This article examines the history of the scenario tool as pioneered by Royal Dutch Shell (the Shell Group, hereafter Shell) from 1967 on. Scenarios of the next fifteen to thirty years came to be embraced as a new tool in the management of multinational enterprises (MNEs) in the years between 1967, when the first scenario exercise was run, and the mid-1990s. This article, which focuses mainly on the period until 1976, asks why. It proposes that the answer lies in the perceived need by multinationals, and not least oil corporations, to think in forward-oriented ways in order to protect their interests in the shakeup of global capitalism that occurred in this period. For global oil, a new need arose in this period to manage social relations and expectations including environmental concerns. Oil companies found themselves obliged to hold together territories of concerned consumers in the West, on the one hand, with territories under new property-rights regimes in the former host nations of the South, on the other. To Shell in particular, projecting a virtuous image of the global oil corporation and demonstrating a new set of promising futures of oil became central to the management of both of these relationships. Scenarios also became an interesting management tool because of perceptions in the late 1960s and early 1970s of the risk for new forms of state intervention and regulation in the context of the debate on limits to natural resources. The article proposes that this fear of regulation inspired a new identity for Shell as a key coordinator of not only economic but also political, social, and moral relationships.
The history of the scenario method in Shell can be positioned in a recently developing literature in business history that has brought it closer to environmental, transnational, and in fact political history.Footnote 1 In recent years, the role of business as a transnational actor has become a strong theme, and so have questions related to the circulation of capital and commodities in a global field.Footnote 2 Business historians have more rarely engaged with the recent work of political and intellectual historians, but as the history of the scenario tool shows, there is important overlap here.Footnote 3 Starting from the mid-1960s, MNEs began to see themselves as global actors on a par with nation-states and international organizations. As such, they perceived themselves as sharing the responsibility for ordering world economic relations and creating a world society in which MNEs could prosper. As Shell demonstrated, corporations came out of this period with a partly new identity as active agents in not only the economic but also the political and cultural processes of managing globalization. By discussing the history of the scenarios, this article revisits existing understandings of the multinational as a producer of ideas of global space and as co-constitutive of emerging visions of capitalism after 1973.
The scenario tool was key in Shell's attempt to meet the challenges of the period from 1967 to 1976 with a strategy that partly changed views on the future of global oil. The scenarios were not simply new management techniques for a given future objective; they were large narrative exercises that can be seen as attempts to conjure entire new capitalist worlds. MNE historians have considered the period from World War I until 1979 as the era of deglobalization, during which nationalist and protectionist responses to crises obstructed the mobility of capital.Footnote 4 This is a historiography written largely from the viewpoint of multinationals and from a concern with business vitality and entrepreneurship. In political and intellectual history, the 1967-to-1976 moment is understood quite differently. The period from the mid-1960s on saw the breakup of essentially colonial legacies of commodity and monetary arrangements that underpinned postwar economies. To this North-South confrontation came a growing awareness of the conflict between industrial growth and environmental sustainability (although the latter term was not widely used until the 1980s). At the same time, Western industrial societies entered into a period of social turmoil and labor unrest, marking the end of stability in welfare arrangements and industrial relations of the immediate postwar period. This discrepancy between business and political historians in interpretation of the period raises the question of how business actively sought to navigate the end of one world and the dawn of another. The Shell scenarios show that the end of the Fordist era saw several competing visions of the future of global capitalism emerge, but not all were preferential to global oil companies.Footnote 5 The direct relationship between the Third Worldist claim to resource sovereignty, expressed in the New International Economic Order (NIEO) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974, and the debate that erupted after the publication of the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth report in 1972 is essential to this clash of future visions.Footnote 6 The scenarios were a way for Shell to weigh these different futures, measure the risk they posed, and shape ideas of the proper global society in which it thought it would prosper.
