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Ethics, Nafthism, and the Fossil Subject

Tere Vadén, Antti Salminen


Several socio-economic and technological conditions shaped the faces of modernity, but without massive energy surplus modernity as we know it would not be possible at all. Fossil fuels are not created by humans. Consequently, part of the credit for modernity that is assigned to the other (human) conditions, belongs to (non-human) fossil fuels. The misplaced assignment of credit also points to modernity’s characteristic blindness to its material conditions. By and large, modernity has been described as a human victory over nature. This is supremely ironic, as the supposed human independence relies on a particular natural phenomenon. Unfortunately, this forgetfulness extends into ethics. Typical modern views on ethics rely on a subject with an autonomous capacity to act and deliberate. There is a structural parallel between the way in which the modern subject detaches itself from its material and social surroundings and the way in which a fossil fuel economy detaches production from consumption, products from waste, actions from consequences. If ethics is blind to the way in which the detachment is dependent on a particular energy regime, it is unlikely to result in a robust de-fossilization. In this article, we argue that the notions of modernity and (modern) subjectivication are made possible by non-human energy, namely fossil fuels. Thus, energy ethics for the postfossil era will be ultimately based on a-subjective and non-modern premises.


fossil fuels; oil; subject; nafthology; nafthism; ethics; modernity; work; energy; capitalism

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.7358/rela-2018-001-vade

Relations. Beyond Anthropocentrism
Registered by Tribunale di Milano (04/05/2012 n. 211)
Online ISSN 2280-9643 - Print ISSN 2283-3196

Executive Editor: Francesco Allegri
Associate Editor: Matteo Andreozzi 
Review Editors: Sofia Bonicalzi - Eleonora Adorni
Editorial Board:
Ralph R. Acampora - Carol J. Adams - Vilma Baricalla - Luisella Battaglia - Rod Bennison - Matthew R. Calarco - Piergiorgio Donatelli - William Grove-Fanning - Serenella Iovino - Luigi Lombardi Vallauri - Christoph Lumer - Joel MacClellan - Dario Martinelli - Roberto Marchesini - Alma Massaro - Barbara Muraca - Serpil Oppermann - Simone Pollo - Paola Sobbrio - Kim Stallwood - Sabrina Tonutti - Jessica Ullrich - Federico Zuolo