On the Need for Energy Democracy

by Anonymous

The capitalist exploitation of nature and labor are two sides of the same coin. The labor process is always something in which humans and nature participate1. It is in the very fibers of nature that labor becomes congealed as value that can be captured by capital, the commodity becoming a vessel through which labor-power is quite literally extracted from human bodies. Yet, just as humans come to see themselves as distinct from the natural world, we also come to see capitalism as distinct from the extractive economies through which it feeds on the planet. This is especially true of capitalist energy systems2.

Take for instance the small town of South Fork in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s population hovers around 1000 people. The land here has long provided the resources upon which the prosperity of cities along the eastern seaboard like Philadelphia, Boston and New York were built. From the 1850s, its principle product was lumber: pine for ships’ masts, hemlock bark to make the tannins used in the leather industry, and oak for barrels to carry sugar and molasses from the West Indies. More recently, it has had the fortune to miss out on the shale boom engulfing the northeastern and southwestern corners of the state thanks to a bit of geological coincidence: the section of the Marcellus formation upon which it is situated is “overmature” having been exposed to too much heat and pressure over the preceding 400 million years to hold retrievable amounts of oil or gas.

However, the swamplands that covered the area in succeeding periods deposited plenty of biological matter that would eventually become the bituminous coal seams that, along with access to iron from the Lake Superior region, attracted vast amounts of capital and workers to the region in the last decades of the 19th century. For over a century, coal has been dug from beneath the Cambrian hills to be baked into coke for US Steel’s steel mills in Pittsburgh, burned in coal-fired power plants for electricity or, when ships were still powered by coal, shipped straight to the coal bunkers of New York City and Boston.

south fork pa
South Fork, PA as pictured on a map of coal deposits produced by the Works Progress Administration. Even in its most liberal modes, the capitalist state has often rendered the region as an internal resource colony. See https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/wpamaps/search/

At the peak of the Western Pennsylvania coal industry in the 1910s, the half square mile strip of land at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River that makes up South Fork was home to over 4000 people making it as dense as Somerville or Chelsea. My father’s family were among them arriving sometime in the 1880s and 1890s from France. Four generations would live and work along the Little Conemaugh laboring either in the mines or for the railroad. All would die relatively young—coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (“black lung”) and a variety of cancers 3—their damaged bodies and the mountains of coal refuse that blend into the surrounding hilltops composing a tiny fraction of the negative externalities of the extractive economies that underlies capitalist modernity.

South Fork and the surrounding valley continue to bear the scars of extractive capitalism. Coal mining remains important to the local economy, even if the numbers it employs in the entire district are only a few hundred. Remediation, too, has gone hand in hand with continued extraction. In 2012, the PA DEP permitted Rosebud Mining Co. to build a water treatment plant to treat the acidic water that had been pouring out of an abandoned mine shaft since the 1960s in exchange for permission to access the coal seams underneath the site. A pilot remediation project started in 2015 across the river in Ehrenfeld saw $13 million dollars awarded to the same company to haul the 3.2 million tons of coal refuse that towers above the town to their nearby facility in Portage for processing4As of March 2018, the company planned to add 175 acres to the facility to accommodate more coal refuse. Scattered along the ridge above the facility, sit 40 wind turbines that make up Alleghany Ridge Wind Farm. They are owned by GE Power, a subsidiary of General Electric. One of their other subsidiaries, Baker Hughes, is reliably in the top 3 largest offshore drilling and oilfield services provider marketing its fracking technologies across the globe5In fact, Baker Hughes has been a major player providing the drilling equipment and expertise at the heart of the state’s shale gas boom. In short, the waters of the Little Conemaugh are no longer fluorescent orange and wind turbines dot the skyline but the cycle of boom and bust that typifies capitalist expansion continues unabated.

little conemaugh river
The Little Conemaugh River, before and after the completion of aforementioned treatment plant. Courtesy of Rosebud Mining Company

The challenge facing us today is a difficult one. How do we dismantle the infrastructures that tie us to the combustion of fossil-fuels while at the same time making sure the infrastructures we build in their place not only do not replicate a social system premised on exploitation and extraction but also repair the harm both to communities and ecosystems of centuries of past exploitation and extraction?

