The Coming Transition: Fossil Capital and Our Energy Future
What do we talk about when we talk about energy? As central to our existence as energy has always been, it remains not only elusive but, for many, taken for granted as well. Engaging this line of questioning from the outset is crucial before we can begin to realistically imagine any sort of event, or series of events, that resembles an energy transition, especially a desirable one. When we speak of energy, we speak at once of that which materially makes us “go,” such as fossil fuels, as well as the more abstract notion of potentiality – on the one hand, “the ability to do work” as per the classical definition, and on the other, as the energy historian Vaclav Smil (2010: vii) puts it, that which “encompasses a veritable universe of states and processes.” But, perhaps most importantly, energy is a social relation.2 When we speak of energy and how it operates in everyday life, then, we speak not of mechanical, teleological processes that Smil alludes to, but of relations—relations both social and economic. In this sense, energy is dialectical, operating at once on the level of infrastructure and on the level of superstructure.
Historically, however, one antinomy of this dialectic has been a privileged site—energy has been perceived almost exclusively in economic and techno-scientific terms. Indeed, energy has and, for the most part, continues to be understood as an economic and techno-scientific relation—as a commodity, a force of production, and so on. Such narrow views of energy make something that resembles desirable transition all the more unimaginable. Building on the efforts of those working in the energy humanities, this paper emphasizes the social, cultural, and political role of energy in the coming energy transition while ultimately arguing that a post-carbon future is a decidedly post-capitalist one as well.
And transition is coming. The imminence of a world after oil continues to haunt and shape our collective cultural imaginaries in the form of bleak catastrophism on the one hand and techno-utopian visions of a post-carbon future on the other. Without falling into the tempting trap of catastrophism that dwells upon an unavoidably doomed planet, we must recognize the imminence of transition. The kind of catch-all Unobtanium found in the pages of science fiction—a fabled source of clean energy that can be substituted for fossil fuels without altering, for better or worse, the already-existing relations purported by the fossil economy—is precisely this: a fiction.3 We must move beyond a purely technical approach to energy and recognize that it is tied to struggles for a more democratic and equitable future. A desirable and equitable post-carbon future is by necessity a post-capitalist one as well. With increasing frequency, activists and critics find in the current energy impasse an opportunity to shift dominant understandings of what energy is and what it does. Many of these activists, artists, critics, and scholars work together—closely associated with groups such as After Oil, Platform, the Petrocultures Research Group, and many more—to underscore the ways in which questions about energy are at once social, ecological, and economic.4
This paper builds on and contributes to the broader conceptual and political trajectories in the field increasingly referred to as the energy humanities.5 These trajectories take as their starting point a fundamental recognition that the energy question is (and has always been) a social one. In an epoch defined unquestionably by the relationship between fossil fuels and global capital and (likely) irreversible anthropogenic climate change paired with the crises upon crises that it instigates, challenging the ways in which energy, and energy transition, is imagined as a purely economic or scientific process is an urgent political task. To express the necessity and urgency of a social conception of energy transition, this paper works through three major movements. First, it develops a theory of fossil capital, elaborating on and historicizing the ways in which fossil fuels and global capitalism have been recently conceptualized as co-determinant.6 By working through a historical materialist critique of both oil and capitalism , the work I build on here emphasizes the significant role that energy plays in the totality of social, ecological, and economic relations. Then, I extend this theory of fossil capital—as well as arguments regarding energy’s fundamental sociality—to discuss the ways in which energy transitions must also be thought of simultaneously as social, economic, and ecological transitions, rather than purely or primarily technological ones.7 I do this by examining major historical energy transitions through the lens of fossil capital. Finally, I examine two recent efforts to halt or slow the expansion of fossil capital and accelerate transition: divestment campaigns from a number institutions and governments, as well as the blockade efforts from the Unist’ot’en camp to halt the construction of a number of pipelines on First Nations land, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline.8 The Unist’ot’en camp’s efforts can be framed as a launching point to discuss the futures of struggles against extractivism. Throughout this paper, I intend to be provocative rather comprehensive, arguing that a desirable and equitable energy transition will emerge from the development of a counter-hegemonic movement built on a politics of energy that is categorically against (and beyond) the twin hegemonies of fossil fuels and global capitalism.
Theorizing Fossil Capital: Energy Infrastructures, Energy Superstructures
From oil flows capitalism as we still know it. -- Imre Szeman (2007)
Energy’s place within lived experience under a given dominant mode of production, as well as its fundamental link to these respective modes of production, has been a critical blind spot for much of history. In their monumental refiguring of the cultural study of energy, In the Servitude of Power (1986), M. Jean-Claude Debeir et al. argue that the impulse to view energy in narrowly economic terms occurred largely because of the increased scientificity of energy in the nineteenth century. This ultimately decoupled energy from its implicit sociality, relegating its study and theorization to the realm of economics and hard science (xii-xiii). Despite the vast socio-cultural impact of steam power on British and American society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, energy continued to be understood exclusively in terms of its infrastructural significance until the early twenty-first century. My goal here is to explore the ways in which the twin hegemonies of fossil fuels and global capitalism are co-determining and symbiotic.
