How will we get from here to there?

Review article: Kolya Abramsky (ed.), Sparking a worldwide energy revolution: social struggles in the transition to a post-petrol world (AK Press, 2010).

“The threat of global warming? Capitalism is to blame.” This sort of hypersimplified logic is compelling, because so much supporting evidence is in front of our noses. It is capitalism’s relentless drive to expand, to find new sources of profit, that has pushed the demand for oil, gas and coal to levels that can only be satisfied by ever-more-barbaric wars for control of resources, ever-more-damaging methods of producing them, and ever-more-unsustainable levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Socialists and radicals are having a field day. Capitalism is to blame, and capitalism must be overthrown, they cry. Not since the threat of nuclear war loomed in the 1960s has capitalism’s potential for apocalyptic disaster imprinted itself so powerfully on people’s thinking … and it seems like a great chance to spread the word. But how will capitalism be overthrown? And how will the social relationships that supercede it produce solutions to the energy crisis? And what part will those who work in the energy sector, or environmentalists who resist its expansion, play in the transition to socialism? When conversations move on to these difficult issues, many of those same socialists and radicals are as vague on the details as they are certain about the big picture. Kolya Abramsky, editor of Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, is an exception. In his introduction to the book, and a concluding chapter on “social struggles in the transition to a post-petrol world”, he suggests some starting-points for tackling these questions. Here I have summarised what I feel are the most important points (unless it’s in direct quotes, it’s my paraphrasing and assumptions).

1. The fossil fuel era is being superceded by the era of renewable energy, like it or not. Just as past transitions from one type of energy to another have gone hand in hand with great social transformations, so will this transition.

“The end of ‘the fossil fuel era’ may be postponed, but it can not be prevented”, Abramsky writes (p. 6). “In all probability it can not even be postponed much longer. A transition beyond petrol is not a question of ideological choice, but is increasingly becoming an imperative imposed by material constraints.”  The imperative, he argues, is “‘peak oil’, and especially climate change”. I would underline “especially”, because the damaging effects of climate change are already making themselves felt, in rapidly changing weather conditions that have a ruinous effect on African and Asian farmers, and the catastrophic near-future impact of sea level rise is being predicted with increasing accuracy – whereas, to my mind at least, “peak oil” is a more complicated issue. (It depends, for example, on technology, and on how much damage they’re prepared to do to get the next barrel. Furthermore, most “peak oil” scenarios are based on assumptions of constantly-rising demand.)

In any case, unlike those “peak oil” theorists, Abramsky keeps away from time scales and sticks to the main point: that it is the social relationships that count. The “massive and rapid reductions” required in carbon dioxide emissions, and the changes in energy production and consumption necessary for that, are impossible “without extensive changes in production and consumption relations at a more general level, involving fundamental change in how humans interact with nature” (p.7).

2. Capitalism is driven constantly to expand the economy, and that implies a constant increase in energy consumption, interrupted only by destructive economic crises. Neither better regulations nor new technology can solve this intractable problem.

Capitalism has only ever achieved reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in periods of “socially disruptive and painful periods of forced economic degrowth”, notably the catastrophic slump that followed the collapse of USSR, and the recession of 2008-09, Abramsky points out (p. 7). The system of production is “based on endless growth and expansion, which is simply incompatible with a long term reduction in emissions and energy consumption” (p.8). Nevertheless, enormous amounts of time and energy have been put in to establishing regulatory frameworks – such as those adopted at successive international climate change conferences – that do not come near to addressing the problem. Not only governments, but also very often “civil society”,  especially trades unions and NGOs, “focus on promoting regulatory reforms, rather than on more fundamental changes in social relations”. They will continue to do so, Abramsky argues, “despite the patent inadequacy of this approach” … for at least as long as the effects of climate change can not be witnessed at first hand in northern countries, where the decisions are made. And, although technologies are “undoubtedly crucial to any long-term solution”, they “can not, on their own, square the circle by reducing the total emissions of a system whose survival is based on continual expansion”.

3. The Copenhagen climate policy conference (COP 15) in 2009 was a watershed: it showed that capitalist governments are unable to do what is required.

