The philosophers Antti Salminen and Tere Vadén in their essay Energy and Experience observe that the visions of limitless abundance unleashed by the rise of the modern oil industry in the late 19th century coincided with the death of God. The gleaming new industrial civilisation to be powered by fossil fuels seemed to open a path to a different kind of transcendence.
People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons by Ashley Dawson is a book haunted by the dream of infinite energy and the boundless new forms of life it promises. But he fears it is a recurring illusion just as liable to deceive solar utopians as those who believe hydrocarbons can be pumped endlessly into the atmosphere without consequence.
For there can be no source of infinite power on a finite planet. Energy will always be a precious resource to be managed wisely within the bounds of what the Earth can sustain. The central argument of Dawson’s rich essay is that mainstream faith in green capitalism — the expectation that benign liberal elites will be able to channel the ingenuity of the market to the development of the technologies that will save us — misunderstands the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. No: the energy transition must be wrenched away from the short-term horizons of capital and entrusted to public institutions subject to democratic control. For Dawson ‘the core problem the climate justice movement confronts is controlling the means of production’.
We have to reconceive energy as a shared inheritance, to be directed for the collective good: ‘In order to make this power shift, we need to stop thinking of energy as a commodity and instead conceive of it as part of the global commons, a vital element in the great stock of air, water, plants, and collectively created cultural forms like music and language that should be regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.’
Reframing the Commons
That vision should inform a new understanding of the legal basis of the global commons, which is still rooted in the ancient Roman concept of the res communis omnium: the assumption that the planet’s fundamental constituents — the air, the seas, the great forests, the open plains — by necessity transcend claims to ownership. But by failing to assert the positive claim that the commons belong to everyone — rather than the negative one that they belong to no one — the definition leaves the way open for the carving up of the world’s resources by those who are prepared to claim them. The ‘upshot is that things designated as the collective heritage of mankind have tended to become the property of the first person or state strong enough to jab a flag into them.’
The Earth’s energy resources have come to be seen as commodities to be bought and sold, rather than a gift to be consciously managed. And it’s a market that is well out of control. Overviews of the severity of our predicament are now so common in climate crisis literature that the eye is tempted to glaze over the well rehearsed facts and figures. But Dawson’s framing of the situation is particularly sobering.
Non-renewable forms of energy still account for some 80 percent of global consumption. The rate at which fossil fuels are being burned may be falling, but aggregate carbon emissions continue to rise. The International Energy Agency predicts energy demand will rise by a third by 2040, the equivalent of adding another China and India to today’s global economy.
Although demand for coal and oil is expected to level off and eventually decline, the use of ‘natural gas’ is predicted to increase by 45 percent over the next 20 years. Gas is cleaner than oil, and is often marketed as a transitional fuel, but its main component is methane, which warms the atmosphere near 90 times as much as carbon dioxide. The supply of natural gas is growing to meet energy demand at a faster rate than renewables, which currently generate only some seven percent of global electricity. And renewables account for a much smaller fraction of the energy supplying the transportation, agricultural, construction and industrial sectors, which together account for 80 percent of global demand.
Dawson highlights the fracking boom as a particularly egregious example of how the market serves the entrenched interests that sustain the hydrocarbons industry. The vertiginous growth of the shale gas sector has been supercharged by a generous financial environment facilitated by the banking sector, notably the ultra-low interest rates maintained after the 2008 crisis, which has encouraged a tide of heavily indebted companies to sustain loss-making operations by borrowing trillions of dollars. The result has been runaway overproduction that secured easy returns for fracking executives, the banks, and shareholders.
Mainstream climate change mitigation narratives suggest such excesses can be regulated away by protocols and mechanisms designed to steer the market towards a ‘green capitalism’. For Dawson that’s wishful thinking. Models for reaching zero-carbon by 2050 are based on the assumption that ‘negative emissions’ technology will pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, allowing us to overshoot the Paris Agreement 2C target then reverse the damage.