The scenario archives at the Said Business School in Oxford do not allow the conclusion that Shell actively tried to dismiss or counteract early warnings of climate change (as other oil corporations manifestly did). Nor do they contradict it. In fact, the scenario archives contain almost no mention at all of the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels, which supports the conclusion that the scenarios were not used to discuss atmospheric effects of CO2 until the late 1980s and that their main purpose was not to manage a sustainable transition for oil but to consider a number of deeply problematic futures for the oil industry. Environmental degradation was one factor contributing to a new uncertainty surrounding oil in the 1970s; however, it was not the environmental argument per se but rather the joint challenge of the NIEO and the Limits debate that posed an unprecedented challenge to the world of oil. We know from existing studies that oil companies reacted defensively to NIEO claims of the right to sovereignty over natural resources and that MNEs also responded to the NIEO by creating new lobby organizations, restructuring channels of influence to policymakers, and attempting to reassert their power over pricing systems.Footnote 7 Studies also show that multinational corporations mobilized during the same period against what they perceived as a new kind of statist interventionism in Western governments.Footnote 8 Some of this mobilization was clearly about the active production of doubt around early indications of climate change, as shown in studies of Exxon and BP.Footnote 9 But business reacted to perceived risk in many other ways, and the production of doubt was not the scenarios’ main role.Footnote 10 At the same time, there is no evidence in the scenario archives that the main purpose of the scenarios was to help Shell become an environmentally sustainable or socially responsible corporation, which is how the scenarios have been showcased in company historiography and important parts of the management literature.Footnote 11 The corporate history of Shell, written by economic historians on Shell's payroll, arguably helped turn the scenarios into something of a global brand. While critical elements were not missing from this official history, they were downplayed in favor of a dominant narrative that the oil corporation came of age as environmentally and socially sustainable during the period from the 1970s on.Footnote 12 It is clear from the scenarios that Shell used the scenario tool in relation to environmental challenges from the 1970s on, but the challenge identified in the scenarios was not environmental degradation; rather, it was the contestation around environmental effects in both Western localities and the sites of extraction. Thus, the history of the scenario tool within Shell is in fact much different from how it has been presented in the literature.Footnote 13
The corporate environmentalism literature has indeed come to the conclusion that studying the gradual turn to a sustainable agenda in the 1980s and 1990s as part of a business acceptance of its environmental impact may not be sufficient, since this fails to account for the continued expansion of fossil fuels in the same period. A paradox is thus raised, for instance by Ann-Kristin Bergquist in a recent lead article in Business History Review. Bergquist proposes that the rise of corporate environmentalism coincides in time with the Great Acceleration—in other words, with the manifold increase in CO2 emissions beginning in the 1970s. This raises questions as to why business did not do more.Footnote 14 But the literature mentioned here provides clues toward something that is quite different from inertia, namely, that business reacted against risks in the global environment by strategically acting to influence more desirable global environments. Inertia can be a form of strategic behavior, as can the active production of doubt, but the scenarios show yet another strategy: the attempt to move beyond problematic visions of the limits of natural resources by projecting visions that go far beyond such limits. The common denominator between Third Worldism and environmentalism was indeed the idea of limits, coming together in the 1967 claim by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) that oil was a limited resource and that its increasing value should be reflected in pricing. While the history of the scenarios does not permit us to say that Shell rejected evidence of climate change, it does permit the conclusion that scenarios became relevant to Shell in the context of the double whammy of the oil crisis and the limits debate, because their narrative structure allowed scenarists to project images of a future beyond limits. Previous work on the use of scenarios by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in the same period shows that the OECD also embraced scenarios as part of a discourse of rejecting the idea of physical limits and exploring economic futures driven by innovation and potential.Footnote 15 Scenarios were transnational artifacts that circulated in a field between international organizations, multinational corporations, and national planning commissions. The Shell scenarios, already in the early 1970s, became understood in this field as a pioneering exercise. As will be shown, a key element in the scenarios was the representation of Shell as embodying a virtuous market interest and even a kind of global common good.
The argument that follows unfolds in three parts: in the first section, the scenarios are discussed with a term taken from Science and Technology Studies as territorialization techniques directly shaped by the need to manage complex global time-space relations in oil. The second section shows that the scenarios changed a system of oil data and forecasts that had been in place for the large part of the twentieth century and had in fact been inherited from colonial times. The third section examines the scenario processes from the late 1960s to the mid-1990s and explores how what began as an explorative horizon-scan exercise in 1967 developed into a tool for envisioning the futures of global capitalism.
