A friend of mine once described the 1992 children’s movie Ferngully as the perfect storm of nineties children’s animation and early ecocritical film consciousness. The film, for those of you who never saw it or perhaps have forgotten some of the details, has a relatively strong environmental message for a children’s movie, and an impressive voice actor cast featuring not only Robin Williams, but also a singing Tim Curry in the role of the film’s villain “Hexxus”: a primordial creature of ooze and malice.
In the film, a group of human forestry workers are driving a clear-cutting machine called the “The Leveler” to clearcut a rainforest. I’ve always found it fascinating that in this scene of Ferngully, before Hexxus is released from his prison, the script of the movie specifically has human characters speaking of the labour practices of their employers and fellow employees. Labour and environmental destruction are intrinsically tied to the machine, and the humans driving The Leveller set the stage for Hexxus to arise. The most chilling—or thrilling, depending on your mood and how exciting you find Tim Curry’s singing voice—scene in the film is the musical number after The Leveller destroys Hexxus’ prison, an ancient dead tree where he’d been previously entombed by the magic of the forest, and set him free:
Oil and grime, poison sludge
Diesel clouds and noxious muck
Slime beneath me, slime up above
Ooh, you’ll love my (ah-ah-ah) toxic love
‘Cause greedy human beings will always lend a hand
With the destruction of this worthless jungle land
And what a beautiful machine they have provided
To slice a path of doom with my foul breath to guide it
Hexxus’ song “Toxic Love” describes his delights in the ingenuity of man-made destruction. Thanks to the fuel and oil in The Leveler, Hexxus is able to regain his former might in record time. With human help, he is then able to go on a rampage of destruction against the forests and all its residents within.
Though Ferngully obviously positions oil, power, and ecological and environmental destruction as evils to be vanquished—specifically, by doing away with Hexxus by locking him back in his tomb—what I always found interesting about Hexxus as a villain of greed and destruction is that he is never presented as a human creation, though it is thanks to humanity’s greedy clear-cutting that he is “set free” from his slumber. He is presented as the complete, destructive opposite of ‘nature’ in the world of Ferngully, and anathema in every way to the nature-loving creatures of the forest. But the fact of the matter is that he is, like all the fairies of Ferngully, a creature of the earth. As a creature of the earth, like those fairies, he is supernatural—but born of the natural world. He is a formidable villain, arguably one of the more interesting characters of the film. His character design is inspired directly by death: as his final, iconic form features a human skull and bony rib cage covered in dark, dripping oil. He is not only a force for decay and death within the film, he is also power incarnate. Hexxus relishes power—and he hungers for more, and more, and more…
Representing Hexxus as a combination of a dead human as well as a creature of oil and tar makes perfect sense: this is a children’s film, so the villain must be recognizably frightening and monstrous. Though whether the creators were aware of it or not, Hexxus can also be interpreted as a a layered expression of humanity’s enduring hunt for resources, specifically and most importantly its hunt for oil. Oil has given us humans power beyond all imagination, and has completely changed our world on a fundamental level. The character of Hexxus becomes a hauntingly perfect metaphor for resource-extraction capitalism and imperialism. Like the humans in Ferngully, humans from Europe found the tomb of an ancient and powerful sleeping Oil God in the inky depths of the earth. In our hubris and greed we awoke him, and accepted to glorify him in exchange for immeasurable, cataclysmic, chaotic power.
Petrocultures—where it becomes impossible to articulate the ubiquitous
Our society is powered by a dark death that pools beneath us and all around us—this is mostly a poetic way of saying that Oil is everywhere. During my childhood, the conversation regarding fossil fuels all around me, at school, at church, with my family, was all about how we were running out of this finite, limited resource. There was a palpable sense of panic that we were going to run out of gas one day. Mainstream conversations have noticeably changed, two decades later, as shale gas, tar sands, and other unconventional methods of extracting fossil fuels are on the rise and heavily promoted as technological “bridges” to “greener” energy here in Canada. Where I live in the province of Québec, we just found conventional oil in Anticosti, in Gaspésie. Reports seem to agree that human demand for fossil fuels are outpacing current production levels—not to mention that climate change seems to be getting in the way of the production of North American tar sands, notably because of global warming-encouraged wildfires in Western Canada. The human thirst for Oil is insatiable—when “conventional oil” is nowhere to be found, we crack open the earth, the tectonic plates of our planet, to find shale gas or exploit tar sands.
But I find it interesting how conversations about oil—and oil-derived products such as plastics, solvents, dyes, detergents, soaps, body products, just to name a few—have become sublimated into different kinds of conversations. These oil-derived products have brought many technological advantages with them, but we are now faced with the terrifying prospects of plastic pollution and waste—prospects that this society is completely unequipped to deal with. Why does it seem like we lack the language to speak and reflect thoroughly and deeply on the omnipresence and ethical aspects of oil, oil extraction, and petrochemicals that now occupy our lives, our homes and and our bodies?
