After The Car

An interview with John Urry.

Cover image for After The Car.

Adbusters contributing editor Micah White recently talked to John Urry, coauthor of After The Car, about what to expect in the post-car world. Urry is a Professor of Sociology at Lancaster University.

ADBUSTERS: The part of your book that may surprise most people is your conclusion that a low carbon society may not be a freer society. Why did you come to this conclusion?

JOHN URRY: It is because the high level of carbon consumption may not be able to continue – partly because of climate change and partly because the oil may begin to run out or is already running out (depending on how you read the data). Forcing people out of their cars is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. One way to do it is by intensifying regulations around carbon consumption. A lot of societies may fall into this alternative, which I see as a kind of Orwellian future of highly surveilled movements and regulation. I suppose there is a bit of it in the island city-state of Singapore, which is probably the advanced country that has most reduced its carbon emissions. But it has done so through extensive regulation, control and surveillance.

AB: You describe three future scenarios in your book. The first, which you just articulated, you name the “digital networks of control” scenario. What would stop this from being the future that necessarily happens?

JU: First of all, it is an expensive system. It is no accident that I mentioned Singapore, which is obviously an affluent society with high per capita income. It requires lots of investment, it requires all cars to be effectively licensed and so on. So to implement such a system in Mexico City would obviously be a fantastic challenge. A second thing is that there are large amounts of resistance. It rather depends on the ways in which the state is regarded. Any of those systems would require state implementation, even if private corporations were involved in operating them. Obviously, there is lots of potential for resistance by organizations. If large multinational companies are involved there may be, with good reason, plenty of opposition and NGO opposition and so I think it will be an area of contestation.

AB: You discuss a future scenario called “local sustainability.” What would this look like?

JU: What I was envisaging there was a sort of localization of work, education, family, friendship and leisure patterns. This would entail finding your friends down the street. Families wouldn't move away for education or to find jobs. Most friendship patterns would be locally based and therefore accessible through walking, cycling and maybe public transport but certainly through not flying to the other side of the world to meet your mates from university. So that is a vision of a localism.

It would be a lower standard of living than conventionally measured. It would entail foodstuffs being determined by season rather than the air freighting schedule and so on. And it would be a situation where people's networks of connection – economic, social, familial – were based upon slow modes of travel.

AB: Between these two scenarios – “local sustainability” and “digital networks of control” – you propose a scenario called “regional warlordism.” What does this scenario look like?

JU: In a way, it is a dark version of local sustainability. It is the breakdown of long distance communication and transportation systems: a shift toward many kinds of resource wars. Rather than in local sustainability where the resources are benignly redistributed, this scenario sees many groups holding onto scarce resources, competing and seeking to stop other groups from gaining access to them. A lot of wars would be fought over oil (which is of course already happening), water and food. There would be tendencies toward strong borders around these gated areas. Life would be nasty, brutish and almost certainly shorter. And of course sub-Saharan Africa, parts of the former Soviet Union and parts of the huge global slums, already show some of these features.

AB: Do you think “regional warlordism” is the most probable future?

JU: I probably do actually … if I put my money on any one of the three scenarios. And that is partly because of my view about the 20th century, which is that it has dealt the 21st century a bad hand of very constrained and restricted choices.