All Power to the People: Energy Production and the Climate Crisis by Lara Messersmith-Glavin, for Parasol Climate Collective

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A review of Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World, edited by Kolya Abramsky. (Oakland: AK Press, 2010).

One of the most intimidating aspects of climate change is its scale. When we imagine it as a thing in itself, it becomes monstrous, far out of proportion to our ability to stop or even slow it in its path of influence. We cannot petition or strike against it. We cannot use rocks or molotovs or even guns to slow it down. It is already happening: the earth is warming, little by little, and with that shift we witness a seemingly endless chain of results, from catastrophic storms and droughts to changes in human and animal migration patterns, disappearance of species, and altered ocean chemistry. In the face of these effects, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, and to turn one’s attention to those problems which seem more solvable, and less apocalyptic. Yet it is important to remember that the engine behind this global dilemma is human activity, and is therefore human in scale. The better we are able to break the issue down to its parts, the closer we will be to understanding how we can fix it, and thereby confront the enormity of the issue in a manageable, intentional way. In the process of examining the sources of climate change, we find the sources of many other human issues as well. Not only does this effort trace a map of the way out of ecological disaster, but it may also lead to a more just and equitable world order.

A great deal of literature exists on many of the pieces of this giant puzzle: the physical mechanism behind a warming planet, the present and future effects of climate change, renewable energy technologies, and the politics of fossil fuel economies; yet little has been done to explore the concept of energy from a radical perspective. A new collection from AK Press, Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World, edited by Kolya Abramsky, seeks to fill this gap by bringing together analyses of energy production and consumption from a broad spectrum of views around the world, from the progressive to the anti-capitalist Left.

As Abramsky says in his introduction, “This is not a book about climate change. It is a book about energy.”(1) The central thesis of the collection is that energy is the lynchpin of a potential transition to a new and better world; recapturing the commons and disassociating local and global economies from hydrocarbon energy resources are vital challenges for a successful revolutionary project. The book delves into the problems confronting the transformation of global and local energy systems, and unearths the tensions between alternative visions for the distribution of both energy and power. In light of declining natural reserves of both coal and oil, renewable energy production may form a new field of contest for control of resources. While many see the transition to these renewables as an opportunity to adopt a decentralized model of social organization, capital recognizes the need for industrial scale generation to maintain its hegemony over the energy sector.

Abramsky says that the intention of the book is to “trace some of the material processes and human relations on which the energy system is based. Importantly, it seeks to show that a transition to a new energy system requires a material process of building new social relations and not just a shift of ethical and cultural values.”(2) The investigation of the material processes at work is the greatest strength of this collection. One chapter that stands out is Tom Keefer’s essay, “Machinery and Motive Power: Energy as a Substitute for and Enhancer of Human Labor.” Keefer reinvigorates some basic Marxist principles in clear terms without oversimplifying them, and describes industrial energy consumption through a history of automation and efficiency models.

“What is manifestly absent from most ecological economist thought is a critique of capitalism as a historically-specific economic system that is not only based on ever-increasing expansion, but is also compelled to substitute machinery (and the energy these machines require) for human labor in its quest to achieve higher margins of profit and to undercut tendencies towards working-class self-organization and resistance.”(3)

Keefer reminds us that capitalism is not just a simple product of technological innovation so much as the result of a constellation of social relations that require increasing levels of exploitation to remain in motion. The introduction of machinery and new energy sources replaces certain job tasks and devalues human labor, thereby weakening the position of workers in production. Then, the competitive market continues to favor those systems that increase energy efficiency and are able to exploit labor at higher rates. “Every capitalist is in competition with many other capitalists, and seeks ever higher profits to reinvest in production...the key to continued accumulation lies in increasing the productivity of labor power purchased from the worker.”(4) This, in turn, translates to ever greater levels of exploitation, and as capital imposes its organizational forms and duplicates its social relations on a global scale, a world system of imperialism is the result.

This world system requires increasing amounts of cheap energy to maintain its hegemony. A key question at this moment in time is: Does capitalism have the capacity to achieve another round of “revolutionizing” the means of production as it has in the past? That is to say, can it shift to a different source of energy without disrupting its power? Or can a new order acquire control of what remains of the fossil fuel reserves in time to use that energy for a transition both to renewable resources and a new and more equitable means of distribution?

