COP26 politicians give thumbs up to oil and gas

January 11, 2022

No sooner had politicians signed the Glasgow Climate Pact in November, than the US government paved the way for new oil and gas output, by selling $191 million of new drilling licences.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and 29 other companies bid at an auction for blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area twice the size of Florida.

The sale came after the Joe Biden administration’s moratorium on new drilling was overturned in the courts. Earthjustice said the sale was a “climate bombshell”: if all that production goes ahead, an extra 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.

On the plus side, the UK’s biggest new oil project, Cambo, suffered a blow, as Shell pulled out, after forceful mobilisation by climate campaigners. Siccar Point Energy, which owns 70% of the project, then said it is pausing work.

Extinction Rebellion in London, September 2020. Photo by Steve Eason

Cambo could still go ahead, though, and if it does, that will be thanks in part to the UK’s lavish tax breaks for North Sea producers. Siccar Point says the project is “not forecasted to pay taxes for many years”.

The company-friendly tax regime means that in 2020 the treasury collected a paltry £255 million from oil and gas producers, while handing rebates of £39 million to BP and £110 million to Shell. 

These tax breaks are just one part of a multi-billion-dollar mountain of subsidies for fossil fuel producers from rich countries’ governments.

And those subsidies form the background to COP26’s failure to tackle global heating, and to the decisions made there, which Climate Action Tracker estimates will lead to 2.1-2.7 degrees of warming, far above the 1.5 degree target.  

Read the rest of this entry »

Revolt and repression in Kazakhstan

January 9, 2022

The Kazakh government has unleashed ferocious repression against the uprising that exploded last week.

Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Dozens” died, according to media reports, but on 7 January president Kasym-Jomart Tokaev let slip that “hundreds” had been killed. Tokaev also said he gave the order to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests.

There are no accurate figures, because the government has cut off internet access for almost the whole country and imposed an information blockade.

The internal affairs ministry has said that more than 4400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them.

From social media via The Insider. The security services facing demonstrators in Almaty

It’s difficult, in the midst of this nightmare, to try to analyse the wave of protest and its consequences. Anyway, here are four points, based on what I can see from a distance.

1. The uprising began as a working-class revolt against inequality and political repression.

The protests started in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, an oil-producing city with a long history of struggle for union organisation. They were sparked by a doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, used for home heating and transport, to 120 tenge (about £0.21) per litre from 60 tenge. (See note.)

But this economic demand was very rapidly joined to political demands.

On Tuesday 4 January, before the internet was blocked, the human rights activist Galym Ageleuov wrote on social media:

The Zhanaozen people’s demands, that could well be taken up in Aktau [the largest city in the Mangystau region] tomorrow, are:

1. Gas for 50 tenge.

2. The resignation of the government.

3. [Former president Nursultan] Nazarbayev to get out of political life.

4. The release of political prisoners (Erzhan Elshibayev and others).

5. The return of the stolen money. [Surely a reference to the Kazakh elite’s ill-gotten gains.]

In making these demands, working people in Zhanaozen no doubt had in mind their own recent history. In 2011, the city was the scene of the most significant workers’ struggle of the post-Soviet period – an eight-month strike by oil workers, that ended with a police massacre in which at least 16 died and 60 were wounded.

After that strike, the state used repression on the one hand, and substantial regional investment and pay rises in the state-owned oil companies on the other, to fashion a new social compromise. But the effect of the pandemic on the oil industry has effectively wrecked that arrangement.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kazakhstan: an eyewitness to the uprising in Almaty

January 9, 2022

□ This text was written by Aidar Ergali on Thursday 6 January in Almaty. It has been circulating on Russian-language social media (e.g. here and here) and was translated into English yesterday. Please copy and paste, please circulate

THIS WILL BE A LONG READ, BUT PLEASE READ IT

This is what happened yesterday [Wednesday 5 January] in Almaty’s main square. Please tell the whole world what has been happening in KAZAKHSTAN.