It showed that “existing political institutions are completly unwilling to undertake the required changes on the scale and within the time frame necessary to solve the climate-energy crisis” (p. 18). “Those few national governments that are willing to push a more emancipatory vision of change are not capable of doing so, while those that are capable are not willing.” 

4. Capitalism as a system is not wedded to fossil fuels as a matter of principle but as a matter of how its economy has developed. “Green capitalism” – the attempt to move to a post-fossil-fuel economy at working people’s expense – is a real threat. 

“Some form of ‘green capitalism’ is on the agenda.” We are told that “it is finally time to ‘save the planet’ in order to ‘save the economy’”, but not “that the transition process to a new energy system is [...] the next round of global class struggle over control of key means of production and subsistence” (p. 10).

Together with “green capitalism” comes a “liberal capitalists’ discourse” that is “based on a value judgment that continuous capitalist growth is desirable” (p. 13). “The closely-related ‘environmental’ approach is based on a strong ethical desire for ‘change’, but does not imagine challenging the fundamental value premises of capitalism or the material relations behind it.” These liberal ideologues are “quite open minded” about solutions to the energy crisis. All possibilities are kept open, i.e. combination of oil, gas, “clean coal”, nuclear, renewables, etc.  

5. Energy both enhances and replaces human labour: their histories can not be separated from each other. Energy systems have developed in the context of different sets of social relationships. What happens to energy next will be decided by how society changes.

Capitalist social relations took shape in an “era of renewable energies”: wind-powered sailboats conquered the world, windmills ground sugar cane on slave plantations and land was drained by wind- and water-powered pumps (p. 11). Later came the coal-powered steam engine, and artificial lighting, that were key to the British factory-based production system, and the railways and steam shipos that underpinned a “truly world-reaching system of social relations”. Oil and nuclear energy arrived in the 20th century, and became indispensible pillars of US hegemony, new types of mechanisation and changes in agriculture.

Each of these transformations “have led to increased concentration of power and wealth. And a very real possibility exists that the coming transformation in the world’s energy system will result in similar shifts in power relations” (p. 8). The twin economic and energy/climate crises “have the potential to substantially increase [...] already brutal inequalities”: we already see “climate change” and “rising energy costs” used as justifications for victimising refugees and imposing austerity on workers. But we are at a crossroads: we do not know how things will change. The “most important single factor determining the outcome of this change will be the intensity, sophistication and creativity of grass-roots social mobilisation.” Class struggle is the main uncertainty in this transition process. “Who will bring the transition about and for what purpose? Who will benefit, and at whose expense?” 

6. Change will not happen overnight. Environmental crisis will not force capitalism into an apocalyptic meltdown. This is a long process, and its outcome depends on what people – millions of people in working-class communities – do to shape their future.

“It will take many years before it is clear whether capital can harness new combinations of energy that are capable of imposing and maintaining a certain stable (and profitable) organisation of work in the way that fossil fuels have allowed, or whether we will find that a new energy system will not allow such possibilities, and perhaps even strengthens the material basis for anticapitalist struggles”, Abramsky writes (p. 11). “We are in the early stage of what is likely to be a lengthy and complex struggle to determine whether capital will be successful in its efforts to force labour [...] to bear the costs of building a new energy system, or whether labour [...] is able to force capital to bear these costs.” 

7. The struggle by communities whose life is bound up with oil or coal production is an integral part of this process, and environmentalists who attach blame to them are completely missing the point.

Struggles need to “find ways of collectively organising and acting together that do not pit one struggle against another, but instead give rise to a social force that is simultaneously able to set limits on capital and also create alternatives”. Some of the most important struggles have been in the hydrocarbons sector, such as struggles over who controls the oil in Venezuela, Bolivia or Iraq; “the sector has become increasingly difficult for neoliberal capital to control” (pp. 18-19). “Hydrocarbon production, when inserted in capital’s circuits, must follow the profit logic of capital and has very few other options. To shift away from boundless extraction of those fossil fuels requires a collective global process.

“Consequently it does not make sense to blame people who happen to live in an area that has an abundance of hydrocarbons. [...] This is tantamount to a head-on attack on those people whose livelihoods and survival currently depend on these fuels. Rather, it is likely that some form of collective ownership of, and democratic and participatory decision-making process over these resources at a local or national level, offers a strong basis from which to contribute to the collective global process of a planned shift away from them.”

