In my last post, I made five statements about petromodernity. To define the term, I plan to flesh out each one. But I find theory (by which I mean efforts we make to explain the world) works best if I have a concrete object to talk about. It is what I seek to explain, but it is also the test case for any explanation I offer. The world we describe is always more complex than our descriptions, and it is only in dialogue with the world that we can refine our notions of it.

But before I get to that, I have a more basic question to answer. How have people before me defined petromodernity? They have talked about it in a number of ways, but no one has offered more than a cursory definition. Stephanie LeMenager, for instance, speaks in Living Oil of “modern life based in the cheap energy systems made possible by oil”
(p. 67). Others talk about what we might call the symptoms of petromodernity. The Petrocultures Research Group, which is based in Alberta and draws together scholars from across Canada (and the world), writes that people living in the petromodern world are “highly mobile [with] access to the full variety of available goods and services, access to a full range of information access” (After Oil, p. 60). Petromodernity produces by-products “such as oil spills, air pollution, nuclear contamination, and global warming” and is thus characterized by a “slow violence” (p. 62). Consequently, “if petromodernity persists beyond the current decade, it will likely ensure catastrophic global climate change and the extinction of most life on earth, including human beings” (p. 64).

I have still more examples, but I’ll save them for the article I’ll make of these posts eventually. My point here is simple: it is clear that scholars mean something by petromodernity, given the way they identify its symptoms, but no one has yet provided a systematic definition. I plan to do so here by turning my attention to a surprising trove of documents I’ve stumbled upon lately, all published by the American Petroleum Institute in the 1950s. They’re aggressive forms of PR, part of an effort the API, through its Oil Industry Information Committee, undertook to educate the public (not to mention school children) about the benefits of oil. One is a booklet called What Makes This Nation Go (special thanks to the kind folks at the archives of the Glenbow Museum for scanning the document for me). A second is a film called American Frontier, about the boom in the 1950s in Williston, North Dakota. A third is an advertisement the API placed in a number of American magazines and newspapers, including Time, in 1953.

These documents (and others I hope to get my hands on) are valuable because their purpose was to make the ideas that underpinned the modern world, bound inextricably to the development of oil and its attendant industries, seem like common sense. What I want to uncover are those ideas. They will form the basis of my definition of petromodernity.