People's Power

RECLAIMING THE ENERGY COMMONS


ASHLEY DAWSON


“An elegant, controversial thesis” —The Guardian on Ashley Dawson’s Extinction


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About the Book

The science is conclusive: to avoid irreversible climate collapse, the burning of all fossil fuels will have to end in the next decade. In this concise and highly readable intervention, Ashley Dawson sets out what is required to make this momentous shift: Simply replacing coal-fired power plants with for-profit solar energy farms will only maintain the toxic illusion that it is possible to sustain relentlessly expanding energy consumption. We can no longer think of energy as a commodity. Instead we must see it as part of the global commons, a vital element in the great stock of air, water, plants, and cultural forms like language and art that are the inheritance of humanity as a whole.

People’s Power provides a persuasive critique of a market-led transition to renewable energy. It surveys the early development of the electric grid in the United States, telling the story of battles for public control over power during the Great Depression. This history frames accounts of contemporary campaigns, in both the United States and Europe, that eschew market fundamentalism and sclerotic state power in favor of energy that is green, democratically managed and equitably shared.

160 pages • Paperback ISBN 978-1-68219-300-6 • E-book 978-1-68219-244-3

About the Author

ashley dawson author photo

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Born in South Africa during the apartheid era, Ashley Dawson is currently Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and the College of Staten Island. His previous books include Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change and Extinction: A Radical History. A member of the Social Text Collective and the founder of the CUNY Climate Action Lab, he is a long-time climate justice activist.

Read an Excerpt

THE ENERGY COMMONS

From the Introduction

We need a rapid and just transition beyond fossil fuels. We are only going to get such a transition if we can wrench control of our energy systems out of the hands of profit-seeking corporations with a strong stake in continuing business as usual. The struggle for democratic control over energy production, distribution, and use is consequently the key front in the fight for a better, sustainable world. It is not simply that it’s taking too long to make the transition. The problem is a more fundamental one. The capitalist system which orients current efforts to shift energy regimes is based on a fundamental logic: grow or die. This growth imperative is a recipe for the mass extinction of most species on a finite planet.[i] As long as energy production remains grounded in the logic of the capitalist market, it will continue to obey capitalism’s fundamentally irrational drive to generate ceaselessly expanding profits through endless growth. If capitalists can make money off fossil fuels, they will continue to drill holes in the earth, damn the environmental and social consequences. Since fossil fuel corporations have immense amounts of assets sunk into existing infrastructures, they will fight to prevent a transition to a zero-carbon society – despite the occasional charade of moving “beyond petroleum.” Truly sustainable energy production will only be possible if power is taken out of the hands of these gargantuan profit-seeking corporations and their flunkeys in the halls of state. Power, in both senses of the term, must consequently be controlled by ordinary citizens and communities. Decisions about energy generation and the transition to renewable energy need to be oriented around genuine collective needs and framed by a horizon more ample and more sane than the nihilistic, short-term perspectives of the capitalist system. If our collective future is presently being determined by a small cabal of fossil oligarchs, who are making money while driving the planet towards biological annihilation, the alternative to such folly is to collectivize the control of energy and to organize a just transition to renewable power through participatory, democratic control.

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 have traditionally been regarded as the inheritance of humanity as a whole.[ii] The commons are made up of material things, those tangible, finite resources such as clean air and water upon which all life depends. But the commons also consist of intangible, non-finite collective resources such as knowledge, shared customs, means of communication, and even more ineffable things such as collective affects, all of which might be termed the social commons. Energy needs to be thought of as both sorts of commons since it is composed of both the “natural resources” (coal, oil, gas, wind, sun, tides, etc.) from which power is generated and of the technologically and socially distributed power derived from these resources. That energy ought to be thought of as a common good – literally, as common wealth – is clear when one scrutinizes its sources, the product of their social use, and the urgent need for a just transition to renewable energy.[iii]

