Petrocultures: Unraveling Oil’s Deep Influence on Our Culture and Heritage

Petroculture" defines our deep-seated reliance on oil, permeating every aspect of modern life and culture. The European project PITCH embarks on a critical exploration of this relationship, aiming to shed light on how our heritage is intertwined with oil dependence. Through innovative research and creative engagement, PITCH seeks to pave the way for a sustainable transition away from fossil fuels, redefining our cultural and societal norms in the process.

oil containers

Petrocultures might become one of the defining terms of modern human history. It’s hard to think of one substance that’s had more influence in the last centuries than oil; its hold over politics and technology is undeniable. But this new term “petroculture” digs deeper, suggesting that oil has seeped into our very cultural fabric. Now, when divorcing ourselves from oil is so vital, it must be interrogated.

Yet, for many of us, the petroleum industry must seem distant. It’s hard to look back at the impact of oil when it’s managed by governments and multinational conglomerates too large to be comprehensible. This enormous investigation is the subject of a new European project: PITCH. Or, to use its full name: Petrocultures Intersections with the Cultural Heritage Sector.

What are “Petrocultures”? For many people, it is hard to imagine a life without oil (and its derived products). As such, “petroculture” is a way to describe our modern society – a culture entirely dependent on the petroleum industry. Within a petroculture, everything within society is in some way linked to oil: supply chains rely on fossil fuels, commodities are created from oil products, and much cultural philanthropy is funded by petroleum companies.

PITCH is co-financed by both EU Horizon Europe and UK Research and Innovation, bringing the total funding to €3,283,000, and marks a massively international effort to understand the complex cultural heritage associated with petrocultures across Europe. The project aims to investigate how petrocultures are not only reflected within contemporary heritage, but also to reinterpret culture through the lens of petrocultures.

We live in an oil-based society that affects all aspects of life, from what the clothes we wear are made of to how forestry is practiced. Our project works to make visible the unnoticed ties between heritage and petrocultures.

Professor Dolly Jørgensen, project coordinator

The project is being coordinated by the Greenhouse Center for Environmental Humanities at the University of Stavanger, Norway, but involves partners in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and the UK. Four multi-site pilot interventions will form the bulk of the work, hoping to creatively engage citizens in a way which will encourage environmental transformation. Two museum exhibitions, an interpretative biking trail, and public events and workshops are planned, some of which will be headed by Professor Rodney Harrison of UCL, drawing on his previous work with Heritage Futures.

One site being researched is the E-WERK Luckenwalde, a former coal power station in Berlin. Following years of disuse, the building has been reopened as a power station and cultural centre. However, rather than burning coal, they produce energy from locally sourced wood chips that are recycled into art installations and soil rebuilding. This strand of PITCH will explore how industrial sites can be reused and redirected towards climate action, and map out ways in which other fossil fuel sites can be repurposed.

“We need to reimagine heritage and heritage practices to support the shift away from a reliance on fossil fuels and towards socially and ecologically just green transitions”

Professor Rodney Harrison

With much of Europe looking towards sustainable futures and circular economies, PITCH has the potential to develop new philosophies about our dependence on oil products. The green transition has, for many years, ran on the message of using less fossil-fuels, but the exact link between the oil industry and our daily lives – even down to the clothes we wear – has remained surprisingly murky. By thoroughly interrogating the petrocultural society we inhabit, PITCH hopes to give confidence to a future society that can separate itself from oil.

By 2027, the project aims to have achieved the following objectives:

  • Create a deeper understanding of petroculture’s intersections with heritage practices and how this reflects social, economic, and political changes over time,
  • Demonstrate that heritage when reinterpreted within a petroculture frame can foster citizen confidence in green transitions,
  • Develop innovative practices and guidelines for heritage practitioners and policymakers.

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