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1. Flying Cars and Dino-Power

The Jetsons is a familiar portrait of a techno-utopian future: automated food dispensers, television screens, belt conveyors, automated tooth brushes, and so on, all made possible by energy abundance. The flying car from the intro sequence is perhaps the most memorable imagined technological advance. In the decades following the first and second run of the show, plenty of people have mournfully asked, "Where is my flying car?" [1] But this sentiment assumes that the way we imagine the future today will come to pass over the course of fifty or sixty years. In fact, however we might imagine the future in the present, in retrospect it becomes easy to recognize as an extrapolation from within its own time, within its own understanding of energy. At the height of the twentieth century, the energy exuberance of The Jetsons made the future seems bright and easy, with only the petty bickering of husband and wife to overshadow the gleaming commodities affordable by all.

And yet, looking back at The Jetsons intro sequence today, I wonder where the icecaps are in that little illustration of earth (see Figure 1) [2]. Is some land missing from Central America? Has the North gained land mass? Such questions become more troubling in the context of current concerns about global warming and, once asked, open the floodgates for similar observations. In the intro sequence, flying cars convey the Jetsons and other families from their floating bungalow to other floating buildings like The Little Dipper School, Orbit High School, Shopping Centre, and Spacely Space Rockets Inc. What was once a cute innovation—why not live in floating cities?—becomes troubled by its energy costs and its purpose. Why do the Jetsons and other families live in orbit? What has happened below to force them into the skies? Is the source apocalyptic: population explosions, rising ocean levels, violent weather?

Jetsons planet

Figure 1. Earth, from The Jetsons' intro sequence.

The Jetsons does not need to answer these questions. By raising them, I mean to illustrate what might become visible and troubled when we ask questions about the energy and climate of glossy, bright, future-oriented storytelling.

Directing the same line of inquiry towards another mid-twentieth-century cartoon like The Flintstones reveals a different relationship between energy and imagination at work behind the scenes. One cannot help but notice the show's use of dinosaurs and other critters as appliance replacements. Little dinos, birds, and mammals stand in as can openers, alarm clocks, washing machines, garbage disposals, hedging sheers, and lawnmowers. What's more, these critters are often given snappy one-liners, like the sauropod that Fred Flintstone operates at work who grumbles, "I do all the work and he gets paid for it."

In a fairly unsubtle way, The Flintstones develops a working concept of dino-power. The show links the time-saving devices of the American suburban homeowner to the fossil fuels that power their electric whir and easy functionality. The dinosaurs from the show are obviously not the origin of actually existing fossil fuels, and yet the way they draw attention to everyday, household items makes the energy footprint of such automated and powered commodities apparent. Indeed, in The Flintstones these appliances speak for themselves and, seen from within current strictures, they are decisively carbon-neutral. In this way, the world of The Flintstones collapses the Holocene with the Cretaceous period—after all, both offer relatively warm and stable temperatures. Bedrock could be read as a kind of Holocene utopia achieved by using living dino-power rather than its correlate: long dead, high-heated, and heavily compressed in the form of fossil fuels.

This connection between the high-energy use of mid-twentieth-century modernity and the bounty of life in the Cretaceous period generates tension in specific ways. For instance, in season 5, episode 22, "Deep in the Heart of Texarock," which first aired on the 12th of February 1965, the Flintstones travel to Texarock to visit Fred's uncle [3]. First, the episode repeats the trope of embodying dino-power. For instance, a tortoise works as a luggage scale and grumbles, "For this I had to go to college?" Moreover, the airplane fuselage looks like it has been hollowed out of a prehistoric tree. Four terodactdyls grasp the wings keeping the plane in the air (see Figure 2)—Barney Rubble jokes that he's heard these newer models can still run on two engines—and the airplane seatbelts, "safety first," even feature a metal clip and a little red crustacean that clings to the clip with its claws.

The Flintstones

Figure 2. The Flintstones fly to Texarock.

Second, while at the airport Fred makes a quip about Pebbles: "Uncle Tex will love her, maybe enough to give her a few shares of oil stock!" Here, the fantasy overlap of Holocene and Cretaceous reveals itself: how the hell could Uncle Tex (hilariously and anachronistically named after the state he lives in) have oil stock? Holding this cartoon to a standard of consistency aside, I read this one-liner by Fred as deeply historical. It reveals that, in the moment of the show's run from 1960 to 1966, oil stocks are something one might actually want (as opposed to oil shocks). Thus, the prehistoric fantasy world of The Flintstones grounds itself very firmly in its own moment and not that of decade later, during the oil glut of the 1970s, or that of present oil woes [4].

