What we’ve offered here are new coordinates from which to imagine a successful, intentional energy transition, one in which technological and economic change is the result of collective social change (rather than the other way around). What, in the end, might we take away from the analyses offered here about the current shape of our petro-societies and the steps we should take to transition to societies no longer shaped and defined by fossil fuels? What issues and problems do we have to address and overcome to enable this transition – everything from shifting social habits and life expectations to undoing our dependence on many of the secondary products of petroleum, such as ink, tires, vitamin capsules, eyeglasses, footballs, detergents, parachutes, fertilizers, panty hose, aspirin, dyes, yarns, nail polish, plastics, dentures, bandages, linoleum, hair coloring, surf boards…?
The thinkers who came together for the inaugural After Oil School were asked to answer four questions:
The key issue animating each of the above questions can be summarized in a single word:
At a minimum, the analyses presented here are intended to make evident the multiple ways in which the forms of energy on which a society depends shape it in fundamental ways. This document reiterates the point about energy’s fundamental qualities in each chapter in order to emphasize two related points. First, the optimism usually attached to renewables is that they make the world made by oil possible after oil, a failure of imagination we’ve sought to address. Second, while thinking the full picture of energy transition is tricky—keeping in mind the social, technological, economic and environmental elements in transition—it nevertheless offers opportunities for large-scale change.
We have for too long been comfortable imagining energy – fossil fuels, in our own case – as a necessary, if generally unremarkable feature of human societies. We might well know that we need fuel to make our cars go, gas to heat our homes, and coal to generate the electricity that powers our high tech world.[i] However, the idea that oil, gas and coal have had a determinate impact on the shape and character of our societies is not something about which we have been previously been aware. The analyses offered in After Oil point to the necessity of understanding how, where, why and to what degree energy shapes and creates social belonging and individual being. We need to understand our societies as oil societies and our modernity as a petro-modernity in order to better grasp who and what we are. We also need to do so because we are entering a period which will undergo a transition from being oil societies to no longer being oil societies. Understanding how energy shapes society is essential to undertaking this transition, and draws attention to issues that we have avoided seriously addressing as we begin to engage in this unprecedented transformation away from a fossil fuel society.
While all four chapters remind us of the importance of energy to society, they also provide us with specific insights as to the direction and shape of our coming energy – and social – transformations. The “Principles of Intentional Transition” outlined at the end of first chapter provide a series of principles about what we need to consider in order to transition out of our specifically economic dependence on energy (the process known as “energy deepening” detailed in that section). These strategies concerning a change in our relationship to energy include: equality of access to energy by people around the world, collective decision-making, ethically driven best practices about sustainable energy use, and a reimagining of how we comprehend growth and development. To evoke the title of Tim Jackson’s book: we need to envision prosperity without growth.[ii]
There is one further principle outlined in this chapter – the one on which all the others are dependent. This is the importance of agency in shaping an intentional transition. This period of energy transition constitutes an opening for substantial socio-political change unlike any encountered in recent memory. The need for an energy transition isn’t the result of a technical failure in our existing energy systems, nor the outcome of the need for a response to pressing environmental crisis of global warming. Rather, the necessity for a shift in so fundamental an element of modernity as the mechanisms that power it – materially, socially and even psychologically – constitute a judgement on the principles around which we have shaped social life. The transitions that will take place in coming years point to the fact that we can’t live the way we have lived, can’t organize ourselves in the way that we have organized ourselves, and can’t fill our social imaginaries with the hopes, expectations and beliefs that we have in the past.
Agency names that capacity for peoples and communities to collectively and consciously compose the way that they want to live in this world. The recognition of the role that energy has played in shaping social life to date, and the need for a change to energy systems, means that there is an opportunity for a significant alteration in how we live, too. The incredible energy resources that many (though certainly not all) people have enjoyed over the course of modernity have expanded their capacities and opportunities to more fully enjoy and participate in a rich and vibrant life. It has just as certainly created a situation in which much of our life activity remains driven by a marketplace that measures its success by the index of profit rather than quality of life and the health of individuals and communities. An enormous opportunity will be wasted if energy transition isn’t accompanied by an equally impressive social transition – one that allows our energy resources to enrich our lives, rather than exhaustively amplify our activities only to generate profit.
