Rethinking Energy Part 1

Karen Pinkus – Fuel: A Speculative Dictionary (Minnesota University Press)

Fuel is matter that we use, and use up, to produce energy. When we talk about ‘sustainable energy’, we are describing a state wherein we have enough fuel to continue using it up without worrying about future energy lack. We can sustain energy supply, but we cannot sustain fuel. There are no sustainable fuels; that would be an oxymoron. The sun itself is not sustainable… at least not indefinitely.

Karen Pinkus’ new book, Fuel, is a heroic effort to remind us that sustainability is often an illusion caused by our human-sized view of the world. Where ‘energy’, ‘climate’, ‘environment’, and other ‘green terms’ bring to mind graphs and bar charts on the one hand and images of a pastel-coloured globe on the other (cf/ Roger Dean’s cover to Yes’ Fragile), fuel itself is a palpable thing; the thing we dig, the thing we pour, the think we eat and drink.

Pinkus’ dictionary lists our fuels and the human-sized illusions which imprinted us with the idea of sustainability. The Montgolfier brothers had a balloon ‘powered by air’, but lifted by burning fuel. Jules Verne’s wonderful machines were powered by ‘electricity’, and that’s all the enthralled reader needed to know. Windmills and sails and hydroelectric turbines and tidal power plants all capitalise on nature’s surpluses, during the hours those surpluses exist, but are themselves made of wood, skins, steel, labour.

Something always burns. Something’s always used up. With fuel then comes the measure of value. A refrain that runs throughout the text is provided by the Henry Ford Archive papers, in which are held many letters from mad inventors and speculators to the great magnate himself proposing the next Big Fuel.

Some are insane, some unprofitable, some merely less profitable than petrol: in the eyes of the industrialist all three categories are the same. But petrol itself was once the useless waste byproduct of the usable paraffin, and Ford himself invested in numerous ‘biofuels’ in the search for ethanol powered transport; the vaunted ‘boozemobile’.

Fuel gives energy to move machines but it also, Pinkus suggests, must move us. The chemistry is in thrall to economics, and economics to human-sized valuations. Did the booze ration fuel the British Navy, Pinkus asks, any more than the wind and wood? What fuel is in a flag that it could energise Crusoe alone on his island?

The form of the book itself draws attention to the human proportions of fuel. Presented alphabetically as a ‘speculative dictionary’, the claim to comprehensive coverage made by the form is everywhere undermined by the fragmentary, tangential and speculative content.

It is to be read, one feels, from start to finish. It should be used up like fuel for thought. It has more to do with Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, or Sterne’s digressions, than with Rousseau, Dr Johnson, and the Enlightenment mission.

It is explicitly not the only catalogue of fuels you’ll ever need. It’s more like an antidote to the cataloguing disease: a textual disease with symptoms including perpetual over-consumption.

One of the few weaknesses of the text is its conclusion. Pinkus suggests a Heideggerian reconciliation with discontinuity as an alternative to forever ‘sustaining’ energy supply. My personal gripes with Heidegger aside, the image of a self-denying humanity runs counter to the fuel-thirsty animal of the rest of the book. We eat, we drink, we burn, we build, we list – collect, compile and consume.

Going without fuel seems to contradict the rest of the book which is, ultimately, an account of humanity’s desperate centuries-long scramble for more of it. If there is hope in the book it lies in the eccentric amateurs hunting out the next stop-gap, or the technologists seeking to make the next quick buck.

Great breakthroughs are not logical and linear in Fuel, they are bumbling, stumbling things often arbitrary in the time and place of their success. It makes for a great read rather than a practical solution. In fact, it offers so many practical solutions that one begins to suspect that we, as a species, are asking the wrong questions.

– Joe Darlington 

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