The overlap of The Jetsons and The Flintstones flattens time. Each show brings with it a particular way of understanding the energy present and compelling limits for imagining the energy past and future. Viewed together, they offer a joint-estrangement effect: all we can see are the families and their household appliances, whether powered by some unknown energy source or by dino-bodies. I note one crucial difference: each raises a different question of history. The Flintstones raises the question of what will happen. How will this world respond to an ice age or global warming? Is this a history leading up the present or a static hallucination of mid-twentieth-century exuberance? An instance of what Imre Szeman describes as indulging the "fiction of energy surplus"? On the other hand, The Jetsons raises the question of what has happened. Because of its place in the near-future, it anticipates a form of SF writing that looks back from an imagined time to ask how it all came to this [5].

2. Energy Humanities

The reliance at a planetary level on high-density energy calibrates our conception of past, present, and future. Fredrick Buell describes the dance of energy narratives over the twentieth century as one of exuberance and catastrophe [6]. For Buell, these two narratives describe the cycle of fossil fuelled capitalism. In the good boom years of oil's dominance everything seems plentiful, while far and away from this exuberance lurks catastrophe. From the soaring highs of abundance to the crashing lows of shortage, each moment expresses itself in a variety of ways. But what if we've crossed the threshold of our Janus-faced oil imaginary?

In "Energy Futures" (2012), Imre Szeman duly notes that the energy surplus of twentieth-century fossil capital will not come again [7]. Can the ways the future was imagined from within this moment of abundance help us to grapple with the seeming limits of our own moment? The work of what is known as "Energy Humanities" [8] is to unpack these kinds of questions. Recently, cultural critics have been taking on the ways that genre in particular intersects with questions related to energy.

Part of the task at hand has been to name new genres in relation to energy. Alexander Etkind's "magical historicism" (2014) locates a particular formation of post-Soviet novels that assess the country's current hegemonic standing in relation to oil [9]. Stephanie LeMenager's "petromelancholia" (2011) describes the pervasive feeling of living oil as a slowly unfolding disaster, rather than a disastrous spill or sudden burning, especially through artistic response to climate crisis, which LeMenager notes also have environmental impacts [10]. And, along similar lines, Jennifer Wenzel uses the term "petro-magical-realism" (2006) to name "seemingly magical stories about natural resources" and ask what they might "tell us about the multi-layered relationships between Nigerian literary production and other commodity exports" [11].

Another strand of this critical impulse has been expanded to address SF itself, as in Gerry Canavan's "Petrofutures, Retrofutures" (2014) and Graeme MacDonald's SFRA Pioneer Award winning essay "Improbability Drives" (2014) [12].

In "Petrofutures, Retrofutures," Canavan compares mid-twentieth-century science fiction with more contemporary works. He finds that earlier works, especially those of Isaac Asimov, imagine a smooth transition from fossil fuels to clean energy—like nuclear—with little trouble at all. Looking back, these science fictions emphasize the centrality of coal and oil by presuming it will be easy to adopt other energy sources. "Most science fiction of this period simply takes for granted that the wonders of the future will be powered by clean atomic energy 'too cheap to meter,' in the famously unfulfilled slogan of the nuclear industry" [13]. However, films from the early twenty-first century, like Moon (2009), Avatar (2009), and Daybreakers (2009), tell a different story about energy. They imagine scarcity and do not share the sense that transition will occur easily. Canavan concludes, "Here again we can find science-fictional imaginings retreating from the cold, rational calculus of energy scarcity into something more like fantasy—only in our moment the fantasy is not of improbable technology and perpetual-motion hacking of the laws of physics, but rather that human beings might change the way they behave." The proposition that we might alter our behaviour, rather than engineer a way out of our current problem, emphasizes a crucial difference between reading science fiction critically and reading it proactively. It is easy to read 1960s cartoons as artefacts of their moment and identify some compelling observations that they were able to make somewhat in spite of themselves. But what might they reveal about our present?

MacDonald takes a different tack in "Improbability Drives." He takes up the late Patricia Yaeger's insistence that critics who want to take on energy understand the way that "energy invisibilities may constitute different kinds of erasures" than other invisibilities [15]. In this way, MacDonald offers a brilliant entry into considering the energy unconscious of science fiction through his description of the opening sequence of Star Wars (1977).

Star Destroyer

Figure 3. A Star Destroyer looms over Tatooine.