The narratives that drive our sense of transition – and so, too, our sense of agency in relation to energy transition – are the subject of the second chapter, “Energy Impasse and Political Actors.” It is to be expected that there would be numerous narratives about the desired path that energy transition might take. Those who have benefited from the current energy system want energy transition to take place in a manner that rocks the boat of contemporary power as little as possible; others see energy transition in the way I have suggested above – as providing an opening for political transformation that would redistribute the power embedded in political structures as much as in energy systems. In After Oil, we have identified six key narratives of energy transition, stories told by different social actors, with distinct ideas about the way to bring about change and the impediments to doing so. As we make clear, the point of identifying these narratives isn’t finally to make a choice between them. Rather, this analysis of the ways in which the challenge of energy transition has been named and explained is intended to provide a deeper insight into the complexes of the current social landscape, including the sharp differences that exist around agency and the right way to move into a new energy future.
Narratives of energy transition are guided by distinct ideas of agency and pathways to change. They are equally shaped by the visions of energy futures. Transition requires a framing of a future toward which we are moving – a goal to be reached, a shift in how we live towards which we are reaching. And as Chapter 4 makes clear, the ways in which these futures are figured – prediction, vision, speculation, and memory – matters as much as the after oil scenarios that are painted. The fantasy of limitless growth that has long given life to capitalism, is today hemmed in by eschatologies that mark endings and beginnings; these borders of time speak to the present and our sense of power and social possibility, as much as they do to the futures they name. Any contemplation of energy in relation to the future highlights one of the biggest changes we will have to make alongside a shift in the energy we use. Energy has been connected to wealth throughout modernity, both through the sheer value that it has added to economies and the process of energy deepening through which expanded energy use and expanded wealth have become synonymous. One of the challenges posed by energy futures is the need to rethink those basic measures of value that we have been told repeatedly to leave alone: GDP, profit, and growth. These are social inventions like any other; our present energy transition might be the time to cast them aside as categories that are no longer doing anything other than getting in the way of human progress.
Fossil fuels are at one and at the same the most material of substances, dragged dripping from the soil and shunted along pipelines from one spot on the earth to another, and also the stuff of fantasy, sheer potential that can be actualized for creative as well as destructive purposes. Energy transition reminds us that the societies we have shaped around fossil fuels are collective fictions. There is no necessity for society to have taken the shape that it has, just as there is no necessity for it to continue to have this same form: social life isn’t fate but a world shaped by those within it. The struggle that is currently taking place over the direction of energy transition, which involves scientists, activists, governments and businesspeople, is a struggle over representation and narrative, the stories we tell about human capacity and future possibility. Those of us involved in the After Oil project will often turn to a mantra when it comes to the basic rationale of our project: while scientists may have definitely told us about the reality of global warming, they’ve given us no clue as to the path forward from the present to the energy futures we want. This is why the input and energies of the arts, humanities and social sciences are crucial to energy transition: they give us insights into the representations that have guided our imaginings and those that might yet lead us into a future after oil, one even more full of possibility than the one we are leaving behind.
After Oil: the phrase can sound like a threat or the naming of an apocalypse. This project will have accomplished its intent if “After Oil” changes its valence, becoming the name for a place and time in which we want to be.
[i] Coal-fired power capacity has increased 75% since 2000; it now supplies 41% of electricity on the planet. See Eric Reguly, “Key questions as negotiators mark third day of Paris climate summit,” Globe and Mail, December 3, 2015: A9.
[ii] Tim Jackson, Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (New York: Routledge, 2009).