Brothers and sisters!

The traitor [president] Tokayev has brought armies into the country, and as of yesterday we are under the Russian occupation. Don’t believe the foul propaganda Tokayev spouts, his voice breaking with fear.

The provocateurs and marauders had been brought in by the government, in order to discredit the protest movement, and to drown it in blood. The people who had come out into the streets of our cities are not extremists and marauders, not terrorists, as the government claims. These are the people of Kazakhstan, robbed and driven to fury by a gang of cowardly traitors and scoundrels.

In the streets, I spoke with huge numbers of all sorts of people. These were young lads, who had answered their heart’s call and have come from all corners of our country. These are ordinary city folk, young people, the elderly, women, who can no longer suffer this constant shame, lies and humiliation.

Photos of Almaty from The Insider and social media

The fault for everything happening in our country now lies with the government. With Nazarbayev and his clique. While suppressing their own people, the authorities have lost the time to negotiate. The time for negotiations has now passed. Specifically, it passed yesterday, when the people took to the streets en masse for a PEACEFUL rally, in support of our brothers in western Kazakhstan. If the people had not come out as one across the country, they would long ago have drowned the Zhanaozen strikers in blood, just as it happened ten years ago. Because the same cannibals and butchers are still in power. Our lives are not worth a penny to them.  That time we permitted that slaughter to happen, through our inaction and cowardice.

On 4 January, instead of starting an open dialogue with the people, the government set up cordons, and its guard dogs, the karabets [armed security forces], were let loose on peaceful protesters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Energy, capitalism and social justice: a discussion

January 5, 2022

Two articles published today on People & Nature continue a written discussion about about energy, capitalism and social justice that began last year. For readers who want to follow it so far, these are the items, in chronological order:

How energy was commodified, and how it might be decommodified, by Simon Pirani, 18 November 2021.

And if energy itself is unjust? by Larry Lohmann, 17 December 2021.

Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science? by David Schwartzman, 5 January 2022.

Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity, by Simon Pirani, 5 January 2022.

Advancing discussion of this kind is right at the heart of what I want to do with this site. I am grateful to Larry and David for writing. I welcome contributions from others, too. If you want to talk about it first, email peoplenature[at]protonmail.com. SP, 5 January 2022.


Disentangling capitalism and physics, ‘energy’ and electricity

January 5, 2022

Larry Lohmann’s comments, “And if energy itself is unjust?”, about my article on energy commodification, are really welcome. There is much we agree on: that we have to question whether there is, was or could be such a thing as “energy” that was not commodified and is therefore somehow OK; that the relationship of thermodynamic energy and labour is somehow at the bottom of all this; and that there is much wrong with the way issues such as “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are framed on the “left”.

(Actually I don’t like the term “left”, either, (a) because it obscures the fact that, whatever it might be, it certainly isn’t the motive force of history in the way many of its adherents think, and (b) because it implies that I am part of some entity that doesn’t include most working people, but does include people who think Putin is doing fine in Ukraine and Bashar al-Assad is an “anti imperialist” hero. But I digress.)

One way to take our discussion forward is to focus on four parts of it, where we don’t see things in the same way, or haven’t understood each other. Here goes.

1. How do we define “energy”?

When I read Larry’s comments, I looked back at the introduction to my book Burning Up, where I first used the definition of energy he is questioning. In the introduction, I proposed to use the word “energy” in a way that does not include human labour, as “work done by physical or chemical resources, mobilised by people for that purpose”.

Part of the reason I went for this approach was to try to deal with an issue that Larry raises, that thermodynamic energy and capitalist labour (I’d say, labour under capitalism) are not the same, can not substitute for each other, and are not additive or mergeable as capital would have us think. I would have had to write the book very differently if I wanted not to use the word “energy” at all, or not to use other words, such as “democracy” and “socialism”, that can be inscribed with different, indeed opposite, meanings by people who use them.