Reading the opening sequence, MacDonald marvels at the awesome display of power made by the Star Destroyer (see Figure 3): "the impression is sealed, moreover, as the Star Destroyer passes formidably overhead, by the sight of three massive, flaming exhaust ports, propelling the ship inexorably to its quarry. Space Opera! What a blast!" [16] I am principally concerned with what MacDonald does with this moment in Star Wars. This sequence revels in the massive, galactic world. "Ten seconds confirm that entire galaxies are traversable," he continues,

Yet, returning to such texts in an age of late energy anxiety, with mounting eco-critical interventions into SF criticism, do we read such diegetic moves any differently? Do we, should we, stop and pause, in the wake of those burning thrusters, and ask: what is powering that Star Destroyer? What future fuel—and what conversion or combustion system—burns those flames? Is it clean? Is it safe? Where does it come from? And why should cultural critics care? [17]

As this passage emphasises, science fiction, and in this case cinematic space opera, bears the markers of a vast energy unconscious. The future, at least when imagined from within fossil capital, gets thoroughly written over with the limits of the present. MacDonald's question here prompts a response, and one that gets addressed in a different form of intergalactic science fiction less than twenty years later. As though in response to MacDonald's question, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation demands that we care.

In "Force of Nature" (15 November 1993), two scientists from Hekaras II, Rabal and Serova, board the Enterprise. They claim that starships travelling at warp have an intergalactic impact—that the warp fields of these ships actually damage space-time. Rabal and Serova are particularly concerned because their home world will be rendered uninhabitable during their lifetime if nothing is done to prevent this damage. Here, in the story world of TNG, the effects of warp travel across the stars, an analogue for a fully globalized world, participate in both MacDonald's energy unconscious and the fantasy that Canavan describes of human actors being capable of changing their ways.

3. A Return to the Present

Each of these extrapolations hinges on an energy unconscious that makes itself most apparent through the vehicle of human transport. The Enterprise, the Star Destroyer, flying cars, and, perhaps most improbably, Fred Flintstone's prehistoric car. I say improbably because the Flintstones' car is the strangest marker of petroculture in all of the above examples. It is precisely not an automobile, because Fred and Barney need to run, to use their muscle-power to get it going (cue the "yaba daba doo!"). And yet, there are highways and traffic lights, vehicles move at comparable speed to the motor-vehicles they are modeled on, and despite the availability of planes, buses, and trains the pre-historic car still stands as the most desirable mode of transport.

The Flintstones' car is worth mulling over for one more reason. In a show that works so hard to get a laugh out of its conceit of all that dino-power and unpaid dino-labour, why do its characters drive a car? Why not simply ride dinosaurs or woolly mammoths to work? Here, I think, The Flintstones is most akin to the current moment. A crash is inevitably on the way, but no one can quite see it. I am driving at the way these examples of fantastical energy in TV shows and films still gets embodied through the automobile, still through the transport of human bodies, still through the collapsing of space. Thus, The Jetsons and The Flintstones make apparent the ways that automobility—and the vehicular commodities that enable it—lies at the core of the fantasy projection that is our own, fossil-fuel-drenched world. Much as these texts help us to understand this truth, it remains up to us to challenge and change it. It remains up to us to imagine energy futures where the need for high-density energy is restricted to hospitals and schools, and where the projected trouble with the family is no longer limited to the nuclear family (a misnomer if ever there was one; I mean, it ought to be known as the fossil family!). This inverted vision of our exuberant futures is only one small step, but it is one that many of us are dying to make.

4. Coda

I would like to take this opportunity to mention two ongoing initiatives. The first is that the Open Library of the Humanities recently posted a call for papers for a special issue titled "Powering the Future: Energy Resources in Science Fiction and Fantasy." The special collection will be edited by Dr Graeme Macdonald and Dr Caroline Edwards and published in Open Library of Humanities (ISSN 2056-6700). OLH is an open-access journal with a strong emphasis on quality peer review and a prestigious academic steering board. Unlike some open-access publications, OLH has no author-facing charges and is instead financially supported by an international consortium of libraries [18].

The second is a recent publication by the After Oil Working Group, of which I am a member. The best way to describe After Oil is as a collaborative, interdisciplinary research partnership designed to explore, critically and creatively, the social, cultural, and political changes necessary to facilitate a full-scale transition from fossil fuels to new forms of energy. Collectively written by 36 artists, educators, and scholars, the book has four sections: Triggering Transition; Energy Impasse and Political Actors; The Arts, Humanities, and Energy; and Energy Futures. The foreword offers a provocation, with which I would like to close:

One of the many things that make this short document distinctive is that it is a collective document, the product of intensive work by thinkers committed to addressing the difficult questions we will need to pose—and answer—if we are to ever get to a world after oil. It is this kind of collective work that will be needed over the coming years and decades to transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and from a petroculture to the new global culture that we can see just over the horizon. [19]