To move beyond the limits of earlier technical approaches, Debeir et al. historicize energy by developing the concept of “energy systems” to describe how energy functions economically, socially, ecologically, and politically. Energy systems, they point out, are “the original combination of diverse converter chains which draw on determined sources of energy and depend on each other, initiated or controlled by classes or social groups which develop and consolidate on the basis of this control” (5). What Debeir et al. show by examining energy systems throughout history—from prehistory to post-industrialization and beyond—is that energy forms do not determine the shape of society, but rather are deeply embedded in the social and economic systems in which they function. “While there is no energy determinism,” they argue, “there is a powerful energy determination at work in all societies … the energy determination is itself determined: it is the result of the interplay of economic, demographic, psychological, intellectual, social and political parameters operating in the various human societies” (13). These observations allow them to unravel the complex relationship between dominant sources of energy and economic and social systems. “There is of course an intrinsic logic to the evolution of energy systems,” they write, “but it interacts closely with the specific contradictions of capitalism … In this respect, although we should not seek the origin of the crisis of capitalist production in the oil crisis, we cannot overlook the fact that the energy factor played a significant role” (159-60). Here, the groundwork is laid to establish a fundamental connection between oil and global capital.
If communism was Soviet power plus electrification, then global capitalism as we continue to know it is Western state and corporate power plus fossilization. Lenin’s oft-quoted adage and its fossil-fuel revision demonstrate an important relationship between dominant modes of production and the forms of energy available at a given historical moment. Marx observed as much when in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) he posited a deterministic, almost causal relation between modes of production and the forces of production that sustain them: “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist” (92, emphasis added). Marx’s emphases on the determinant role of forces of production here, particularly with regard to energy, have been largely overlooked in Marxist theory and criticism.9 More recently, scholarship in the emerging field of the energy humanities revisits and rearticulates the significant role that energy plays in production, in culture, in politics, and so on. Prompted by this attention to energy, Imre Szeman challenges conventional understandings of the phases of history and dominant modes of production, asking: “What if we were to think about the history of capital not exclusively in geopolitical terms, but in terms of the forms of energy available to it at any given historical moment?” (806). What Szeman highlights here is an alternative, provocative understanding of the epochs of capitalism—and of history more generally—placing due emphasis on the role that forms of energy play in determining the characteristics of a given capitalism. Such periodization can play a significant role in identifying key aspects of past and future energy transitions.
Capitalism as the dominant mode of production is important to underscore here. In production, capitalism, as Marx demonstrates in Capital and elsewhere, produces the conditions for its reproduction. If available forms of energy play a significant role in maintaining the dominant mode of production, does it not follow that dominant forms of energy operate significantly in this equation of reproduction, too? How are dominant forms of energy reproduced, and are they reproduced in tandem with dominant modes of production? Does the reproduction of one insure that of the other? In a world where the production and consumption of dominant energy forms like fossil fuels has increasingly catastrophic consequences—from the ever-looming threat of global climate change to the myriad of oil spills over the last decade—understanding the mechanisms that maintain these relations is increasingly pertinent.
Viewing the relationship between dominant modes of production and forces of production, particularly energy, as dialectical or co-determining is an emergent and on-going project, with a number of critics approaching similar conclusions. In “System Failure,” Szeman argues that instead of viewing the epochs of capitalism as defined by stages of Imperialism, a notion initially developed by Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1917), we should look to dominant forms of energy. Szeman explains:
So steam capitalism in 1765 creates the conditions for the first great subsumption of agricultural labor into urban factories (a process of proletarianization that is only now coming to a completion), followed by the advent of oil capitalism in 1859 (with its discovery in Titusville, Pennsylvania), which enabled powerful and forceful new modalities of capitalist reproduction and expansion. (806)
Huber follows Szeman’s observations when he argues that energy must be understood as a social and material relation. “In order to engage energy issues from a historical materialist perspective,” writes Huber, “the literature must move from conceptions that understand energy as a ‘thing’ or a ‘resource’ towards a conception of energy as a ‘social relation’ enmeshed in dense networks of power and socioecological change” (“Energizing” 106). These commentaries emphasize the role that dominant forms of energy like fossil fuels—that is, forces of production—play in shaping the dominant mode of production. Huber sees the shift to fossil fuels as closely related to questions of the role of labour in production. “Again,” he writes, “one of the most important aspects of the ‘energy shift’ to fossil fuels is a displacement of human muscle power as the core productive force of production” (108). Further, as a result of this energy shift, the length of time required for transporting commodities was radically reduced. Thus, the previous energy transition to fossil fuels planted the seeds for the emergence of capitalism as we know it. Now we must ask what kind of relations should emerge from the coming energy transition.
