Political ecology

Photo credit: Stephanie Salazar

by Panagiota Kotsila, Salvatore Paolo De Rosa & Ilenia Iengo

The relationship between nature and society is one of coevolution in which the question of how power is distributed is central. Political Ecology can untangle how the structuring of socio-ecological relations may reproduce injustice or afford openings towards emancipation. Like a toolbox to unpack and understand the complexity of the socio-ecological crises we live in, political ecology is dedicated to a more just and inclusive world. 

As a field of inquiry, Political Ecology has many roots and branches united by the common endeavour of observing, analysing, reflecting upon, and communicating how environments are produced by the interaction of social and biophysical processes. Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”. They provide an understanding of the environment as a dynamic material reality, with exchanges between human and non-human actors, as well as a symbolic arena where different (and often clashing) knowledges, desires and ideologies are cast. Political ecologists claim that the natural and the social spheres are inseparable in practice. Nature and society are constantly co-constituted through processes of coevolution, and their relationship is fundamentally shaped by power and meaning. 

Political ecologists document the power struggles that make and remake “the environment”.

Political ecology is the child of human geography, cultural ecology and development studies. In its infancy (1980s-90s), it was concerned mostly about environmental degradation, rural development and the global South, where it examined the uneven distribution of ecological costs and benefits, and the resulting socio-environmental conflicts and grassroots resistance. Later on, it attracted attention from fields such as anthropology, science and technology studies, feminism and public health. In a nutshell, political ecology developed as an approach that could tackle complex socio-natural phenomena in a novel, encompassing and transversal way. 

Many have called it a trans-disciplinary, supra-disciplinary, or even un-disciplined field, due to its incorporation of theories, methodologies and practices from different academic and non-academic arenas. From a rather elusive area of study, political ecology is becoming a strong, ever-evolving and diverse field of its own, of central importance and reference in the contemporary times of climate emergency and socio-environmental injustices, democracy crisis, planetary ecological degradation and widening inequalities. 

Political ecology’s main pillars are two (anti-)claims: 

1. The anti-Malthusian argument: Resource degradation is not due to general population increase, but to the relentless extraction of resources for the (over-)production and consumption of commodities, which benefits some while threatening the livelihoods and survival of others. Furthermore, in a globalising world, attention needs to be paid to how different scales meet, i.e. to the connections between proximate causes of environmental change and degradation, and the more distant but powerful processes that contribute to such changes. Extreme floods, for example, are not only due to local forest clearing and land use change which might include unauthorized construction, but are also reinforced by increasingly abrupt weather events as part of global climatic change, which in turn is exacerbated by those same land use changes and uncontrolled urbanisation patterns. Political ecologists recognise these connections and underline the powerful interests that motivate and perpetuate such changes. In this vein, the discipline resists declaring this era simply as the “Anthropocene”, which represents the human species acting as one in the process of degrading the planet’s resources and altering its biophysical processes. Instead, it places attention to the political and economic histories and specific actors that produced the current global ecological crisis. This means paying attention to how unevenly distributed are the responsibilities and adverse outcomes of such crises, in turn reflecting  power relations in society (hence claims for the Capitalocene, Chthulucene, Anthropo-obscene, Wasteocene or even White (M)Anthropocene). 

2. The anti-apolitical ecologies: Or in other words, nothing in “nature” is simply natural. While political ecology relies on strong ecological thinking, it also recognises that what we know of nature, and the imaginaries we hold of it, is a result of historical power/knowledge asymmetries. These include colonial views and conceptualisations of the biophysical environment (e.g. wilderness, pristine forests, etc.), which have come about, survived to this day and become hegemonic through violent practices of injustice and domination over indigenous populations of both humans and non-humans. Urban Political Ecology brings this “nature-cultures” understanding to the urbanization process. In opposition to the interpretation of cities as unnatural spaces, urban political ecology claims otherwise. It focuses on the socio-environmental injustices that come along with processes of altering, (re)producing, negotiating, (re)distributing and (re)imagining socio-ecological configurations in the process of urbanization, urban planning and urban life. This means paying attention to the lived experiences of environmental racism, grassroots claims for the right to live in healthy environments and the growing coalition politics of emancipatory feminist, environmental and decolonial commoning experiences in urban contexts and beyond.

Nothing in “nature” is simply natural.

What politics?