Endnotes

  1. The original air dates for The Jetsons are from September 23, 1962, to March 17, 1963. It ran again from 1985 to 1987. [return]
  2. I must note here that this image predates the iconic "Blue Marble" photograph taken from the moon during the Apollo 17 mission on 7 December 1972. [return]
  3. Available in part at YouTube (accessed January 2016). [return]
  4. At the time of writing Brent Crude is at 29.20 USD. [return]
  5. Examples include Alan Weismann’s The World without Us (2007) and Eric M. Conway and Naomi Oreskes's The Collapse of Western Civilization (2014). [return]
  6. Fredrick Buelle, "A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance," Journal of American Studies 46.2 (May 2012): 273-293. Available online in pdf (accessed January 2016). [return]
  7. Imre Szeman, "Literature and Energy Futures," in PMLA 126.2 (2011): 323-324, 325. [return]
  8. Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman, "The Rise of Energy Humanities," in University Affairs (March 2014): 40. Available online (accessed January 2016). [return]
  9. Dmitry Bykov’s ZHD (2001), for instance, envisions the European development of new energy source, which sends Russia reeling. "This invention has brought the oil market crashing down and has made Russia’s territory a wasteland, in which the 'natives' eat products made of oil. The twenty-eight-year-old protagonist, a native, is an alternative historian; he heads up a sector of the Moscow Institute of Alternative History. His rival, also a historian, works in the Israeli Museum of the History of Catastrophe (there are many historians in post-Soviet prose)." Alexander Etkind, "Post-Soviet Russia: The Land of the Oil Curse, Pussy Riot, and Magical Historicism," in Boundary 2 41:1 (2014): 153-170. Available for purchase (accessed January 2016). [return]
  10. Stephanie LeMenager, "Petro-Melancholia: The BP Blowout and the Arts of Grief," in Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring/Summer 2011): 25-55. Available for purchase (accessed January 2016). [return]
  11. Jennifer Wenzel, "Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature," in Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-464. Available for purchase in pdf (accessed January 2016). [return]
  12. Gerry Canavan, "Retrofutures and Petrofutures: Oil, Scarcity, Limit," in Oil Culture Eds. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2014): 331-349, available online (pdf, accessed January 2016); and Graeme MacDonald, "Improbability Drives: The Energy of Science Fiction," in Paradoxa 26 (Fall 2014): 111-144. Available for purchase (accessed January 2016). [return]
  13. Canavan, p. 338. [return]
  14. Canavan, p. 345. [return]
  15. Patricia Yaeger, "Editor's Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale-Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power and Other Energy Sources," in PMLA 126:2 (2011): 309. [return]
  16. MacDonald, p. 112. [return]
  17. MacDonald, p. 113. Further, "(from the voluminous geekery that is the Star Wars database), the Imperial Star Destroyer is cited as powered by a "Solar Ionization Reactor" (p. 118). [return]
  18. Full CFP and submissions portal can be found here (accessed January 2016). [return]
  19. Petrocultures Research Group, "Introduction," in After Oil (2016) 13-14. Available online in pdf (accessed January 2016). [return]

Works Discussed

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. "The Rise of Energy Humanities." University Affairs (March 2014): 40.

Buell, Fredrick. "A Short History of Oil Cultures: Or, the Marriage of Catastrophe and Exuberance." Journal of American Studies 46.2 (May 2012): 273-293.

Canavan, Gerry. "Retrofutures and Petrofutures: Oil, Scarcity, Limit." Oil Culture, Eds. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 2014): 331-349.

Etkind, Alexander. "Post-Soviet Russia: The Land of the Oil Curse, Pussy Riot, and Magical Historicism." Boundary 2 41:1 (2014): 153-170.

LeMenager, Stephanie. "Petro-Melancholia: The BP Blowout and the Arts of Grief." Qui Parle 19.2 (Spring/Summer 2011): 25-55.

MacDonald, Graeme. "Improbability Drives: The Energy of Science Fiction." Paradoxa 26 (Fall 2014): 111-144.

Szeman, Imre. "Literature and Energy Futures." PMLA 126.2 (2011): 323-324, 325.

Wenzel, Jennifer. "Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature." Postcolonial Studies 9.4 (2006): 449-464.

Yaeger, Patricia. "Editor's Column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale-Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power and Other Energy Sources." PMLA 126:2 (2011): 309.




A postdoctoral fellow at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Brent Ryan Bellamy studies narrative, science fiction, and the cultures of energy. He is the managing editor of Imaginations: A Journal of Cross-Cultural Image Studies (check out their energy issue: "3-2 | Sighting Oil"). He is currently co-editing a collection titled Marxism and Energy with Jeff Diamanti (forthcoming from MCM Prime Press). You can follow his work at www.brentryanbellamy.com.
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