Szeman and Huber’s critical trajectories can be read as preliminary notes towards a theory of petro- or fossil capitalism. Both are firm in their understanding that there is a co-determining, dialectical relation between capitalism and fossil fuels. For Szeman, dominant energy forms shape dominant modes of production in a given historical moment and contemporary capitalism relies on oil, its cheapness, its ubiquity. For Huber, as discussed above, neoliberalism is also dependent on what fossil fuels make possible, including individualism and private entrepreneurship. In Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom, and the Forces of Capital, Huber traces the ways in which key features of the American imaginary—private property, freedom, etc.—are fundamentally premised on the consumption of oil (xvi). More broadly, John Urry’s recent work sees understanding dominant energy forms as key to understanding how a given society functions.10 These theorists offer a way “in” to theoretically disentangle the specific operations of capitalism, its dynamics and its effects. It is no longer productive or sufficient, I argue, to speak of a capitalism without adjectives, a mysterious vampiric mode of production built on alienation and accumulation; it is more useful to signal the complex relationship capitalism has with its current dominant form of energy—to name it as fossil capital.
While for most of the past century energy has been viewed as a minor piece of the larger economic or infrastructural puzzle, it also operates superstructurally. Debeir et al.’s formulation of energy systems alludes to the relationship between energy and culture, underscoring the ways in which energy is at once relational and, to a certain degree, determinant. Huber and Szeman extend this thinking, describing how energy is a social relation and oil and capitalism are mutually strengthening and determining systems. That energy is dialectical, operating both infrastructurally and superstructurally, is perhaps unsurprising. Indeed, was it not Gramsci who disrupted the one-way, deterministic conception of base and superstructure, revealing the ways in which base and superstructure function dialectically? And, further, was it not Althusser who detailed how the levels of superstructure, much like infrastructure, reproduce the relations of the dominant mode of production? If we follow the arguments of critics such as Huber, Szeman, and to an extent Urry, that energy is not simply a force of production – a relatively inconsequential aspect of production – but is rather bound to the dominant mode of production, saturating its totality, then it is not only capitalism as such that is reproduced, but instead fossil capital. The cultural and material ubiquity of oil has led to fossil fuels being the dominant source of energy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Recognizing this, we are in a position to assess potential intentions and outcomes of the coming energy transition.
Whose Transition: Post-Carbon as Post-Capital?
The future transition to a new energy system is uncertain. Yet, one thing is certain. Its outcome will largely depend on how it will be brought about, by whom, and on whose terms. -- Kolya Abramsky (2010)
Calls to understand energy from a vantage point beyond the economic and techno-scientific have been made since as early as the 1970s.11 Yet, conceptions of the coming energy transition remain largely shaped by economic and techno-scientific impulses, as if a cleaner source could—and indeed will—be seamlessly swapped for existing fossil fuel infrastructure and global populations will be largely unaffected. Even progressives and leftists are known to think this way. In any event, such optimism as to the discovery of a renewable energy source—or sources—that would allow for a smooth transition from fossil fuels seems to transcend the political divides of left and right. Formulations such as these acknowledge the technical at the expense of the social and political. If energy is a social relation rather than a purely economic one, any viable and desirable solutions for moving beyond the current energy impasse must move beyond these conceptual limitations. This section, then, extends the notion that energy is a social relation, inextricably linked to dominant modes of production, to energy transition. Just as past energy transitions have always been social, so also will be the transition to a post-carbon future.
While past transitions, as Vaclav Smil quite rightly observes throughout Energy Transition, do not provide any sort of blueprint for the coming transition, examining energy transition historically does allow us to identify key features of transitions, including their fundamental sociality. Major energy transitions are historically rare, which is in part why this coming transition is so daunting. In “Energy, Work, and Social Reproduction in the World-Economy,” Kolya Abramsky summarizes these major transitions by focusing on the historical use of energy: “The history of energy use is, for better or worse, a history of human (or animal) labor being replaced or supplemented by outside energy sources—wood, coal, gas, oil, nuclear power, windmills” (95). This arc of transitions has not been uniform, although for many Western countries it has been relatively consistent, occurring in more or less the same phases in the same eras. Such transitions vary historically and regionally. Energy systems have historically been (and will continue to be) comprised of a number of energy sources—so these shifts were by no means straightforward progressions from one source to another. As Bruce Podobnik notes, “new energy systems have been superimposed on top of older systems, which themselves continue to expand. The shift toward increased dependence on oil and natural gas, for instance, has been layered on top of a still-growing coal system” (73). Energy transitions are not clean breaks, but are rather entail multiple energy-sources layered on top of one another. While there is no doubt that we are in an age of fossil fuels, there are vast disparities in terms of who has access to such fuels, of who has experienced what we call modernity. In envisioning a world beyond oil, such realities must be taken seriously.
