Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures

Katerina Psarikidou (Research Associate based at Department of Sociology, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK)


ISSN: 1463-6689

Article publication date: 10 November 2014



Katerina Psarikidou (2014), "Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures", Foresight, Vol. 16 No. 6, pp. 608-615.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The changing of the world’s climate is widely recognised as one of the most significant challenges for the twenty-first century economies and societies. Various natural phenomena across the globe have been claimed to provide evidence of expansive anthropogenic catastrophes with irreversible consequences on human life on earth (Giddens, 2009; IPCC, 2007). Among these, the depletion of natural finite resources have gained significant prominence, gave birth to many catastrophist writings that speculate different future scenarios of wider societal or civilisational collapse but also attracted diverse experts’ attention who have urged to identify and provide their own remedies, explanations and solutions to prevent the emergence of such a dystopian future.

However, in most cases, any description, prescription or prediction related to the phenomenon of changing climates has been associated with various technofixes and, thus, ignoring its constant embeddedness in “the social” and specific imaginaries of how society is or ought to be (Hulme, 2009; Szerszynski and Urry, 2010; Lever-Tracy, 2011). This narrow technocentric approach and attempt to understand the phenomenon of climate change and the complexities around it should not be disassociated with the traditional nature-society dichotomy and the emerging centrality of human agency in not only controlling but also transforming nature (Marx, 1967). Neither is it irrelevant to the more recent emergence of the Western capitalocentric discourse of the “Knowledge Economy” and its focus on the production of explicit forms of commodifiable knowledge that usually provide narrow technocentric explanations and remedies to complex processes related to human and non-human life (Psarikidou, 2012). Thus, despite the centrality of societies in the making and understanding of the phenomenon of “global climate change,” there has been little recognition of the role of societies and social concerns in climate change science and politics.

In his “Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures,” John Urry challenges such a narrow technocentric approach to climate change, by bringing human agency and societies to the centre of the readers’ attention. Following an approach he had already introduced in his book Climate Change and Society (2010), as well as a specific social scientific school of thought whose work, is also featured on the special issue Changing Climates (Szerszynski and Urry, 2010; Swyngedouw, 2010; Cooper, 2010 etc.), Urry raises the centrality of society in understanding climate change and, especially, in examining the past(s) and present(s) of high-carbon lives and, thus, configuring or imagining the future(s) related to it. As he says, “the simple question in this book is, what is the twenty-first century going to be like?” (Urry, 2013, p. 224); or, as he states elsewhere in this book – also embedding the ambiguous possibility of multiple descent pathways – “what, then, of the societies lying beyond oil?” (p. 18). Thus, as becomes obvious through this last question, but also the book’s title, the specific, highly mobile and commodifiable object of “oil” becomes the focus for providing, what appears to be, a rather significant contribution to the development of a sociological analysis and understanding of the “global complexities” (Urry, 2003) related to the “socio-natural” phenomenon of climate change and its contested futures.

Urry describes and analyses these multiple complex processes in rich and interesting detail in both parts of his book – an analysis which is also crucial for demonstrating and, thus, encouraging us to think of the historic path-dependencies, the multi-level continuities and multiple interconnections between the past, the present and the future but also important for realising the centrality of the past, the present and their multiple systemic interlockings in predicting, imagining but also possibly shaping or even changing desirable or less desirable social futures (Geels and Schot, 2007). Thus, by positioning oil in the centre of his analysis, Urry succeeds in getting the readers to a journey through time and space before he introduces us to four different oil-descent societal pathways with varying degrees of desirability and possibility.

In the first part, Urry aims to bring readers to the realisation of the historic significance of oil in the constitution of modernity, and especially in the making of the twentieth century “liquid” societies. Borrowing Bauman’s (2000) characterisation of modern times as “liquid modernity,” he playfully raises the significance of a particular liquid, “the oil,” in the configuration of modern civilisation, or what he comes to call “oil civilisation” but also of the different elements, complex social, economic, political, technological processes and systems across time and space in the configuration of the multiple oil dependences of the modern and, as described, highly mobile but also high-carbon social lives.

