Today I am publishing Roads to an Energy Commons, a pamphlet (free to download here). It brings together articles that appeared on peoplenature.org about the role of fossil fuels in capitalist society, and the meaning of “energy” and related concepts. The discussion covered issues about the transition away from fossil fuels, and away from capitalism.
The first article, by Simon Pirani, discussed the way that energy has been turned into a commodity under capitalism, and asked whether and how it could be decommodified. The second article, by Larry Lohmann, argued that the very concept of “energy” had to be challenged more robustly. Further contributions followed, from Larry, Simon and David Schwartzman, who writes on solar energy. The last two articles have been published today, here and here.
While none of us think the last word has been said on these issues, we hope that the discussion will be taken up, and maybe taken in other directions, by others. With the pamphlet we hope to make our conversation accessible to a wider readership. If you wish to contribute, please email peoplenature[at]protonmail.com. 17 February 2022.
LARRY LOHMANN continues a discussion about energy and social justice, responding to earlier contributions on People & Nature by Simon Pirani and David Schwartzman, both published on 5 January. You can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here
I don’t want to overemphasize any differences Simon and I may turn out to have. From the perspective of capital, the two of us probably look like the same person. On the other hand, developing our mutual (mis)understandings as they play off each other is surely at least one tiny part of our own common project of helping organize for the future.
I don’t think that Simon and I differ on the place of the modern energy concept developed during 19th-century industrialism[i] in understanding history. Simon suspects that the concept would not “cover water wheels, windmills, dams and coal-fuelled metalworking in precapitalist societies.” But actually it would and it does. More than that: it’s commonly used even in popular depictions of prehistory (as in the declaration “since humans were humans, we’ve used energy”, from a graphic novel detailing possible low-carbon futures).
There’s nothing wrong with this use of latter-day concepts in examining the past. That’s how the art of history-writing goes forward. Nobody in their right mind would want to talk about another time using only the concepts current among the people who lived in that time. Including, I would argue, those people themselves – if only they had the chance to enter into dialogue with us. My suspicion is that the more curious, open-minded denizens of the 18th century would be challenged, fascinated and perhaps delighted to hear of our (to them) bizarre view that a “horse pulling a treadmill and a coal fire heating a lime kiln [a]re in some sense doing the same thing.” They would want to discuss this more, to find out what the hell we – seemingly reasonable people – were talking about.
The question is the class politics of such translational encounters, hypothetical or actual.
When we in industrialized societies face the 18th-century person, it is not just as people for whom the First Law of Thermodynamics became common sense because we learned it in the science classroom. It is also as inhabitants of a world in which, as a result of two centuries of class struggle, that law is bodied forth in countless ways in which it was not in those earlier times.
While entropy as a metaphor has its positive value, in Lohmann’s case highlighting the destruction accompanying the creation of renewable energy supplies, and likewise for Robert Biel’s The Entropy of Capitalism (2011), not going beyond this metaphor with an analysis relying on the science of thermodynamics will not make clear the critical implications of the second law to a renewable energy transition.
Yes, of course I recognize the essential role of metaphors in the generation of scientific theories, as well as their use in more general discourse (for another example see the section “Other Uses of Entropy” in my 2009 paper “Ecosocialism or Ecocatastrophe?”).
I am puzzled by Larry’s claim that I defended by implication an unrestrained capital-driven renewable energy transition. I clearly advocated that this energy transition should be informed by an ecosocialist agenda, not relying on “green” capital to deliver a just process, rather strongly supporting the goals of decommodification and a global solar commons.
TERRY BROTHERSTONE reviews Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation, by James Marriott and Terry Macalister (London, Pluto Press, 2021)
Even Alok Sharma – Boris Johnson loyalist, former Tory cabinet minister, now president of the COP 26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November – says he recognises it: the planet is in the last-chance saloon. Indeed, the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn, the clock – to borrow George Orwell’s opening to 1984 – has already struck thirteen. “Human activity,” reported The Guardian,“is changing the Earth’s climate in ways unprecedented in … hundreds of thousands of years”: some potentially disastrous consequences are “inevitable and ‘irreversible’”.
Only the worst effects can now be alleviated, and that only by decisive action drastically to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Without a serious move to end reliance on fossil fuels, human society as we know it faces extinction. And, argues this book, Britain is a nation the modern existence of which has been shaped by oil. What hope is there for the future?
The publication of Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation is timely indeed. That James Marriott and Terry Macalister had fun researching it resonates in their writing, but it must have been hard work too. It took them about three years longer than planned, when the instability that afflicted Britain in the years following the 2007-09 financial crash prompted their project. The effects of austerity; the near-miss 2014 Scottish independence referendum that raised the now immanent possibility that the 314-year-old union with England could end, and with it the fragile constitutional underpinnings of the United Kingdom; “Brexit”; growing fears of climate catastrophe … it all made the nation look unprecedentedly insecure.
Experts in their different ways in the central socio-economic role of oil in the modern world, Marriott and Macalister decided to investigate the part it had played in holding the Britain of recent decades together – and is now playing in tearing it apart. They would travel the country, researching its post-World-War-II relationship with the industry. Then, as they were reaching their journey’s end, the Covid-19 pandemic dealt the final blow to what to them – children, as they introduce themselves, of the years in which oil replaced coal in the engine-room of British prosperity and sustained the underlying certainties of the country’s political economy and social life – had seemed an “era of optimism”. They “had spent [their] lives writing on the oil and gas industry and its impacts around the world”, and now wanted to understand “what was its role … in Britain’s turbulence?”
Marriott and Macalister make an ideal pair to ask the question, and they have devised an entertaining, instructive and original way of starting serious debate about answering it. The delay in their publication plans, moreover, means that their book has arrived at an opportune moment. The protest movement is gathering momentum, notably in London against the Science Museum’s acceptance of Shell’s “greenwashing” sponsorship for its “Future of the Planet” exhibition and, in Scotland, against further North Sea oil exploitation, in the first place of the Cambo field, west of Shetland. And planning is well underway for major demonstrations at the COP 26 summit that the smooth and well-travelled (although never-quarantined) Sharma is scheduled to chair in Glasgow in November – described by Kevin McKenna in TheHerald (Glasgow) recently as an exercise in entrusting “our climate recovery … to the sector chiefly responsible for creating it … the planet’s chief pollutant: global capitalism.”
Macalister, now Senior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Cambridge and a freelance journalist, was for some years Energy Editor at The Guardian – a position in which he clearly formed working relationships with key figures in the oil industry, access to whom adds important insights to Crude Britannia. Interviewees include senior politicians such as Michael Heseltine and “Green Deal” Corbynite, Rebecca Long-Bailey; and chief executives such as Royal Dutch Shell’s Bernardus (or “Ben”) van Beurden, and John, Baron Browne of Madingley. Browne was British Petroleum’s chief executive from 1995 until 2007, and his shape-shiftingly image-conscious, but never less than ruthless, career punctuates the story at key moments. His 41 years with BP ended following the revelation that he had lied about his personal life in a sworn court deposition. Now a cross-bench peer, he emerges as one of the key business figures in the “new Labour” years. His ultimately unsuccessful attempts to rebrand BP as “Beyond Petroleum” with a sun-god logo, dovetailed well with premier Tony Blair’s short-lived “third way”, capitalism-with-a-human-face ideology.
In this 8-minute video from the Sheffield Festival of Debate, Harpreet Kaur Paul, Tom Baxter and Simon Pirani talk about whether hydrogen can play a part in the transition away from fossil fuels, and why it is being pushed by companies who want to slow that transition down.