The Fossil Age
We have a long and messy history with fossil fuels. As you see in the timeline (click to enlarge), the fossil age consists of three distinct eras. From 1849 to 1972, during the great expansion, we dug up more and more fossil fuels. They made steel production cheap, fuelled local and international travel and freight – the world became smaller and the opportunities seemed endless. Milestones such as the first coal-fired power plant, the release of the T-ford and the introduction of plastics provided power, wealth and mobility to the masses.
Then the oil crisis hit in the 1970s; the black gold was suddenly scarce in the west – it was clear that our society was heavily reliant on fossil fuels to function. In addition to that, in the years to come it became increasingly clear that burning those fuels were causing climate change. This second period was in a sense, a mixed bag – Sweden got its first carbon tax, Paris & Kyoto happened but people were still debating whether climate change was even a problem! And plastics were everywhere; in our food, in our oceans, and in our football fields.
However, around 30 years ago, we started to see an accelerated transition. We started to enter “the transition years”. We saw massive mobilisation of social movements – strikes, sit ins, demonstrations. Then carbon bubble burst. Companies that made their revenue from extracting, refining or using fossil fuels were deemed a high-risk venture. Outcompeted by sun, wind and other renewable energy sources their stock plummeted. Owning a coal-plant turned from being an asset, to a liability. And the regulators finally caught up – the common agricultural policy in the EU became the Transitional Agricultural Policy – the Swedish pea and bean industry boomed as a result!
In the 2030s, several landmark victories really gave us hope. We closed the coal plant Belchatow in Poland, the price of crude oil sank below 10 dollars a barrel for the first time since 1986 and we closed the final Swedish blast furnace, which is pictured inside the exhibition. Finally, in 2045, we reached net zero emissions.
But as we’ll see in the exhibition below, the transition was not pain-free – not all species made it and controversial decisions led to conflicts around Europe.
Energy is the invisible elephant in the room of modern civilisation, and this is reflected in the stories of the other sectors explored in this exhibition. But the energy elephant has also made itself at home in our domestic spaces, powering our devices and appliances, and keeping our houses warm.
Electricity generation in Sweden was largely free of fossil fuels before the end of the 20th Century – but through the use of nuclear power and large hydroelectric installations. The rise of renewables such as wind and solar power in the early 21st Century offered an escape from reliance on these sources. But the re-localisation of energy generation was not without its critics and opponents, leading to waves of protest and long social struggles between different regions and classes.
Domestic warmth had largely been provided by district heating systems from the late 20th Century, though these were at first heavily reliant on burning fossil fuels and waste. A shift to biofuels, and then on to low-temperature systems based on renewable sources and “waste” heat from industry, was enabled by changes to how homes were built, furnished and lived in, replacing the old ways on display in this exhibition.
In some respects, not much in the world of transport changed during the transition years: most technologies now in use were available four decades ago, if not earlier. The true transition has been the reconfiguration of the relationship between vehicles, infrastructures, and people – as anyone old enough to have once owned an internal-combustion vehicle will surely recall.
The decline in car ownership begun only once the subsidies and policies that favoured them were removed by governments reacting belatedly to the undeniable effects of climate change. Once the ultimate symbol of individual freedom and convenience, cars became an expensive anachronism*, unwelcome in (if not actively excluded from) ever-greater sections of cities and towns, and multi-lane highways were torn up to be replaced by tramways and the “linear parks” that are now an urbanist’s cliché.
Those policies were pushed through to accommodate the backlash from “Generation Zero” (sometimes referred to as “the slowing”) which created a demand for neighbourhoods where travelling – whether for shopping, recreation, education or business – was not just unnecessary, but unwanted. This was enabled by the refactoring of global, regional and local logistics, as well as by substantial reforms in agricultural production, resulting in a world where mass is expensive to move.
A legacy of resistance to plastics can be traced back to the peak of the petrochemical hegemony around a century ago. However, it wasn’t until the mid-2010s, when the annual mass of plastics produced exceeded the mass of humanity itself, that their toxic effects – environmental, biological and psychological – became impossible to ignore. Symptoms previously ascribed to stress and poor self-care were shown to have direct causal links with plastics exposure from countless vectors, including clothing, water and food.
Despite the scientific evidence, it took the tireless work of activists, often suffering from the pathologies in question, to turn the tide of public opinion against the producers of “convenience”. The group called THERMOSET were the most dramatic, staging public interventions where they would encase their bodies in plastics in public spaces, but there were many others.
It is hard to grasp the ubiquity of petrochemical artefacts during the early decades of the 21st Century. Even for those who lived through them, the extent of the iconoclasm is almost incomprehensible. Hence the artefacts in this collection evoke a kind of inverse nostalgia, a retroactive revulsion at the extent to which we once surrounded, covered and penetrated ourselves with the by-products of the Great Extraction.
From the exhibition
From the archives: Nylon Nightmares (2030)
In 1939, the first nylon stocking was displayed at the World’s Fair as an object of desire; as the Smithsonian Museum put it in its online magazine, the nylon stocking changed the world: ‘one humble pair of lady’s stockings in the Smithsonian collections represents nothing less than the dawn of a new age – the age of synthetic.’
But while in 2019, the nylon stocking could be celebrated with a kind of nostalgia, by 2049, the tale of the seductive nature of synthetic clothing had become almost entirely cautionary. How did this happen?
By the turn of the 21st century, nylon tights had fallen out of fashion, but synthetic clothing had taken hold across the board in the development of functional technical clothing of all kinds. And again, this worked with the ideas of luxury, functionality and desire – just as, in their day, the nylon stocking had done.