More specifically, Chapter one focuses on the important, indispensable, although sometimes ignored, interconnections between two different resources, money and oil. In doing so, Urry underlines the significance of neoliberalism in not only overpowering – both metaphorically and literally – private corporations but also, following Klein’s (2007) reference to “disaster capitalism,” turning different moments of disasters or crises related to resource shortages – such as money and oil – into opportunities for the emergence of what Sunder Rajan (2006) describes as “a new face or phase of capitalism”. Thus, based on the intersection of finance, property development and oil, but also as the author extensively describes at Chapter four, on the emergence of powerful states, corporations and individuals – who not only disproportionately benefited from oil-based carbonism but also mobilised resources against oppositional voices and alternative imaginaries – chapter two refers to one of the key figures in the establishment and the spreading of this “carbon capitalism” or what Urry calls “oil civilisation” at the beginning of the twentieth century, namely, the USA. The emerging Fordist system of production and consumption, the increasing popularity of the car, the spreading of an oil-dependent consumerist way of living but also the strong American political economic interests supporting the plentiful, cheap oil are described as central phenomena towards such a direction.

However, as Urry says, following Friedman, there is no such a thing as “energy free lunch”. Thus, after providing a detailed and very interesting analysis of the various elements of the “oil civilisation” that also led to the oil systemic interlockings, in Chapters five, six and seven, the author transitions to the problem of the peaking of oil and thus the peaking of the oil-fuelled “American Dream”-inspired Western civilisation. As appears, the spreading of the Western, urban “idyll” in places like Dubai, as well as the emergence of new powerful political economic actors – such as China – do not only suggest a potential collapse of the old and the emergence of a new “oil civilisation” but they also challenge the readers to imagine the characteristics of a possible “post-oil” or “tough-oil” civilisation. At the same time, they provide clues to not only a technological but also a political peaking of oil fuelling conflicts, wars and power relations, social inequalities and injustice, democratic deficits and corruption in different parts of the planet which, as Urry describes, have been both “blessed and cursed with oil”.

Before he sets us to the second part of his book and the exploration of the four different “societies beyond oil,” Urry travels us to Russia, Saudi Arabia, Niger Delta, to describe, what he calls, the “paradox of plenty” but also to Norway to provide a more optimistic version of an oil-based social democratic regime. The latter constitute a smooth transition to the book’s next big thematic unit as they provide inspiration and challenge the readers’ curiosity and imagination for configuring alternative oil descent pathways and social futures and, thus, wonder: could these examples of hubris provide an opportunity for change?

Urry introduces us to four different scenarios for societies around 2050 and examines the characteristics, potential prospects and limits for developing post-oil futures. Although his analysis departs with a pessimistic reference to the limited number of alternative versions of these futures, he provides four different scenarios for future oil-descent societal pathways, that, despite their varying degrees of desirability and inevitable “downsides,” all go beyond a dichotomy between pessimism and optimism, but also catastrophist vision of a fatal social collapse.

Despite the apparent differences in the first two social futures outlined in the Chapters eight and nine of the book, both of them are trespassed by a high-tech innovation-driven vision of a possible post-oil future. However, they do not suggest a narrow technological deterministic approach to the configuration of a post-oil future vision, but they provide confirmation of the centrality of human agency in the technological determinism of these futures – or what Urry calls “anthropocene” in earlier chapters of his book – and encourage the reader to realise and consider the multiple intersections between different systems and practices – social, technical, economic, etc. – that are sought to be necessary for the articulation and accomplishment of a new post-oil system (see Geels and Schot, 2007; Shove and Walker, 2010).

More specifically, Chapter eight outlines an ambiguous future that could also be approached as complying with and reproducing the mainstream capitalocentric discourse on science-based technofixes to global problems, challenges and crises. The re-invention of hydrogen as the new magic bullet solution to the problem of energy constitutes one of the key features of an oil-descending society that can substitute “oil” and let “business” – meaning people’s and objects’ movements – happen “as usual”. However, in this chapter’s analysis, Urry neglects to refer to another “business,” this of capitalism. And, this then possibly lets the readers wonder: what happens to this other business of capitalism? Does it also “happen as usual”? Would a new type of capital emerge, namely, “hydrogen capital,” and will it then also mean that hydrogen will become the substitute for not only oil but also “oil capital” and thus facilitate the future reproduction of the capitalist economic order and power relations around it?

Along similar lines, Chapter nine introduces another technofix to the problem of oil scarcity and, thus, another substituting mechanism for the development of oil-descending social lives and futures. The readers’ focus is shifted to a substitute not for oil but for physical movement through the convergence of the real and the digital world. However, as Urry says, this “Digital Lives” future does not signal the end of physical movement but raises the need for a more holistic integration of the “old” and the “new” towards the creation of a mutually co-constructed “ecology” of machines and technologies: digital manufacturing through 3-D printing is one of the examples used to manifest the way different virtual and digital technologies and objects carry the potential to influence and transform everyday social practices and lives.