Perhaps because any talk, especially criticism, about oil extraction and production becomes unacceptable unless you’re talking in “objectively serious” and “rational” economic terms that do not threaten oil industry interests. In many mainstream political spheres, speaking out against Oil is a serious faux-pas. Recently in Canada, mainstream environmentalists such as David Suzuki and Naomi Klein received harsh criticism from Alberta’s so-called “left of centre” NDP provincial government after the publishing of The Leap Manifesto, calling for Canada’s immediate divestment from fossil fuels:
“The government of Alberta repudiates the sections of that document that address energy infrastructure,” said Notley in a legislature news conference. “These ideas will never form any part of policy. They are naive. They are ill-informed. They are tone deaf.” (The National Post, April 11 2016)
Rachel Notley’s criticism of The Leap Manifesto might be familiar to you, especially when the Premier calls the document “naive”. It has become childish to speak about Oil in a way that challenges global economic party lines. To resist Oil in a manner that also threatens capitalist or imperialist industries and state governments is to allow yourself to be branded as immature, ignorant, and, most important of all, irrelevant. The conversation about Oil, according to the political élite and captains of industry, can only happen in one way: the way that ensures Oil’s continued extraction, production, and consumption. There is a new Church, folks, and its god is Oil.
The consequences of these social and political realities, however, is that we now live in a culture that refuses to seriously criticize Oil, and has now become unable to articulate in an everyday, mainstream sense just how deeply embedded Oil has become in our lives.
Of cultural consciousness the writer Amitav Gosh once asked, of the United States especially: “in the nation where oil is virtually sacrosanct and where the industry remains a prodigious force, [why have] literary responses to its significance for American life been so scant?” Though in his essay on Oil and World Literature, professor Graeme Macdonald is quick to problematize and challenge Gosh’s assertion that there has been a cultural silence in response to Oil, he raises an interesting points regarding how the ubiquitousness of Oil makes every cultural literary production—perhaps obliquely—a production about Oil:
All modern writing is premised on both the promise and the hidden costs and benefits of hydrocarbon culture. If this proposition seems unwieldy—preposterous even—it is still worth thinking how oil’s sheer predominance within modernity means that it is everywhere in literature yet nowhere refined enough—yet—to be brought to the surface of every text. But it sits there nevertheless—untapped, bubbling under the surface, ready to be extracted by a new generation of oil-aware petrocritics.
Oil has become the big constant in our lives, to the point where it has taken over the way that we see and interact with each other, and with the world. Though some of us may be able to conceptualize the ways in which the environmental destruction that accompanies fossil fuels extraction upsets or destroys human (and nonhuman) societies and ancient ecologies, most of us cannot conceptualize or articulate many of the other ways in which Oil has upset delicately-balanced ecological systems, of which humans and their cultures are a part. Though Macdonald contends, in the citation above, that there have been cultural productions sub-textually or textually dealing with Oil, there is a marked mainstream or popular cultural silence on the ubiquitousness of our every-day interactions with Oil.
This ubiquitousness has been sublimated to the point where we no longer name it, see it, or recognize it. When trying to describe the quality and quantity of humanity’s interactions with Oil, writer Brett Bloom created the term Petro-subjectivity in order to communicate that all of our individual and collective subjectivities have been permanently altered by our relationship with Oil:
Petro-subjectivity is something that each of us experiences constantly. It is a sense of self and the world that shapes who we are and how we think. It stems in part from the fact that the use of oil is present in every thing we do. It has shaped the concepts that govern our thinking. Our use of language and the basic concepts that structure our existence are breathed through the logic of oil relationships and form the metaphoric universe we bathe ourselves in when we speak to one another about who we are, what we do and what the world around us consists of.
Oil is a part of our every day lives. It changes the way we think and are, and nothing is left untouched. As the petro-subjectivity map above expresses, Oil affects some of our most intimate and bodily experiences: our sex lives, our personal hygiene, our reproduction, our medication, our health, our food. Almost every small ritual and every day action is mediated through the convenience, power, or benefits of Oil. Some of these benefits are undoubtedly very real, and very important, and cannot be discounted outright. But we have lost our ability to envision a future without Oil, or a future that interacts with Oil in an extremely different manner. We have lost our ability to envision and imagine a world in which humans do not use Oil to interact with the world and each other. Our understanding of the world is firmly rooted in Oil, as Brett Bloom states: “Petro-subjectivity is in place well before you ever self-identify as something else like Christian, atheist, socialist, environmentalist, or other ideological decoration.”
In return for this petro-subjectivity, for power, for convenience, for more riches for the very rich, the Oil God demands sacrifices—destruction, war, oppression, death—and as a species we acquiesce. We burn into the atmosphere and into our lungs the distilled remains of Earth’s long dead, and in so doing we destroy species after species in order to fulfill capitalist and imperial contradictions and delusions. We go to war with each other and murder each other over Oil’s favour. We oppress and pillage societies less militarized and industrialized than ourselves. We fill our discourse surrounding Oil with platitudes and empty promises. We embrace petro-subjectivity and hydrocarbon culture without reservations and without end, despite the fact that our planet and human biology have some pretty hard limits past which we cannot survive.
And the Oil God? Well, to put it in Hexxus’ own lyrics from the song Toxic Love, the Oil God feels “good—a special kind of horny.”
Works Cited and Further Reading
- Graeme Macdonald, Oil and World Literature
- Brett Bloom, Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self
- The Leap Manifesto
- Rhyd Wildermuth, The Violent, The Dead