Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)

Life is sacred in Syl Anagist — as it should be, for the city burns life as the fuel for its glory.

Syl Anagist at first seems a utopia, projecting image of surface-level perfection: a society built around life, around a pure and clean energy source, a source that, in lasting forever, will allow for unhindered progress of the  empire. Yet, Kelenli’s lessons to the tuners break any illusions of perfection in revealing the oppressive framework upon which the empire’s energy, and thus, the empire’s survival, depends.  Houwha comments upon the flaws of the Syl Anagist’s goal of Geoarcanity (a system allowing for endless energy based upon drawing magic from the Earth’s core; “Geoarcanity seeks to establish an energetic cycle of infinite efficiency.  If we are successful, the world will never know want or strife again… or so we are told” [Stone Sky 97].):

 Syl Anagist is ultimately unsustainable.  It is parasitic; its hunger for magic grows with every drop it devours. The Earth’s core is not limitless.  Eventually, if it takes fifty thousand years, that resource will be exhausted, too. Then everything dies. (Stone Sky 334)

An empire cannot be separated from its energy source, as an energy source is is generally foundational to the empire.  Thus, if there are flaws in an energy source, there are flaws in the society based upon this source — if an energy source depends upon oppression, upon exploitation, upon ignorance, then so too does the society.  In Syl Anagist, geoarcanity is dependent upon draining the life source and the magic from those oppressed peoples it continues to exploit. The continuation of this form of energy is dependent upon the tuners’ ignorance of their fundamental nature, of the energy source’s fundamental truth, and of the collective society’s fundamental ignorance of the unsustainable and harmful nature of the energy source.

The inability to separate empire and energy and it’s subsequent effects are reflected quite clearly in our own society’s dependence on fossil fuels.  Energy sources such as petroleum, natural gas and coal are not only necessary for the function of our society, but legitimately permeate almost every aspect of our lifestyle.  You only need to look at the overflow of cars in the closest parking lot, the expansive road system extending throughout the country — the actualization of the idea of Manifest Destiny in our transportation — to witness our dependence on petroleum.  Our electricity, and thus the function of our homes, our technology, are dependent on the classic industrial sponsor: coal™.  Our food, the transport thereof, the feeding of those animals which many eat, the growth of the crops  upon which the system depends, all are dependent upon oil, coal, and natural gas — not to mention exploitation of land and water resources (The book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer has some very interesting facts about the effects of the food production system in America, if anyone’s interested; apparently there’s also a documentary).  Even things as seemingly inane as the plastic in the gray chairs we sit on in class are dependent on fossil fuels, not only for their transport and manufacture, but for their physical constitution, as many plastics contain some level of petroleum.  Now, why are these bad? This is, of course, because many of these substances, when burned as a fuel source, produce gases that heat the earth, thus causing the climate to change — the more gases put into the atmosphere, the faster and more drastic the changes become (of course, we shouldn’t ignore that not all pollution comes directly from the burning of these fuel sources, an enormous impact on the atmosphere comes from the agriculture industry in the form of cow farts.  I am not joking.  We have so many cows that the methane from the cow farts — methane is a very potent greenhouse gas — is legitimately affecting the atmospheric conditions).  We have created a society entirely based upon these fuels, we have created and enacted ideals of progress and dominance based upon these fuels — industrialization, in some sense, promoted the idea that in reaping the benefit of these fuels, we would be one step closer to utopia (thus, the title of uto-petroleum).

Of course, now there are the glories of recycling, composting and electric cars, the possibility of nuclear energy and hydroelectric energy and solar and wind.  Technology such as electric cars represent progress, especially in a society so permeated by petroleum (also, they’re sexy, just take a look at a Tesla), but — while they do make us less dependent upon petroleum —  they do not fully separate us from a system dependent on fossil fuels in that (unless they are solar-powered, which most commercially available electric cars are not… yet) they rely on electricity, which is in turn dependent on coal.  Recycling produces significant environmental effects (as you are still involving plastics and electricity).  Nuclear energy produces extremely harmful effects due to the need to dispose of a significant amount of radioactive material.  Hydro, solar and wind power are all the most legitimate forms of renewable energy available to us, however, they pose issue in the sense that, unlike coal or natural gas, the energy produced is difficult to store and build-up; additionally, the technology is not yet very expansive. Additionally, hydropower poses significant risk to the surrounding environment, as it often requires damming of rivers and thus disruption of ecosystems (this was actually a foundational debate in the early 1900s and began a split amongst American environmentalists between conservation and preservation).  Of course, while hydropower and solar power may not yet be entirely efficient and may damage the environment to a certain extent, they have the benefit of being signficantly less harmful overall, as they do not have enormous effects on climate.