And, this last parameter becomes important in configuring a “Digital Lives” social future: what would be the social implications of such a – very likely, according to Urry – future? What type of re-organisations of different sorts of social relationships need to take place and how would this happen without affecting people’s well-being and current perceptions of “good life”? Would this new era of digital co-presence reduce the levels of “social capital” (Putnam, 1995) and, at the same time, facilitate the emergence of “digital capital” that can lead to the reproduction of capitalism? Also, Urry approaches this digital scenario as one of the technofixes that can provide a solution to current high-carbon, oil-dependent living; however, why do we also not see digital connectivity as part of the problem of creating high-carbon mobile lives? If we consider digital technologies as one of the means that facilitate our capacity and flexibility to move, how can we make sure that such a scenario will not just facilitate sustenance of the current high-carbon mobile living? In other words, how can we turn it from part of a problem to a solution to a problem that might have partly created? These are highly topical questions that could have also been included in the book’s post-oil social futures analysis.

Chapter ten introduces us to a more dystopian or, as Urry describes it, “barbaric” or “neo-mediaevalist” social future of “Resource Fights”. Highly oligarchic and undemocratic regimes, based on the violent oppression of other societies, the exercise of violence, the perpetuation of uneven power relations, socio-economic chasms and inequalities and the violation of human rights are characteristics of what the author describes as a “de-civilizing energy-starved future” based on a forced relocalisation of social lives due to the monopolisation of the highly descending and, thus, priceless energy resources. Not very far from the reality introduced in Chapter seven on the “Curse of Oil,” this social future can be thought as an extreme version of an already existing reality in various parts of the globe. Urry also implies that, when identifying it as the “most likely” social future among all presented in his book. This identification of high levels of interconnectedness between these two chapters of the book feeds our thinking into a different direction that seems to be missing from the current premises of the book: Would a less extreme version of this future actually be present? If this future is a repetition or extreme version of the past – also indicated in Urry’s characterisation of this future as neo-mediaevalist – would then a social future be a retro-future mainly based on the re-invention of the past and other “retro-innovations” (Stuiver, 2006)?

Following the same line of thinking around relocalisation, but with a more optimistic touch on it, the idea of “an organised powering down to low-carbon lives and systems” (p. 202) becomes central in the configuration of the post-oil social future outlined in Chapter eleven of this book. This vision can be considered as the basis for an ideal but also possibly quite utopian social future that also promises to fulfil the usually unreconcileable needs for energy reduction and well-being. Urry outlines a series of different aspects of social lives, systems, practices that need to be taken into consideration and cluster together for the accomplishment of a multiple systems’ change – or what he calls “a system powering down” – and thus the successful “engineering” of low-carbon lives and practices. The establishment of new urban and more dense patterns of living also based on the relocalisation of social and economic forms of life and relationships, as well as the relocalistion of production, manufacturing and other services constitute significant elements of such a social future; however, as Urry underlines, a wider mobilisation of actors, institutions and resources, as well as a more democratic participation and engagement in the design of new products and services are fundamental for the establishment of a successful socio-technical system of “low-carbon innovation” for an oil-descending social future.

However, as Urry warns us, such an innovation also has its own spatio-temporal limitations that need special attention if we want to avoid a premature lock in the wrong set of possibilities. Though, this makes us wonder, how are we going to know which will be the right innovation, time and location for initiating such an engineering towards a low-carbon social future? Also, considering Urry’s earlier reference to the 1970s first and so far most interesting attempt towards a powering down future and its inevitable failure due to the rise and win of the 1980s neoliberal doctrine, how can we ensure that these new attempts will eventually thrive? Thus, the author’s reference to the 1970s encourage the reader to think of the significance of the relationship between low-carbonness and neoliberalism in the development of a possible post-oil future and engage with a series of additional questions that could also be raised in this book: Does the rise of a low-carbon society presuppose the fall of neoliberalism? Or, does it mean that low-carboness needs to be better integrated and co-opted by the neoliberal order? In other words, do we need to move from carbon capitalism to low-carbon capitalism? And, how desirable can such a social future be? Could other economic organisations beyond capitalism also be possible?

