Windsor Hum” to the Athabasca Tar Sands. We then consider a range of environmental subjectivities, differently unified around energy questions: electro-sensitives, wind farm activists; small scale solar batter operators, and artists for whom energy flows are a vital source of creative self-expression. Emphasis will be drawn toward those liminal zones – coastal areas, thresholds of hearing/feeling, political economic transitions – wherein energy dynamics appear especially propitious for human reworking. Topics will be illustrated with different case studies, including many drawn from Canada. This focus has the important benefit of allowing us to reflect upon geographical differences in different social and institutional responses toward energetic phenomena.  Towards the end of the course, we turn to energy policy, looking at conventional energy transition politics and environmental health guidelines; and asking how our problematizing of conventional frames of reception, detection and potency might lead to better, more sustainable energy policies in their stead.  

1.1: Course Introduction. Political ecology and energy? OK. But first, what is political ecology? 

Paul Robbins. 2012. “Political versus apolitical ecologies.” in Political ecology: A critical Introduction (2nd edition), John Wiley & Sons, 11-24

Sapna Doshi. 2017. “Embodied urban political ecology: five propositions.” Area 49 (1), 125-128.

1.2. Now, what is energy?

M. Fischer Kowalski. 1998. “Society’s metabolism: The intellectual history of materials flow analysis, Part I, 1860–1970.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 2(1): 61–78

Kirby Calvert. 2016. “From ‘Energy Geographies’ to “Energy Geographies’” Progress in Human Geography 40.1 (2016): 105-125. 

Matt Huber. 2015 “Energy and social power.” In: Perreault, T, Bridge, G, McCarthy, J (eds) Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Abingdon: Routledge, 481–492. 

1.3: What is energy? (once more, this time with feeling) 

a/v – NASA. 1986 . Samples from “The Voice of the Earth” (link to be provided)

Douglas Kahn. 2019. “Introduction” in Energies in the Arts. Eds. Douglas Kahn. University of California Press.

Steven Connor. 2019. “The Arts of Pepetuity” in Energies in the Arts. Ed. Douglas Kahn. University of California Press.

Suzana Sawyer. 2010. “Human Energy” Dialectical Anthropology 34, p.  67-75.

2.1 – Energy Actors I – ‘Sensitives’

a/v – Breaking Bad, 2013. Links to be provided.

Rahul Mukherjee. 2020. “Introduction. Radiant Energies and Environmental Controversies” in Radiant Infrastructures.Durham: Duke University Press.  

Joseph Stromberg, “Refugees of the Modern World: the electrosensitive are moving to a cell-phone free town. But is their disease real?”

2.2. Energy Actors II – Spiritualists and Mediums

a/v – Peter Mettler. 2002. “Gambling, Gods and LSD.” (Clips provided via link)

Jeffery Scone. 2000. “Introduction” in Haunted Media. Duke University Press.

Warren Cariou. 2013. “Energy Intimacy” in Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment. New York: Fordham University Press. .

2.3 Energy Actors III – Energy activists and energy rebels 

Nick Estes. 2019. “Red Power” in Our History is Our Future. London: Verso Books.

Sofia Avila. 2018. Environmental justice and the expanding geography of wind power conflicts, Sustainability Science, 13: 599, 233-255. 

2.4 Energy Actors IV – Regulators

G. Hecht. 2009. “Introduction” The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Kara Shaw (2011) “Climate deadlocks: the environmental politics of energy systems,” in The Politics of Energy (ed. S. Vanderheden). Routledge. 

Gavin Bridge et al. (2018) Towards a Political Ecology of EU Energy Policy. in Advancing Energy Policy. London, Springer, pp 163-175

3.1 Energy Concepts: Infrastructure

AbdouMaliq Simone, ‘Infrastructure: Introductory Commentary” Cultural Anthropology.Online: 

Brian Larkin. 2008. “Chapter 1” in Signal and Noise: Infrastructure and Urban Culture in Nigeria 

Rahul Mukherjee. 2017. “‘City Inside the Oven’: Cell Tower Radiation Controversies and Mediated Technoscience Publics,” Television and New Media, 18(1): 19-36. 

