Oil is not only something you put in your car. It is the foundation of our political identity and institutions, and it profoundly shapes our society and environment. But how we tell the story of oil, both of its past and its possible futures, shapes how we see (and perhaps also whether we see) the problem at its core. An impasse is a situation in which progress is not possible due to entrenched disagreements or deadlocked opinions. Structural features also contribute to the political blockages barring routes to a post-oil world. Carbon reliance, a capitalist economic system, and climate change are just a few of the factors combining to generate the current political impasse around energy. The stories we tell about our energy use each frame this impasse differently, and in so doing, also identify different routes out of it.
We’ve identified six different narratives we tell about oil’s past and how we might transition out of an oil-based world:
What’s the story? To achieve the necessary transition (in energy, but also away from unjust and alienated social relations) we need to build alternatives together that use resources more sustainably, (sometimes) involve new forms of energy, and build alternative understandings of wellbeing (not premised on consumerism). This may involve confrontation with dominant state and corporate forces, but these are not our political focus. By building alternatives for ourselves we’re building new forms of community and overcoming disempowering forms of alienation in favour of solidarity and human relationships.
Who tells this story? Permaculturalists, some indignadas movements, activists and citizens involved in direct action resilience, transition towns, and more. Though interestingly, many of the people building a different energy future with their own hands – whose work is at the heart of this story – may not articulate this story; they simply live it.
What’s the impasse? The massive power of energy corporations and the complicity of dominant political and economic institutions in our current energy system. Along with this comes a sense of disempowerment among individuals and communities that is created through lives that are pressured economically and are marginalized. Too many of us, out of our marginalization and sense of disempowerment, have little sense of political efficacy and may focus on consumption rather than on community or our contributions to others as our sources of wellbeing.
What is the pathway to action? Empowerment is created by building the alternatives we need not only as individuals but also in community. To achieve this we need to develop an economy that enables new forms of collaboration and action, and which recognizes the need to support people through the psychological and existential challenges of transition. We need to connect experience across the levels of individual, household, and community; in other words, we need to build a collaborative society based on alternative models of social and economic organizations and a sharing of diverse skill sets, knowledges, and experiences. Some groups following these kinds of approaches have experienced evident rewards, but a challenge remains in making these more widely visible and achievable.
Lingering questions? Can a hands-on, non-hierarchical model flourish at a larger scale in the current context (where it would have to interact with state mechanisms or corporate players)? Or does this story rely on the collapse of the existing system before it grows? Is this story inevitably heard as forlorn or naive in the face of a rapacious, highly resilient dominant system? How can this story compete with the lure of conventional models of success based on upward mobility? How does this mode of communal organizing address differences in ability, resources, and social location?
What’s the story? This transition imagines a wholesale conversion through decarbonizing the current economy, through new technologies and/or a switch to renewable energy sources without the loss of basic structures of life; indeed, this story often imagines an improved quality of life for many, if not most of the planet’s inhabitants. There’s a subset of this argument that emphasizes gains – extending capitalism’s “green” growth through new energy technologies.
Who tells this story? Energy corporations, governments, and technology companies.
What’s the impasse? This story relates the impasse of energy quite simply: we don’t have the right technology in place yet.
What is the pathway to action? This story’s narrative sees current leaders and decision makers buying into new energy systems and transforming the market through education, subsidies, and regulation. Technocrats – those with access to the knowledge and funding necessary to build new energy systems, – are at the heart of deciding what a non-carbon infrastructure will look like.
Lingering questions? Without loss for whom? This narrative fundamentally points to a different energy system, so the “without loss” idea is disingenuous; this bleeds into an anti-capitalist model quite quickly, since the capitalist model is the one that fosters a culture of scarcity and competition that requires loss on the part of some. This “risk-free” path to a solution risks retaining existing socio-economic inequalities—indeed, requires them—and has the potential to create zones without access to resources for those without the capital to put new systems in place. We might ask: how does this story address the current capture of the state by players in carbon energy? How does this story propose to address the rampant inequality and injustice that are central to capitalism? Finally, can we reimagine loss in order to reframe this narrative? Loss is only imagined in terms of a commodity system that imagines a consumer at its core. Can we embrace certain kinds of loss? How would we do that? How would we encourage others to do that? Could we balance losses as a form of gain in other terms?
