Aims and Objective
This Workshop assesses the politics of ‘peak oil’ and especially of a possible energy descent and its multiple consequences for “social futures” of the 21st cenutry.  Key questions examined include: Can modern societies manage a sustainable transition to post-oil? What would societies be like that are powering down? What sorts of new ‘securities’ will be directed against populations where there is increasing ‘oil insecurity’? How would conflicts over such oil resources be ‘governed’?  Drawing from the latest innovations in mobilities theory and the study of social futures in the UK and Europe, this Workshop features many scholars conducting social science research on the ‘mobilities paradigm’ – including the pioneering expertise of Professor John Urry (University of Lancaster, UK).  Professor Urry is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities of social futures.

A particular feature of the Workshop is the examination of a number of ‘future global scenarios’ developed by the UK Government’s Foresight Programme – of which Professor Urry was one of four science experts developing possible future scenarios[1]. Future scenarios reviewed include that of ‘perpetual motion’, ‘local sustainability’, ‘regional warlordism’ and ‘low carbon, digital networks’. A meta-analysis will be conducted of these and various other scenarios.

By providing a forum in Australia where Professor Urry’s findings can be investigated and disseminated, this Workshop will strengthen Australian research capacity on social futures both for early career researchers and for specialist scholars.

In ‘Our Final Century?’ Sir Martin Rees writes dramatically of cosmic collisions, deadly viruses, nanobots and bioterrorism – any of which might destroy the planet Earth. A study in the possible pathways of a dying culture, ‘Our Final Century?’ might strike readers as a combination of scientific futurology and science fiction.  However, it is perhaps worth noting that Rees’s scientific credentials are impeccable: he is Astronomer Royal as well as President of the UK’s Royal Society. Yet his voice is only one of a growing choir warning of disasters which threaten our societies and their possible futures.

In this connection, Professor John Urry speaks of a “new catastrophism” in both academic and public thinking about the future of societies. This kind of thinking about societal catastrophe trades in both current epochal transformations (global warming, climate change, environmental disasters) and fantasy experiments as regards the emergence of a “new dark age”.  As Urry writes, “the twentieth century in the rich North was a short period in human history; and there are no guarantees that the increasing prosperity, wealth, movement, knowledge and connectivity of that period (in the rich North) will continue and certainly not necessarily in anything like the same form”.

Within Australia, the study of social futures has also become an important area of research for social scientists and policymakers alike. Over the past few years, there has been a small but growing amount of literature produced that addresses some of the scenarios and trends that may be in store for Australia’s future. This emerging literature has already exerted some influence over how issues have been framed in the realm of political discourse and popular opinion.

This workshop, entitled, ‘Catastrophic Futures’, aims to further develop this burgeoning field of study known as ‘social futures’. It seeks to bring together various scholars and policy analysts who have considered the issue of ‘social futures’ from a diverse range of perspectives. By putting these parties in dialogue with one another, this workshop is designed to help foster new and innovative ways of thinking about ‘social futures’.

The central issue addressed at this Workshop concerns the future of modern societies beyond oil.  If oil and gas production goes past peak, and if coal is seen as so problematic because of GHG emissions, the size and general effectiveness of the world economy will also go past peak. There will be large reductions in almost all of manufacturing, services and transportation, and in the forms of social life that those products and services make possible. Likely future sudden increases in oil and gas prices will generate much resistance, competition and wars to secure supplies. The Workshop will examine what societies would be like that are powering down: how would this occur, what levels of income and wellbeing are likely, would there be rationing systems set in place and how, and what kinds of patterns of social inequality would be likely?

The key questions for this workshop are:
What might a low-carbon or post-carbon future look like for societies such as Australia? How might such a future be realized?
How will catastrophic futures affect the architectural spaces and mobilities of the future?
What challenges does Australia potentially face when it comes to the issue of global and regional security?
In the Australian context, what effect will certain ‘tipping points’ (like ‘peak oil’) have?
What impact will catastrophic futures have on social relations within and beyond Australian society?
Given that many social scientists have come to show an aversion towards studying the future, what are some of the theoretical underpinnings that legitimize social futures as a viable area of research?

This workshop will be co-convened by Professor Anthony Elliott (University of South Australia), Professor Bryan Turner (CUNY, USA/Australian Catholic University) and Professor Bob Holton (Trinity College Dublin/University of South Australia). This workshop will feature the expertise of Professor John Urry, Distinguished Chair of Sociology at the University of Lancaster, UK and Director of the Center for Mobilities Research. Urry’s participation at this event will be primarily funded by the Hawke Research Institute at the University of South Australia. As the only social scientist on the UK Foresight programme (2005-2007), Professor Urry is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of social futures.

The principle outcome of this workshop will be the publication of an edited volume to be published in 2015 with a leading international publisher such as Routledge. Also, a report of the workshop’s findings will be collated and made available to the general public through the Hawke Research Institute’s website.

[1] See

For more information, please contact:
Mrs Nurdan Kulluk-Rennert
Manager, Executive and Workshops
Nurdan.Kulluk-Rennert [at]
+61 .2 62491788