Remedial reading…John Urry’s Climate Change & Society

Yesterday found me making a day trip to Philadelphia. Four hours on a train? Called for literature. Could have chosen from a lot of other material on an all-too cluttered desk, but happened to grab a copy of Climate Change & Society, by University of Lancaster sociologist John Urry (Polity Press, 2011).[1]

What a great read! Didn’t quite polish it off on the train ride, but a little more time here at home and the job was done. A few words here can’t do his thesis or writing justice… but might perhaps whet your appetite. [Maybe you’re more up on your reading than I am, already familiar with Urry’s book. If so, good on you! Otherwise…] Here goes.

Urry starts out with this idea…that the analysis of climate change – and the implications for global energy, food, and water – has been confined to date to essentially two communities…the natural scientists and the economists. His sense is that their neglect of the fuller role of society is wrongheaded; he rights this wrong with a ten chapter, 169-page exploration of the topic.

[Does that remind you of Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone’s ten suggestions for policymakers? At this point, you might want to go back and have a quick look. Before Urry’s done, he touches on all ten, but his focus is really closest to their 2. Recognize that, for climate policymaking, institutional limits to global sustainability are at least as important as environmental limits.]

He states that the reliance on economics alone is limited in three major ways: (1) “While economic institutions are of course very important, this is often because of their social and indeed political consequences and not just their political effects…” (2) “Many different social processes are essential to high carbon lives and low carbon lives…” (3) “Resources matter and there needs to be developed an appropriate social science of the ‘resources’ that underlie each ‘economy-and-society…’” With regard to this latter, Urry notes what he thinks has been a mistake made by sociology and sociologists…that is, to assume that society has progressed beyond the point where natural resources are an issue to the social sciences, and to remove this foundation for life from explicit consideration. It really seems that his thesis is more to this point, to bringing social science to bear in examining challenges to future sustainability of a high-carbon (or, more generally, a high-resource-consumption) society, than to climate change per se.

Urry emphasizes the importance of understanding the full social history that got us to our present high-carbon society and what it’ll take to unwind it, to achieve what he calls a low-carbon or post-carbon society. He considers several possible scenarios. In one of these, society finds alternative technologies that continue to support high-energy consumption lifestyles. In another, Urry lays out a path to a low-carbon transportation system. He also considers a world even-more dependent on virtual networking, interaction, versus actual mobility.

Throughout, he cautions that to succeed, any such attempted shift to a new order has to be attractive relative to the status quo, versus simply fighting the existing reality. He stresses that innovation is never simply technological or economic or social or political, but a distinct blend of all these. In his automobile-alternative scenario, for example, he lifts eight elements which have to occur together: “new low carbon fuel systems; much lighter body materials; making vehicles smart; digitizing urban environments; de-privatizing vehicles; sustainable transport policies; new living and working practices; and disruptive innovation from below.”

Whew! What are the chances of all that happening simultaneously?

Urry thinks they’re small too. In summing up, he repeats that he’s tried to show that it’s not individuals who have to change but rather coupled social-physical systems. He notes that these do not often change; instead they tend to be locked-in. He asserts change is more likely when societies are equal and democratic, the greater the scale of local social experimentation, the more that decisions and actions can be made locally, and the greater the financial, human, and social capital available for moving into post-carbon programs.

You get the flavor. In closing, he suggests since all these possibilities are low-probability, that society might emphasize preparing for a variety of catastrophes.

A couple of final thoughts. First, Urry may be too pessimistic about the chances that new social solutions will emerge and be adopted in time. The systems may be capable of adapting far more quickly and effectively than seems possible when we view them through our past experience or from a top-down, command and control point of view. Our imaginations/views of what’s possible or likely are far too limited.

And second, don’t be content with my impoverished description here. Lay hold of your own copy of this book. Allow yourself to savor Urry’s thought process, rather than attempting to rush through it. He’s marshaled his thoughts carefully, and he’s thoroughly documented other’s work. He takes you to a mountaintop and from there shows you a rich landscape worth exploring more fully.



[1] Someone…a reviewer in a magazine, a blogger, a commenter on posts here…provided a brief review a couple of weeks ago that prompted me to order this delightful and insightful book; I wish I were acknowledging you properly! Apologies, and thanks.

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