The most significant earlier transition was the shift from animate to inanimate sources of energy, such as coal. In the West, this transition occurred during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when, as Bernard C. Beaudreau writes, “animate, muscular energy [was] replaced by inanimate, hydraulic-based energy, which, in turn, was replaced by inanimate, fossil-fuel-based energy in the form of steam power” (41). The close link between the Industrial Revolution(s) and the adoption of steam power is well-known. Rolf Pieter Sieferle observes in The Subterranean Forest: Energy Systems and the Industrial Revolution that “[t]he history of energy is the secret history of industrialisation” (137).
Sieferle’s pithy observation smoothes out the long and tumultuous process of one of history’s most significant energy transitions. In “The Origins of Fossil Capital: From Water to Steam in the British Cotton Industry,” Andreas Malm performs a historical materialist reading of the relationship between fossil fuels and capitalism by exploring the long history of the transition to coal, ultimately writing “a social history of business-as-usual or – synonymously – the fossil economy” (17). Malm examines how (and why) water-power fell out of favour with the cotton industry (an industry that was late to adopt steam power) while exploring the implications of this shift today. What he finds is that the emergence of the fossil economy is a classed project, concerned with squeezing the most out of labour rather than, say, making work easier. “The edge of steam, in other words, was its unique suitability not for the generation of power per se,” he argues, “but for the exploitation of labour” (33). This explains, as Malm points out, why there was struggle and resistance to the adoption of steam power. Timothy Mitchell’s oft-cited Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil supports Malm’s arguments about class and energy, arguing that democracy as we understand it today was enabled by coal. As he declares at the outset of his book, “[f]ossil fuels helped create both the possibility of modern democracy and its limits” (1). Citing a number of coal strikes in the early twentieth century and the “battle for coal” after World War II, which led to a drastic reconfiguration of labour relations spearheaded in postwar America as well as France, Germany, and Britain, Mitchell’s analysis in Carbon Democracy explores the ways in which coal and oil shaped and were shaped by class, labour, and ultimately social relations (26-30). These struggles are instructive in pointing out the realities of actually existing transition. Bruce Podobnik summarizes this thinking: “social struggles of various kinds of have played key roles in these earlier [energy] shifts. We can learn from these earlier struggles and help strengthen the global movement that is emerging to push for a clean energy revolution in the coming years” (72). Transition is never smooth—this is a lesson that we must internalize as we experience failures and setbacks.
The rates at which these past transitions occurred, especially the slow transition to coal, provide an important point of reference regarding the impasse we currently face and the coming transition. This is precisely why Vaclav Smil is pessimistic about the possibilities of an accelerated energy transition, or even any positive transition at all. He explains: “Lessons of the past energy transitions may not be particularly useful for appraising and handicapping the coming transition because it will be exceedingly difficult to restructure the modern high-energy industrial and postindustrial civilization on the basis of non-fossil—that is, overwhelmingly renewable—fuels and flows” (105). His account oscillates between cynicism and realism. “Usually they take decades to accomplish,” he writes, “and the greater the degree of reliance on a particular energy source or a prime mover, the more widespread the prevailing uses and conversions, the longer their substitutions will take” (viii). Smil’s mix of cynicism and realism, and its implicit privileging of the techno-scientific view of oil, overshadows some other important details in the shift from biomass to fossil fuels, namely the rate at which oil was adopted at a widespread scale.
Whether we follow the cynicism qua realism of Smil or the optimism of Podobnik, who recognizes the social struggles that have shaped past energy transitions, there is no discounting the social element in both recent and past transitions. Underscoring the complexity of energy transitions, Smil draws an analogy with airplane accidents:
Careful studies of those events show that they are nearly always due to a number of factors and that the final outcome is a result of a specific sequence of errors (be they actions or inactions) taken by crews in response to a sudden change, be it a faulty indicator light, erroneous instrument reading, or … mechanical failure of one or more of the airplane’s engines. And so it is with energy transitions: They are never brought about by a single factor, and in the second chapter I will show that this was the case even with perhaps the most commonly cited claim, portraying English wood shortages as the decisive factor forcing the country’s early transition to coal. (20)
Following Smil, I am daunted not so much by the sheer ubiquity of fossil fuels as by the fact that transition is not straightforward, but, like any political task, a struggle. But this need not be debilitating. Given the mutual dependence of fossil fuels and capitalism, the current transition must involve collective social struggles against fossil capital. Efforts to disrupt fossil capital take many forms. I will examine two strategies: divestment and blockade.
