Towards Alternative Socio-Ecological Futures – the 6th Annual John Urry Lecture, 2023.

People in a lecture theatre, with the speaker Alice Mah at the front.

Published by Jen Southern

Saturday, February 3rd, 2024

On Thursday 28th October, we were delighted to welcome Professor Alice Mah to Lancaster to deliver the 6th Annual John Urry Lecture, on the theme of ‘Towards alternative socio-ecological futures’.  Alice’s wide-ranging and insightful talk opened with direct quotation of John Urry’s key late work on ‘What is the Future?’, echoing his insight that the future is ‘too important to be left to states, corporations and technologists’.  Instead, what is needed, and especially regarding today’s heinously complex and entrenched challenges of ecological destruction and continued (if not accelerating) growth of the industrial forms driving that despoliation, is a much broader collective and societal engagement with these futures.  Alice then illuminated for the audience a key, but often overlooked, industry that exemplifies these challenges – just as John did some years ago, in After the Car, regarding the neglected centrality of the automotive sector to modern society and its problems – namely the petrochemical industry.

Building on her excellent new book, Petrochemical Planet – Multiscalar Battles for Industrial Transformation (Duke UP, 2023), Alice introduced the audience to the almost invisible centrality and ubiquity of petrochemicals in the materials of contemporary daily life and the deeply problematic shadow sides of this industry: as a major (and still growing) source of toxicity, too often associated with concentrated exposures and environmental injustice; as a key ‘hard to abate’ industry regarding GHG emissions; as the producer of all the plastics now in circulation and littering the oceans and, increasingly, the bodies of all living creatures; and even as a major, but problematic, protagonist in narratives and practices of apparent ‘solutions’, such as the circular economy.  Moreover, following several years of intense research of the sector in her European Research Council-funded grant, “Toxic Expertise: Environmental Justice and the Global Petrochemical Industry”, Alice also unpacked the challenging nature of this powerful industry itself, as an influential actor that is open to change only by way of ‘war or legislation’.  The question thus arises of how to change the toxic, wasteful, climate-destructive… but also ‘essential’ petrochemical industry?

As the title of her talk suggests, though, Alice’s focus was not just, or even primarily, on a critique of this industry. Of much greater interest and importance is what can actually be done about this.  And on these issues, her talk also was insightful and illuminating. Noting that sociology, and the social sciences more generally, are often really good at identifying obstacles to transformative change and/or at deploying a speculative utopian thinking and sociological imagination but often weaker at practical future-oriented thinking, Alice led the audience into a series of reflections about how to foreground this latter agenda. For the full picture, please watch the video of her talk below! But as a taster, we mention just a few of the points she touched on, including the importance of ‘multi-scalar activism’, particularly on issues of environmental justice, and how a critical social science can support and assist such programmes; and of developing different ways of thinking about complex systems, perhaps in terms of adopting such complex systems analysis from the industry itself but then reading it ‘against the grain’ for different, more publicly-spirited goals; and of new work of ‘design for the pluriverse’, following Arturo Escobar, in the recommunalizing and reterritorializing of our social-technical worlds.

Our thanks to Alice for a wonderful and insightful evening and a talk that would certainly have been of intense interest to John himself. And, even if you missed this year’s, we look forward to welcoming you to the 7th Annual John Urry Lecture in autumn 2024. Please keep your eyes out for announcements of the next fantastic talk – following wonderful events with Saskia Sassen, Hartmut Rosa, Mimi Sheller, Tim Cresswell, Noel Salazar, Diane Coyle, Tim Edensor and now Alice Mah – which will be out in due course.

Recording of Professor Alice Mah lecture.

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