Petropolis is a television drama I have developed together with Cymene Howe. It weaves stories of power struggles, family relations and environmental reckonings, focusing on two families who work for Resilient Energy, a fictional mid-size oil and gas firm undergoing multiple existential crises. The setting is Houston, a city of great ethnic diversity and economic intensity, a city whose future is now being consumed by the same fossil fuel industry that brought it to life. Strangely, despite being the fourth largest city in the country, Houston has never served as the setting of a signature scripted TV series; Petropolis aims to change that. But we have also worked the omission into the mythology of Petropolis through the idea that industry, government and possibly also more sinister forces have been working behind the scenes to keep Houston in the shadows so that oil can go about its business without interference. Inspirations for the show have been many. The Wire explored how the influence of money and drugs tied together various parts of the city of Baltimore; Petropolis similarly thematizes how oil and power both unite Houston and also destroy it. Like Chernobyl the series also shows how environmental disasters are more than just events; they are bundles of toxic relations, years in the making and years in the taking. Petropolis is a drama at its core but it has a surreal comic sensibility that seeks to highlight the weirdness of Houston. And there are moments of horror too—oil is the original zombie, after all, dead life on the move.
The stories captured in Petropolis also exceed Houston. In a way, every city in the world is a petropolis, defined by infrastructures of fossil fuel use and the broader kinds of “petroculture” that accompany them. Across the planet, people desire fossil-fueled mobility, growth and luxury even as it has become clear that, unchecked, those desires point toward disaster. So, Houston deserves the spotlight. It’s where the oil comes from; it is the engine of the world as we know it. And, like the rest of the world, every day it is creating the conditions of its own demise.