What’s the story? The existing allocation of resources to corporations is inefficient, exploitative, unjust, and ecologically damaging. This mode of transition envisions shifting energy management, ownership, and allocation away from corporations and towards a system of common, or shared, resource stewardship among people living in a particular place. As the impacts of climate change begin to affect more people in terms of drought, flooding, heat waves, public health epidemics, the timing may be right for a re-examination of who benefits and who pays for the effects of massive carbon release.
Who tells this story? Indigenous communities often promote stewardship as a component of community. This is also a narrative told by activist groups seeking to establish regional renewables companies. Communities whose water sources are contaminated by energy extraction often advocate for greater local control and oversight of the water-energy nexus in their region.
What’s the impasse? Energy has seldom been viewed as owned or managed by those who live near energy sources and its infrastructure, and so few examples of place-based or local ownership exist. In addition, corporate ownership and profits are protected by current juridical, political, and economic systems so as to make local ownership and management nearly impossible.
What is the pathway to action? Developing a transition through localization of resource management by promoting a politics of presence and resource stewardship, or, developing the idea that those who live in a given region have a stake in the management of local resources. This transition also depends on making successful examples of local ownership and generation more nationally and internationally visible.
Lingering questions? If energy could be turned into a commons, what would that look like? How does this narrative address profound differences in access to energy/water resources in different places? How can an approach based on localization become transnational or global? How would such an approach operate in spaces like offshore drilling platforms? How would this approach entail community driven institutions? How would this approach deal with the historical disenfranchisements of local populations? How can corporations be made accountable to the local effects of resource extraction? What does energy dispersion and use look like outside of a profit model?
What’s the story? Capitalism is growth oriented and accelerationist at its heart—that is, premised on intensive and extensive gains—and therefore at odds with a transition towards reduced energy use. Only by breaking a much broader system of capitalism can we achieve transition out of carbon-based energy reliance. In other words, there is an intrinsic link between justice struggles and energy transition.
Who tells this story? Naomi Klein; Kolya Abramsky; Midnight Notes Collective; Anarcho-Primitivists; Communitarianians and Utopian Socialists; Marxist ecologists; proponents of World-Ecological theory.
What’s the impasse? Industrial capitalism has been powered since its beginning by fossil fuels; you can’t change the problem of energy without changing the system. Yet it’s difficult (impossible?) to imagine a life other than that produced through capitalist means. The impasse, then, is the immense appeal of our oil-based lives and the weight of the physical and social infrastructures produced over the life of oil. And let’s not forget, too, the massive power of corporations – who are inclined to preserve the status quo – over individuals.
What is the pathway to action? This narrative imagines its heroes as “individuals of conscience” prepared to stand up to the systemic agency of capitalism. An activist approach to confronting oil capitalism seeks to mobilize citizens against the state and corporations through social media campaigns, education, divestment campaigns, solidarity building, and/or direct action, and to persuade workers to realize the value in the jobs and egalitarian opportunities of alternative energy infrastructures. Yet the very systemic power and agency of states and corporations also makes it difficult for this story to really believe in its hero.
Lingering questions? This strength of this story lies in its critique. How might we translate that critique into meaningful systemic change? And what do we make of this approach’s tolerance for violence (even if, to date, there has been minimal violence in the name of energy transition)?
What’s the story? This model of transition imagines large-scale state intervention that can range from a slow-paced reformist and regulatory approach to a large-scale rapid and radical reorganization of space and resources.
Who tells this story? Politicians invested in social change; NGOs; international organizations and governance structures; authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson (as in his Science in the Capital trilogy).[i]
What’s the impasse? The state has been made subservient to the economy and in many cases the state has grown up with/on the carbon economy, so it’s difficult to see how the state could be uncoupled from corporate interests/capitalist economy.
What is the pathway to action? This story imagines politicians and political parties working to transform approaches to energy on a wide scale through existing political and juridical processes. Corporations are seen as innovators in this process, as they enact internal transitions in compliance with state reform. Alongside this, civil society acts as a “policing” force to ensure the state’s role and actions in energy transformation. Supranational organizations such as the International Monetary Fund or World Trade Organization, as well as international trade agreements, work to engage transformation worldwide.