And yet, Abramsky complains, “the struggle over the ownership, control and use of hydrocarbons [...] is largely absent in current discussions between advocates of renewable energy and many of the more mainstream organisations that are active around climate change.” (p. 20).

In his final chapter, Abramsky highlights the importance for capitalism of “highly exploited and repressed labour” in the energy sector, such as Chinese, Indian and South African coal miners, as well as migrant workers in the Gulf oil states. Its low cost has been “an important, though often hidden, subsidy to fossil fuels”, with which renewable energy has to compete on the world market, and an important factor in ensuring that fossil fuels remain competitive in that market’s terms (p. 633).  

Abramsky argues that wages struggles by coal miners in the second half of the 20th century hastened the shift from coal to oil – and that future struggles by both coal and oil workers will hasten the shift to renewable energy. The period preceding the shift from coal to oil was “notable for the high level of worker unrest in the coal sector. This created a cost on the sector, and contributed towards making coal increasingly less economically viable”, he writes (p. 635). Now there are big struggles in the oil sector too. “Successful struggles by workers (and affected communities) in the oil and coal sector will make these industries more expensive. Paradoxically, the more successful the struggles are, and the more powerful the workers become, the less competitive and viable the sectors become.” This will accelerate the phase-out of oil and coal. Therefore, “it is in the interests of not just the coal and oil workers (and affected communities) that their struggles are successful, but it is also in the interest of those who are actually advocating a phase out of fossil fuels in the long term. Workers in the oil industry, through successful struggle, may actually undermine their own livelihoods in the long term. This means that it is all the more important to build up renewable energy industries in regions that are negatively affected by phase-out, so that workers and communities there do not lose their livelihoods. In order for this to happen, which is unlikely without targeted and intentional interventions, it is in the interests of both renewable energy advocates and fossil fuel workers to build close and mutually supportive relationships with one another.”

8. There is no simple formula for energy policy. It needs to be discussed and developed in the course of struggles for social emancipation.

“The stark reality is that we are very far from bringing about the kind of change in production and consumption relations that is needed to solve the climate/energy crisis. We may never be in a position to do so. However, if we are even to imagine avoiding a socially- and ecologically-disastrous process of climate change and enforced change, it will be important at least to pose the question of how this might come about”, Abramsky writes (p. 650). It is long overdue to “deepen a long-term strategic debate about how and for what purposes wealth is produced and distributed in society, and how people’s subsistence needs are met, as part of a shift to a new energy system.” He concludes (p. 655) with four points to start a discussion, which in summary are:

a. “The need for rapid and extensive reductions in CO2 emissions is non-negotiable, and affected communities and workers must lead the discussion of how to bring about this change.” A crucial issue is the meaning of “clean energy” and how it can be used, “brought about in such a way that is empowering for affected workers and communities”.

b. “Managing resource scarcity collectively and fairly.” Solutions must avoid pitting communities against each other; “if emancipatory movements are unable to force capital to shoulder the burden, it is likely to prove immensely divisive and destructive”.

c. “Collective efforts must be taken to ensure that the globally-expanding renewable energy sector contributes to a positive shift in power relations, and does not provide a new basis for exploitative ones.”

d. “Energy sovereignty and autonomy as a basis for reducing energy and fuel dependency, and energy-related inequalities in the world market.”

e. “Finding energy and climate solutions that contribute to, and speed up, a wider process of long-term emancipatory social change in the face of the current world financial-economic and political crisis.”

Besides Abramsky’s contributions, there are 58 other chapters in Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution, by campaigners on a range of energy issues. (Publisher’s information here.) It’s well worth reading. GL

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3 Responses to How will we get from here to there?

  1. [...] deal of thought to all this is the writer and activist Kolya Abramsky. There is a separate post here on the book he recently edited about global warming, the transition to renewable energy, the crisis [...]

  2. […] how such a transition should be achieved (an issue about which I’ve written before, e.g. here and here). That is the reason that I am so pleased to publish Neil Rothnie’s interview and the archive of […]


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