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.