However, there were signs of dissatisfaction with these forms of clothing as reports began to emerge of pollution of the seas with microfibres that, in turn, entered the food chain. This led to a broader concern with the kinds of plastics that were to be found in the human body. Donna Haraway’s cyborg took on a new urgency.
By 2003/2004, it had already been established in a US-based study that human bodies contained BPA. Over the next decade, this was further developed in academic and medical studies of different kinds.
A real breakthrough took place in 2029, when a new device became readily available that enabled people to have their plasticity levels checked and monitored. Along with high blood pressure and high cholesterol, a high plastic count became another issue to be diagnosed and treated. This led on the development of new medications to reduce / breakdown plastic residues in the population, resulting in bonanza for the pharmaceutical and wellbeing industries, and placing in question common health practices such as the use of plastic sealants on the teeth of children.
Soon after, as part of an exhibition on plastic bodies, a memorable artwork was produced by a celebrated Swedish artist which depicted a dark vision of bodies being slowly strangled from the inside out by a nylon stocking turned serpent. The object that was once the stuff of dreams had become the stuff of nightmares. This work became the emblem of activists in the way, earlier, that Chris Jordan’s photographs of birds at Midway Atoll had done.
Clothing went through many iterations, always stressing seduction. But when did that seductive edge take a turn for the sinister?
From the archives: An alien within (2028)
Today, a committee of the national scientific council has released a report with damning conclusions regarding hundreds of deaths previously seen as unexplained. All these fatalities, the committee concludes after an extensive review of the available evidence, are plastic-related. The report condemns government authorities for ‘failing in what once would have been seen as their primary task; protecting the health and safety of their citizens.’
They suffered from fatigue, rashes, hair loss, joint and muscle pain, memory loss – in short, from that ill-defined cluster of symptoms that most GP’s will diagnose as stress-related. The question we should have been asking, but didn’t: stress from what?
This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of the report: our inability to see what was so obviously coming. We all knew the pictures of birds and whales suffocated by plastic. We were used to the suffering of others, non-human or otherwise. When in the 2010s the controversy surrounding breast implants erupted, the public was quick to condemn women driven by ‘vanity’. They had allowed alien substances such as silicon, epoxy resins, polyvinyl chloride and other substances into their bodies, trusting naively that this toxic mixture would remain safely contained within the implants themselves. According to a commonly heard comment, this was a ‘pathetic’ group for relying on the state to spell out the risks of plastics.
Meanwhile, invisible microbeads found their way into all our bodies. Unnoticed, they crept into our blood, lymph nodes and livers, which ultimately led to the fatalities that have only now been explained. Blame can no longer be shifted towards irresponsible consumers. Unless we acknowledge that all of us, without a single exception, belong to that group and have done so for years. The alien is now in all of us, and it is here to stay.
To a historian, recent reconfigurations of agriculture could be seen as less of a revolution than a reversion to the norm, with the 20th Century’s profligate long-distance distribution of regional produce – not to mention its waste, subsidies and stockpiling – appearing as an aberrational episode.
Monoculture farming practices are in retreat worldwide, but the reduction in the beef and dairy systems that dominated Europe and the Americas is perhaps the most profound. Provoked in part by the rising cost of long-haul logistics and refrigeration, the impetus came mostly from below, as the spread of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles provoked a higher standard of quality and ethics among those who were still unwilling to entirely forgo animal products.
While the worst excesses of militant vegan terror-cells in the 2020s came close to provoking a backlash, the work of a new generation of farmers and chefs in producing and promoting healthy, locally-sourced foods untainted by refrigeration, preservatives and plastic packaging did much to normalise diets in which meat, dairy and exotic produce play a far smaller role. The adjustment of subsidy regimes toward rewilding and carbon sinks have resulted in the resurrection of landscapes last seen before the dawn of the industrial revolution.
Biodiversity is a collective term that encompasses all the variation between species, within species and habitats on earth. More different species and varieties of species make natural environments less vulnerable and increase nature's ability to cope with sudden changes, for example in climate. During the 20th century, agriculture was intensified. As a result, many species became extinct and biodiversity declined sharply. Two of the most diverse environments in Sweden are unfertilised pastures and old-growth trees.
Insects are threatened both directly by a changed climate, and indirectly when we change land-use to grow more crop for renewable fuel, allow encroachment of trees and shrubs in pastures without grazing or mowing, and plant pastures with forest. Many wild bees, butterflies and other insects depend on pastures and many beetles depend on old trees and dead wood, environments that are lost in intensively used agricultural and forestry landscapes. Insects play key roles in ecosystems, and drastic changes in the number of insects and species composition can lead to major changes to our ecosystems, and threaten our food production.
The dominant uses of steel were always hidden in plain sight, embedded in the equally eco-cidal material known as concrete. While the high-rise buildings of the early 21st Century are only now beginning to be deconstructed, their rebar and girders earmarked and pre-sold to fund their replacements, the decline of thrusting vertical architectural forms in recent decades is testament to a turn toward renewable materials in construction and development, and the renaissance of wood in particular.
In the consumer sphere, the search for alternatives to steel was a response to various forms of activism, such as “rust-shaming”, the tagging of steel objects with corrosive chemicals. But banishing steel entirely would be impossible, with many vital infrastructures relying on its unmatched strength and versatility. That necessity, combined with the increasing economic and ecological costs of carbon-based fuels, helped push clean production methods, recycling, and more efficient utilisation practices to the fore.
The consumer objects in this collection are durable anachronisms, as valuable for their steel content by mass as for their status as antiques; they never became objects of loathing in the manner of plastic products. But behind the scenes, steel’s story continues, with all Swedish production now entirely fossil-free.