But the carbon capture technologies this framework relies upon are in very early stages of development. And toleration of an overshoot overlooks the feedback effects that exceeding the 2C limit may unleash, such as the diminishing of the albedo effect as the polar icecaps melt, the release of methane from reservoirs beneath the Arctic tundra, and the drying out of rainforests. Expectations that renewable and energy efficiency technologies will simply price out fossil fuel energy are also complacent. Though the contribution of renewables is increasing, hydrocarbons continue to generate the same proportion of electricity as 20 years ago, and electricity consumption is far higher today.
The ‘political unconscious of solarpunk’
Some of the book’s most compelling pages turn their fire on the unrealistic expectations generated by understandable excitement about the possibilities of emerging renewables technologies, particularly solar. They start with the seductive power of the observation that we need only harness a fraction of the solar energy that constantly washes over the Earth to meet all of our energy demands. The sunlight that hits the planet every 90 minutes could supply the energy we use in an entire year. Runaway speculation driven by that tantalising possibility inspires the solar utopianism that has found its purest expression in the genre of sci-fi known as solarpunk, charged by visions of post-scarcity futures in which we have marshalled the power of the sun, and opened the way to radical new forms of communal luxury.
Here, solar energy is a form of magic, conjuring the same illusions as Salminen and Vadén suggested oil once did: the infinite possibilities of the sunlight of the present promising to take the place of the buried sunshine of the past. The illusion of effortless, limitless power is enforced by the aesthetics of solar, with its shimmering, transparent infrastructures. Solar acquires ‘heavenly associations,’ writes Dawson, ‘embodying all of the qualities often ascribed to the divine: dazzling light, healing warmth, ubiquitous and infinite goodness’.
But the materials on which solar and other renewables rely must be extracted from the earth, just like oil, gas and coal. Solar modules need silicon, copper, aluminium and rare earths; wind turbines are built of steel and iron; and storage batteries run on lithium, vanadium and other rare metals. Visions of highways flowing with fleets of electric cars, for example, overlook the fact that their manufacture is just as resource intensive as the old kind, each one requiring significant resources of lithium, rubber, plastic, metal and paint. Replacing the world’s current stock of two billion combustion-powered vehicles with electric models would rip out much of the Earth’s remaining reserves of copper, cobalt and other metals.
Indeed wind, solar and hydrogen are significantly more material intensive than hydrocarbon infrastructures. Renewables demand more land and steel, and far longer transmission lines than nonrenewables: solar and wind fields for example take up hundreds of times more space than a gas plant. And that land can be appropriated by renewables corporations just as ruthlessly as oil and gas barons.
For Dawson the ‘political unconscious of solarpunk’ all too easily ignores its material dependence on the same relations of production as the fossil fuel industry. If ‘oil is a fairytale’ of limitless freedom, in the words of essayist Ryszard Kapuściński, so is a limitless solar economy. A credible solar commons must be responsibly managed, requiring intelligent collective control over the pace of technological development and the stewardship of limited resources.
Dawson finds models for a viable commons in the struggles for public control of energy that have been waged over the past century. He highlights the ideal of ‘Giant Power’ articulated by the Pennsylvania legislator and conservationist Gifford Pinchot in the 1920s, who argued for the public management of a electric grid that would connect every home and business across the state, ensuring everyone would benefit from the ready supply energy made possible by advances in electrification. Pinchot’s vision anticipated the New Deal ideal of ‘abundant life’ proclaimed by Franklin D Roosevelt in his address at the opening of the Grand Coulee Dam. The New Deal held out the promise, however imperfectly realised, of a nation-wide network of local energy cooperatives, member-owned and controlled enterprises designed to ensure electrification would reach everyone, and that all could have a say in its management.
Those ideals find expression today in the Tuscan Solar Commons, the first in the United States, where community organisations receive support to install solar panels that feed-in to the local grid, and the energiewende, Germany’s transition to a low-carbon, nuclear-free energy system, an — ongoing — revolution led by grass roots struggles for energy democracy. Renewables now generate roughly 50 percent of Germany’s electricity, up from 10 percent as recently as the early 2000s.
