Energy transition is social and historical: the history of energy expresses a complex set of social commitments that develop over time. Triggering transition in the present means engaging in that history and those relations.
Energy transition is not simply – it is not even mostly – a question of technology and the economic policy of supply, although it is also, of course, that. The energy question is, at its core, a human question, a social question that concerns accounting for the quality of human experience under the fossil economy, reckoning with the increasing precarity of life under fossil fuels, and seizing the opportunity to redress the failures and the blocked desires sedimented in the old economy. The energy question centres on the values that frame our lives and the possibilities for a quality of life that might be made available to us by decoupling ourselves from petroleum, natural gas, and coal. Yet the epistemological and political recognition that energy transition implies (and might well be implied by) social transition does not immediately trigger transition. If it did, the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would have sealed the deal; we’d find ourselves today in a world firmly after oil. We don’t. The trigger—that historical, intentional set of forces that actualizes energy transitions, is not reducible to the hard facts of transition itself.
Fossil fuels have made possible the greatest era of social, technological, and economic growth this earth has ever seen. Oil, likewise – and importantly due to its growth-giving capacity – has generated its own logical, physical, and social impasse. After Oil begins by taking these two sides of oil as central to the concept and challenge of energy transition. The “After” in After Oil thus refers both to the consequence of oil, since we live in a world contoured by a fossil-fuelled modernization process, and to the opportunity of transitioning to a world where fossil fuels no longer dominate our energy systems.
A transition that meets basic human needs and reflects collective desires requires a social framework. There is no shortage of positions that indict, expose, or politicize oil and fossil fuels. And for good reason. Rapid environmental degradation and the now incontrovertible evidence that we are in the midst of an epochal transition in climate patterns occasion a good deal of alarm, confusion, and anger. Fossil fuels are now thoroughly politicized. Industry and progressives, privileged consumers and the disfranchised, battle it out in the streets and in the media with radically unequal resources. But the humanistic project of reframing energy as a social or human question has not advanced very far. Currently, new energy inputs such as wind power, solar power, biofuels, and so on are posited as the endgame of the transition, but fundamental commitments to values, to satisfying social relations, and to our collective imaginaries are, at best, left to the margins of the discussion, if not erased from the conversation. Establishing a new social framework is not merely a question of policy or financial investment. To imagine a society after oil means first understanding what oil is to us – how it shapes current desire, identity, and practice, comfort and pain, consumption and penury.
There have been previous energy transitions. There have been social transitions. However, there has never before been a transition demanded of us, and on this scale, that requires such forethought. The only historical transition that gives us insight into what is on the horizon (i.e., the scale of infrastructural and social shift) is the transition into the energy and economic system we’re on the brink of exiting. This is the epistemological and practical problem of the impasse of fossil fuels – that is, what blocks us from transitioning to other forms of energy – and of the economy locked into its rhythms.
We take it as self-evident that we are at an impasse like no other in history. Without signposts, we now must transition to different ways of being in the world, both with each other and in relationship to the environment. In this context, the direction forward is not preordained or written into the problem. While many of us remain optimistic that we can sustain our attachment to oil and the good life that it has come to define in the global West, it is increasingly clear that a continuance of the fossil economy is a form of “cruel optimism” that not only carries forward old risks but also introduces radically new risks into our lives.[i] We now know, deep down and viscerally, that oil is problematic. Reckoning with that fact requires lucid analysis and imagination. Thus part of the work of transition is to make visible our social, material, and affective attachments to oil: to its role in the social and cultural formation of our everyday lives, the infrastructures and institutions of our social interconnectedness, and global networks of relations.
The transition to a society after oil is stalked by the experience of impasse. Oil is so deeply and extensively embedded in our social, economic, and political structures and practices that imagining or enacting an alternative feels impossible, blocked at every turn by conditions and forces beyond our understanding or control. Impasse, understood in this way, invites paralysis and reinforces the status quo.
But what if we were to think impasse otherwise? Rather than understanding impasse as foreclosure of possibility, we posit that impasse is a situation of radical indeterminacy where existing assumptions and material relations can no longer hold or sustain us and in which we might activate the potential obscured by business-as-usual. In this case, an impasse is not a blockage; it is a condition of possibility for action within a situation that is suddenly open because it is uncertain. Impasse is, in other words, a moment for aspiration and courage. This moment is the transition to a society after oil.