Scenarios as Territorialization Techniques
Scenarios were the topic of considerable hyperbole in a growing management literature in the 1980s, following the publication of two articles in the Harvard Business Review by Pierre Wack, the Shell scenarist par excellence. Wack claimed that the so-called Rapids scenarios in 1972 allowed Shell to foresee the price hike that followed the oil embargo in the winter of 1973–1974.Footnote 16 Wack's disciple Peter Schwartz continued the mythologization of scenarios, bringing the scenario tool from Shell to the Global Business Network (GBN) in the 1980s. At GBN, scenarios were used as training and consultancy techniques for leaders of the world's largest MNEs.Footnote 17 They were framed as new management tools for the “Next Wave,” a term taken from management guru Peter Drucker's 1970s work. Drucker argued that a large socioeconomic system could go from great efficiency and “reason” to severe diseconomies and chaos as a result of irrational reactions in the social system.Footnote 18
The term “territorialization techniques” has been suggested by a recent literature in business history and STS studies. “Territorialization” refers to the way in which economic actors manage time and space relations through future-oriented activities such as investment, speculation, and prospection. These activities are directly linked to territorial and temporal problems. Timothy Mitchell points out that early credit systems drew on territorial logics that linked the existence of surplus capital in Europe with possible investment opportunities in the New World. Capital, Mitchell says, set the future in the present, by pushing for a constant forward search for future rent.Footnote 19 Along the same line, Jonathan Levy proposes that capital is not simply a material factor embodied in equipment and money; capital is also a “forward looking valuation,” a prospective speculation on a future economy. This prospective valuation of capital is a precondition for the income-generation function of capital and should be understood, Levy argues, as one of the core functions of capital.Footnote 20 Levy's argument is more helpful here than are the frequent references in the financial sociology literature to the arguments of Frank Knight, who emphasized the need for business actors to calculate uncertainty and transform it into manageable risk but never linked this to more critical questions of the role of economic interest in the ordering of the world economy. As an alternative to Levy's conception of futurity as a function of capital, we may consider that futurity is part of the agency of capital and that future expectations and the management of temporal risk reflects specific interests of economic actors. By prospecting futures of risk, rent, and interest, the entrepreneurs and business entities that perform Levy's capital function actively shape economic futures. Thus, the techniques that economic actors use to intervene in the future territories of capital are worthy of attention, and a core suggestion of the present article is that the scenarios should be considered within a longer history of epistemic devices such as double bookkeeping, project or prospective planning, business plans, forecasts, and futures trading.Footnote 21 The emergence of such techniques is directly connected to the origins of the modern business organization. Reflections on the reach and scope of action across time and space were direct elements of MNEs’ integration from charter and holding companies to the modern corporation.Footnote 22
Temporal projections, including the need to open future markets in order to ensure returns on capital, also structured the relationship between early multinationals and the imperial state. Historical territorialization strategies were backed up with force in what Sven Beckert calls “armed trade.”Footnote 23 The oil majors—Anglo Persian Oil, later BP; Compagnie française de Pétrole, later Total; Exxon; and Royal Dutch Shell—were descendants of imperial corporate ventures and directly reliant on historically translated colonial territorial relationships.Footnote 24 Royal Dutch Shell was a product of Royal Dutch's monopoly on oil concessions in Sumatra and its merger in 1907 with the British trading company Shell, which bartered in colonial products and seashells. Shell was strategically bolstered by the British state at several moments in the first half of the twentieth century.Footnote 25 Like the British East India Company, Shell had not a board of directors but a committee of management directors holding together its British and Dutch side and including representatives of government.Footnote 26
Scenarios perform a kind of prospection that is different from the geological prospection of oil ventures, which shifted the gaze toward the political and social relationships that might affect the futures of the oil industry. While this was the innovation and newness of the scenarios from 1967 on, there were nevertheless historical precedents to such attempts at temporal prospection within the longer history of capitalism. Martin Giraudeau examines the management techniques that allowed the Du Pont family to transpose itself from revolutionary France to new territory in the American colonies. This territory was described in a set of “previsions” or “projects” that preceded settlement and that were strategically used to assemble capital and influence.Footnote 27 The “projects” were narrated scripts of how the economic life of the new settlement would unfold—in a sense, temporal maps of entrepreneurial growth. A key element in these scripts was ideas of the moral good of enterprise to territory.Footnote 28 It can be proposed that the scenarios fulfilled exactly this function of reshaping an idea of destiny for Shell in the turbulent years from the late 1960s on, by allowing for an apparent examination of possible futures in an era in which the virtuous character of big oil was fundamentally questioned. The scenarios were intended as communicative devices that demonstrated possible futures of the global territories of oil. As such, they aimed to convince both managers within the Shell Group and a wider set of trustees in Western governments and publics of the lasting role of the multinational oil corporation. As the scenarios developed, this moral destiny aspect increased in importance.Footnote 29 The suggestion could therefore be that scenarios were tools of influence for an era in which the influence over specific territories could not be backed up with armed force in the same way as before and in which the symbolic influence over images of the future thus became important. After the creation of OPEC in 1960, the oil-producing nations and the international oil companies disputed the claim to be the warden of a global resource that held the key to world economic stability. As performative devices, the scenarios aimed to demonstrate the virtue of specific forms of action to a multitude of audiences in the corporation itself, in global publics, in Western policymakers, and in the oppositional forces in host governments. The new frictions in precisely this set of relationships are what created a new and problematic situation for oil.
