Energy Recovery in literature – just postapocalyptic stories about running out of fuel?

I have started my research into a thesis chapter on Energy Recover as a way to manage waste, through the lens of American Literature. As I have started looking into books about the recovery of energy, whether this is violent or not, I have been overwhelmed by one thing: it seems to be that the literary representation of energy recovery does not centre around the possible energy recovery that the EPA desires, but an image of a postapocalyptic world which has run out of fuel. Therefore, the energy recovery is translated to finding an alternative fuel from waste, rather than using waste to generate energy, and thereby increasing its usefulness. Now, my aim in my research is to avoid a chapter on petrofiction (despite how fascinating it is, and having completed a up-and-coming module on it at Warwick University under Graeme Macdonald). This is only because petrofiction is only partly relevant to the matter of energy recovery from waste.

Now, my aim in my research is to avoid a chapter on petrofiction (despite how fascinating it is, and having completed a up-and-coming module on it at Warwick University under Graeme Macdonald). This is only because petrofiction is only partly relevant to the matter of energy recovery from waste. Energy recovery novels can be seen as ‘alternative oil novels’ as they represent a way in which we gather energy from a source other than oil, and in this way I would argue that they are naturally anti-oil novels, or anti-petrofiction. For this reason, it may be vital to consult literature such as Upton Sinclair’s famous novel Oil! and, on the other end of the spectrum, Cormac McCarthy’s post-oil novel The Road. However, there is a clear gap here which is that energy recovery and post-oil does not, and indeed should not, be synonymous. In terms of environmental advancements, it is vital to be thinking about energy recovery from waste BEFORE we are in a position that it is necessary. And perhaps the reason we rarely see this in literature is because the dramatisation of the post-oil world is so attractive and sellable? I am thinking here of Kunstler’s series World Made by Hand, The Witch of Hebron, The History of the Future and The Harrows of Spring. 

world-made-by-hand

We might categorise these novels as alternative-oil novels, and I am not trying to deny the importance of their place in the debate and conversations surrounding oil, fuel and waste.

However, my aim is to examine the use of heat, fuel and electricity that is derived from waste and not from fossil fuels in the way defined by the EPA to help the waste crisis. in this way, I see Energy recovery as being naturally about deconstruction. If recycling is about reconstruction of waste, energy recovery is about deconstruction of waste to its core elements and extracting something useful from it.

This also leads me on to another contentious term that needs defining. When I speak about “energy”, it is very easily confused with fuel, but these two terms do not mean the same thing. In one sense, all fuel is energy, but all energy is not fuel. Energy, more broadly speaking, is defined as being a resource, but also represents creativity and power (e.g. he has energy).

In this way, is it possible for landfills and other waste sources to become a natural energy system? Or, even more contentious, the human body as an energy system (more to come on this…)

Credit to photograph: https://anothertownonthehudson.com/2016/08/13/a-new-life-in-union-grove-thoughts-on-the-world-made-by-hand-series/

by Layla Hendow

PhD researcher at University of Hull

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