Cities after oil: what future is this, fast approaching?

Excerpt from Adrian Atkinson

Peak oil is happening now – and yet there is still almost no debate over the future of our oil-dependent urban societies.

Edward Burtynsky; 'The end of oil' SOCAR fields, Azerbaijan

Edward Burtynsky. 'The end of oil' - SOCAR Oil Fields #4 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006; see end for full credit.

On 1st September 2010 the German news magazine Der Spiegel reported that a study by the German military expected peak oil to occur in 2010, predicting drastic consequences, including: a “partial or complete failure of markets”, potential “government rationing” to cope with food shortages, and major political and social unrest or even open conflict. On 8 February this year – The Guardian also reported that, according to cables released by Wikileaks from 2007-09, Saudi Arabia could no longer provide enough oil to keep a lid on soaring oil prices; that it had overstated it’s remaining reserves by 40 percent and “badly underestimated the time needed to bring new oil on tap.” This news came as oil prices have surged in recent weeks to more than $100 per barrel. Indeed, The Guardian’s Jeremy Legget could not be far wrong – see his 10 February 2011 article: “Peak oil: We are asleep at the wheel”.  Since at least 2007, CITY has run a series on this crucial topic by Adrian Atkinson, called Cities After Oil. Although Atkinson’s work has received little formal response by a community of academics, professionals and policy-makers somewhat reluctant to face the most defining issue of modern human history – the issue will no doubt force itself upon us… But will we be prepared?

Below is an excerpt from Atkinson’s introduction in CITY to his series Cities After Oil (2007).

Cities after oil

‘The point … is that the real source of unsustainability of our civilisation lies in its extreme and increasing reliance on fossil fuels which, in the coming decades will be declining in availability.’

SOCAR Oil Fields #2 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006

E. Burtynsky: SOCAR Oil Fields #2 Baku, Azerbaijan, 2006

The idea that our way of life and beyond this the fixation on ‘economic growth’ with a particular structure is ‘unsustainable’ is repeated everywhere, as a kind of incantation. And yet, what this actually means and what it actually would take to overcome this in concrete terms has been lost altogether in a cloud of diminutive, vacuous hopes and actions. Genuinely meaningful action is clearly absent, as evidenced in the empirical indicators of deteriorating environmental conditions and profligate squandering of resources.(1) The evident disregard which our civilisation has for its own future in the face of the increasing certainty that it will collapse in the coming decades is, to the say the least, quite astonishing!

In most media and academic representations of urban changes, the problematic nature of these changes is in large measure obscured.

Over the past two decades CITY and its predecessor, Regenerating Cities, have looked critically at unfolding urbanisation processes and the changing feelings, social relations and in certain respects incoherences (splintering, fragmenting) which characterise these. In most media and academic representations of urban changes, the problematic nature of these changes is in large measure obscured.

In part this is via the bland academic and professional language of researchers and development institutions that depicts social division and poverty as technical rather than moral issues and fails abjectly to analyse the causes and who or what is to blame. A further dimension is the almost bellicose self-congratulation of capital with its competition to produce iconographic statements.

Total propaganda: Melissa Wilson, 2010

Total propaganda: Melissa Wilson, 2010

A certain reading of contributions to CITY—Bob Catterall’s ongoing debating piece in the journal, ‘Is it All Coming Together?’ providing a general thread to this—if read systematically, gives a sense of foreboding and distinct pieces of evidence concerning a dark future as yet incompletely defined, not yet recognised as a crisis but having all the ingredients of imminent collapse (1). A further dimension of this crisis, less distinctly represented in the pages of CITY, that can be seen as perhaps the final push of current urbanisation dynamics over the cliff-edge, is the issue of ‘environmental sustainability’: the ability of the global economy and resource base to continue to support the kind of urbanisation we are witnessing and to protect the cities from sudden environmental catastrophe (viz. New Orleans).

Recycling #2 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

E. Burtynsky: Recycling #2 Chittagong, Bangladesh, 2001

My own contributions to the debates in City, (2) concluding that urbanisation all around the globe is ‘out of control’, have looked mainly at the ideological and economic/structural driving forces of the processes. This had an eye towards the probable non-sustainability of the processes in the sense of running up against eventually insuperable environmental and resources problems. These, I argued, continue to be incorrigibly screened out of the political decision-making process in any more than rhetoric and vague hopes that everything will work out OK.

Over the past 2 years I have been carrying out research into what ‘unsustainability’ might mean in detail and on what seem to me to be the limiting factors. It may have reached the attention of many readers that I am by no means alone in focusing stronger attention on the looming denouement ahead and reference is made to this rapidly growing literature elsewhere. (3)

Beyond critiques of so-called ‘sustainable development’ and discussion of energy futures (4), I have also looked deeper into the reasons for the blindness of our society to the importance and at the same time unsustainability of the use of vast inputs of energy needed to sustain our civilisation. A start has been made—notably in Jared Diamond’s recent book Collapse (5) – to analysing how and why civilisations in the past have collapsed, suggesting reasons for the blindness of our society to its own future. My own researches have surveyed this literature, leading on to studies of what Diamond refers to as ‘core values’ of our civilisation tending to lie beyond the boundaries of rational debate. These focus on the suburban lifestyle and closely related but even more problematic obsession with mobility of our civilisation, with the automobile at its epicentre. Discussion of the wisdom, in terms of the sustainability of this lifestyle, is being intellectually screened out or at best emaciated to a point of incoherence with any effective discussion of sustainability.

With this firmly in mind, it becomes possible to formulate scenarios of the stages in the collapse of our civilisation that we can expect as a consequence of energy-starvation.

The crucial issue will be: when might we expect our society to come to terms with the reality of declining energy and thus what kind of living arrangements and lifestyles are supportable under these circumstances? I conclude that there are philosophical/moral issues to be considered here even before it is possible to think of physical (planning) solutions. Furthermore, the legacies of environmental abuse of our civilisation—in particular global warming—are liable to exacerbate the problems faced by future generations in rebuilding civilisations that can be expected to function sustainably.

See full article here.

Photo credit: Edward Burtynsky. ‘The end of oil.’
All images by E. Burtynsky courtesy of Flowers, London & Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto; see


  1. Recently most evident in Catterall (2006) Is it all coming together? Further thoughts on urban studies and the present crisis: (8) dark ages, prisons and escape routes. City 10: (2) , pp. 242-256.
  2. Atkinson 2004, Urbanisation in a neo-liberal world—exploring escape routes. City 8: (1) , pp. 90-108; and 2005, Urban development: reviving and activating utopian strategies. City 9: (3) , pp. 279-296.
  3. Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-1. “‘Sustainable Development’ and energy futures” CITY 11 (2) : pages 201–213; “Cities after oil-2. Background to the collapse of ‘modern’ civilisation” CITY 11 (3) : pages 293-312; Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-3. Collapse and the fate of cities” CITY 12 (1) : pages 79-106 and Atkinson, A (2009) “Cities after oil – one more time” CITY 13 (4) : pages 493-498
  4. In particular in Atkinson, A. (2007) “Cities after oil-1. “‘Sustainable Development’ and energy futures” CITY 11 (2) : pages 201–213
  5. Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed Viking , New York

Comments are closed.