The scenarios were a response to a fundamentally new situation for the oil majors. This situation came from the loss of a historically constructed position as guarantor of Western consumers and global market interest. From the late 1960s, this position was challenged by conflicts in the relationship not only to former hosts but also to consumers (wary of prices) and Western governments (responsible for world monetary arrangements). This situation predated the more frequently cited environmental critique of drilling and pollution, which intensified in the late 1970s and 1980s and added to an already contested oil climate.Footnote 30 It is telling here that the first batch of scenarios was not merely used within the corporation but also spread to policymakers in the United Kingdom and the United States in order to alert them to the OPEC threat.Footnote 31
While the impetus behind the first scenario exercise in 1967 was the rise of OPEC and the risk of a supply constraint, the scenarios from the second and third exercise contained a much wider set of reflections on political and social reactions to rising oil prices in the Western world. The third and fourth generations of scenarios were directly linked to the responsibility of the global business actor in the active reconstruction of market values in response to 1970s “malaise.” These scenarios, then, were not just forms of market speculation. They contained analysis on the social context of the future business environment, norms of efficient state-market relationships, and projections of a desirable future value system. These remain key elements in the Shell scenarios, which today are performed by a large group of global experts and published online.
The “Conventional Truths” of Oil: Petroknowledge as a System of Expectation
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, multinationals were global structures and also thought of themselves as global actors. The idea of the corporation as a complex system of feedback effects and responses in a larger market or even world system (which is how Shell planners would see it from the 1960s on) had particular relevance to the oil business, because of the long lead times from prospection to exploration and development and because of the intrinsic uncertainty related to the longevity of fields. Shifts between oversupply and ideas of oil as a limited asset characterized the history of oil.Footnote 32 The role of oil as a limited asset should not be overstated. It was known in the oil industry that oil fields peaked and died. When M. King Hubbard, a geologist at Shell, presented his peak oil thesis in 1956 to the National Petroleum Institute in the United States, he predicted the end of American oil. But the abundance of Middle Eastern oil largely obliterated concerns over scarcity—until fears of a politically created supply constraint emerged in 1967.Footnote 33 In 1971, the head of Shell told the U.K. prime minister, Edward Heath, that Middle Eastern reserves were declining. In 1972, President Richard Nixon was forced to acknowledge a coming shortage of fuel and a structurally increased dependency on imports from the Middle East.Footnote 34 Underpinning Shell's decision to launch the scenarios was the perception that the supply problem was shifting from a geological to a political one. Oil was becoming a “political mineral,” with properties that had to be managed in the realm of values and expectations.Footnote 35
What Pierre Wack, the main planner at Shell, referred to as the “conventional truths” of oil were forms of foreknowledge that had been handed down through the historic structures of the oil market. Despite important price fluctuations in the barrel of crude, this market was based on an essentially stable set of expectations on growing production and demand.Footnote 36 Until the 1960s, world mineral markets reflected classical and mercantile conceptions of political economy. Within these, the rent on oil lay in the value creation after its extraction from the ground, but the oil itself was virtually worthless. Such notions were legally codified in concessions signed at the beginning of the twentieth century; these concessions started to expire in the 1950s and 1960s. The range of nationalizations that began in Mexico and Venezuela in the 1940s and culminated with the Libyan and Algerian revolutions overthrew the oil system.Footnote 37
The properties of the oil market were reflected in the production of statistics, price information, and oil forecasts.Footnote 38 From the early twentieth century, world oil was monitored in a system of forecasts and price information that has been described as a petroknowledge entanglement of state capital relations. Governments and oil companies shared expertise, often in joint petroleum committees or departments.Footnote 39 The development of independent oil committees stemmed from the energy crises. By the 1970s, the international oil companies were considered no longer as protectors of the oil market but as market interests in a larger conflict of positions between producers, companies, and consumers. This loss of position changed the system of petroknowledge. Oil forecasts came to play a new role: that of managing expectations in the oil market, by setting out images on the long-term future of oil. As OPEC was created in 1960, the OECD (created in the same year) responded with the creation of its own oil policy committee. So did the European Community.Footnote 40 In 1974, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was created.Footnote 41