However, the existence of these new systems of energies both pose problems of their own (which is not an argument against them, simply a statement, everything has its own issues) and, more importantly, are not yet advanced enough to overtake and remove our dependence on non-renewable forms of energy.  Additionally, as previously stated, an empire is dependent upon its energy source, the connotation of this being that for those who benefit from the current structure of the empire, continuation of these benefits is dependent upon the continuation of the use of the energy source(s).  This means that in both Syl Anagist and in our current society it is within the interest of those in power (those who in Syl Anagist, fit within the accepted ethnicity and are seen as worthy of a life of leisure, those in our more hierarchical structure who benefit from the wealth provided by the current system) society to build a narrative and structure around the energy source so as to either slow dissent or eliminate possibility of dissent against the use of an energy source.  Thus, in our own society we see denial of the effects of fossil fuel on the environment by those in power, either through straight disbelief, hiding away certain aspects of the narrative, simply refusing to address the issues, or the propagation of organizations such as the Heartland Institute, which are sponsored by the rich and powerful and purposefully meant to perpetuate doubt about anthropogenically induced climate change (among other things, such as the effects of second-hand smoking; people who contribute to the Institute include the Koch brothers).   Given that the resources upon which our structure depends are non-renewable, which is to say, resources that cannot be replaced, once consumed (or cannot be replaced at a fast enough rate for continued extraction and use; many resources, such as aquifirs and coal, will eventually be renewed… in a geological time frame), our structure is not sustainable.  Just as Syl Anagist, depending upon an Earth which will eventually run out of magic is unsustainable.  Additionally, as our system is dependent upon non-renewable resources that produce harmful effects and require significant labor, it is thus dependent upon, requiring of and resulting in the exploitation and ruining of the lands and lives of those who are disenfranchised within the structures of our society divided as it is an on socioeconomic lines (first, second, third worlds).

Apologies if this all seems rather depressing, I simply mean to get a point across.  None of what we are doing is moving fast enough.  Is doing enough.  No matter how crazy Elon Musk is, he and his fancy cars can’t solve the systemic issues underlying climate change.  Basically, the current structure of the system is incompatible with solving the problems posed by climate change (this is further explored and discussed by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate).  As the old adage goes, “The earth moves slowly, until it doesn’t.” The earth has been chugging along for quite a while, until humanity decided to come along and dig up all of its resources — the use of these resources has caused the earth to move its processes along a bit quicker.  Here’s the truth: Syl Anagist had 100 years to prepare for burndown.

We have twelve years to reduce the effects of climate change.

Note the wording of that sentence.  We do not have twelve years to reverse climate change.  We do not have twelve years to stop climate change.  It is too late for that.  We have twelve years to mitigate the effects of what is going to happen Of course, there’s a lot to be said for twelve years.  Twelve years ago, George Bush was the president of the United States.  Twelve years ago, I was eight.  Twelve years ago,  Facebook opened its social network to the world.   Now take a look at us, huh? But the truth is, we need to do more in twelve years than we have done in the past thirty.  And with an administration in place — this is globally significant as America is one of the biggest global consumers of fossil fuels — that seems intent on denying the relevance of climate change, the idea of having only twelve years to address this problem is panic-inducing.

In the midst of all of this I was reminded of Sabrina Bramwell’s post on Weighing Father Earth’s Heart, wherein she states that she believes that Father Earth’s wrath towards humanity is warranted.  Earth was exploited by the Syl Anagistine, “for merely… existing,” in Sabrina’s words, and the truth is, of course, that this is exactly what our society does as well.  The earth is there, so we use and consume and exploit and rinse and repeat.  We talked in class about how framing anthopogenically-induced climate change as a human problem is advantageous in that it makes the issue more relevant.  However, to bring in an expansive and possibly controversial idea of justice, the fact that other forms of life are affected by our actions should not be forgotten or put to the wayside.  Syl Anagist’s mistakes came in that it ignored other forms of life (such as Father Earth), we cannot ignore that in our attempts to further our society, to progress toward a perfect ideal, we are bringing harm not only to ourselves but to a living, breathing environment.  Jemisin brings the earth to life in an almost human, personified form that we can understand, but the world around us is just as alive as if the core of the Earth was actually personified.  This is something else to keep in mind.  It is not only us who exist here.  It is not only us who feel the effects of our folly.

One Reply to “Utopetroleum (and Cow Farts™)”

  1. Perhaps the solution to the issue of an entrenched ruling aspect of our society fervently denying the existence of climate change for their own purposes can also be seen in Jemisin’s novels. The same issues are all there, as you pointed out, with a society that is fundamentally reliant on the suffering of others, suffering is unavoidable. Syl Anagist relied on exploiting life and causing suffering in an unsustainable manner in order to continue its way of life. That over reliance was ended by the city’s complete annihilation, with all ruling aspects wiped off the map. While I do not advocate for the destruction of human civilization, there certainly needs to be some radical change in power dynamics in order to end our dependence on fossil fuels. In human history, a massive political upheaval that takes twelve years or less generally can’t be anything other than a revolution.
    Syl Anagist was not the only society in Jemisin’s work that had those addictions, the empire that operated out of Yumenes too could only stand due to the active efforts of enslaved orogenes and lobotomized node maintainers. It was only after this horrid place was glassed from the face of the Earth that orogenes could begin cooperating with stills to form places like Castrima.
    There was a significant similarity between the downfall of Syl Anagist and the end of Yumenes that should also be noted for us if we hope to mitigate the effects of climate change upon our world. It was not the leaders of these peoples that brought about these changes, it was not a calm and organized forum that decided to end their dependence on tuners or orogenes and move on to a more sustainable method of carrying on. It was the decisive actions of the trodden upon in resisting those who would exploit them to their detriment that mitigated the damage caused by Syl Anagist. Tuners and orogenes, not emperors and no ruler of Syl Anagist. The task of making the change, of finding a new fuel to depend on can’t be left to those who have a personal stake in continuing to use that fuel, it is up to the people they marginalize to force that change. I only hope that it doesn’t take the devastation of our civilization to make that transition.

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