Protestors from the Canada Real shanty town in Madrid, saying “light is not a luxury, it’s a right”

It could be said that my definition missed out the way that the concept of “energy” has been imbued with meanings by the social process during which it was first used, i.e. the work of physicists, and the philosophers, economists and others whose work influenced them, at the heart of 19th century British empire-building. And that process has not stood still: the way that the term has been used in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century has added further layers, in particular in terms of “energy” as an extractivist process embedded in imperialist and neo-imperialist relationships. And Larry has said a great deal about the role of “energy” in the battles between capital and labour.

Read the rest of this entry »

Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?

January 5, 2022

A contribution to discussion on energy commodification and decommodification, by David Schwartzman

Larry Lohmann’s “And if Energy Itself is Unjust?” is a very interesting article, and it is nice to see thermodynamics revisited in the context of the capitalist physical and political economy. But this article deserves critique.

Illuminating how the science of thermodynamics was born and how energy manifests itself in the context of capitalist economy, as Lohmann does, should not make this science in itself a necessary ideological servant of this economy.

Lohmann’s invocation of the laws of thermodynamics, especially its second law of entropy is pure hybridism, the appropriation of a science into ideological metaphors, following the example of Bruno Latour’s hybridism, so clearly unpacked by Andreas Malm’s 2019 paper “Against Hybridism” (Historical Materialism 27.2 : 156–187). As Malm says:

particularly in our rapidly warming world – we need to sift out the social components from the natural, if we wish to understand the crises and retain the possibility of intervening in them.  

Since there is no scientific explanation of its thermodynamic reference, I take Lohmann’s “flattening of entropy gradients” as a metaphor for the generation of waste and destruction of ecosystems as a result of extraction and creation of technological infrastructure such as solar panels.

Read the rest of this entry »

Russia and Ukraine: “militarism and nationalism are lethally dangerous drugs”

December 29, 2021

The danger of renewed Russian military action in Ukraine is growing. The build-up of Russian armed forces on the border, near to the Russian-supported separatist “republics” in Donetsk and Lugansk, is alarming Ukrainians. They have already suffered more than six years of war during which 14,000 people have been killed and more than 2 million displaced from their homes.

Central to the Kremlin’s approach is to keep the western powers guessing. President Putin has raged against NATO, despite senior western politicians making it quite clear that they would not commit troops to defend Ukraine from an invasion.

There are some reasons to believe that Putin is aiming not for war, but for a negotiation with the US – and initial talks have been fixed for January. But the preparations on the border continue nonetheless.

In the face of a possible major land war in Europe, socialists and internationalists across the continent have a responsibility to speak out, to be at the forefront of the anti-war movement. We must act in solidarity both with the Ukrainian communities that face the physical danger of Russian military action, and the so far small number of Russian voices being raised against war.

Demonstration in Kirov, Russia, on 18 December. “No to war: no to Putin”; “Hands off Ukraine”. Photo from Guildhall (ghall.com.ua)

With this in mind, I have translated these two articles. The first is a statement opposing war, by the Russian Socialist Movement. The second is a blog post by the Ukrainian community activist, trade union organiser and lawyer Pavel Lisyansky.

This is the Russian Socialist Movement’s statement, published on facebook on 7 December.

On 4 December, the Associated Press, citing information from the US intelligence services, reported that Russia was preparing to put 175,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. “[Deploying] Russian armed forces on Russian territory – that’s the legal right of a sovereign state”, responded Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, without denying the build-up of forces on the border.

Along with the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, these actions are an episode in the cynical and dangerous geopolitical game of Russian and the west, in which millions of working people in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other countries are being held hostage. This sabre-rattling is not only an attempt to push other states into retreat. Behind it also stands the aspirations of the elite to “rally the nation” once again around the Putin regime, as it did in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

Read the rest of this entry »

Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity

December 29, 2021

We know what solidarity in the face of war looks like. It looks like the Grupa Granica, set up to support those stranded on the Polish border by the government’s vicious anti-migrant policy and the Belarussian government’s cynical manipulation of refugees.

