University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science > History of S&T need an oil bath: oil, scarcity and technoscience in the 1970s

History of S&T need an oil bath: oil, scarcity and technoscience in the 1970s

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Oil is everywhere in the history of science and technology, yet nowhere. In almost all of our disciplines’ subfields one can find stray and often puzzling references to oil firms’ contributions, yet few of these have been examined carefully, much less connected together. There is a long history of such ‘oil spillovers’, but they become more pronounced as one approaches the 1970s and the emerging technologies about which governments and investors were most optimistic in that era: nuclear (fission and fusion) and solar power, biotechnology, microelectronics, and scenario planning/resource forecasting. I argue that oil firms’ investments in all of these technologies were a response to the resource scarcity debates of the early 1970s. That’s perhaps unsurprising, but the involvement of ‘oilmen’ in the environmentalist organizations propelling that debate is not well known. Oil firms’ motivations for intervening in environmental debates are generally assumed to be cynical, but I offer evidence that their calculations were more complex, at least before the collapse in the price of oil in the early 1980s.

This talk is part of the Departmental Seminars in History and Philosophy of Science series.

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