Part of the difficulty is that energy is especially amenable to commodification because of its already abstract nature. You never see energy: you only witness its effects.  When I turn on a light switch, if I’m not behind on my payment to Eversource, the light turns on. Where did this energy come from? Who had a hand in bringing it from its source to my apartment? Hell, at least with enough effort, you could literally follow an article of clothing from sweatshop to rack at H&M. A quantum of electricity? Except on an aggregate level, it is nigh impossible to make any claim about where it came from. In short, the additional layer of abstraction in which energy is entangled make its extraction all that more effectively divorced from our experience of it.

ISO NE graphic
Snapshot from ISO NE geographic system diagram representing the electricity grid around Boston. See https://www.iso-ne.com/about/key-stats/maps-and-diagrams/

The fact of climate change has pierced that veil to some degree. It is becoming more common thanks to the work of environmental activists to have a choice, limited as it is, about how some of the energy an individual consumer or municipality consumes is extracted from the natural environment. However, the binary nature of this choice—fossil-fuels vs. renewables, bad vs. good—does little to clarify the social and ecological effects of these choices. This is especially true when one takes into consideration that the industrial-scale renewables often touted as a solution to climate change require massive amounts of fossil fuel and mineral resources for their construction and operation6. When someone talks about wind turbines, most people’s first thought isn’t Bayan’obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, even though it accounts for a significant portion of the rare earth minerals needed for industrial-scale wind farms. Neither is corporate land-grabs, especially of indigenous land, and the ecological disruption caused by levelling land for projects7. Nor, for that matter, does the term renewable energy suggest to most people trash incinerators like the one operated by Wheelabrator in Saugus8 or the Pinetree Power Fitchburg wood-burning generator. Biomass and municipal waste comprise two-thirds of Massachusetts renewable portfolio  and, in the case of biomass especially, are a major loophole in current carbon accounting schemes.

One answer to the challenge is energy democracy. Energy democracy is a broad concept that has emerged around a broad set of grassroots experiments and collaborations. At its center is the goal of achieving a shift to 100% renewable energy sources through means that resist the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, reclaim public control over energy, and restructure energy infrastructures to better support social justice and democratic processes9. At a time when many segments of the environmental movement, especially those comprised by large nonprofits, have long settled for the sake of their continued relevance on a politics of majoritarian demands that everyone—including, a significant number of CEOs and politicians—can agree, energy democracy presents at the very least a framework for moving beyond demands on existing capitalist institutions, including the state, to building a world we can all inhabit.

Part of the novelty of energy democracy is its recognition that the sociotechnical systems that comprise the fossil-fuel economy stifle democracy by concentrating power, both figuratively and literally, in the hands of the wealthy few. Therefore, any transition must decentralize control of the energy system and put it under community control so that it can be restructured along more sustainable and equitable lines. In a more specifically socialist framing, as Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign puts it, decarbonize, democratize and decommodify. Yet, perhaps, the most powerful argument for energy democracy is its ability to place power directly in the hands of communities, especially frontline and fenceline communities who have suffered the most from the extractive economies over which the modern world has been built. The power to choose how energy is produced and consumed is central to how power is exercised in any society, capitalist included.

Of course, wrestling the control of the current energy system away from capitalist institutions and placing it into the hands of communities, is only one step. (We want to dismantle that energy system, after all.) Supporting communities in building new energy systems that will be completely within their control is the other. If you want to help us build those, come join Boston DSA’s Ecosocialism Working Group. Reach out to ecosocialism@bostondsa.org or come to one of our monthly meetings, every first Thursday 7-9pm (rotating locations).