For those doing Political Ecology, scientific research is not detached from knowledge/power relations and this recognition has multiple repercussions on how most political ecology is being carried out, or at least, the goals it sets for itself. First, political ecologists believe that considerations of justice, equity and fairness in relation to race, gender, class, ethnicity and other socio-cultural and material inequalities, should be put at the center of research practice and should constitute a shared horizon of values towards collective emancipation. Second, political ecologists often take a position of solidarity with movements that defend humans’ and nature’s rights, and with disenfranchised and often marginalised people that struggle for their voices and claims to be heard. Third, attention is paid to critically reflect on how one’s own position in terms of geography, class, gender, cultural background and interests, influences observations and the whole research practice. Researchers often align and engage with movements but are careful not to romanticize or misrepresent them, as well as not to over-exploit them as informants without giving back.

At the same time, a recent wave of post-/de-colonial thought has increasingly informed political ecology, pushing for the decolonization of political ecology literature, the recognition of non-white and non-western authors, including the doing away with barriers between “researcher” and “research subject”, recognizing various forms of knowledge making, and visibilising the valuable contributions of thinkers outside strict academic silos and outside of academia tout court. Along the same lines, a powerful feminist “turn” in the field is paying attention to intersectionality of power subjection (that includes but is not only about gender or women).

A more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature can help to understand socio-environmental conflicts and movements. 

Feminist Political Ecology accentuates the importance of decolonising what we know of the world, revisiting knowledge gathered and generated by white western men in powerful institutions during and beyond colonisation, and open up to voices, words and meanings offered by subordinated cultures, non-binary subjectivities and minority peoples. Feminist Political Ecology is further advocating for a more serious account of the affective, emotional and embodied experiences of people with/in nature and in projects of ‘being in common’. This will help to understand the nitty-gritty of socio-environmental conflicts and movements, focusing on how different, ever-changing and interdependent the lives of humans and non-humans really are. This is, as Feminist Political Ecology asserts, what can give space for situated knowledges to replace colonial and universalizing accounts of the complex worlds we are part of.

What ecology?

Political ecology, however, is confronted with a number of internal tensions, much of which boils down to the question of what constitutes “ecology” and thus, what ecology do we stand for and imagine for the future? If nature cannot be seen separately from society and power relations, what are the environmental principles and ethics that the field goes by? While much of Political Ecology offers a deep analysis of the why and how in socio-natures and related conflicts, only some goes as far as sketching a more concrete way forward. 

Aligned with pertinent debates in Political Ecology, degrowth is a movement of activists and intellectuals which inspires, and is inspired by, grassroots practices reflecting on and experimenting with post-growth ways of individual and collective lives. Degrowth offers alternative visions for socio-ecological relations, which are different to capitalism and real socialism, both of which are based on environmental devastation for the final aim of profit accumulation and competitive power over other states. Degrowth articulates an analytical vocabulary of practice around concepts such as ‘autonomy’, ‘conviviality’, ‘care’ and ‘dépense’. On the opposite side of the spectrum there are the ecomodernist and ecosocialist movements, both considering the public control of the means of production through democratic and horizontal processes of decision making to be the way out of the ecological and social crisis. While according to ecomodernists technological progress will be instrumental in this process, ecosocialists focus on the political and social formations that could bring about such changes. 

Degrowth focuses on a radical critique of the growth and productivist imperative demanding a clear, voluntary, democratic and equitable reduction of extraction, processing, transport, consumption and disposal of materials and energy. According to “degrowthers” this is the only way to reduce emissions and abandon environmentally catastrophic processes, while also addressing aspects of inequality and injustice connected to such processes. Ecomodernists and ecosocialists alike, on the other hand, maintain a positivist perspective towards technological innovation and progress, beyond neoliberal propositions of green/blue growth and towards a return to projects that environmentalists had long stood against, such as nuclear power, centralized planning and industrial agriculture. Political ecologists recognise that ideas of nature are social constructions, but they also stand strongly against Western/anthropocentric  notions of complete control and domination over “nature”, as this is denying agency both to non-human beings and to non-western understandings of socionatural dependencies and value systems. 

Some key resources and readings:

Peet, R. and Watts, M. (2004) Liberation ecologies: environment, development and social movements. Routledge.

Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) (2006) In the Nature of Cities. Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. Routledge.

Di Chiro, G. 2008. Living Environmentalisms: Coalition Politics, Social Reproduction and Environmental Justice. Environmental Politics. 17(2): 276-298. 

Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, B. and Wangari, E. (2013) Feminist political ecology: Global issues and local experience. Routledge.