The first scenarios produced by Shell can therefore be understood in the context of a shifting system of oil forecasts. A new role for oil knowledge was to set out expectations on the long-term development of oil and help redefine world market interest as well as which actor held the moral virtue of defending this interest.Footnote 42 OPEC started creating an independent system of oil data in 1960, pooling producer information and creating its own research organization. OPEC economists linked the production of oil data to the objective of achieving a global stabilization of prices through a new pricing formula.Footnote 43 As OPEC economists became a major source of input to the NIEO in 1966 and 1967, this pricing formula was linked to purchase power of Western manufactured goods and to inflation—in other words, to world industrial and monetary architecture.Footnote 44 In 1972, the idea of oil as a “wasteable resource” formulated in the constitution agreement of OPEC was replaced by the demand for sovereignty of a “limited” natural resource, the future depletion of which should be reflected in pricing.Footnote 45
The Belle Epoque and the World of Internal Contradictions: Envisioning a New Economic World Order
Like many other multinationals, Shell restructured its organization within the Shell Group in the 1950s, strengthening management and planning functions.Footnote 46 In 1959, Shell created a planning department, called Group Planning.Footnote 47 The first scenario processes in 1967 were a result of reflections within Group Planning on the managerial challenges created by the Shell Group's division across global space, with main offices and planning functions in London and the Netherlands and regional branches in oil-producing countries. Along with this came concerns with the upstream-downstream dimension. Group Planning modeled flows and performed five-year forecasts through a computerized model of linear programming called the Unified Planning Machinery. In 1967, the oil industry began to question the role of these forecasts, which predicted steady expansion. A study by BP foresaw constraint in supply resulting from OPEC action. The oil companies had just seen a historic defeat in negotiations with OPEC in Tehran.Footnote 48 In the same year, Pierre Wack and Shell planner Ted Newland participated in an experimental horizon-scan exercise with scenarios until the year 2000, in order to “test the viability of a ‘growth forever’ idea.”Footnote 49 The exercise took place at the American Hudson Institute and was led by former nuclear scientist Herman Kahn.
Wack had come to Group Planning from Shell France, where he had worked on scenarios for the French coal market in the context of European integration. At Shell France, Wack had come into contact with Kahn's corporate scenarios.Footnote 50 The corporate scenarios project at Hudson involved the world's largest multinationals in an exercise that entailed simulating a number of possible future business environments, or “worlds.” The scenarios listed a range of variables that included raw materials, political change, cultural values, and developments in the international system.Footnote 51 The results at Hudson, which were widely circulated among managers and planners all over the world, gave essentially two scenarios: a “standard” world of harmony, organized around free trade and market relations; and its opposite, the “world of internal contradictions” (WOC), a world of growing tensions, protectionism, and government dirigisme.Footnote 52 In Shell's first scenario exercise, the standard world was renamed the “Belle Epoque.” The Belle Epoque depicted a world of continued growth, in which a “general shortage of raw materials” had not materialized. The Third World would “experience varying degrees of economic frustration” but remain powerless. By the end of the century, the multinational corporation would dominate world trade and industrial production. The WOC, in contrast, was marked by the new political factor in oil, triggering “dirigiste tendencies in many industrial countries as well as the major producing areas.” Supply constraints in the South unleashed detrimental political reactions in the West, effectively sidelining market interest. The oil industry became the subject of government regulation, and the oil majors declined and died, incapable, like the historic coal majors, of transitioning into other markets.Footnote 53 The WOC scenario made an impact within Shell, where it led to the realization that governmental relationships had to be cultivated much more carefully.Footnote 54
In the years following the 1967 exercise, Shell planners became convinced that OPEC was strategically involved in shifting public perceptions on oil and that the oil industry had to respond by alerting its own managers, Western policymakers, and publics to the dangers in letting the former hosts define the global market interest. In 1971, Group Planning began working on the Rapids scenarios.Footnote 55 The Rapids were made up by the behavior of actors who disturbed the upstream-downstream flow by acting on nationalist and protectionist preferences. An unholy alliance of OPEC, Western governments, and environmentalists embraced a new idea of conservation. According to the Rapids, a “nostalgic world” was impossible. The Rapids scenarios highlighted the desirability of a reinvented Belle Epoque world—one in which the West, led by its multinationals, once again showed the way forward, through “economic mastery, growth ethic and self confidence.” The question was how the industry would be able to play this role—a question that was subsequently put in a questionnaire to all regional managers of the Shell Group.Footnote 56
The Rapids scenarios paved the way for the insight within Group Planning that scenarios were a useful tool with which to move beyond immediate strategic concerns and shape new images of the future of oil. The role of the scenarios was to create a “Lichtbild—an inner image of future success for the corporation,” which could then be diffused to management.Footnote 57 From this conclusion that the scenarios could serve to identify new future visions came, in turn, two insights: first, between 1971 and 1974, that scenarios were a key instrument in devising a strategic response to OPEC essentially by splitting the interests of Middle Eastern and African producers; and second, after 1974, that the key to a reasserted influence of the oil majors in a future world lay in developing new points of harmonization and concertation with OPEC within a growing world oil market.
