By describing the long trajectory of petrochemical industrialization in a Mediterranean area in southeastern Sicily locally known as the triangle of death, this article discusses how the widespread, long‐term, and nearly invisible nature of everyday forms of catastrophe generate effects that at times are even more insidious than a major disaster. Indeed, like the fumes rising from an industrial smokestack, oil culture seeps into the imaginaries and epidermises of the people for whom petroleum represents both a blessing and a curse.
On the basis of document analysis, in-depth interviews, and participant observation during oil-related public events in the region, my research seeks to engage both of the dimensions that Rogers (2015) argues distinguish the anthropological literature on the oil industry: oil’s temporalities and its materialities. On one hand, I analyze how oil frames the past, present, and future in this controversial industrial triangle in southern Italy. On the other hand, I explore how the material substance of the industry enters social, political, and economic relationships at the local level, helping to generate what anthropologists call oil culture. As I will show in the following pages, both of these dimensions, materiality and temporality, touch on the sphere of imagination, desire, and emotions, giving rise to “cultural understandings” of oil in everyday life (Strauss, Rupp, and Love 2013, 10–30) and jeopardizing efforts to define disaster and grant it public recognition at the local level.