Negating the Fossil Economy: Dismantling Petro-Hegemony
The whole relationship of society to energy needs to change.… We need to democratise energy. This means commoning resources, dispersing economic power and ending dependence on the multinationals that exploit public resources for private profit. -- Platform, “Energy Beyond Neoliberalism”
Fossil fuels, to the dismay of many, seem to be an energy source that we can’t collectively confront and transcend. It is ever-apparent that the myriad efforts to stop the expansion of fossil capital have mostly failed: pipelines continue to be built, personal automobiles continue to clutter the freeways, and so on. As Imre Szeman puts it bluntly, “[o]il capital seems to represent a stage that neither capital nor its opponents can think beyond” (“System” 807-8). Yet, in the face of such seemingly discouraging admissions, efforts to halt the expansion of fossil capital today take many forms, emerging from varied and sometimes conflicting political vantage-points and allegiances. I choose to focus on both divestment and blockade because they are two approaches that, depending on one’s vantage point and socio-political allegiances, are either conflicting or complementary. They represent two progressive responses to the logics and material effects of extractivism, and the fossil economy more generally. I distinguish them from responses immediately embedded in the existing relations of fossil capital, namely techno-utopian responses such as carbon capture or geo-engineering; green capitalist responses such as carbon trading; and the more general concentration of efforts towards behaviours of “ethical consumption” of fossil fuels embodied in groups like Ethical Oil.12
Divestment has become in the past several years an increasingly widespread strategy to challenge the current hegemony of fossil capital. Fossil Free, a subsidiary project of 350.org, a popular climate change action organization founded by environmentalist Bill McKibben, describes divestment in plain language: “Divestment is the opposite of an investment – it simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous … Fossil fuel divestment takes the fossil fuel industry to task for its culpability in the climate crisis” (n.p.). At the 2015 UN Climate Conference in Paris (COP21), divestment was underscored as a strategy from which to challenge petro-hegemony. 350.org reports: “The fossil fuel divestment campaign broke a new record today at the COP21 Climate Summit in Paris: more than 500 institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets have made some form of divestment commitment” (n.p.). These commitments, as varied as they are, represent a significant institutional step toward at least recognizing the realities of climate change.
But divestment can only challenge and alter so much. It is becoming increasingly clear that solutions to the current crises—crises of energy, ecology, and social relations—that do not seek to fundamentally disrupt or reconfigure “business-as-usual” are unsatisfactory. This is an understatement. While powerful institutions adopt divestment as a means to opt-out of the fossil economy at the level of investment, such strategies leave the mechanisms that enable and uphold the logics of extractivism largely unchallenged. Subtracting the “fossil” from “fossil capital,” as if that were possible, does not result in a more equitable, democratic energy system. Without merely reviving the arguably tired debates about reform versus revolution, it is important to point out these reformist shortcomings of divestment as it takes centre stage in debates over energy transition. Divestment is perhaps a necessary stage in the struggle against fossil capital, in that it names fossil capital as a destructive force and has been adopted by a number of groups, cities, and institutions. It certainly represents one method of intervening in the expansion of fossil capital,13 but it alone does not (and will not) significantly disrupt the totalizing forces of fossil capital. Indeed, part of its weakness is in its implicitly narrow view of fossil fuels and energy more generally. Divestment takes issue with fossil fuels, but not with capital as such, and thus overlooks the intertwined history of fossil fuels and capitalism.
There are, however, more material efforts to halt the expansion of fossil capital, especially the blockade. Targeting and disrupting the infrastructures and processes that sustain capitalism in order to resist it has as long a history as capitalism itself. Sabotage, Thorstein Veblen reminds us, is an elusive concept. “‘Sabotage’ is a derivative of ‘sabot,’ which is French for a wooden shoe,” he writes. “It means going slow, with a dragging, clumsy movement, such as that manner of footgear may be expected to bring on. So it has come to describe any manoeuvre of slowing-down, inefficiency, bungling, obstruction” (4). This history of sabotage has arguably moved in tandem with the development of global fossil capital. Naomi Klein acknowledges this history when she describes the roots of what she and others call “Blockadia,” a term that describes recent global, but somewhat disparate efforts to halt and disrupt the expansion of fossil capital and other extractivisms. These roots, as Klein points out, can be traced, among others, to the efforts of the Ogoni peoples in Nigeria, who in the 1990s led a well-documented resistance to Shell’s operations—a resistance that culminated in the execution of several activists now known as the Ogoni Nine.14 Such efforts are echoed n Indigenous resistance to extractivism in Canada, including the Grassy Narrows First Nation anti-clear-cutting blockade at Slant Lake beginning in 2002, the Elsipogtog anti-fracking protests of 2013, and the continuing Unist’ot’en camp occupation.
Significant blockade efforts have been unfolding in the Unist’ot’en camp located on unceded First Nations land in the north of British Columbia, Canada. Unceded land, as Klein explains it, “has never been relinquished under any treaty nor has it ever been claimed by the Canadian state through an act of war” (n.p.). This area is a hotbed of pipeline activity, both proposed and existing, including Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would span unceded First Nations land in British Columbia, carrying diluted bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to British Columbia’s coast and onto global markets. In the camp’s words:
The Unis’tot’en recent history includes taking action to protect their lands from Lions Gate Metals at their Tacetsohlhen Bin Yintah, and building a cabin and resistance camp at Talbits Kwah at Gosnell Creek and Wedzin Kwah … [against] seven proposed pipelines…. (n.p.)
They urge the public not to view their actions as a protest or demonstration. “Our clan is occupying and using our traditional territory as it has for centuries. Unist’ot’en camp’s efforts can be extrapolated upon and brought into a global context,” they explain. However, it is useful to frame this occupation in terms of broader blockade efforts; indeed, the Unist’ot’en camp signifies the central role that First Nations groups play in resisting the hegemony of fossil capital.
Blockades and sabotage, like the occupation occurring in the Unist’ot’en camp, operate on an extremely localized level. Depending on the goals of those taking part, such localization may be both a strength and a weakness. From the point of view of energy transition more generally, however, blockade alone will not instigate the kind of widespread action necessary to dismantle fossil capital. This is not to say that Indigenous struggles such as these have to answer to some kind of larger, counter-hegemonic leftist political project. My hope is to stimulate discussion about strategies both specific and broad, both local and global. Blockades at least serve the immediate needs of community resistance, but they also serve as a symbolic metonym for wider struggles against petro-hegemony. In Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition, Glenn Coulthard argues that blockades are at once negation and affirmation. “What tends to get ignored by many self-styled pundits,” he writes, “is that these actions are also an affirmative gesture of Indigenous resurgence insofar as they embody an enactment of Indigenous law and the obligations such laws place on Indigenous peoples to uphold the relations of reciprocity that shape our engagements with the human and nonhuman world—the land” (170). This dialectical functioning of blockades like the Grassy Narrows First Nation anti-clear cutting blockade at Slant Lake, the Elsipogtog anti-fracking protests, and the more recent Unist’ot’en camp occupation is instructive: resisting fossil capital can be simultaneously negative and affirmative.
Unfortunately, however, blockades seem only to delay these developments rather than stop them entirely. The proliferation of pipelines across international landscapes attest to this unfortunate reality. Indeed, pipelines resist disruption by their very nature of being “hidden” infrastructures. Christopher F. Jones underscores this throughout Routes of Power, where he argues that historical energy transitions have relied on methods of transportation. For coal, canals were built—for oil, pipelines. Commenting on the tendencies of pipelines, he writes:
Pipelines, like all energy transport systems, are easy to take for granted. We rarely think about the vast networks of pipes, tanks, trucks, ships, roads, and rails that bring energy to our homes, factories, or gasoline stations. In part, this is because these systems are designed to be ignored: pipelines and wires are often buried and shipping depots are located on the outskirts of towns. It is also social. (157)
Pipelines are, then, a material manifestation of what Patricia Yaeger aptly calls, pace Fredric Jameson, our “energy unconscious” (309)—they are out of site and categorically out of mind. Collective resistance against these infrastructures is necessary, and the efforts of the Unist’ot’en camp only make this clearer, but such action is daunting, especially when considering these tendencies of pipeline infrastructure.
In tandem with resistance to fossil capital and as part of a broader counter-hegemony that I describe below, what is necessary is the development of what Christopher F. Jones calls “just energy infrastructure” (“Building” 158-9). Pipelines, such as the eleven proposed Western Canadian ones that the Camp is blockading, are unjust infrastructures. There is no such thing as a “just” pipeline, especially given our current socio-economic configurations. While I acknowledge the potential determinisms to be read into such a statement, I believe that characterizing infrastructures as having certain tendencies is far from determinist in a vulgar sense; instead, it underscores the ways in which certain infrastructures support the twin hegemonies of the fossil fuels and global capital.
The history of the project of capitalism has arguably been one of “enclosure,” that is, of appropriating what can be understood as the commons—common spaces and resources—through the process that Marx called primitive accumulation. Theorists such as George Caffentzis and Sylvia Federici outline this in a number of compelling works, including Caffentzis’ In Letter of Blood and Fire and Federici’s Caliban and the Witch, the latter of which shows how the process of primitive accumulation was (and continues to be) an ultimately gendered one. These antinomies (the commons versus the private qua enclosure) are (more or less) at the core of the long history capitalism. In a 2004 article “The Petroleum Commons,” Caffentzis explores the notion of the commons with regard to oil, showing how in recent history commoning fossil fuels can perhaps challenge dominant logics of neoliberal extractivism. He provokes this line of thought, asking: “Will petroleum become one day as ‘common’ as water still is at least in our political imagination? Or will water reach the market-price and give rise to the same conflicts, and undergo the degree of monopolization that has characterized the history of petroleum in our times” (n.p)?
The notion of petroleum commons is compelling, but we must question to what degree a petroleum commons aids energy transition. Certainly the petroleum commons establishes a material and political foundation for challenging corporate and State hegemony (and in turn neoliberal hegemony), but fossil fuels are anti-democratic and resist commoning. Like the infrastructures described above, energy sources have tendencies and have what Debeir et al. call determinant properties rather than determinist ones. Abramsky elaborates this dynamic with regard to renewable energy:
Considerations of the capital-labor conflict that are central to the discussion of energy add a considerable element of uncertainty to any discussion of energy crisis and transition. This invites cautious speculation about the extent to which renewable energy will provide a material basis for either the continued expanded reproduction of capitalist social relations or for the construction of non-capitalist social relations of production and reproduction, especially in the long term. (“Energy” 101)
In other words, as Abramsky points out elsewhere, “the process of building a new energy system, based on a large—and possibly even 100 percent—share of renewable energy is not a technical question, but is a profoundly social and political one” (“Sparking” 628).
What might an energy commons look like, and how is it related to counter-hegemonic strategies? In Inventing the Future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams develop a comprehensive critique of the no longer effective horizontalist impulses of the left and what they call “folk politics,” a politics hinging on conventional demonstrations and protests such as the Occupy movement, while arguing for a counter-hegemony that would confront and challenge neoliberalism and global capital, as well as the fossil economy. “A counter-hegemonic project,” they argue, “enables marginal and oppressed groups to transform the balance of power in a society and bring about a new common sense” and “will therefore seek to overturn an existing set of alliances, common sense, and rule by consent in order to install a new hegemony” (133). If we take as our starting point the co-determining relationship of fossil fuels and global capitalism, then energy must figure prominently into such a counter-hegemony. We can use aspects of both divestment and blockade to formulate this broader counter-hegemonic strategy. From divestment we can take its non-locality and from blockade we can take its tendency towards locality, its method of targeting unjust infrastructures, and, most importantly, its negation-affirmation. Coordinated efforts are absolutely essential as neither divestment nor blockade alone can build a politics on the scale necessary to dismantle fossil capital.
Conclusion: Whither Transition?
“It is difficult to imagine a future without petroleum,” Daniel Worden writes, “in part because petroleum underlies the normative vision of family, work, and social belonging in the late twentieth-century United States” (2012: 441). Yet, understanding the relationship between oil capitalism and the superstructural operations that maintain it are crucial first-steps in conceiving of a world beyond oil, and beyond capitalism. It is precisely this difficulty in imagining the future without oil, furthermore, that makes it ripe for productive critico-political intervention. The question of energy transition—whether posed from the right, the left, or anywhere in between—is a question of social, ecological, economic, and ultimately political strategy. If we recognize energy as a social and cultural relation rather than a purely technical or economic one, the concept of energy transition certainly becomes more complex, but its realization becomes more feasible. The impasse posed by fossil capital is at the same time an opportunity.
If fossil fuels maintain global capitalism as we know it—and vice versa—what forms of energy can establish and maintain a desirable post-capitalist future? Szeman forecasts the demise of fossil capital when he asks: “Is the end of oil a disaster? This depends, of course, on the perspective one has on the system in danger of collapse: capitalism” (808). Huber further seems to suggest as much when he argues in the conclusion to Lifeblood:
From a Marxist historical-materialist standpoint, an emancipatory future will not come from reconstructing old forms of production, but rather must emerge out of the conditions set by the current mode of production … Rather than viewing fossil fuels as the ultimate sin of modernity that must be renounced through a reconstruction of prefossil forms of sociality, fossil-fuel energy needs to be viewed as a material condition of an emancipatory future based on cleaner and renewable fuels. (167)
Just as capitalism, in Marx’s formulations, is a necessary phase of history from which to enter communism, so too must we work through and beyond our current reliance on fossil fuels. How this emancipatory future is arrived at, or what the path looks like, is unknown.