In the last chapter of his book, Urry raises the central role of capital(s) in the making of high-carbon past and presents and thus in the possible configuration of low-carbon futures. After outlining a series of catastrophist writings, reproducing different versions of an inevitable “collapse thesis” also linked to the peaking of power of different civilizations, Urry indicates the apparent connections between what he calls “high-carbon treadmill” (p. 225) – or what we could also call “carbon-capital treadmill”. In particular, he points our attention to the accelerating financialisation of contemporary economies and the centrality of the relocalisation or onshoring of the non-physical flows of money and taxation in materialising and realising low-carbon social futures – a topic which is further discussed in his forthcoming book Offshoring (Urry, 2014). However, by introducing the concept of “low-carbon civil society,” Urry goes beyond a bleak catastrophist vision of the future by bringing societies in the centre of our attention and reminding us of its role and potential in shaping post-oil lives and futures. He points to the need for the emergence of a civil society capable of introducing and normalising low-carbon social practices through the transformation of itself and thus the wider society at a global level. However, inspired by the previous account of systemic obstacles to transitioning to a post-oil future, we can further wonder: How can a low-carbon civil society become central part of a likely post-oil future? What are the challenges to be faced and overcome?

No doubt, Societies Beyond Oil is a very inspirational and thought-provoking book which awakens the readers’ imagination to engage with a series of oil-descending futures that situate society in the heart of their analysis. Thus, by challenging the conventional technocentric approach to the description and prescription of descending futures, Urry succeeds in introducing us to a series of imaginaries with varying levels of likelihood and desirability. However, could any of these imaginaries turn into “self-fulfilling prophecies,” that is, as Merton (1948) described, specific descriptive narratives of a situation which succeed in becoming part of this situation and further affecting subsequent developments? Under which conditions these imaginaries can obtain a performative effect and materialise themselves and become “locked in” to a post-oil future system? And, if they succeed in establishing specific conceptions of truth, should we be seeking for one future or one system or for a combination of social, technical, political, economic systems and futures that have already been outlined in this book by Urry? Could a future post-oil system be one which will be based on the combination or recombination of all these suggested futures and of different systems that are present or latent within current lives? And, to what extent, could such a future be already present?

The above constitute some of the questions that can enliven debate on the future of the studies of oil-descending future(s). However, a wider range of questions emerge around the descending or rising future of other constituencies whose nature might be shaped or changed around these oil-descending futures. For example, what happens to oil in a post-oil social future? And, also what happens to the social in a post-oil social future? Would an oil-descending future also signal a social-descending future? Or, would a decline in carbon capital signal the rise of the social and network capital? (Putnam, 1995; Urry, 2007) And, also, more broadly, what happens to the “economic” in a post-oil era? Inspired by Schumpeter’s (1975/1942) “creative destruction of capitalism,” will the multiplicity of crises around an oil-descending future be the harbinger for “a new face and phase of capitalism” (Sunder Rajan, 2006) and the emergence of new “fictitious commodities” (Jessop, 2007) and new powerful political economic actors disproportionately benefitting from the urgent emergence of a new oil-descending future? This book provides inspiration for opening up the field of future Foresight and Social Sciences studies to the investigation of the above theoretical inquiries, and, in particular the political economic aspects of different post-oil futures. Are there any prospects that a post-oil social future could also be a post-neoliberal future? Could a “society beyond oil” also be a “society beyond capital”? Could it, thus, be a society capable of providing some space for going beyond a narrow capitalocentric understanding of the “economic”? In other words, can a potential future post-oil society signal “the end of capitalism,” or will it just signal “the end of capitalism as we knew it”? (Gibson-Graham, 1996, 2006).

No doubt, Societies Beyond Oil is an intellectually stimulating book which hosts us to an imaginative “oil-free” spatio-temporal journey to post-oil futures. By developing a critique of the contemporary “American Dream”-inspired trajectory of development and the powerful role of “carbon capital” towards such a direction, Societies Beyond Oil succeeds in providing a coherent sociological perspective which not only highlights the constraint choices constructed around the “curse of oil” but also offers a new way of thinking and investigating contemporary change and the chances of collapse.

About the author

Katerina Psarikidou is Research Associate at the Department of Sociology of Lancaster University, UK. Based at the Centre for Mobilities Research, she is currently working for the EPSRC Liveable Cities research project. In the past, she also worked for other research projects including the EC FAAN and PAGANINI projects. Her research interests cluster around conceptualising innovation and economies in/through alternative urban networks, practices and cultures – with a more specific focus on areas of mobility, agriculture and food and an emphasis on low-carbon.


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Further reading

Urry, J. (2011), Climate Change and Society , Polity Press, Cambridge.

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