Who gets to imagine energy futures?
Corporations, geologists, and engineers put a lot of thought and care into a future with fossil fuels. As artists, humanities scholars, and social scientists we offer something unique to help consider alternate energy futures. Moreover, conversations about energy transition create an opportunity to talk about broad social change in the world: economically, ecologically, politically, and socially.
Indeed, some of us are more beset by the compiled disasters of fossil capital than others. The road to the present has been a long one and its material legacies will continue to have profound, lasting effects. Even hundreds of years after oil, we will still be met with the hulking infrastructures of petromodernity. What’s more, the carbon-dioxide saturated climate will continue to warm the planet with turbulent results for some time to come as the material, meteorological, and political disasters of fossil capital toss us back and forth like bits of plastic on the surf.
Confronted by the prospect of such legacies, our social systems buckle under the pressure of the need for change.
Energy futures can be more ethical futures. In addressing this task for the imagination, we insist on placing equal access to nutrition, water, shelter, healthcare, and education at the heart of how we imagine and enact energy transitions.
Today, we face the first energy transition in which we are globally and collectively aware. This energy transition and our energy future are socio-political projects, regardless of who oversees their development. Now is the time to make the collective decisions for a more just, more equal future, to insist on a guided energy transition that, at the same time, moves towards a future not only after oil, but after capital as well.
When we imagine coal, oil, or the energy potential of wind, sun, or water, we presume resources that will work for us, toward some collective human good. After all, we (in the industrialized North at least) expect to flip a switch or turn the ignition key knowing that the power will be there. But this kind of gridlife is clearly not the same everywhere. Infrastructures are variable and changing, being developed or in ruination. Nearly 97% of those who live without electricity, about 22 million people, are in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia. A vast divide characterizes energy access; in the simplest terms there are those who expect to be ever on on the grid and those who have lived entire lives being off the grid. These are fundamentally different encounters with energy.
Our “addiction” to oil and electricity has become a truism. And addiction is a descriptive diagnosis because it suggests sickness and dependencies, (bad) habits and interventions. But unlike moral tales associated with the usual host of chemical dependencies – alcohol, nicotine, heroin – our energy crutches are not deeply questioned; at best our dependence is seen as simply a matter of swapping one form for another, or a plea to seek resources from one or another point on the planet. We rarely find ourselves questioning whether we should need energy resources; rather, we want to be assured that we can have them, whether in carbon or renewable forms. But what if energy were not always already “there for us”? What if we sobered up and broke that (now) deeply forged dependency?
Policy makers, engineers, and others are not likely to suggest that we go without or that we willingly stop – for parts of the day, or parts of our lives – indulging our energetic dependencies. But what if we in the global North were to be more like many of those living in the global South? What if we quit assuming a standing reserve of energy? In these times of transition and transformation, our aching reliance on energy, our electrical and chemical dependencies, must also be interrupted.
Centralized vs. Decentralized Energy Infrastructures
If we prioritize equality when imagining our future with energy, how does this allow us to see energy infrastructure differently? Much of the discourse concerning the control of energy supplies is conceived in terms of a centralized vs. decentralized system – in other words, a state/corporate controlled power supply vs. a power supply generated by technologies owned by individual users. For instance, homes that access energy through power grids stand in contrast to homes off the grid that are self-sufficient and utilize an array of resource generating technologies.
However, in so far as decentralized energy systems are considered a response to larger structures of state and economic power, going “off grid” does not escape all of the conditions of petromodernity. For instance, the specialized technologies and materials that support off-grid homes often remain embedded in the larger material and economic economies of petromodernity for their construction and maintenance. Furthermore, modern grids assemble public and private sector labour that traverse different forms of governance. Finally, those who have the ability to go “off grid” but maintain petromodern lifestyles (highly mobile, access to the full variety of available goods and services, access to a full range of information access) often represent a very privileged subset of the population.