Lingering questions? Can real transformation be achieved through an approach that reinforces a capitalist model and commodity view of energy? This story entrenches the state as a vested interest in the carbon economy, which begs the question of whether the state could survive a transition to renewables. What are the outcomes of centralizing energy resources in global geopolitics? Does this approach invite state-sanctioned violence, surveillance, displacement and disenfranchisement? How can energy workers be convinced of their vested interests in an After Oil scenario?
What’s the story? This is the story that tells us that we don’t really have the ability to comprehend what awaits us after the end of carbon democracy. The reason for this is that our socio-political institutions and even categories of social analysis (e.g. “growth” as measure of economic health; “base load” as an expectation of grid logistics) are so deeply embedded in the logics of fossil fuels that we cannot imagine what a post-carbon society would look like. Ironically, in some apocalyptic narratives, a world “After Oil” is envisioned as inherently “catastrophic,” thereby providing a convenient argument for the status quo. This is the root cause of our present condition of impasse. The implication is that some kind of rupture, possibly catastrophic, would need to occur to force us toward transition.
Who tells this story? Academics like Timothy Mitchell and Roy Scranton;[ii] disaster/apocalyptic narratives in popular culture (e.g. Interstellar, Utopia); numerous sf/dystopian writers, including like Robinson, Margaret Atwood, and Paolo Bacigalupi;[iii] those voicing a range of secular narratives of catastrophic transition, which are echoed in the eschatologies of religious communities.
What is the impasse? The magnitudes of energy unlocked through fossil fuel use are what have allowed for the modernization of society. Every dimension of modernity is thus fundamentally dependent on the continuous presence of coal, oil, and gas. Technosocial lock-ins are reinforced by dominant political actors and hegemonic powers, and “naturalized” in civil society and everyday life. Then there are the enduring powers of infrastructure: pipelines, refineries, highways that push us to replicate behaviours and cultural forms. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, for the social majority to imagine and embrace a society that is not dependent on carbon energy. In turn, carbon political interests and agents lever their strategic discourses of power/knowledge. Transition thinking cannot escape the orbit of fossil fuels either (e.g. carbon capture and sequestration as salvation, discourses of energy security and energy equity). The dominant discourse and forms of infrastructure reinforce one another.
What is the pathway to action? In this story, the current energy infrastructure maintains its dominance until the deterioration of the environment and lifeworld is so advanced as to produce some of kind of collapse or catastrophe out of whose ruins a transition might be born. The question of agency is a murky one. Either “we’re fucked,” as Scranton writes, or perhaps we simply won’t be able to comprehend the path to transition until our energy infrastructure itself changes from below. In any case, in this narrative the artist or thinker plays a key role in speculating about the possible futures that could emerge out of collapse or in illuminating how we might live ethically with these catastrophic possibilities in mind.
Lingering questions? Are we convinced that the artist/intellectual matters in this context? How can we tell these stories in a way that people find generative and engaging, rather than alienating and fearful? How do we frame the “unimaginable”? Is there value in considering the consequences of current energy impasse as “unimaginable”? Is there risk in advocating for dwelling rather than for action? Is there a useful “utopian” counter-narrative to the dystopic or catastrophic one?
These six different stories about what comes after oil, and all the many variations they take in our public and private lives show us that the questions around what to do about our carbon dependency and its impact on the climate are complicated and, in many cases, contradictory. There is no one clear problem, nor is there one clear solution – if there were, we might possibly already be living after oil. However, in considering how we relate to these different stories, we can also consider how we relate to others who are invested in these questions and to the variety of impasses that are connected to the question: what comes after oil?
Through the process of assessing these six stories, we have come to realize that working to more specifically identify the variety of impasses that can arise in thinking through the transition to an After Oil scenario is a motivating task. Rather than seeing these many problems and possible modes of action as evidence of an intractable impasse, we now view them as a useful set of tools to use in entering into the various conversations and actions that are happening around oil transition.
[i] Robinson’s Science in the Capital series includes Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below Zero (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007).
[ii] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, London: Verso, 2013; Roy Scranton, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” New York Times, November 10, 2013.
[iii] In addition to Robinson’s Science in the City trilogy, see, for example, Margaret Atwood, MaddAdam, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013; and Paolo Baciagalupi. The Windup Girl, San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2009.