To reiterate, impasse can be an optimistic space, a liminal space, a space of hope in which we can attempt on many different levels and social registers to begin to articulate the outcomes of less energy-intensive lifestyles. While the new ways of being in relationship to energy, the environment, and one another will be built on the legacies of oil, there is the opportunity for breaking with the limitations in that legacy. The current moment thus provides us the opportunity to think through what the age of oil brought us, what we want to salvage and maintain, and where we want to work to construct more equitable and just social relations in the age to come: after oil.
Oil composes space and shapes culture. It modulates our lives, including the clothing we wear, the objects we use, the buildings we occupy, the spaces we move through, the daily routines that structure everyday existence, our habits and perceptions, our commitments and beliefs. Oil (as a metonym of the larger fossil economy) is, in other words, not just a substance one pumps into the car. And nor can it be reduced to the abstract figures that rise and fall in the financial pages of the daily paper. Oil names a way of organizing society, of bringing people together, and of keeping them apart.
Put another way, oil is not simply a source of energy: mere fuel, brute input. It is inextricably social.
To describe oil in this way is to view the problem of energy transition from an unfamiliar perspective: not simply as the site of a new technical difficulty that must be resolved but as the object of a social challenge. For to transition from oil to some other energy source will entail – whether we like it or not, whether we participate in the process or opt out – the unmaking and remaking of our social worlds. Undeniably, this prospect is daunting, even overwhelming. But might its challenge also offer surprising promise and possibility?
The reason, however, that oil modulates everything is not some natural or magical property of the energy source itself. Rather, oil expresses a social system bound up historically with the rise of modern industry and industrial capital, including the creation of an industrial working class (now barely visible from within centres of advanced economies); the birth of middle-class opportunity and material privilege in the West; and the mirrored acceleration of precarity and mass unemployment across the globe. Energizing the labour process at the site of production increased the productive capacity of workers, but it also gave business owners a solution to the rising cost of labour. Today, we call these phenomena automation, offshoring, and capital deepening, yet as economic strategies all three depend on more and more non-human energy in the form of transportation and more efficient machinery. These phenomena make visible the relation between reducing labour costs and increasing dependency on energy outputs in a formulation known as “energy deepening.”[ii] Read from the standpoint of oil’s industrial beginnings, rising unemployment and economic disparity are logically consistent with a specifically fossil-fuelled form of capital.
In the long view, pairing human labour first with coal power and then with oil’s uniquely dense, powerful, and volatile properties has overcome material and seasonal constraints while causing new and much larger environmental constraints. Economic crisis begets environmental crisis, since consolidating economic power in the hands of the few has been achieved through energy deepening, just as environmental degradation implies a rising volatility in the economic sphere, since energy deepening implies labour shedding. The history of oil is the history of the present. An intentional transition away from fossil fuels will need start by attending to the deep links that have been forged between profits and global warming, GDP and CO2.
The self-evidence of oil’s social embeddedness and the need for energy transition requires an assertion of agency, a conscious seizing of the opportunity presented by today’s impasse.
If oil so saturates our cultural and social imaginary, then what is one to do? What options are available to us in the midst of this tectonic transition that is moving underneath our feet and circulating in the air we breathe? Given that we are already deep in the midst of transition (if not an intentional, focused one),where should we locate ourselves? The default position is a disabling one. It is to assume that this transition is a purely technological problem that will be resolved through technocratic solutions. Such a position assumes that responsibility can be entrusted and handed off to someone else. Reinforcing this default resignation is the embedded assumption that the market will resolve the crisis. This, too, presumes that the only intentionality needed is that of market forces, and that we, as individuals and communities, need not participate in moulding, shaping, hoping, or imagining, except along narrowly defined consumerist lines. To accept this default position is to abdicate agency. It is to abandon to someone else the creative act of making the world and the values that it will hold.
An intentional transition reframes the energy question as a humanistic one requiring our vote in the matter – our intentionality, agency, and the assertion of values and desires that we hold. As such, it begins by taking account of where we sit historically, where we find ourselves in terms of our infrastructural dependencies and our affective and erotic attachments to the fossil economy. An intentional transition begins by reckoning candidly with the problem of the path dependencies that are required for survival in a post-oil economy and with an acknowledgement of the attachment to desires realized under the fossil economy. But it then moves beyond oil to a reckoning with the failures – the blocked desires – the pain and penury, the inequality and injustice, which the fossil economy could not resolve under its terms of management.