It would be wise, then, to question the fantasies of off-grid living, which often involve privileged notions of individual autonomy, racialized visions of the wild as a place for whiteness, and an understanding of infrastructure as a self-contained set of materialities and practices. Instead, we need a more nuanced understanding of off-grid living, especially in the context of energy regime transition. Is the off-grid exodus in the industrialized global North (popularized by right-wing militia, left-wing urban bourgeoisie, and peak oil preppers), for example, an extension of white settler privileges, given the whiteness of existing off-grid settlements and trends (i.e. the tiny house movement) in the industrialized world? What are the differences between off-grid living in the industrialized world and the off-grid existences of those (many in the global South) who have never lived on a grid?
Ways of Seeing the Future: Prediction, Vision, Speculation, Memory
Who can see the future and how do they claim to do so? Who has the right and/or the responsibility to imagine the future? Oil corporations such as Shell have asserted that right. Pierre Wack from what was then Royal Dutch/Shell claimed to have anticipated the dual oil crises of the 1970s through a form of scenario planning, or what is now known as futurism.[i] Shell’s “Energy Scenarios to 2050” claims to predict the future with the same degree of certainty.[ii] Basing their predictions upon the expertise of technocrats, scientists, and economists, they limit energy futures to only two alternatives. But in seeing into the future, these documents do not confine themselves to “reasonable prediction.” They put forward a “blueprint” for the future, which also lays claim to visionary thinking. This method of accessing the future might be imagined to be the realm of the seer and the artist, but it is also routinely colonized by politicians and business leaders, who have long since sought to tame “creativity” and to put it to work in imagining and justifying a neoliberal worldview.
Far from offering a visionary account of a more just energy future, documents such as “Energy Scenarios” remain in thrall to the limits of what is imagined as possible in a world organized around the production and consumption of fossil fuels. They offer predictable manifestos for a future after oil indebted to retaining and protecting the values and desires of the fossil fuel age. Growth and progress trump all other values; neither equality nor justice merit even a passing mention amongst the prescriptive predictions and visions of the “Energy Scenarios.” Since the future is too important to be left to technocrats and neoliberal leaders, other ways need to be found to gain access to it. Tactics such as speculation or future-oriented memory offer opportunities for other voices to make themselves heard. While “reasonable prediction” is based on probability and a desire for certainty, speculation values uncertainty; while “visionary thinking” reveals itself to be rooted in the business-as-usual of the neoliberal present, future-oriented memory invites the rediscovery of forgotten imagined energy futures. Both uncertainty and the rediscovery of forgotten energy futures offer scope for other voices to enter the fray and to place social and environmental justice on the agenda. Both break the frame of a single line connecting past, present and future.
The Longue Durée of Petromodernity
“Democratic politics developed, thanks to oil, with a peculiar orientation towards the future: the future was a limitless horizon of growth,” writes Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil. Instead of being an inevitable reflection of resource abundance, Mitchell argues that this perception of an energy future was “the result of a particular way of organising expert knowledge and its objects, in terms of a novel world called ‘the economy’.”[iii] To envision the future of energy from a contemporary perspective – a perspective simultaneously from different geographies, economic and environmental conditions, and social matrices intersecting race, gender, and colonial relations – is, at the very least, to imagine an energy regime different from petromodernity but embedded in the durable legacies of petromodernity.
The petromodern society has produced legacies including global climate change and the near-ubiquity of durable waste such as plastics. Whatever is imagined as the ideal energy regime to follow that of oil, this orientation toward the future must necessarily be haunted by the long shadow of petromodernity’s past. Some scholars have already provided useful terminology for engaging the future of a world in which the epoch of oil will have consequences for hundreds or thousands of years. For example, in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon uses the term “slow violence” to describe violence that happens “gradually and often invisibly,” an apt description of the environmental by-products of petromodernity such as oil spills, air pollution, nuclear contamination, and global warming. Timothy Morton uses the term “hyperobjects” to describe things that are massively distributed in time and space, and therefore difficult to describe or manage. Styrofoam, the Pacific garbage gyre, and uranium are all examples Morton gives of hyperobjects. These and other concepts are useful for imagining the longue durée of petromodern legacies.[iv]
Is there an “After Oil”? What time is it there? Whose time is it there?