The Rapids showed that OPEC suffered from internal tensions regarding different national dependencies on Western currency and sales. The scenarios could be used to think through and exploit these internal tensions, which would eventually break OPEC.Footnote 58 Within OPEC, fundamental differences existed between large oil producers that held important reserves in crude and dollars and smaller ones whose development needs exceeded their capacity of payment and their fields. The scenarios brought attention to the fact that leading OPEC members such as Saudi Arabia and Iran could not absorb oil revenues in their domestic markets.Footnote 59 While this was in itself a reason for restraining supply, it was also a problem that, in Shell's understanding, would undermine regime rule in the longer term, creating a susceptibility to Western pressure and a subsequent integration of oil exports into an expanding world market. The second problem that the Rapids identified was the divergence of interests between high absorbers and low absorbers. Shell deduced through the scenario exercises that Africa was a more promising future market for exploration than the Middle East, for instance, through the development of the oil- and gas-rich fields in the Niger Delta. In 1974, as a result of the Rapids process, Group Planning began systematically interviewing all Shell managers to make them “come away from the regret of lost circumstances and hurt” so that they could then consider new opportunities, more precisely, those that concerned exploration in non-OPEC areas.Footnote 60 In the next batch of scenarios, in the early 1980s, it was clearly stated that a major rift had occurred between those Arab nations that sought to “to preserve and conserve a depleting asset” and those, mainly in Africa, that were dependent on exploitation for their developmental needs. In 1982, the “Hard Times” or “Restructured Growth” scenarios argued that African nations presented a major opportunity for the oil majors and that Shell, in particular, needed to “rethink its relationship to the developing world.” This led to studies of the fifteen largest energy consumers in the developing world, to which Shell could become a major supplier of electrification and fuel.Footnote 61
In the third set of scenarios, by the mid-1980s, ideas of confrontation with OPEC had given way to a new co-existence with producer countries around the idea of a shared market interest. Oil had proven to turn “revolutionaries into pragmatists.”Footnote 62 The acceptance of higher prices by the international companies had brought about more moderate regimes in the Middle East, with whom it was now possible to elaborate a “comfortable scenario for all.” Producers had succeeded in taking control of the oil market but failed to develop strategies for the day after depletion. Therefore, they found themselves in a time squeeze, and only a “limit to national protectionism and growth of confidence in the national capability for global optimization and competition” could help them become true competitors for the time “after this resource is depleted.” Multinationals, on the other hand, had to recognize that “huge profits become political vulnerabilities.” If they accepted this, they could use their position to prevent OPEC from distorting the market and push OPEC nations to embrace internationalism.Footnote 63 Thus, against a “Divided World” scenario stood once again a global scenario of a unified and prosperous world organized around a universal market interest and a dominant position of international oil companies.Footnote 64 Now, the scenarios identified a new prospective audience in the top-level managers of the Gulf nations and their nationalized oil companies, with the idea that these could be drawn into a process of writing development scenarios from which “appropriate choices can be made so that frustration and disruption do not become the sour fruits of the tree of energy resources. . . . Interdependence requires the recognition by the consumers and the producers of their respective needs and an acceptance and willingness of both groups to work toward their desired future.” In the 1980s, such joint scenarios were important in a new regional dialogue with OPEC and the IEA, and in the coming decade Shell itself started producing global development scenarios.Footnote 65
Managing Contradictory Societal Expectations
The core insight from the 1967 scan was that “political decisions might control production levels” and that a crisis of supply would create a set of confrontations between governments and international oil companies. Scenarios were thus identified as tools with which to “cultivate good relations with governments.”Footnote 66 After 1973, it became clear that the price hike caused by the embargo had indeed set in motion a new confrontation between Western governments and oil companies. The latter took home spectacular profits from the “OPEC gift.” This exposed them to the risk of government intervention—not least in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party was entertaining the idea of nationalizing the oil industry. In the European Community, there were proposals to bypass the oil companies and negotiate directly with OPEC.Footnote 67 In the Netherlands, Shell's other home nation, the Den Uyl government had begun a direct dialogue with environmentalist groups. The idea that dirigisme and the risk of regulation would transform the oil market led Group Planning to perform a set of country-specific scenarios that targeted political risk, sociopolitical changes, and public expectations. In these scenarios, price hikes on crude sparked defensive reactions from governments that were caught up in a spiraling logic of “interest group” demands.Footnote 68 The “Hard Times” scenarios depicted a Western world of malaise, suffering from political interventionism, government deficits, and rigidities in the decision-making process.Footnote 69 In 1983, Shell United Kingdom produced a set of U.K.-specific scenarios, in which the decline of the British Empire and a “historical legacy of cultural bias against industry” weighed heavily on business and an ill-fated form of individualization has sapped a previously existing working-class culture. There was political overload, and big oil no longer appeared to be accepted in British society.Footnote 70 The scenarios said: “There is no longer any sense of compatibility between the self-interest of private companies and the public interest of the countries in which they operate. … This (relationship) will continue to deteriorate due to the way that a proportion of oil revenues appear to be unearned.”Footnote 71