These initiatives approach Dawson’s vision of national energy grids comprised of clusters of microgrids managed by community cooperatives, and connected by peer-to-peer digital technologies affording users transparent windows on where energy is coming from, how much is being used, and how much it costs. Indeed the very nature of renewable energy sources suggest distributed management structures — solar, wind and waves can be found and harvested everywhere — in contrast with the command-and-control structures generated by the geographical concentration of fossil fuel deposits.
The energiewende offers indications of how public control over energy might be asserted. The struggle of activists in Berlin to win control of the city’s grid has gathered public support by pressing the case that community ownership would lower utility bills and open the way for the development of social infrastructures that would further reduce energy consumption, such as public transport and zero-energy housing, advances that private utilities with fossil fuel assets and obligations to shareholders seeking short-term returns cannot match.
For Dawson these and other struggles illustrate the blend of activism at local and state level necessary to bring about participative public control. The bias of the state towards centralisation can only be overcome through grassroots action. But the regulatory frameworks and allocation of resources on which community power depends must be designed and enforced by the state. Germany’s network of energy cooperatives were only able to bloom through the support of policy set at national level.
The state will have to engineer the big power shifts necessary to make the decisive break with fossil fuels. Dawson suggests something like the strategy outlined the Democracy Collaborative for bringing the oil and gas sector into public ownership. Governments would prepare the way for socialisation by undermining the sector’s market value through the removal of the subsidies it currently receives, and enforcing tough regulations on the exploration and production of oil and gas. States would then take majority shareholdings in the oil and gas majors, securing the control necessary to wind them down. Shareholders would be given incentives to roll their investments into renewable energy stocks, and assistance would be given to workers and communities currently dependent on fossil fuels to find new opportunities in the green economy.
A modest utopia
In People’s Power Ashley Dawson has given us a clear-eyed, unsentimental argument for the assertion of public control over energy, control that does not deteriorate into distant, technocratic government. The state is necessary to pull the levers that create the framework in which distributed power can flourish. But the state must be subject to democratic oversight. In his discussion of the Tucson Solar Commons, Germany’s energiewende, and other initiatives, Dawson identifies models for effective, distributed power.
But the book is less clear on how this model of decentralised power could be introduced with sufficient speed to force through the energy transition in the limited time we have available. In their influential Climate Leviathan Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright articulate a vision of distributed power close to Dawson’s, but with keen awareness that the urgency of the crisis cannot wait until preferred forms of government can be established. For Mann and Wainwright the crisis is all too likely to require the assertion of power by a technocratic elite that will gather to itself the powers necessary to force through a transition programme, on the basis that a global emergency must be managed by global power structures.
The two books should be read together. For his part, Dawson offers a clearly written blueprint for a world in which energy might be managed rationally, for the collective good. And for all his seeming radicalism, his is a modest utopia. He understands the seductive power of solar utopianism that might lead us to believe the energy of the Sun can be harnessed without infrastructure that makes intolerable demands of the Earth.
Dawson hopes for a world that aspires to nothing more, and nothing less, than the material security energy brings. Some one billion people currently lack access to electricity around the world; the majority of the population in a vast region such as sub-Saharan Africa still lacks modern power, nearly three billion people do not have access to clean cooking facilities, relying instead on biomass, coal, or kerosene for cooking. Dawson wants ‘a society … grounded in popular planning focused on the genuine needs that go glaringly unmet today, including good jobs for all, a massive reduction of work time, universal affordable housing, functioning basic infrastructure, universal health care, and guaranteed access to basic energy needs for all.’
Seeming unremarkable aspirations, but so far away. People’s Power offers a blueprint for realising them that might seem implausible in its radicalism. But as the storm clouds gather, is mainstream incrementalism any more plausible?
People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons by Ashley Dawson is published by OR Books.