What is a trigger? The dictionary answers in technological terms: the lever one pulls to release a catch, fire a pistol, or spring a trap. This answer and the images it conjures are vividly straightforward. They emphasize mechanical action: the comforting simplicity of cause-and-effect. When the issue in question is the wholesale transition in the mode of energy that powers our world, from oil to some other form, a simple, mechanical answer can seem incredibly seductive. But its suitability, its explanatory power, is limited. This answer (a lever that initiates an action, a cause that results in the blink of an eye in an effect) is itself a trap. We need to understand the trigger, and triggering, otherwise.
One way to name and so grasp the trigger for energy transition in the present is the global warming caused by human-induced climate change. We know this version of the trigger intimately even as we disavow it relentlessly; this trigger triggers our most dread-laden nightmares of incomprehensible future catastrophe. Global warming as trigger also clearly complicates the mechanical view supplied by the dictionary, since the sense in which humans have pulled this trigger completely undoes any ordinary sense of what pulling means. Global warming as a trigger for energy transition constitutes something like a forced choice: shift to a sustainable form of energy, or burn out the planet.
The environmental trigger for energy transition is certainly compelling. But it bears on the problem of transition along only one axis: with regard to fuel source, yet not necessarily with regard to social form. This result impoverishes our understanding by luring us into the mistake of imagining energy as prior to and distinct from the social. A recognition and engagement with the deep inextricability of energy and society, by contrast, will require – but perhaps can likewise enable – a perspective on triggering that is adequate to this inextricability.
The coal-powered industrialization of English manufacturing in the nineteenth century sparked the largest energy transition in human history. Received accounts of the rise of modern industry (the process familiarly called “The Industrial Revolution”) typically associate the adoption of coal powered steam engines with a straightforward increase in productive capacity and efficiency: in other words, with a clear narrative of technological progress. In this account, technological determinism is both the trigger and the transition: some innate urgency to increase efficiency and output triggers the transition to new energy inputs autonomous from the social history that works in and consumes the products of modern industry. Social history, in this linear version of progress, is an expression of technologically driven economic growth. This same historiography is echoed today in promises that the market will naturally select the most environmentally and economically efficient solutions to climate change. Homo economicus.
Recent work by the social historian Andreas Malm makes a compelling case for a different way of understanding the emergence of the fossil economy.[iii] By Malm’s account, the shift to coal in industrial manufacture occurs decisively in Britain’s cotton industry in the 1820s and 1830s despite the fact that, at that moment, water remains a considerably more potent (and cheaper) source of power to drive industrial machines. Puzzled, Malm asks why factory owners make the switch to coal if water was both cheaper and more efficient. Viewed strictly technologically, it makes no sense. Viewed socially and economically, however, it does: switching from waterpower to coal power meant that factory owners could move production into dense urban settings where workers were numerous and cheap. Coal simultaneously intensified and regularized the ten-hour workday, and liberated factory owners from the spatial limits of waterpower. In cities, more labour could be exploited at higher levels of intensity.. In effect, fossil fuels triggered the industrialization of both machine power and labour power, enabling cotton capitalists to solve the falling rate of profit and to circumvent – or indeed sabotage – the nascent power of organized labour by turning to the unemployed and so driving their production costs down.
As a way to comprehend the trigger for energy transition along two axes – social relations as well as fuel source – Malm’s case is both vivid (since it dramatizes the inextricability of energy from society) and discomfiting (since it hardly offers a model to replicate). Will a global unemployment crisis trigger a renewables revolution? Will market driven technological determinism pick an environmentally sustainable mode of production? Actually, we might answer both in the affirmative and still wonder whether the previous trigger – the need to more efficiently and consistently exploit increasingly hostile bodies of labourers – is one we are willing to endorse today. In any event, Malm’s lesson remains instructive, precisely by indicating the priority of social and economic questions and relations for any transitional trigger out of the fossil-fuelled energy world we continue to inhabit. To grasp the trigger today, in other words, means first grasping the social relations we have and, even more urgently, working to propose and then to materialize the ones we might want.
