Defining the field: Series editor Brian Black on Energy and Society

Brian Black is Distinguished Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Penn State, Altoona, and editor of WVU Press’s series Energy and Society—an important part of our growing program in interdisciplinary studies of environment. With the second title scheduled for publication this fall and the third announced in the forthcoming catalog, we asked Brian to introduce his new series, which has already begun to define an emerging scholarly field. 

The issues related to energy management continue to power conversation and news in 2018, and the Energy and Society book series has taken important steps to be part of this global discourse. Focusing on the intellectual scaffolding that informs and shapes our use of energy, three new titles will be or have been recently released. In each case, leading scholars in the field seek to broaden our discourse on energy in a way that blazes a path for framing future scholarship.


In On Petrocultures, Imre Szeman, well-known scholar of energy and philosophy, presents his most important and influential essays, in dialog with exciting new pieces written for the book. Together, the collection investigates the ever-evolving circuits of power in the contemporary world, as manifested in struggles over space and belonging, redefinitions of work and individual autonomy, and the deep links between energy use and climate change.

At the heart of the volume is the concept of “petrocultures,” which demands that we understand a fundamental fact of modern life: we are shaped by and through fossil fuels. Szeman argues that we cannot take steps to address global warming without fundamentally changing social, cultural, and political norms and expectations developed in conjunction with the energy riches of the past century. On Petrocultures maps the significant challenge of our dependence on fossil fuels and probes ways that we might begin to leave petrocultures behind.

These essays explore life lived in the twenty-first century by examining critically the vocabulary through which capitalism makes sense of itself, focusing on concepts like the nation, globalization, neoliberalism, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Stephanie Foote, editor of Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice, writes of the collection: “Every essay in On Petrocultures is a gem. Szeman is making real arguments about policy’s relationship to culture around energy and environment, and in that sense he is modeling a collaborative public humanities practice. This is what the field of environmental humanities will and should be doing in the coming decades, and Szeman is doing it now.” On Petrocultures will be released Spring 2019.


In a more focused story that draws wide connections, Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coastby Michael R. Adamson, tells the story of oilman Ralph Bramel Lloyd, a small business owner who drove the development of one of America’s largest oil fields. Lloyd invested his petroleum earnings in commercial real estate—much of it centered on automobiles and the fuel they require—in several western cities, notably Portland, Oregon. Putting the history of extractive industry in dialogue with the history of urban development, Michael R. Adamson shows how energy is woven into the fabric of modern life, and how the “energy capital” of Los Angeles exerted far-flung influence in the US West.

A contribution to the relatively understudied history of small businesses in the United States, Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast explores issues of interest to multiple audiences, such as the competition for influence over urban development waged among local growth machines and outside corporate interests; the urban rivalries of a region; the importance of public capital in mobilizing the commercial real estate sector during the Great Depression and World War II; and the relationships among owners, architects, and contractors in the execution of commercial building projects.

Diana Hinton, author of Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth, calls Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast “a tour de force.” She adds: “Adamson’s command of business history and the depth of his research are stunning. This is, hands down, the most meticulous study of an independent oilman I have ever read.” Oil and Urbanization on the Pacific Coast will be released in October 2018.


These titles join Stephen C. Cote’s Oil and Nation, which is now available. In this well received book, Cotes places petroleum at the center of Bolivia’s contentious twentieth-century history. Bolivia’s oil, Cote argues, instigated the largest war in Latin America in the 1900s, provoked the first nationalization of a major foreign company by a Latin American state, and shaped both the course and the consequences of Bolivia’s transformative National Revolution of 1952. Oil and natural gas continue to steer the country under the government of Evo Morales, who renationalized hydrocarbons in 2006 and has used revenues from the sector to reduce poverty and increase infrastructure development in South America’s poorest country.

Oil and Nation advances chronologically from Bolivia’s earliest petroleum pioneers in the nineteenth century until the present, inserting oil into historical debates about Bolivian ethnic, racial, and environmental issues, and within development strategies by different administrations. While Bolivia is best known for its tin mining, Oil and Nation makes the case that nationalist reformers viewed hydrocarbons and the state oil company as a way to modernize the country away from the tin monoculture and its powerful backers and toward an oil-powered future.

Myrna Santiago, author of The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900–1938, offers praise for Oil and Nation when she writes: “There is nothing like this book at all in English, so it will be a wonderful addition to the literature. It is well researched and documented, and the style makes for a comfortable read for undergraduates and an interested non-academic public too.”

Congratulations to each of these scholars. We look forward to your help in shaping the future discourse on energy and encourage your submissions to Energy and Society. Proposal guidelines are here.


One thought on “Defining the field: Series editor Brian Black on Energy and Society

Leave a Reply