Roads to an Energy Commons: a pamphlet

February 17, 2022

Today I am publishing Roads to an Energy Commons, a pamphlet (free to download here). It brings together articles that appeared on 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] 17 February 2022.

Demonstrators for climate justice in Berlin

The class struggle inside energy

February 17, 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 

Reply to Simon (Disentangling capitalism and physics, energy and electricity, 5 January)

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.

A Carnot landscape of energy conversion devices. A more complete map of this landscape would have to display the network of borders through which the entropy gradients needed by such devices are maintained, including colonial structures of waste expulsion as well as patriarchal, racial, and class structures of exploitation and appropriation – not to mention other entropy landscapes that this landscape overlays and overlaps

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.

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Climate mitigation and adaptation will require incremental energy from renewables

February 17, 2022

As part of a discussion about energy and social justice, DAVID SCHWARTZMAN responds to points made by Larry Lohmann in his article The class struggle inside energy, also published today. And you can read the whole discussion, which started on People & Nature last year, in a free pamphlet, Roads to an Energy Commons, downloadable here.

On the use of metaphor, I said in my post Thermodynamics: a metaphor or a science?, that Larry is now responding to:

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.

Metals recycling is part of the answer

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.

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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.

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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.

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