In terms of the sources of energy, it should be quite clear that both fossil fuels like coal and oil and sources of renewable energy like the wind and the sun are part of the natural commons. They are physical resources (in the case of fossil fuels, finite ones) that should be shared equally throughout society. The fact that they presently are not equally distributed, and instead are hoarded and exploited for profit by the few, reflects the fundamental injustice of the capitalist system and the forms of warmongering and imperialism that it has historically produced. But the idea of energy as a common good is not as outlandish as it might at first seem. After all, if citizens of wealthy nations have grown accustomed to thinking of fossil fuels in commodified form, as the bill paid at a local Exxon station or the monthly charge from a regional power utility, it was not always so. Within the United States itself but even more so among people fighting domination and injustice in other parts of the world, the idea of fossil fuels as the common property of the people has resonated powerfully and helped spark radical social movements. Given capitalism’s tendency to generate unequal access to and scarcity of the natural commons, inequalities with deadly implications, it is only to be expected that strong countervailing movements asserting collective control over these commons should arise in protest. Power to the People is a resonant rallying cry the world over, particularly since it seems to condense ideas relating to equal access to the energy commons with the desire to level today’s outrageous social inequalities. In addition, if the commodification of fossil fuels, whether by global mega-corporations or their powerful state-based analogues, has become a fait accompli today, this skewed and inegalitarian situation has not yet become commonsense in relation to the sources of renewable energy. It seems patently absurd, in fact, to think that a corporation or a state would lay exclusive claim to the sunlight or the wind.

To fully realize the implications of treating energy as a commons, though, we must challenge the deeply-ingrained idea that energy is a thing: a joule or kilowatt hour. This goes against the grain of contemporary conceptions of energy as an abstract biophysical property governed by the immutable laws of thermodynamics. But this objectifying meaning of energy only developed in the eighteenth century, at the inception of the era of fossil capital. Prior to this, energy was a far more flexible term, one that tended to refer to a kind of vital force produced under specific circumstances. The word energy in fact derives from the Greek words en (within) + ergon (work).[iv] Aristotle developed the term, using it to denote the active capacity of the human intellect.[v] By the late 17th century, when the German Enlightenment thinker Gottfried Leibnitz rendered the term in Latin as vis viva (living force), energy had come to refer to the internal vigor required by a person to engage in physical or mental activity. This usage was appropriate for an age in which the Trans-Atlantic slave trade was turning millions of commoditized human beings into a hitherto unrivaled source of energy, a power so potent that it was used to transformed entire regional landscapes in the Americas and to provide the energy to kickstart the industrial revolution.[vi] The energy commons thus includes brutal histories of human subjugation and exploitation, as well as ideas of shared access to “natural resources.” Today’s fight for the energy commons must reckon with the lingering effects of these histories of settler colonialism and racial slavery. The energy commons therefore must be about more than simply switching from fossil fuels to solar power: at its heart, this struggle must enable radical redistributions of power that don’t just democratize but also effectively decolonize energy and society.

[i] On the mass extinction crisis, see my book Extinction: A Radical History (O/R Books, 2016).
[ii] On energy as a vital part of the global commons, see Kolya Abramsky, “Energy, Work, and Social Reproduction in the World-Economy” in Kolya Abramsky, ed., Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2010), 93-101.

[iii] Cecile Blanchet, “Is Renewable Energy a Commons?” Resilience.org (24 May 2017).
[iv] “Energy,” Oxford English Dictionary.
[v] Chung-Hwan Chen, “Different Meanings of the Term Energeia in the Philosophy of Aristotle,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 17.1 (Sept 1956), 56-65.
[vi] On slavery and energy, see Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude (Berkeley, CA: Greystone Books, 2012) and Miles Lennon, “Decolonizing Energy: Black Lives Matter and Technoscientific Expertise amid Solar Transitions,” Energy Research and Social Science 30 (2017), 18-27.

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