Shell's official historiography also refers to the shock, at Shell, in discovering that the modern MNE was the object of a set of “contradictory societal expectations.”Footnote 72 The scenarios described an impossible situation in which multinational companies were charged with maintaining the quality of life of consumers and at the same time expected to carry a new load of social and environmental responsibility.Footnote 73 A new element in the scenarios was thus the problem of how to manage contradictory societal expectations and social reactions that posed risks to company action. This included, specifically, protests against drilling and concern over human rights issues around exploration sites. A 1979 Group Planning document titled “Societal Aspects of Large Industrial Projects” began as follows: “modern society places many constraints on the freedom of action of business management.” Preeminent among these constraints were destructive societal reactions to industrial projects. Social contestation had changed the power relations within the market. “Participation, like decolonization, is irreversible.” A new task for the scenarios was thus to understand the “rationality and logic of social action,” so that management could take this into account in the planning of new projects.Footnote 74
The concern was, in other words, not to foresee or manage environmental consequences but rather to pacify social contestation around drilling and extraction. The scenarios stated that if relevant populations could be included in the planning of projects, their fears and protests could be calmed, a sense of participation and inclusion achieved, and the groundwork therefore laid for projects that, owing to their lead times and capital investments, would otherwise appear highly risky. The scenarios’ goals were to “find out where there is potential to overcome firm resistance to a project,” to “get involved early on issues and mobilize constituencies for a project,” and to “ensure the efficacy of projects that are genuinely in the public interest” even when corporate actions might be perceived as “manipulative.” Shell, the scenarios said, had to perform “open planning,” to “water the roots” by involving people in dialogue and decision making and helping them recognize that they were participating in “creating their own future.”Footnote 75 In this role, scenarios had been pioneered in Shell's Dutch office. Regional scenarios for the Netherlands emphasized a new situation for multinational corporations in which environmentalism and leftist social movements had reshaped the business environment. The conclusion from these scenarios is noteworthy: it was in Shell's interest to bring about a transition to a society of new values in which the current rejection of growth was replaced by a “constructive and reasonable attitude” and a general “feeling of progress.” This feeling would emanate not from government but from private enterprise.Footnote 76
Shaping Capitalism Futures: The New Wave Scenarios and the Global Business Network
The scenarios caused a rift between Shell management and Group Planning. By the 1980s, Shell scenarists no longer thought that the oil industry had successfully navigated the oil crises. On the contrary, they thought the scenarios demonstrated an end to the dependence on cheap fossil fuels and that the oil industry was now on the other side of the “oil mountain.” The other side of the oil mountain was either a great downhill run or a new “third shift” or “next wave” in the structure of the world economy.Footnote 77 Scenarios reflected the idea that capitalism moved through structural waves, not market conjectures, an idea that became central in an emerging management and innovation literature from the 1970s. In the Rapids, the set of challenges of the 1970s were depicted as symptoms of a previously stable system now in violent transformation and as representing a major strategic moment for the business actor to define the future economic shift.Footnote 78
From the mid-1980s, the scenarios were increasingly defined inside Shell as a tool for changing corporate culture in such a way as to teach managers to identify this new wave.Footnote 79 In 1981, Wack gave a talk to Harvard Business School during which he presented the scenarios as a neo-Schumpetarian instrument for foreseeing the beginning and destruction of business environments.Footnote 80 The declining market was the perfect moment for a business actor to shape the future forces of expansion, he suggested.Footnote 81 In 1988, Wack, Napyer Collins, and Peter Schwartz created the Global Business Network.Footnote 82 GBN was an outcrop of meetings at the Santa Fe Institute, a 1980s hub for discussions on leadership, management, and innovation in the new economy. At Santa Fe, the corporation was understood as a biological organism and as a driver of changes in an evolutionary system; in Collins's words, “It wants to survive and develop.”Footnote 83 Scenarios were viewed as tools of learning in a changing environment, not least by Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth catalog and a leading environmentalist thinker.Footnote 84 At Santa Fe, the dependence on natural resources was seen a thing of the past, a marker of the dying wave. Oil companies were relics unless they devoted themselves to new energy futures. Seminars and activities at Santa Fe rejected the idea of limits, as did many other sites of both business and counterculture in the United States.Footnote 85