D’alisa, G., Demaria, F. and Kallis, G. (2014) Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Routledge.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Perreault, T., Bridge, G. and McCarthy, J. (eds) (2015) The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Routledge.

Svarstad, H., Benjaminsen, T. A. and Overå, R. (2018) ‘Power theories in political ecology’. University of Arizona Libraries.

Álvarez, L., & Coolsaet, B. (2018). Decolonizing Environmental Justice Studies: A Latin American Perspective. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 1-20.

Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of difference: place, movements, life, redes. Duke University Press.

Political Ecology for Civil Society: a “manual” developed by Entitle fellows 

Ecologia Politica – Cuadernos de debate internacional

Kothari, A., Salleh, A., Escobar, A., Demaria, F., Acosta, A. (2019). Pluriverse a Post-Development Dictionary. Columbia University Press.

Plumwood, V. (1993). Feminism and The Mastery of Nature. Routledge, New York and London. 

Panagiota Kotsila is a post-doctoral researcher at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. Her work looks into political ecologies of health, the politics of urban sustainability and environmental justice from an intersectional and feminist perspective. 

Salvatore Paolo De Rosa is a researcher at the Environmental Humanities Lab of KTH (Stockholm). His interests are in political ecology, geography and anthropology while his work focuses on environmental conflicts, socioecological metabolisms and grassroots eco-politics. Currently, he is investigating climate politics in Malmö.

Ilenia Iengo is a scholar activist PhD fellow in Feminist Political Ecology, member of the Marie Sklodowska Curie WEGO ITN at the Barcelona Laboratory for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability, ICTA UAB. Her action research is situated in the Southern European city of Naples where she focuses on emancipatory urban politics and imaginaries sprouting at the intersection of transfeminism and environmental justice.

Development

A snapshot of growth-led development in Delhi-NCR, India. Photo by the author.

by Vandana

The term ‘development’ perhaps needs no introduction. To develop is to improve the conditions in which we live. But what should be the path of development? Can there be only one way to develop? What are the prevalent ways of thinking about development and what have they meant for the majority of people in the world? The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world. To understand where to go from here, it is crucial to understand that development processes and the goals of prosperity are politically determined.

The dominant means of development have largely been counterproductive, wreaking ecological damage and social inequality in most parts of the world.

The modern model of development grew out of the end of the colonial period, when colonial empires assumed the duty of developing the former colonies. Since then, colonial-era power relations have continued to play out under the guise of economic development. Institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) formed in the 1940s with the promise of stabilizing the economy and rebuilding war-torn Europe. Their strategies centered Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a key indicator of development. At the same time, with their deep-seated colonial ambitions, the triumphant Allied Forces—France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union—came to define development. US President Harry Truman used the word ‘underdeveloped’ for the first time in his inaugural address in January 1949, dividing the world according to regional poverty and prosperity. High levels of poverty coincided with low levels of industrialization, bolstering the belief that Western-style development would be inevitable for these ‘underdeveloped’ countries. 

Countries like Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, and later on the US, saw an improvement in living conditions as a result of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, a hierarchical relationship developed between business owners and workers. Within this new relationship, peasants lost their relationship to the land and became workers who sold their labour in return for a wage. Increased production set the stage for mass consumption, which signaled improved access to material goods for the workers themselves. But the perceived success of the Industrial Revolution was mainly due to the extractive colonial expeditions that boosted Western economies through the supply of enslaved people and the import of goods.  As this model of industrial production proved its ability to generate an abundance of profits and products, it came to serve as a paradigm for development around the globe. By the mid 20th century, many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America were finally liberated from colonial rule, but pursued this Western model of development due to its perceived success. 

In the 50s and 60s, dominant economic theory emphasized the need for countries to modernize by moving their labour force away from agriculture and towards sectors like manufacturing and services. This was called ‘structural transformation,’ and was made popular by the works of economists W. Arthur Lewis and Walt W. Rostow. So-called ‘primitive’ sectors like agriculture underwent a complete overhaul to improve productivity, efficiency, and incomes. This theory of development—which proposed that GDP growth would lead to the improvement of living conditions—faced a challenge in the 70s and 80s. The ‘Limits to Growth’ report, published in 1972, brought ecological concerns to the forefront, while environmental movements gained momentum all around the world. The report argued that unlimited material and population growth would not be possible because the planet’s resource pool is limited. By the end of the 1980s, the United Nations released ‘Our Common Future,’ a report that gave rise to the idea of sustainable development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), launched in 2015, are based on this report’s definition of sustainability. 

