Inscriptive energetics: climate change, energy, inscription

  • Nathaniel OtjenEmail author


Scholars often observe that climate change is difficult to engage with and theorize. Rather than admit theoretical defeat, this article proposes that examining climate disruption through the framework of energy offers a way of thinking through, with, and against anthropogenic climate change. As I argue, climate change is an assemblage of shifting energies that includes pressure systems, temperature gradients, and storms. Climate change-as-energy inscribes itself onto material bodies, writing itself into the geologic record, leaving its imprint in plants, and stamping its presence in the flesh of the human and more-than-human. I call this ability of climate energetics to inscribe earthly bodies inscriptive energetics. The material traces of climate change, or inscriptive energetics, can be read on, in, and through bodies. Writers and artists have considered the inscriptive energetics imprinted upon forms—but implicitly, without identifying their own theorization of climate change as a problem of energy. Lynda Mapes’ Witness Tree: Seasons of Change with a Century-Old Oak is a nodal point through which to explore how climate change itself acts as a form of energy that re-writes the world. Her book becomes a touchstone for a larger theory of inscriptive energetics, which expands out to consider examples of literary, artistic, and scientific discourse. As such, this article makes two primary contributions. First, it introduces the concept of inscriptive energetics, offering a theory of climate change based upon the interrelated study of energy and materiality. Second, it provides a way to conceptualize and understand the material impacts of climate change.


Climate change Energy Inscriptive energetics Energy humanities Plant studies Quercus 



Many thanks to Stephanie LeMenager for providing valuable feedback and guidance on previous drafts, and to the anonymous reviewer who helped strengthen the argument. Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the virtual symposium A Clockwork Green: Ecomedia in the Anthropocene and the 7th Annual University of Oregon Climate Change Research Symposium. The essay benefitted from the questions and comments provided by conference attendees at these two events.


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Copyright information

© AESS 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Environmental Studies ProgramUniversity of OregonEugeneUSA

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