To act during an impasse takes courage. This is especially true of an impasse experienced as an occasion, a site of contingency, and a moment of possibility, in which the outcomes of acting cannot be guaranteed in advance. After all, it is this very indeterminacy that turns an impasse into a political situation. This is also why politics provokes such reticence. Politics is predicated on a disturbance in the status quo. Our typical response to such disturbances is to make action conditional upon an assurance about how things will be when the situation is resolved. It is this response, and not the impasse itself, that drains the situation of its potential.
The transition to a society after oil means more than just finding a replacement for fossil fuels that will allow all the social practices and relations bound up in our current energy regime to remain as they are. Aspiring to a society after oil means that these practices and relations will change. Acting into the impasse of oil means getting down to the work of remaking social practices anew under conditions in which we cannot be certain of how things will end. How will we pay for our schools if the oil companies no longer extract the resources below the ground? We don’t know for sure. But this is where we must begin, right here in our present practices and institutions, some of which will be transformed, some of which we might have to leave behind altogether. But we will never act so long as we are discouraged, so long as we insist on the end before the beginning. If we already knew the end, and we already knew how to install it with certainty, then we would not be at an impasse, and there would be no need to engage in political action.
Those who profit disproportionately from the society of oil are happy and quick to discourage us. But being discouraged is a luxury we can no longer afford. Encouragement at the impasse is what the humanities can provide in the transition to a society after oil, not because these disciplines foretell the future, but because they open us to a thoughtful and responsible composure towards its uncertainties and possibilities. They teach us not to fear difference when we can no longer retreat into the same.
Energy deepening names the tendency through which capitalist modernization mobilizes natural forms of physical power to optimize, manage, and discard human labour. Without rising levels of productivity from employees, business owners cannot retrieve profit in a competitive marketplace. Without quarterly expansions of national economies, state and municipal budgets flat line. One solution to this fact of economic life has been to bring more and more workers into the workspace in order to stimulate cooperative output (manufactoring). A second has been to invite cheaper labour into the marketplace, or to search it out elsewhere (offshoring). Another has been to pair workers with more and more energy-hungry machines fuelled on coal and then electricity (industrialization). A fourth strategy, more familiar to the recent experience of postindustrial societies, has been to replace workers with technologies able to do the same job (capital deepening). All four strategies, however, depend on a steady rise in energy inputs further and further removed from the spaces of labour.
The global marketplace is another name for the spatial result of energy deepening, since decades of cheap oil prices made possible the logistical and communications networks that globalized the economy and its geographical distinctions. This, in short, is how oil generates the setting of the global marketplace, in addition to its social, material, and cultural content. So long as the time and space of oil is taken as the world, the transition to a world after oil will remain categorically impossible. Once oil’s role as a modulator of economic and thus social relations is brought to the centre of the project of transition, the stakes, content and form of what is in transition alter dramatically. This is the drama After Oil takes as empowering.
The sequence initiated by the industrial revolution depended on the economic necessity of energy deepening. The transition out of that sequence will – of social and ecological necessity – make energy deepening unnecessary.
First, agency and mobilization
An intentional transition is premised on agency, on the conscious participation and mobilization of peoples and communities. In this respect, conscious participation cannot be reduced to the meagre practice of constituencies being brought into a discussion after the terms of the debate have been set. It means people being brought together to establish the framework for debate from the start, so that its terms and its conduct conform to their hopes, their needs, and their values as individuals, families, and communities.
Second, collective stewardship
An intentional transition is premised on collective stewardship, on the avowed right of people and their communities to own, manage, and develop the energy resources that conform to their desires and needs, and that support their ideals for reproducing and producing the health of their communities and the values they hold. In this sense, public control is distinct from the prevailing tendency toward private control and increasing private management of this epochal transition.
An intentional transition is premised on equality, on the right of all peoples and communities to adequate energy resources for survival. It is to acknowledge that life under the fossil economy did not fulfill for many people or communities this basic human right, and that the fossil economy produced wild inequalities that left much of the world behind while conferring the privileges of energy along unfair, and wholly undesirable, racial, national, gender, and class lines.
Fourth, ethics of use
An intentional transition is premised on a clearer understanding of the ethical dimensions of energy use and the hierarchy of human priorities. Intentional transition means collectively sorting out the moral differences between the use of energy for the more elementary needs we all have for food, water, and the basic essentials of life, and the surplus material and immaterial desires that energy quite literally feeds and fuels (more on transition of desire below).