Perhaps we are already in the after. We are in that aftermath of the dream/myth of economic progress, of defining a better or good life through accumulation with a great debt owed already to the future. In common economic language, we might say that the grandchildren’s inheritance has already been mortgaged without their signatures. In this aftermath all beings, and all things, are always already and forever covered in oil. Thus, although contested, a word/concept such as Anthropocene might serve as interruptive or disruptive – a reminder that it is already and forever not business-as-usual; a reminder that this is not a time that is coming but one that is already here and now; and a reminder that this is our inheritance, and the inheritance of those to come.[v] This is a radical rupture in the capitalist line of progress and growth, revealing the latter as a misplaced and destructive narrative, both to humans and non-humans. The Anthropocene marks that “we” are already suffering the effects, side effects, and even future-effects (some of us more than others) of the oil (ka)boom.
What is this “after,” when the future imagined by modernity has already passed and thresholds have been crossed? The incalculable loss through this carbon consuming present and future mass extinction event has inextricably altered what futures are possible. Any futurizing imaginaries and visions must take this loss into account. The petro-fuelled progress vision imagined always more; but there will always now be less. The extinction not only of species but also of myriad and diverse human cultures and languages, so intimately and intricately and sensitively entwined with what we call nature. This is an eco-bio-cultural extinction event, a homogenization, and a de-diversification. The names will be lost.
These questions summon up the thought of equality not just for the current inhabitants of the planet, but for the others to come – plants, animals and those ubiquitous grandchildren on whose behalf we dare not have faith that future technologies, that we do not yet know, will save them from the troubles created in this present (and that past). Equality means “consulting” the grandchildren’s grandchildren today, and the honeybees and bumblebees and bats and moths, and future pollinators upon whose lives it all depends.
A frequently acknowledged paradox of the approaching collapse of industrial civilization goes something like this: on the one hand, the peak of global oil production represents a potential catastrophe for industrial civilization in which this ubiquitous resource would become less available for central activities such as transportation, agriculture, and manufacturing; on the other hand, if petromodernity persists beyond the current decade, it will likely ensure catastrophic global climate change and the extinction of most life on earth, including human beings. Gerry Canavan summarizes the potentially catastrophic paradox: “That is: either we have Peak Oil, and the entire world suffers a tumultuous, uncontrolled transition to post-cheap-oil economics, or else there is still plenty of oil left for us to permanently destroy the global climate through continued excess carbon emissions.”[vi] This apparent paradox, in which either the continuation or discontinuation of petromodernity produces catastrophic circumstances for human communities, foregrounds the immediacy of the problem, the need to transition from fossil fuels to an alternative regime as soon as possible.
This is no Apocalyptic Vision
Energy futures tell us more about the present than they do about the future. Energy transition characterizes the global present, but the lived experience of that transition is not the same the world over and is characterized by inequalities on varying scales. To the protagonist of Mahmoud Rahmani’s documentary Naft Sefid (White Oil), a lament for the passing of petroleum-fuelled optimism, the future is figured as loss. Those who have lost out are those who are left behind in the Iranian village when the extractive industries moved on, having exhausted the supply of oil in that location. They are left behind with the dust, the stones, and the wild dogs. This is no apocalyptic vision. This is the energy present for Rahmani’s protagonists, for whom the future looks very different than it does, say, to a small contractor looking forward to the opening up of offshore oil reserves off Newfoundland, or to the corporate executive weighing up the dwindling reserves in the North Sea against the opportunities offered by the adventure of drilling in the Arctic, or to the urban slum dwellers in Lagos living off-grid not as a life-style choice, but out of necessity. Connecting these and many other diverse energy presents, however, is a prevailing sense of finitude. Oil is finite.