Another framework, called the capabilities approach, proposed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, suggested expanding the scope of existing goals of poverty alleviation programs. By expanding the focus beyond income improvement alone, the capabilities approach proposed that an expansion in the opportunities and freedoms available to those experiencing poverty is essential for overall development. This approach eventually led to the conception of the Human Development Index—a measure of whether a country is capable of ensuring good health, education, and income for its residents. However, while the goals of development expanded, the mechanism for achieving them—GDP growth—largely continued unscathed.

Proponents of growth-centric economic development—namely world leaders and policymakers—argue that access to healthcare, education, and basic freedoms will grow once incomes begin to grow. They also assume that economic growth based on the principles of the free market—which had triumphed by the 1980s—will provide solutions to ecological degradation. The claim made in ‘Our Common Future’ that ‘poverty places unprecedented pressures on the planet’s land, water, forests, and other natural resources,’ brought the alleviation of poverty to the center of sustainability and human development discourse. 

In the past few decades, poverty alleviation programs have helped move millions of people out of extreme poverty, but they have not done much to increase the freedoms or opportunities afforded to them. This is due to several reasons. First, the threshold which determines extreme poverty is set very low, at an income of less than 2 dollars a day. Any movement above this level does not guarantee an improvement in people’s lives. Second, World Bank data confirms that the poverty reduction rate has slowed down recently, and that the absolute number of people living below the poverty line has barely declined since the 1990s despite the goals of these programs. The third, and most important problem lies in the relations of production that this path of development creates as it actualizes.

Growth-driven development triggers a process of dispossession. It plays out through the loss of access to land and resources and through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation.

In the case of India, this path of development has led to a significant change in land use, from forestry and agriculture to industry and mining. It has also altered human-nature relations and power relations between the State, the market, and communities. This shift has triggered a process of dispossession that plays out in two ways: one, through the loss of access to land and resources (soil, water, forest, foliage, etc.), and second, through the experience of the environment’s continuous degradation. In response, people move out of rural agricultural areas and migrate to industrialized cities with the hope of earning higher incomes. However, the work they find does not necessarily ensure good health, access to education, or the ability to make savings. With neither the private sector nor the State investing in programs that provide decent living conditions, the majority of the population is left feeling betrayed and stranded. This dissatisfaction has given rise to numerous resistance movements. The Chipko movement (1973), Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985), Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (2003), and Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (2009) are a few examples of movements that have resisted the crucial features of the mainstream development model like the construction of big dams and mining projects. These struggles foreground the underlying violence of growth-driven development. 

It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relationships to production.

These conflicts among communities and different agents of development—namely, the State, NGOs, and private industries—have deepened in the recent past, indicating the growing desperation among all stakeholders. The sharp increase in the level of inequality in the past three decades confirms that this development model only supports the interests of business owners and landowners at the expense of workers and the environment. It’s time to rethink the idea of development, and to create alternative relations of production. The future of development thought must focus on the creation of more meaningful and ecologically sensitive work. It should give more space to the knowledge and ideas of the subaltern groups in India—the Dalits, bahujans and adivasis—in defining the idea of sustainability. For development to truly deliver on its promise—the betterment of life for all—it must engage a multidimensional understanding of poverty. As we’ve learned, poverty manifests not only through financial hardship, but also through the loss of access to life-sustaining resources, the degradation of one’s environment, lack of healthcare, diminishing leisure time, and a scarcity of meaningful work for the majority of people in the world. A new approach to development must address the increasing precarity in the lives of people confronted with industrialization and conservation policies.  

Further resources

Philip Alson, Philip Alston Condemns Failed Global Poverty Eradication Efforts, July 2020.
A recent report and commentary by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights (2014-2020), on the false promise of the existing approach toward poverty alleviation.

Demaria, F., & Kothari, A. (2017). The Post-Development Dictionary agenda: paths to the pluriverse. Third World Quarterly, 38(12), 2588-2599.
A crucial resource for understanding the conceptualization of future development paths. 

Shiva, V. (2013). How economic growth has become anti-life. The Guardian, 1.
A critical overview of the growth-driven economic model that elucidates how growth-driven development impoverishes farmers. 

Escobar, A. (2011). Encountering development: The making and unmaking of the Third World (Vol. 1). Princeton University Press.
This book offers a political understanding of the process of development. It describes the ways in which expert-led knowledge originating in the West came to define poverty and development in the so-called developing world.    