3.2 Energy Concepts: (In)visibility 

a/v/:  Antenna Tree, Cellular Borders, and Cell Tower Emissions Lisa Parks, “Around the Antenna Tree: The Politics of Infrastructural Invisibility,” Flow TV

Susan Leigh Star and Anselm Strauss. 1999. “Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work.” Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) 8 (1–2): 9–30.

Ashley Carse. 2012. “Nature as Infrastructure: Making and Managing the Panama Canal Watershed.” Social Studies of Science 42 (4): 539–63. 

Sophia Roosth. 2018. 19Hz and Below: An Infrasonic History of the Twentieth Century. Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, Vol. 5, No. 3, pp. 109-124 

3.3 – Energy Concepts: Depletion

Matthew Huber. 2011. “Enforcing Scarcity: Oil, Violence and the Making of the Market” 

Annals of the Association of American Geographers 101.4, 816-826. 

A. Pike. 2005. Building a geographical political economy of closure: The case of R&DCo in North East England. Anitpode: A Journal of Radical Geography.

Gustaf Cederlof. 2019. ” Out of steam: Energy, materiality, and political ecology.” 
Progress in Human Geography. Online First.

3.4 Energy Concepts: Breakdown

a/v – The Land of Wandering Souls (dir. Rithy Panh).  1999.

Helga Tawil-Souri, 2015. “Cellular Borders: Disconnecting Phone calls in Israel-Palestine,” in Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, Eds. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Dave Novak, 2013.  Japanoise and Technoculture in Japanoise: Music on the Edge of Circulation. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Nikhil Anand (2012) “Pressure: The Poli-Technics of Water Supply in Mumbai” Sarah Pritchard, “An Envirotechnical Disaster: Nature, Technology, and Politics at Fukushima,” Environmental History, 17:2, 219-243.

4.1 Energy and Environment I – Athabasca Tar Sands 

Andrew Nikiforuk. 2005. “Declaration of a Political Emergency” Excerpt from Tar Sands

Eric Pineault. 2018. The capitalist pressure to extract: the ecological and political economy of extreme oil in Canada. Studies in Political Economy Vol. 99, 231-250

Imre Szeman, 2013. “How to Know About Oil: Energy Epistemologies and Political 

Futures” Journal of Canadian Studies 47.3, 145-168. 

4.2 Energy and Environment II – The Windsor Hum 

a/v: Richie Hawtin. 1996. “Packard”

Kelly Ladd, 2014. “Bad Vibrations: infrasound, hums, and environmental politics” The Acoustic City (Eds. Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen). Berlin: Jovis.

Peter Novak et al., “Investigation of the Windsor Hum” Technical Report: University of Windsor. Christopher Mele. 02/11/2018.  There’s a Persistent Hum in This Canadian City, and No One Knows Why. The New York Times. 

4.3 Energy and Environment III – Energy production in Orkney

a/v/ – Ice on Fire (dir. Leila Collins).

Laura Watts. 2019. Chapters 1, 2 and 4. Energy at the End of the World. Boston: The MIT Press. 

Ester van der Waal. 2020. Local impact of community renewable energy: A case study of an Orcadian community-led wind schemeEnergy Policy, Volume 138.

5.1 Energy Futures – Transition

Vaclav Smil, 2016. “Examining Energy Transitions: A Dozen Insights Based on Performance” 

Energy Research and Social Science 22, 94-97.

James McCarthy. 2015. ‘A socioecological fix to capitalist crisis and climate change? The possibilities and limits of renewable energy’, Environment and Planning A 47(12): 2485-2502.

J. Franquesa. 2018. Chapter 1. in Power struggles: Dignity, value, and the renewable energy frontier in Spain. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

5.2 Energy Futures – Good Energy Policy

A. Dunlap. 2018a. ‘Counterinsurgency for wind energy: The Bíi Hioxo wind park in Juchitán, Mexico’, The Journal of Peasant Studies 45(3): 630-652.

Gavin Bridge and Ludger Gailing. 2020. New energy spaces: Towards a geographical political economy of energy transition. Progress in Human Geography?

5.3 Energy Futures – Good Energy Subjects?

See handout: No readings today. But come prepared to engage in the workshop! 

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: