The AAG in Tampa: Energy geographers take over

The meeting took place at the Tampa Convention Center (photo by Saska Petrova)
The meeting took place at the Tampa Convention Center (photo by Saska Petrova)

Following its overwhelming presence at the last three Annual Conferences of the Royal Geographical Society, energy geography research is now featured to a similar extent at the US counterpart of this event: the Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). This year’s meeting took place in Tampa (Florida) and was extremely well attended by geographers from across the world. Although energy was not singled out as one of the meeting’s key themes, sustainability and climate change were given such treatment. Indeed, the number of energy sessions (25) and papers (more than 100) indicated that energy related topics have increased their popularity among both human and physical geographers. While most of the energy sessions were supported by the AAG Energy and Environment Specialty Group (EESG), many papers were presented as a part of thematically broader sessions (for example: Climate change and indigenous people).

Political ecology perspectives of extractive energy economies and energy resource governance were research foci of many papers, especially the ones presented in the four sessions on Energy and socioecological production of space, which were organised by Matt Huber (University of Syracuse) and myself. The aim of these sessions was to provide a venue for critical energy geographers to explore the ways in which energy is central in the socioecological production of space, in which the ‘human’ (social) and ‘non-human’ are co-constitutive parts. In total, there were 18 excellent papers, grouped in four thematic blocks (Geographies of extraction, Infrastructure, Energy and territory, Historical materialism and the spatial fix) and two well-known energy geographers Mazen Labben (Rutgers University) and Stefan Bouzarovski (University of Manchester) as discussants. Both Labban and Bouzarovski were impressed by the papers presented in the sessions and emphasised that energy could be the link between the so far vaguely connected studies on production of nature and production of space. They also pointed out that despite the plethora of conceptual approaches (such as transition theory and social practice theory) used in geographical energy research studies to date, a distinctive, coherent geographical energy framework has still to be developed.

Two other sessions, titled ‘Operationalizing the geo-energy space’, also aimed to highlight the relations in which anthropogenic energy flows are both predicated by, and themselves shape, the geophysical environment. Organisers Stefan Bouzarovski and Nazmiye Balta-Ozkan (University of Westminster) used the notion of ‘geo-energy space’ (see Mañé Estrada, 2006) to interrogate the spatial and territorial embeddedness of energy flows. Two CURE members, Sergio Tirado-Herrero and Jenni Viitanen presented their paper in the second session on ‘Operationalizing the geo-energy space’, focused on socio-technical assemblages.

Also of note is Dustin Mulvaney (San Jose State University) and Elvin Delgado‘s (University of Central Washington) panel session on ‘Understanding the social and environmental dimensions of developing shale fossil fuels’ to improve the understanding of the social and environmental dimensions of fossil fuel extraction from shale basins.

The geographical implications of energy transitions received significant attention. Michael Minn (University of Illinois) organised four energy transition sessions, featuring a total of 17 papers. They brought together researchers exploring a variety of cross disciplinary energy transition issues, often providing critical insights on the concept of ‘transition’.

Considering that energy tends to be explored in combination with climate change, it was not surprising to see that five sessions were aimed at understanding the dynamic and complex nature of the energy-climate nexus; these included ‘Climate variability, hydrology and renewable energy’, ‘Climate change: energy, international policy and adaptation strategies’, Climate justice: interrogating an emergent discourse, ‘Climate change and indigenous peoples: environmental justice and the water-energy nexus panel discussion’ and Environmental issues related to energy, fossil fuel, and CO2’.

Energy was discussed in relation to industrial processes more explicitly. Two economic geographers, Vida Vanchan (Buffalo State College) and John Bryson (University of Birmingham) organised two sessions – titled ‘Redistributed manufacturing and the emergence of new economic geographies: innovation, energy costs, sustainability, reshoring and digital fabrication’ – which aimed to explore how energy costs and volatility, among other factors, influence the emergence of new forms of re-distributed manufacturing.

It became apparent that students have been expressing an increased thirst for energy knowledge alongside academic geographers. This was argued by the panellists and participants in the session on ‘Teaching energy geographies: successful approaches’ organised by Autumn Thoyre (UNC-Chapel Hill) and myself, and chaired by Conor Harrison (UNC-Chapel Hill). After running a series of sessions on teaching energy geographies in the UK, it was great to see that that there is increasing interest in the US as well. The panel discussion from this session will be available at our energy teaching wiki:

There were two other energy events worth mentioning. The EESG Annual plenary lecture by Anna Zalik (York University) and the Author meets critics session focused on Matt Huber’s book ‘Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital’. Both events were well attended and followed by thought-inspiring discussions.

In summary, the 2014 AAG provided an abundance of energy geography-related discussion. It is worth noting that contributions at the conference employed many traditional geographical concepts – spatial fix, material energy flows, metabolism, territory and territoriality – in addition to more novel interrogations of infrastructure, assemblages, vulnerability, resilience, community, landscapes and justice. For me, despite being very intense (I organised 5 sessions, chaired one more and presented a paper on energy vulnerability in Greece), this AAG provided an excellent venue for exchanging ideas and findings, while getting a sense of the rapidly expanding diversity and significance of this thematic field.

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