It looks like the thousands of Polish people who have demonstrated, demanding “stop the torture at the border”. And it looks like the solidarity networks set up further afield (including the Solidarity Without Borders appeal for cash to support groups on the spot).

To those supporting refugees – whether in Poland or Belarus, or in the English Channel, targeted by the UK government’s murderous crackdown – it makes no difference which war people are fleeing. It might be the US-UK-supported war in Iraq, or the bloodbath perpetrated in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Now, we face the possibility of renewed Russian military action in Ukraine. This carries the greatest threat of war in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Demonstration in Warsaw, October 2021, to “stop torture on the border”. Photo by Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

The war in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15 has already caused 2 million or more people to flee their homes: more than 1 million now counted as “internally displaced” in Ukraine; at least as many have crossed the border to Russia. A new conflict would be both a human tragedy and a threat to social movements.

Solidarity is needed. An anti-war movement is needed.

Already, pro-Putin propaganda – that corrodes parts of the so-called “left”, as well as thriving on the extreme right – is being dialled up. It seeks to justify Russia’s military preparations. And it could endanger efforts to galvanise anti-war protest.

Read the rest of this entry »

And if energy itself is unjust?

December 17, 2021

A response by Larry Lohmann to the article How Energy was Commodified, and How it Could be Decommodified

The way that industrial capitalism and 19th-century thermodynamic energy – the energy we talk about today – have constituted each other, and what this means for political movements, is something that colleagues and I been struggling to understand, off and on, for many years. So Simon Pirani’s paper How Energy was Commodified, and How it could be Decommodified, was extremely stimulating for me.

I share Simon’s view that understanding energy as commodity and as commons is crucial for the struggles ahead. But his paper also reawakened a certain uneasiness about the way issues of “energy democracy” and “energy justice” are typically framed by the left, especially in the global North.

In August 1842, during a strike in Lancashire, in the UK, against wage cuts by cotton mill owners, workers pulled the boiler plugs from the steam engines. Their action became known as the “plug plot riots”. Photo from Underground Histories

Usually I abbreviate this unease by saying that the issue cannot be only that the distribution of energy is unjust or undemocratic (which it is). Or that structures of extraction, production, distribution, access, governance, planning and use of energy are unjust and undemocratic (which they are). There has to be a lot more. And that without taking account of this “more”, the best-intentioned efforts to address these distributional/administrative/governance/cultural types of issue are eventually going to come to grief (or already have).

Simon’s work helps pin down what some of this “more” is – namely that energy, when treated as a commodity, is always going to have these issues, and that the further step of searching out and linking together existing and potential moves toward energy-as-commons ought to be more integrated into popular strategy.

Read the rest of this entry »

Kazakhstan, ten years after the Zhanaozen massacre: oil workers’ fight to organise goes on

December 15, 2021

Ten years after police massacred striking oil workers at Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, human rights organisations and trades unionists are demanding an international inquiry into the killings.

Even now, the number of victims is unknown. State officials admit that 16 were killed and 64 injured on 16 December 2011 – but campaigners say there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, more.

The initial killings, by police who fired into a peaceful, unarmed crowd, were followed by a three-day reign of terror in Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich Mangistau province in western Kazakhstan, and nearby villages.

Defendants at the 2012 trial of Zhanaozen protesters

The torture and sexual violence used against detainees should also be investigated by an independent international commission, campaigners say.

Although a handful of police officers were tried for “exceeding their powers”, and a detention centre boss briefly jailed, the Kazakh government has refused to say who ordered the shootings.

The Zhanaozen shootings ended an eight-month strike by the town’s oil workers, one of the largest industrial actions ever in the post-Soviet countries.

Oil workers and their families had demanded better pay and conditions, and the right to organise independent trade unions, at Ozenmunaigaz, a production subsidiary of the national oil company Kazmunaigaz, and contracting firms.

Read the rest of this entry »

%d bloggers like this: