Energy without Conscience

Oil, Climate Change, and Complicity

Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: 29 illustrations Published: March 2017

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Caribbean Studies, Environmental Studies

In Energy without Conscience David McDermott Hughes investigates why climate change has yet to be seen as a moral issue. He examines the forces that render the use of fossil fuels ordinary and therefore exempt from ethical evaluation. Hughes centers his analysis on Trinidad and Tobago, which is the world's oldest petro-state, having drilled the first continuously producing oil well in 1866. Marrying historical research with interviews with Trinidadian petroleum scientists, policymakers, technicians, and managers, he draws parallels between Trinidad's eighteenth- and nineteenth-century slave labor energy economy and its contemporary oil industry. Hughes shows how both forms of energy rely upon a complicity that absolves producers and consumers from acknowledging the immoral nature of each. He passionately argues that like slavery, producing oil is a moral choice and that oil is at its most dangerous when it is accepted as an ordinary part of everyday life. Only by rejecting arguments that oil is economically, politically, and technologically necessary, and by acknowledging our complicity in an immoral system, can we stem the damage being done to the planet.


"Recommended." — D. Rogers, Choice

“Hughes has contributed greatly to an understanding of how climate change is viewed in locations outside of the modern Western world.” — Sandra Moore, Anthropology Book Forum

"Energy without Conscience is a thoughtful take on how climate change complicity can exist without a countrywide collective conscience of wrongdoing." — Trey Murphy, Geographical Review

"Hughes offers us a rich and important ethnographic account of Trinidad that marks the Caribbean nation not only as the site of Christopher Columbus’ third exploration to the Americas, but also as the world’s first petro- extractive geography. . . . Energy Without Conscience is a powerful and urgent book, one that furthers an understanding of global interconnectedness, not as a neoliberal project of unity, but through a web of danger, unequal outcomes, and a matrix of complicity." — Macarena Gomez-Barris, Journal of Latin American Geography

“Overall, Hughes’s Energy Without Conscience gives us a deeply historicized description of Trinidad and Tobago’s oil economy. Most importantly, he describes the potentiality of the past to have led to different presents and inspires us to consider different futures…. [The book] raises important questions about the ethical considerations and responsibilities of doing research in a world facing climate catastrophe. Owing to the methodical issues it covers, it will be of particular interest to anyone planning and conducting research in the broad fields of energy humanities, the anthropology of climate change, and extractive industries.” — Kari Dahlgren, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"This is a fascinating exploration of uncharted—and crucial—intellectual ground. It is hardest for us to see that which is hidden in plain sight, as David McDermott Hughes makes powerfully clear." — Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet

"An informative and entertaining work, Energy without Conscience probes deeply into different forms of energy and the related social systems that sustain them. David McDermott Hughes makes it clear that energy systems are embedded in moral economies, suggesting that they can be reconfigured in relation to activist politics and ethics. Passionately arguing against the silence and unwillingness to think about the immorality of using oil, Hughes sets a high standard of engaged anthropology." — Andrew S. Mathews, author of Instituting Nature: Authority, Expertise, and Power in Mexican Forests


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David McDermott Hughes is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University and the author of Whiteness in Zimbabwe: Race, Landscape, and the Problem of Belonging and From Enslavement to Environmentalism: Politics on a Southern African Frontier.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction  1
Part I. Energy with Conscience
1. Plantation Slaves, the First Fuel  29
2. How Oil Missed Its Utopian Moment  41
Part II. Ordinary Oil
3. The Myth of Inevitability  65
4. Lakeside, or the Petro-pastoral Sensibility  95
5. Climate Change and the Victim Slot  120
Conclusion  141
Notes  153
References  165
Index  183
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Honorable Mention, 2017 Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing, presented by the Society for Humanistic Anthropology

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6298-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6306-4
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