“A point of crisis will be reached with capital will no longer be able to externalize its contradictions. This will provide a whole new set of opportunities for revolutionary forces seeking to transcend the capitalist economic system...With the depletion of easy to access fossil fuel reserves and the impacts of global climate change, humanity will be required to build an alternative to capitalism under conditions of declining labor productivity and under solar energy constraints momentarily transcended by twentieth century industrial capitalism. Consequently, the implications for our theory and practice are significant, and deserve to be put at the center of any anti-capitalist revolutionary project.”(5)

At the same time as the global economic system has been suffering internal shocks due to credit crises and other destabilizing elements, climate change and peak oil may constitute new threats to capitalism’s supply of cheap energy. Of course, while peak oil and global climate change are new developments, history is not without precedents, even for this. In “Everything Must Change So That Everything Can Remain the Same,” George Caffentzis reminds us that “this is not the first time that capitalist crisis coincides with energy transition, as a glance at the previous transitions [from coal to oil and natural gas, and, unsuccessfully, from oil to solar] in the 1930s and 1970s indicate.”(6) Caffentzis suggests that capital and the state recognize this moment of weakness for what it is, and resist efforts on the part of revolutionary movements to utilize this period of transition as an opening for a restructuring of social relations: “The ultimate purpose of the Obama administration is...to preserve the capitalist system in very perilous times.”(7)

Caffentzis goes on to outline the stages of a transition to renewable energy resources and the considerations that should be made. “The first element in the transition is to recognize that there will be inter-class resistance to the transition from those who stand to lose.”(8) The second element, he says, is to recall that non-hydrocarbon energy sources, i.e. renewables like wind and solar, are not necessarily in opposition to a capitalist structure. Indeed, capitalism and colonial expansion led to “the genocide of the indigenous Americans, the African slave trade, and the enclosures of the European peasantry [all of which] occurred with the use of alternative renewable energy!”(9) Thirdly, while oil and coal are extremely efficient resources for generating surplus value, renewables will not immediately be in a position to replicate the same level of production, which indicates that a transition is likely to lead to a great upheaval in terms of the process of production of energy, in particular for worker transitions and retooling. Lastly, he notes that, in light of the frequency with which capital has been able to recover from prior crises, the question remains: “Will this transition be organized on a capitalist basis or will the double crisis, opened up on the levels of energy production and general social reproduction, mark the beginning of another mode of production?”(10)

Are climate change and the threat of peak oil posing a genuine crisis for capitalism? On the one hand, the trend toward “green capitalism” seems to suggest not. As Tadzio Mueller and Alexis Passadakis remind us in “Another Capitalism is Possible?,” “crises are not necessarily bad things from the perspective of capital....While serious crises always entail the massive destruction of capital, as well as transformation in the matrix of social power, this destruction of capital is precisely what is necessary for capital(ism) to maintain its innovative, revolutionary power.”(11) However, for this power to maintain its primacy, it must use its own position of control to begin a more concerted shift to renewables now, in order to maintain its stranglehold on the means of production throughout the process of transition. Nonetheless, in light of actions such as the expansion of drilling in the Gulf post-Deepwater Horizon, and the pursuit of extraction in Alberta’s tar sands, “it is increasingly clear that rather than the market rising up to develop solutions for climate change...we are witnessing what can only be described as the irrational, frantic push of market-forces in their most naked form, precisely at a time where reductions and radical transformation is required.”(12)

Since capitalism is not likely to meet this challenge, it is an ideal opportunity for radical social transformation. “The historical record shows very clearly that deep, enduring changes in energy industries require the mobilization of mass social movements. We cannot simply wait for visionary politicians to forge the way.”(13) While the book does not give any precise recommendations for how these social movements are to come about, it does relate a number of efforts at transition and resistance to capital’s appropriation of energy resources and the commons around the world.

In these pieces we find the tangible evidence of a movement - here is the inspiration, and the beginning experiments and models, both positive and negative, for how the future may look. Particularly inspiring are the accounts of resistance in South Africa, the efforts of the FARMA collective to build self-manageable energy systems with Zapatista communities, and the details of individually and communally owned wind generators in Denmark. The book is at its best in this regard when it lets people speak for themselves and their own experiences, as in Patrick Bond and Trevor Ngwane’s piece, “Community Resistance to Energy Privatization in South Africa,” which includes an interview with a 58 year old woman who describes her decision to have her electricity illegally reconnected by a neighborhood team of “bootleg technicians” after she was laid off and then unable to keep up with mounting energy bill hikes. Here the human interest shines through, while simultaneously providing a clear and relatable example of active resistance within a familiar political and economic setting, with practices and tactics that can be applied in a number of contexts.

