Deconstructing “energy security”: some questions

The rhetoric of “energy security” – most often heard from rich country governments angry that oil and gas imports are not being delivered in the way they want – is skilfully deconstructed in a new report from The Corner House, a research and advocacy centre for community movements and NGOs.

The report keeps to the high standard of research established at The Corner House, which has supported campaigns such as those around the social impact of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and against the UK judicial cover-up of bribery by weapons exporters. However I think that when the authors venture into history and social theory they sometimes loses their way. In this post I highlight what I think are the report’s strengths, and raise some questions.

The focus of “energy security”, as the term is generally used, is “on ‘securing’ new and continued supplies of oil, coal and gas, building nuclear plants and even translating renewables into a massive export system”; energy efficiency is less important; and transition away from fossil fuels is “nowhere to be seen”, the authors point out (p.5).

Instead of making energy supplies more secure, government policies “are triggering a cascade of new insecurities for millions of people – whether as a result of the everyday violence that frequently accompanies the development of frontier oil and gas reserves, or because the pursuit of ‘energy security’ through market-based policies denies many people access to the energy produced.”

The authors argue that “the word ‘energy’ and the word ‘security’ have in fact become so detached from their vernacular meaning that they are themselves problems.” They describe (pp. 14-20) how an abstract “Energy” (with an upper-case “E”) – predominantly from fossil fuels, and assessed according to price – has emerged as an element of the capitalist economy. A vast array of other energy sources and uses are thereby made subordinate and invisible.

The authors also critique predominant assumptions and prejudices about “security”. They go on to question concepts of “economic growth” that dominate discussions about energy consumption (i.e. the assumption that capitalist expansion will continue, and demand for commodified Energy will continue to grow, and that these increases are inevitable consequences of population growth and the spread of human happiness and fulfilment).

"Energy security": the US army in Iraq

“Fears of scarcity (demand outstripping supply) and promises of abundance (supply outstripping demand) form the twin pillars of neo-classical economics and frame mainstream discussions of energy security: scarcity because it is taken as read that energy needs, wants and desires are unlimited but the means to meet them are limited; abundance because whatever scarcities arise it is assumed that markets, technological innovation and substitution processes will resolve them”, they write (p.22).

The authors show how these dominant conceptions of “Abundance” (they always put a capital letter on terms whose use they are questioning) reflect driving forces of capitalist expansion and take no account of natural limits. But they also reject the sort of Malthusian conclusions all too common among environmentalists, focusing instead on the inherently unequal and wasteful character of consumption. (The Corner House has previously published research on population issues with a pronounced anti-Malthusian standpoint.)

After sections dealing with “energy enclosures” by the oil industry, and the relationship of financial markets and energy firms, the authors conclude that the falsity of the idea of “energy security” is rooted in a “myth” about the separation of nature and society (p. 75). While I might quibble with some of the philosophical statements, I would agree that they are looking in the right place.

The authors urge a “public discussion and debate” to correct the “fatal political vagueness of the purely physical concept of ‘energy’” and instead scrutinise societal goals” (p.79). So in pursuit of just such a discussion, here are questions about aspects of the report I was not convinced by: 

Given the scope and length of the report, it lacks any clear sense of who the authors believe will address the problems it raises. Where are the motive forces of change?

Given the authors’ arguments that “energy security” expresses exploitative and unequal social relationships, who will overcome these relationships?

The authors argue for “commons regimes” that are “neither private nor public” and that “vest in their members the power to determine access to almost anything: land, forests, water, fish, radio wavelengths, seeds, streets” (p.13).  They counterpose “commons life” to the social relationship of capitalism, and counterpose “numerous communities, user groups, cooperatives and other forms of social organisation whose lives are governed not by the principles of neo-classical economics but by the rules of the commons” to the economic system that “naturalises unlimited wants” (p.30).  They quote from the significant body of literature that has developed ideas about “the commons” in recent years.

I agree that communities such as those mentioned have a crucial role in confronting oil companies, state hierarchies and the rest over “energy enclosures”. But such communities do not comprise a majority. A much larger number of people, many hundreds of millions in  rich and poor countries alike, are caught in the social relations of capitalism, complete with its rules of energy production and consumption: not only the working class, both urban and rural, but also giant sections of the population forced into precarious existences on the edge of labour exploitation, or in between that exploitation and subsistence farming.

What about these people? The idea of working-class or popular movements for change hardly figures in the report. But in my view, it is these movements that will ultimately shape a future transition away from the fossil-fuel-based capitalist economy. Such movements may take the form of asserting “the commons” against modern-day enclosures – but one only has to read the news, be it from north Africa, China or anywhere else, to see that they take other forms too.