An intentional transition is premised on sustainability. It distinguishes quite clearly between accepting the risk of an increasingly obsolescent fossil economy and embracing the opportunities of an after-oil economy in which energy is thoroughly socialized and generated within a framework of sustainability. To that end, it assigns renewable alternatives a central place in the transition away from those dependencies that have produced climate change and the current culture of risk.
Sixth, redefinition of growth
An intentional transition is premised on growth and development. But, importantly, it does not take these terms as self-evident. Instead it redefines these much-abused terms as something distinct from business-as-usual. In the after oil economy, growth and development are tied to the social values articulated above and joined to a new ethics of resilience and sustainability. Growth and development are taken out of the hands of the economists and given back to the people.
Some of the challenges involved in intentional transition can be grasped by considering just one of its many dimensions: shifts in how desire is coordinate by and in relation to the use of fossil fuels.
In the Western world, we live in an era of unmatched material plenty in which desires are indulged and encouraged, no matter how apparently trivial. A consumerist ethos pervades our culture and for many it appears that we inhabit (in the words of former American President Herbert Hoover) the world of the “constantly moving happiness machine.” The incredible cornucopia of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries would have been unthinkable without a cheap, portable, seemingly infinite source of energy in the form of petro-carbons or oil.
As we have seen, our dependence on oil has had unforeseen but profoundly dire consequences to the ecological health of our planet that, if unaddressed, could prove catastrophic to both our natural and social worlds. Attempts to address this crisis have largely concentrated on advocating transition to more “renewable” forms of energy, yet as critics such as Vaclav Smil point out, it is unlikely that, now or in the foreseeable future, these forms of renewable energy will be able even to supplement our current energy demands, let alone those of the future, which are likely to be far greater.[iv] Our present circumstances amounts in part to a crisis of desire whose resolution may depend less on finding new, less ecologically destructive forms of energy, than on restraining or curbing what looks to be a limitless desire provoked and fuelled by consumerism. Such a formulation sits uneasily with the modern temperament, and, in the face of promises of unrestrained plenty, the suggestion of restraint smacks of puritanical sanctimony and invites such questions as “Who are you to tell me to forego my desires?” Nevertheless, tackling the question of desire need not require the suppression or even renunciation of desire but rather, as Yannis Stravrakakis has argued, its redirection.[v]
If life in consumer society promises a dream of endless ease and joyful satiation, its critics have often pointed precisely to the profound gap between this dream and actual lived experience, noting that the actual pleasures and happiness experienced fall far short of those promised. To such critics, the consumer citizen appears very much akin to a dog chasing its own tail, pursuing an elusive goal that it can never achieve, no matter how fast it runs. Given the frequently noted intimate connection between petroleum as primary energy source and the deterritorialization, intensification, and acceleration of production, it is to be wondered whether the transition from fossil fuels might itself offer new opportunities to satiate human desires for things as a more intimate connection to local social and natural communities, fulfilling work and free time.
[i] “Cruel optimism” is a phrase used by Lauren Berlant to capture the affective, emotional dynamics that have stifled contemporary political change. For Berlant, contemporary narratives of a better future through social change generate an optimistic belief in the “possibility that the habits of a history might not be reproduced.” However, they do so in a way that inhibits us from actually undertaking this change. Despite significant problems with the way we live today, publics tend to “choose to ride the wave of the system of attachment that they are used to” instead of leaping into a new way of living. See Lauren Berlant, “Cruel Optimism,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 17.3 (2006): 31, 23.
[ii] “Energy deepening” names the process through which economic growth becomes dependent on ever-increasing quantities of (non-human) energy. For a discussion of energy deepening, see Bernard C. Beudreau, Energy and the Rise and Fall of Political Economy, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999. For an analysis of the aesthetic and cultural implications of energy deepening, see Jeff Diamanti, Aesthetic Economies of Growth: Energy, Value, and the Work of Culture After Oil, PhD dissertation, English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, 2015. See also the section “energy deepening” later in this document.
[iii] Andreas Malm, “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Historical Materialism 21.1. (2013): 31.
[iv] See Vaclav Smil, Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects, Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010.
[v] See, for instance, Yannis Stavrakakis, “Objects of Consumption, Causes of Desire: Consumerism and Advertising in Societies of Commanded Enjoyment,” Gramma 14 (2006): 83-105.