The acceptance of the fact that fossil fuels both were a depletable resource and had detrimental environmental effects was not the same thing as accepting the difficult idea that the capitalist system itself was bound by a determined relationship between growth, development, and natural resources. Kahn led the countercharge by arguing that all changes in a complex system triggered counterreactions, feedback mechanisms, and corrections, leading to a new systems equilibrium.Footnote 86 These thoughts had a major influence on Shell's scenario department. Wack and other Shell planners contributed to the energy futures research project in the Harvard Business School in 1979, which in the aftermath of the second OPEC embargo came to the conclusion that nuclear power would not fill energy needs and recommended new production on U.S. soil. The energy futures project was an important step in moving the oil industry from ideas of glut to ideas of technological change, sustainable extraction, and new fields. The energy futures project also seems to have been vital in developing ideas from Kahn and others that scenarios could be used as an alternative to the computer models used by the Club of Rome and hence move beyond the static message of limits that seemed to have contributed to the confrontation with the developing world.Footnote 87 The emphasis on the dynamic message of leadership in a coming market transition based on new values (including sustainability) became Shell's way of meeting the environmentalist charge. At this point, somewhat paradoxically, scenarios could become both tools for introducing sustainability and techniques for imagining a new future for the oil industry. In 1988, Group Planning wrote a confidential report on greenhouse gas effects that suggested using scenarios in order to predict a coming set of profound disturbances in earth climatic and atmospheric conditions resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. The report did not deny responsibility; instead, it argued that the industry would have to “work out the part it should play in the development of policies and programmes to tackle the whole problem. It will not be appropriate to take the whole burden, for the issues are ones that only governments can tackle. But it has very strong interests at stake and much expertise to contribute. . . . It also has its own reputation to consider, there being much potential for public anxiety and pressure group activity.”Footnote 88 The 1988 report is not in the scenario archives, and it seems that the issue of climate change was kept to a restricted use in Group Planning.
Meanwhile, the message of the GBN scenarios was that of a bright new future for the oil industry on the other side of the oil mountain. The “Next Wave” scenarios were about innovation, creativity, and value change and emphasized MNEs as leaders of transition. Physical limits to natural resources would not put constraints on capitalist growth: “potential is only limited by the capabilities of the people.”Footnote 89 In 1985, GBN scenarios identified a new generation of achievement-oriented young people, a promising turn to a new kind of conservatism in politics, and a new and creative management culture in the multinationals.Footnote 90 “Strategic opportunists . . . who do not ask what their government can do for them but realize that they have to create their own future” were the drivers of the New Wave, both in the Western world and in a new and modern Third World where people “realize that the NIEO is over and that they have to create their own future.”Footnote 91 In 1989, GBN scenarios suggested that a new global “Market World” could be created if the multinational corporation “invoked the organizational power of storytelling” and explored alternative futures.Footnote 92 Sustainability now entered into this cosmopolitan account as part of a set of market-based global values.Footnote 93 In the mid-1990s, the GBN began to argue that this globalized world was in fact organized on the basis of the multinational corporation. The nation-state was doomed to wilt, but the corporation could be expected to promote cultural leadership and shape political change for the common good.Footnote 94 In a 1997 talk to the GBN WorldView meeting, the management consultant Peter Schwarz argued that the future capitalist world would no longer be inhabited by citizens but by consumers. This turned the relationship between multinationals and people into the crucial social axis, requiring a new form of business social responsibility and eliminating the need for politics.Footnote 95
Conclusion: Defining the Destiny of Global Capital
The purpose of this article was to ask a question: Why were scenarios used? It was also to suggest an answer, which insists that while scenarios may well have been used within Shell to discuss environmental concerns or issues of corporate social responsibility, this was not in fact their primary role and it was not for this purpose that scenarios were introduced within Shell. The main role of scenarios was to invent and project new visions of the future territories of oil in a world beyond limits. The impetus behind the Shell scenarios was the realization that the business environment of the 1970s was shaken up by a set of new political factors and that the corporation itself needed to actively shape a future world optimal for its purposes. To the oil majors, the twin challenges of the publication of the Limits to Growth report in 1972 and the embargo of the Arab oil-producing nations in the winter of 1973 introduced a new risk in what they saw as a new wave of political interventionism and threat of global regulation. They reacted with the creation of new think tank and consultancy structures, in which the idea of market coordination and innovation played a key role. Scenarios were an important part of this move. The scenario processes, from 1967 on, had one thing in common: namely, the stereotypical juxtaposition of a world of perfect harmony, organized around a set of virtuous market relations, to a deeply undesirable world of chaos and decline, dominated by state action. In the First World, the multinational corporation represents a common world market interest and an ideal global society. Therefore, the scenarios foster a conception of the international oil company as the custodian of global stability and producer of global values.