Beyond Scale as Instrumentality
The concept of scale recurs repeatedly in discussions about energy futures. Energy transition is figured as massive and overwhelming, but also as unfolding in small, everyday ways. “Scale” is used in a multiplicity of ways in English. We talk about pay scales, the scales of a ladder, music scales, fish scales, scales on skin, scaling mountains, scales of justice, living life on a grand scale. We use the term to refer to a key to interpreting a map, as well as a device for measuring weights. Important in many of these uses of the term “scale” is a notion of comparative measurement, of assessing how various people and things fit into frameworks. In foregrounding equality then we must be pre-occupied with facilitating scenarios in which scales are balanced, in which resources and opportunities are distributed equitably. But how this should happen isn’t self-evident. It might mean that the development of efficient and cheap off-grid infrastructures should be made paramount because they are more easily delivered and maintained by individuals and small communities. But thinking scale equitably might also entail constructing large-scale infrastructures to enable fairer energy distribution. It could also provide a justification for restricting the consumption of resources by those in the global North.
Other meanings of the term scale, ones without that sense of rational instrumentality, prompt us to think in quite different directions. Fish scales have nothing to do with notions of comparative measurement, but they evoke the existence of life forms that operate according to their own logics. There is a need to think about equality in a way that facilitates the coexistence of manifold forms of being – human, non-human, and post-human – and their various attachments to ecosystems in the world without placing these in hierarchies. We need to think beyond scale, in its instrumental sense, entirely.
What is Wealth in a World After Oil?
A holistic vision is necessary to enact energy transition that is equitable across cultures, geographies, and temporalities. Beyond gradual shifts in adapting alternate energy sources the consistent rhetoric about the need for vast energy reserves for dependable delivery to consumers is one impediment to enacting alternative energy sources such as wind and fusion.
The possibility of off-grid options assumes the retention of grid networks and the impossibility of un-linked autonomous situations. The interdependency of ecological systems and acknowledged effects in the age of the Anthropocene undermine the isolated utopian situations that are arguably inflected with the gender, racial, and class attributes of privileged “settlers.” The Anthropocene alerts us to the inequalities that persist between the global North and the global South. Energy transitions risk exacerbating those historic disparities.
Attention to the scale of the extraction and production of fossil fuels and to the possibility of their decreased availability for consumption in developing nations, coupled with an equitable redistribution of resources across nation states, is one strategy in addressing the destructive effects of fossil fuel. The unprecedented scale representing the fossil fuel economy, its culture and materiality, is incomprehensible and abstract in ways that create an impasse in addressing alternative cultural and material ways of living. Reciprocity and ethical actions that respect the non-human natural world for its limited capacity to provide for humanity are principles enacted by Indigenous peoples from whom we can draw relevant insights.
Modernity’s promise and the capitalist imperatives that underscore underwrite it is an increasingly unattainable measure of success. This does not mean its opposite, a return to feudalism or barbarism, is the other possible future. Enacting imaginative futures premised on embodied experience redefines the valuable, the possible, and the ethical. What is wealth in a world after oil? What should it be?
[i] Pierre Wack, “Scenarios: uncharted waters ahead,” Harvard Business Review Sept-Oct 1985.
[ii] Available at: https://s00.static-shell.com/content/dam/shell/static/future-energy/downloads/shell-scenarios/shell-energy-scenarios2050.pdf
[iii] Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, 253; 142-143.
[iv] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2013; Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2013.
[v] Atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term “Anthropocene” to capture the impact of human activities on the planet. It is the proposed name for the present geological epoch (following the Holocene) and highlights the degree to which humans have reshaped the Earth’s environment. While there is disagreement about the precise beginning date of the Anthropocene, its length is understood to be a few hundred years—not the thousands of years that geological epochs typical demarcate (e.g., the Holocene is 11,700 years long).
[vi] Gerry Canavan, “Introduction: If This Goes On,” Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, ed. Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson, Middletown CT: Wesleyan UP, 2014, 5.