On the other hand, the report repeatedly refers to “policymakers” – which to my mind is a generalisation almost as woolly and meaningless as “energy security”.

Usually, this word conjours up a picture of besuited smart-alecs in parliamentary offices: the politicians, the assistants who work for them, the academics who construct arguments for them and the lobbyists who lobby them. The idea that such people will effect social change is ridiculous. More insidious, though, is the danger that social movements will get channelled into narrow “political” campaigns, inspired by illusions that “policymakers” can at least be our levers … whereas the big issues posed by the report – e.g. the achievement of energy security as the use of energy by all – can only be addressed by much more sweeping social transformations.

The authors’ disappointingly tentative attitude to social change may be related to questions raised by the historical section of the report (pp.12-20).

The authors relate the development of labour exploitation and the coal-fuelled industrial revolution: “Just as abstract labour became embodied in the mobile, partially expendable flesh of the first generation of industrial workers, so too abstract Energy took shape through the mechanisation of the fossil fuel era” (p.15). They also acknowledge that the “commodification of the capacity for work” and the growth of fossil-powered industry went hand in hand (p.17). But when they move forward to the 21st century, they see “the destructive role played by the emergence of abstract Energy in struggles against enclosure and privatisation” (p.18) … but not the continuation, two centuries later, of the relationship between abstract labour and abstract Energy that came with capitalism. There does not seem to be any sense that workers who have to sell their labour power, within the social relations that were taking shape during the industrial revolution, might drive forward the transition away from capitalism and its fossil-fuel-based economy … or that such a transition could supercede abstract labour and abstract Energy, that have rightly been identified as the root of the problem. Ideas about such a transformation are at least as old as capitalism itself, and one has to wonder why no reference is made to them.

The longest chapter in the report deals with financial markets and the role they play in the provision of energy under capitalist social relations.

The authors offer a lengthy critique of speculation in energy trading, the distortions introduced by listing requirements for oil companies (which push forward the companies’ insane drive for bookable reserves) and, above all, carbon markets. The implication, not spelled out, is that the regulation and curtailment of financial capital – rather than movements that challenge and eventually supercede capital all together – could improve matters.

Take carbon markets, for example. While the authors describe convincingly the obscenity of the European Emissions Trading System (ETS), the inherent opportunities for corrupt profiteering, etc, they don’t mention what to my mind is the most interesting fact: the ETS’s complete failure to achieve its stated aim, i.e. pushing prices of carbon to a level where they act as a lever to encourage investment in non-fossil energies.

When the scheme was launched in 2005, EU officials optimistically claimed it would start to work once prices reached €40/tonne, while energy analysts were saying that €150-€200/tonne would be needed for energy companies to take serious notice. But after briefly exceeding €30/tonne in 2008, carbon prices on the ETS have crashed below €10/tonne and languished at €8/tonne last month – causing Johannes Teyssen of EON, one of Europe’s largest energy companies, to say: “The ETS is bust, it’s dead.”<[1]

Why should workers’ movements, communities fighting to assert “commons” or campaign organisations care about regulating carbon markets?

This would matter to anyone who seriously believes that tighter regulation, and state restrictions on financial markets, can make capitalism better … or at least make life better under capitalism. And my question to those people is: if you believe in advocating state regulation, why not campaign for a blanket gradually-increasing tax on carbon emissions at source (a slogan that is quite popular e.g.among US environmentalists, but not mentioned by The Corner House)? The most obvious objection to that is: the state will never implement it … which surely puts in doubt the whole tactic of urging state regulation in the first place.

To my mind, state regulation and restrictions on financial markets are tools used in the management of capitalism, but never have, and never will, solve the issues of inequality and exploitative social relations raised in the report. An obsession with urging state regulation and restrictions on financial markets can weaken social movements. For example, much liberal hype was generated around the “Occupy” movement, to the effect (crudely put) that the problem with the world is greedy bankers, rather than capitalism as a system. Clearly the Corner House report is much more solidly-based than such hype – but given that context, it is a shame that, at least in the chapter on financialisation, it pointed in this direction.

Surely it would be better to focus on bringing together and strengthening social movements, whose actions will restrict capital’s room for manoeuvre far more effectively than any regulation. GL.


[1] Joshua Chaffin, “Emissions Trading: cheap and dirty”, Financial Times, 13 February 2012

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One Response to Deconstructing “energy security”: some questions

  1. john green says:

    I agree with much of your argument, but in terms of the ‘Occupy’ movement, although there was considerable ‘hype’ as you put it, much of the media referred to the movement as made up of ‘anti-capitalist’ activists, even if some of them weren’t. This in itself focuses on the system itself and not just on ‘greedy bankers’.

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