Gerber, J. F., & Raina, R. S. (Eds.). (2018). Post-growth thinking in India: Towards sustainable egalitarian alternatives. Orient Blackswan.
This book discusses post-growth theories, from the perspective of a developing nation. It argues that moving beyond growth-led thinking is not a privilege of the Global North/developed world but also a requirement for the Global South/developing world. 

Goldman, M. (2005). Imperial nature: The World Bank and struggles for social justice in the age of globalization. Yale University Press. 
This book explains how the projects funded by the World Bank really work at the ground level and why community activists struggle against its brand of development .  

On resistance and alternative ideas of wellbeing:

Transformations – Wellbeing by Kalpavriksh Environment Action Group, September 2020.
The story of Korchi taluka, in the Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra State in India, on creating transformative alternatives to challenge mainstream ideas of development.   

A folk song sung by the subaltern resisting industrialization in India. Released on Youtube in 2018.
This song is inspired by a song by Bhagwan Majhi, leader of adivasi struggle against bauxite mining in Kashipur, Odisha.

A Ted Talk by Ashish Kothari held at FLAME University, Pune, Maharashtra. March 2019.
The founder of Kalpavriksh speaks on alternative theories of development.

Vandana is Lecturer at Jindal Global Business School, in Jindal Global University, Sonipat, India. She is about to finish her PhD at Indian Institute of Management Calcutta with specialization in Public Policy and Management. As a development professional working with an international NGO prior to her doctoral studies, she has extensive experience in working with government agencies, NGOs and indigenous communities. Her current research works lie in the intersection of multiple fields of study like Political Ecology, Sustainable Development and Ecological Economics with a focus on food systems and tribal communities in India. Twitter: @Vanni_vandana

Renewable energy

Photo: Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

by Alf Hornborg

The concept of renewable energy is generally used for electric power that is not derived from finite sources such as stocks of fossil fuels or uranium. It includes the harnessing of flows such as direct sunlight, wind, and water. Harnessing such flows for electricity production requires technologies that are fundamentally different from the technologies used for deriving mechanical power from burning stocks of coal, oil, or gas. This applies to wind turbines and hydroelectric dams as much as it does to photovoltaic panels, but the focus here will be on solar power.

The rise of the fossil economy

The burning of fossil fuels as sources of mechanical power began with the steam engine in Britain in the 1760s. This innovation was essential to the Industrial Revolution. It marked a transition from relying on organic and flow-based energy sources propelled by current sunlight—such as human labour, draft animals, watermills, and windmills—to the combustion of subterranean mineral stocks. These mineral stocks—coal, oil, and gas—contain energy from ancient sunlight accumulated in organisms and deposited as sediments in the Earth’s crust.

The energy transition of the Industrial Revolution was not simply a discovery of how mineral energy could be converted into mechanical power. The harnessing of mineral energy required capital, that is purchasing power. As the wealthy core of the world’s greatest colonial empire, Britain was able to invest in steam technology. The expansion of steam technology in late eighteenth-century Britain was thus a process linked to the British appropriation of African slave labour and American plantation land. It saved Britain substantial quantities of labour time and agricultural land, but at the expense of great amounts of African labour and American land.

Energy technology – part nature, part society

The experience of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and other wealthy areas of the world was interpreted as a miraculous achievement of engineering. This is undeniable but does not tell the whole story. Technologies are not merely ingenious ideas or blueprints applied to nature. For them to materialize, engineers must have access to specific physical components—and at specific ratios of exchange (that is, prices). Engineering was certainly a necessary condition for the establishment of steam technology in early industrial Britain, but it was not a sufficient condition. The technology for harnessing the energy of coal was contingent on the market prices of raw cotton, African slaves, the labour of coal miners, Swedish iron, lubricants, and other inputs in relation to the market prices of exported cotton textiles. The physical existence of the machine, in other words, hinged not only on the revelation of nature, but also on social processes of exchange. However, this hybrid essence of technology—part nature, part society—has largely escaped the modern conception of engineering.

Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

By the end of the twentieth century, natural scientists had recognized that the combustion of fossil fuels is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. There have also been concerns about the depletion of finite mineral energy stocks and the decreasing net energy return on energy expended on extraction, also referred to as ERO(e)I (Energy Return On energy Investment). Moreover, the huge global disparities in per capita energy use are no longer easily rationalized as uneven development but suggest structural and increasing gaps between wealthier and poorer parts of world society. Given the dominant understanding of energy technology, however, these problems have generally not informed mainstream visions of the prospects of an increasingly globalized modern society. In these visions, the growing per capita use of energy continues to be fundamental to social progress, regardless of energy source. The problems with fossil energy are viewed as challenges of engineering. Across the political spectrum, there is a general faith in the capacity of modern society to shift to renewable, non-fossil energy sources without substantially reducing its levels of energy use.

Will renewables replace fossil fuels?

The main candidates for replacing fossil with renewable energy are solar and wind power. Experts are divided regarding their potential to replace fossil fuels. Some see no technical or economic obstacles to such a transition. Skeptics have argued that renewable energy technologies applied at such a scale would require impractically huge amounts of materials, space, or energy. Some have emphasized that the production and maintenance of infrastructure for production of renewable energy is based on fossil energy to such an extent that the energy derived from it is very far from carbon-free. This is particularly obvious where the manufacture of solar panels is conducted in coal-powered factories, as in China. Given that the world economy is currently propelled by fossil energy to about 90%, some have concluded that economic investments in renewable energy represent a fossil energy subsidy of similar proportions. Also, given this reliance on fossil fuels, a rise in prices of fossil energy cannot simply be hailed in terms of an increasing competitiveness for solar, as it will translate into higher production costs for alternative technologies. More centrally, given the fact that the cheapening of solar panels in recent years to a significant extent is the result of shifting manufacture to China, we must ask ourselves whether European and American efforts to become sustainable should really be based on the global exploitation of low-wage labor and abused landscapes elsewhere. The global, societal conditions for energy technologies tend to be equally overlooked whether we are accounting for the eighteenth-century shift to fossil energy or deliberating about how to abandon it. Both steam engines and solar panels have relied on asymmetric global flows of biophysical resources such as embodied labor, land, energy, and materials.

A transition to renewable energy generally focuses on electricity production, but most of the total global energy use occurs in other contexts, such as non-electric transports. Electricity globally represents about 19% of total energy use. In the year 2017, only 0.7% of global energy use derived from solar power and 1.9% from wind, while over 85% relied on fossil fuels. In March 2018, Vaclav Smil estimated that as much as 90% of world energy use derives from fossil sources, and that the share is actually increasing. Solar power is not displacing fossil energy, only adding to it. The pace of expansion of renewable energy capacity has stalled—it was about the same in 2018 as in 2017. Meanwhile, the global combustion of fossil fuels continues to rise, as do global carbon emissions.

We have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet.

Downscaling energy needs

How should we understand and transcend this impasse? To continue burning fossil fuels cannot be an option, but to believe that modern, high-energy society can be maintained based on renewable energy is similarly deluded. We shall certainly continue to need electricity, for example to run our hospitals and computers. But we have every reason to dismantle most of the global, fossil-fueled infrastructure for transporting people, groceries, and other commodities around the planet. This means making human subsistence independent from fossil energy and substantially reducing our mobility and consumption. Solar power will no doubt be an indispensable component of humanity’s future, but this will not happen as long as we allow the logic of the world market to make it profitable to transport essential goods halfway around the world. In order to provide the conditions for a sustainable technology, we must begin by establishing a sustainable economy. Crucially, also, we must modify our understanding of the very idea of technology. Contrary to our modern worldview since the Industrial Revolution, technology is not a neutral way of revealing and harnessing the forces of nature. A better way to define technology is to acknowledge that it is a global social phenomenon and a moral and political question rather than simply one of engineering. If we forget about this distributive aspect of technology, it will likely continue to save time and space for a global elite at the expense of human time and natural space appropriated elsewhere.

Further resources

Alf Hornborg. Nature, society, and justice in the Anthropocene: Unraveling the money-energy-technology complex. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.
Argues that modern energy technologies, in exploiting global differences in the price of labor and resources, are based not only on politically neutral revelations of natural forces but crucially also on accumulation of the capital invested in harnessing them.

Dustin Mulvaney. Solar power: Innovation, sustainability, and environmental justice. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2019.
Discusses what changes would be required in the life cycle of photovoltaic solar power technology to make it just and sustainable.

Vaclav Smil. Power density: A key to understanding energy sources and uses. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015.
Compares different energy sources in terms of the amount of energy that can be derived from them per square meter of space.

Alf Hornborg is an anthropologist and Professor of Human Ecology at Lund University, Sweden. His research focuses on theorizing the cultural and political dimensions of human-environmental relations in different societies in space and time. His books include The Power of the Machine (2001), Global Ecology and Unequal Exchange (2011), Global Magic (2016), and Nature, Society, and Justice in the Anthropocene (2019).