George Caffentzis asks: “will this transition be organized on a capitalist basis or will the double crisis, opened up on the levels of energy production and general social reproduction, mark the beginning of another mode of production?” (568) I have been careful to use the term post-capitalism to describe a future dominant mode of production that will be, by necessity, fuelled by post-carbon energy sources; I’ve been careful also not to map onto “post-capitalism” specific socio-political characteristics. This is not a strategic effort to shy away from the (supposedly) tainted legacies of actually existing socialism, but rather one to underscore the realm of possibilities that this impasse signals. A post-carbon future will be post-capitalist, but whether or not it will be an equitable and democratic post-capitalism is the task at hand. Indeed, it is something that will resemble a revolution, an insurrection, that establishes an energy counter-hegemony. Transition is imminent; Franco “Bifo” Berardi reminds us that “[i]mminence is what the present reveals about the future, the horizon where the present discloses a looming possibility” (145). This energy impasse represents possibility for the left. Indeed, the world after oil will be a fundamentally different one. Our task is to build the conditions for an equitable post-carbon, post-capitalist future.
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Jordan B. Kinder, PhD Candidate English and Film Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada 3-5 Humanities Centre University of Alberta Edmonton, AB Canada T6G 2E5 email@example.com (+1)250.617.5465
This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
1. Many of the arguments in this article were developed during a 4-day workshop at the University of Alberta, the After Oil School. The event gathered roughly 35 academics and artists from around the world to work through key questions surrounding energy and energy transition. I am grateful to participants in this event, especially Darin Barney, Jeff Diamanti, Richard Kover, Mark Simpson, and Sheena Wilson. The collectively-written document is available at www.afteroil.ca. I wish to acknowledge support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
2. On conceptualizing energy as a social relation, see especially Boyer (2014), Huber (2013), Johnson (2015), LeMenager (2014), and Szeman (2013).
3. For an excellent account of the ways in which science fiction (SF) pushes the limits of our collective energy imaginary, see Graeme Macdonald’s “Improbability Drives: The Energy of Sf” in volume 26 of Paradoxa.
5. Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman (2014) describe the energy humanities as “a rapidly emerging field of scholarship that overcomes traditional boundaries between the disciplines and between academic and applied research. Like its predecessors, energy humanities highlights the essential contribution that the insights and methods of the human sciences can make to areas of study and analysis that were once thought best left to the natural sciences.”
6. “Fossil capital” builds on Malm’s (2013) use of the term, signifying the ways in which contemporary capitalism and fossil fuels are co-determinant and co-reliant.
7. Purely technological conceptions of energy and transition, often inspired by a variant of technological determinism, are plenty. They can be found, for instance, in the kinds of entrepreneurial energy ventures from Elon Musk and Telsa Motors that champion a transition to electric automobiles without addressing the larger systems and (infra)structures that maintain fossil capital, and perhaps most prominently from oil companies. In a 2015 speech, for example, Projects & Technology Director of Royal Dutch Shell, Harry Brekelmans, argues that it is primarily innovation that will stimulate transition (n.p.); in doing so, he undermines the social history of energy. Even Vaclav Smil seems to revert to this technological impulse when musing on the unfeasibility of a transition beyond oil in any near future (105).
8. I focus largely on North American and otherwise “Western” movements because of my familiarity with them. That said, many of my observations can be extended globally.
9. Some Marxists like Paul Burkett and John Bellamy Foster have drawn attention to Marx’s views on energy in an attempt to reveal Marx as an ecological thinker, arguing that “Marx’s analysis of capitalist production and exploitation is thoroughly infused with a metabolic-energy perspective on human labor, one informed by a close engagement with natural science” (2006: 110).
10. While Urry is well-known for his work on automobility, a concept that describes the embeddedness of the private car in contemporary North American life, he has recently extended his focus to the relationship between energy and society. See, for example, Societies Beyond Oil: Oil Dregs and Social Futures (2013) and Offshoring (2014).
11. As Lars Kristoferson explains, “The question of energy supply is, and will always be, the center of all power politics and the base of all economic activity. Therefore, it is self-evident that energy policy is a political problem, and not primarily a technological one” (1973: 178).
12. Ethical Oil is a Canadian pseudo-grassroots group that takes its inspiration from Ezra Levant’s book of the same name; their key argument is that, in contradistinction to “conflict oil,” Canadian oil is democratic since it is produced in a parliamentary democracy and should thus be valued more. Such campaigns are reactionary at their core, veiling their problematic arguments behind appeals to democracy.
13. Recent campaigns like Liberate Tate, which occupied the Tate Museum demanding that it renounce its BP sponsorship, highlight a productive element to divestment.
14. Naomi Klein (2014) describes this in a chapter entitled “Blockadia.” For a critical account of this struggle, see Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas’s Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights, and Oil in the Niger Delta.