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Liquid Ethics, Fluid Politics: The Cultural and Material Politics of Petroturfing

  • Author / Creator
    Kinder, Jordan
  • This dissertation studies efforts by self-declared grassroots groups, organizations, and campaigns that promote Canadian oil through traditional and social media. Since the emergence of the Ethical Oil campaign following the publication of Ethical Oil in 2010, similar groups and organizations have emerged to use popular online platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to imbue Canadian oil with the same positive characteristics associated with these platforms, including democracy and freedom. I name these efforts “petroturfing” as a means to situate the content produced by these groups within a broader mediascape that resists or reproduces petroculture. “Petroturfing” is a portmanteau that references the promotional strategy known as astroturfing, a form of pseudo-grassroots promotion that establishes perceived organic support for historically controversial industries. Framed as voices distanced from industry—from below rather than above—I argue that petroturfing is a counter-counter discourse. It seeks to destabilize counter-movements that oppose extractivism, particularly Indigenous and environmental ones, by intervening at the level of culture. In this intervention, petroturf groups actively construe a mythology around Canadian oil in opposition to the notion of “dirty oil.” To critique these efforts, I build on historical materialist accounts that show that for a mode of production to remain dominant, it must continually reproduce itself not only materially or infrastructurally, but culturally or superstructurally as well. I argue that dominant energy sources must also be reproduced in this way. If our material or infrastructural present continues to be overwhelmingly powered by fossil fuels, then it is in the cultural sphere where the persistence of the fossil economy is challenged most publicly. Recognizing this, petroturf groups strategically mimic the form of grassroots environmentalist organizations, such as Greenpeace, to claim this contested space in the name of Canadian petro-capital by using a process I call “legitimation through circulation” to shape Canadian and international energy consciousness. I put forward two key claims in my dissertation that contribute to the energy humanities and to media and communication studies. The first is that petroturfing functions as an attempt to maintain and strengthen the cultural and material hegemony of petroculture. It shows that there is a multi-faceted effort to maintain the fossil economy on a cultural (rather than strictly material or infrastructural) level in Canada and to delay or foreclose the possibilities of an energy transition. The second claim is that the material conditions that make social media and the Internet, namely its vast energy consumption and impact on landscapes through infrastructures such as data centres, are key factors in explaining the limits of social media’s radical potential. To demonstrate these claims, this dissertation is divided into two parts. Part I, Chapter I develops an account of the material relationship between petrocultures and network societies, while Chapter II provides a genealogy that traces the origins of petroturfing as a reaction to the successes of Greenpeace and other organizations’ “dirty oil” campaign. In Part II, I hone in on the content produced and circulated by these groups more closely. Chapter III examines the rhetorical use of the “economy” and “nation” as means to foreclose possibilities of energy transition. Chapter IV explores the ways in which women and Indigenous peoples are represented in these efforts, arguing that petroturfing leverages a politics of recognition in order to frame Canadian oil as socially beneficial. And Chapter V studies the promotion of oil sands reclamation and other environmental technologies, showing that petroturfing’s ecological imaginary is one that sees in nonhuman nature a means of sustaining petro-capital. I conclude by speculating on the future of petroturfing, which continues to be increasingly influential and legitimated as it shifts from a largely online practice to an on the ground one.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2019
  • Type of Item
    Thesis
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
    https://doi.org/10.7939/r3-bewd-te78
  • License
    Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.