Who would have the courage to turn off the lights on Times Square?

Oil-based products are the most popular Finnish exports after mobile phones. According to nafthology, the philosophy of oil, a concept introduced by Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén, a modern subject that is estranged from materials cycles would not exist without fossil fuels.

Nafthology may well become the next hit that Finland is known for. With precision, it addresses a sore spot arising from the global environmental crisis: it must be possible to examine social and material dimensions simultaneously. The natural sciences are producing important information about the state of the environment and its development, but not so much about what type of society, economy and culture would be sustainable. The social sciences, the arts and research in the humanities must learn how to examine changes in the natural environment and their effects as part of human life.

According to the nafthologists, the current silo-based approach is part of the experience of oil. The silos will be dismantled once societies begin to progress strategically, or through interruptions, towards the post-fossil era. Research, however, should be a few steps ahead of this transition.

There is no time to lose: we must learn new ways to produce and share information that are more multidimensional than those used during the era of oil.

When I left for New York for two months as part of the MOBIUS programme organised by the Finnish Cultural Institute in New York and the Finnish Institute in London, one of my goals was to examine how a philosophy such as nafthology resonates at the international level. I also intended to examine how cities promote or prevent the development of a post-fossil culture. After all, New York is in a different league than Helsinki, not to mention the Hyrynsalmi-based Mustarinda residence for artists and researchers located in an ancient forest, which serves as a platform for post-fossil experiments.

I have now completed my first month in New York. Through MOBIUS, my home organisation here is the James Gallery of the Centre for the Humanities at the City University of New York. (Its impressive building is located next to the iconic Empire State Building, and the locals consider this to be the ugliest area in Manhattan.) The James Gallery offers wonderful opportunities to participate in discussions and meet people that I would otherwise probably never have met.

However, the opportunity to remain an outsider to some extent is just as important as that of becoming an insider. In New York, the insanely hectic pace of life is a key factor that prevents attention from being paid to the material conditions of life. My housemates spend the short time that they have for resting at home after work complaining about their long hours and increasing rents. The material world remains indistinct behind the rapid streams of money.

In October 2012, however, Hurricane Sandy interrupted the usual hustle and bustle. The locals use the term “post-Sandy” to refer to our present time. The hurricane revealed the vulnerability of New York to extreme weather phenomena, which are increasing as a result of climate warming. After the incident, the City of New York has sought to make its metro system more weatherproof, for example. The City has also made a commitment to decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% between 2005 and 2050. Greenhouse gas emissions have already decreased by 19% since 2005. “The low-hanging fruit have now been picked,” as an architect preparing documents for city administration put it. From now on, achieving progress will be considerably more difficult, even though politicians still mistakenly believe in linear progress in light of the percentage figures.

Most of the public discussion concerns urban infrastructure. Only few are talking about lifestyles or revenue logics – it is my perception that these issues are largely discussed only in the fields of art and humanities and in various types of new communities. One of the most relevant questions was posed by a young student sitting in the back row during an energy panel discussion at Columbia University:

“Is Times Square compatible with the goal of a reducing emissions by 80%?”

A representative of the City of New York began their response by stating that they found the question insulting. According to the representative, the lifestyles of New Yorkers must not be questioned, or they will not be interested in contributing to the change. A senior editor of the New York Times and a representative of the highly esteemed Earth Institute shared this concern.

With regard to the production and distribution of open data, such predetermined caution and selectiveness are, of course, unfortunate. Nafthology also helps us understand that isolating key issues from energy policy discussions is only possible in the fossil-fuel era. Without the opportunity to combine distant aspects yet keep them separate that is provided by fossil fuels, the people participating in the discussions would probably not be able to differentiate between lifestyles and the streams of materials required by the lifestyles. It would not even occur to them.

We cannot make progress in reducing emissions until our focus expands from materials streams inside the city to cover dependencies outside the city, as well as the effects that Wall Street bankers and algorithms, for example, and the cultural production represented by Time Square have around the world. An increasing number of people probably also understand that renewable energy production will not allow for running societies as we now understand them. We must make massive investments in building a society that will survive without a continuous feed of fossil fuels. This requires multidisciplinary work beyond purely technological and economic perspectives, and we must also take unique material and cultural contexts seriously.


Paavo Järvensivu

Researcher of economic culture Mustarinda