Also of interest are the global surveys of struggle: Chapter 42, “Some Brief News Reports from Direct Action-Based Resistance Around the World,” and Chapter 46, “Two Mini Case-Studies: 1) The End of One Windmill Cooperative 2) Chinese Peasants Killed in Land Conflict Over Windmills.” These additions to the collection serve to underscore the tension between decentralization and community control of resources. In this situation--as evidenced by struggles in Mexico, Canada, Nigeria, and elsewhere--the general outlines of capitalist social relations are easily recognizable: tearing people from the land and the basis of their material reproduction through the enclosure of collective resources; the conversion of the survivors of this process to a disenfranchised proletariat; the physical destruction of the natural environment; and the use of violence to maintain the new arrangements. The more qualitative pieces are valuable for their direct-account format and the detail they offer about communities and their struggles. There are some good, rich stories here, but they are often merely anecdotal and lack analysis and context. Chapter 40, for example, “Dynamics of a Songful Resistance,” loses the impact of its message of forced displacement of communities along the coast of Columbia in the sentimentality of its internal metaphor: “Together, we built a fraternal fire and shared a small artisanal boat in which we ate together as equals and gently sung ourselves into dissonance.”(14)

One thing that is missing from this book is the voices of workers. This collection includes a number of position papers written by unions--for example Chapter 10, “For Democratic, National Development of North America’s Energy Resources," which lists as its author “Various Energy Sector Trade Unions and Other Organizations”; or Chapter 41, “Call for an Immediate Moratorium on EU Incentives for Agrofuels, EU Imports of Agrofuels and EU Agroenergy Monocultures,” by “Diverse Organizations.” US labor has no representation in the collection at all, beyond the endorsement by the United Steel Workers of the statement issued in Chapter 10.(15) The majority of these pieces are formalized statements issued by union leadership, and so may or may not reflect the interests or concerns of the workers themselves. In these pieces we see statements of reform and the defense of jobs; we don’t see examples of a real threat to capitalism, or a dedicated concern for environmental justice within organized labor.

Another criticism is that while Abramsky clearly lays out a revolutionary intent in his introduction, the book draws much of its material from groups who are more closely aligned with the tasks of energy transition than with radical politics. Unions, liberal academics and members of parliament figure prominently among the contributing authors.

Beyond simple questions of content, we identified several areas in which the book fails to completely meet our basic standards of clarity, readability, logical presentation, fairness, and usefulness. First are the book's organizational structure and length. Abramsky states in his introduction, “the book has been carefully structured to be read as a whole, from beginning to end.”(16) However, despite short introductions to each section, the thematic components that arise are overshadowed by the experience of reading the text itself. Sparking a World Energy Revolution is more than 650 pages long, and though the individual chapters are nearly all very short, as a whole they do not produce the linear and progressive narrative that Abramsky intends. The thesis of the book is lost in a jumble of details with works that are simultaneously too specific and yet not specific enough; or rather, their relation to the whole is lost in the minutiae of their individual purpose(s). While Abramsky clearly has a radical motive in mind, this commitment emerges greatly diluted from the overall span of the perspectives included.

In addition, the collection is lopsided in favor of a few prolific contributors. As the book's editor, Abramsky may be excused for contributing a long introduction and conclusion. But some other writers contributed surprisingly large numbers of articles as well--there are three by George Caffentzis, four by Sergio Oceransky, and six by Preben Maegaard (arguably the most problematic contributor in the book, politically and stylistically). If a diverse spectrum of opinions and viewpoints was the goal, perhaps it could have best been presented by an actually diverse representation of interests, rather than simply an array of topics covered by a small collection of men.

Another criticism is that many of the authors frequently rely upon highly specialized jargon without offering explanations or glosses. It is unfair to expect that every reader will know what the Gini coefficient(17) indicates, for example, or what it means to measure an oil “reserves-to-production ratio” in “years.”(18) In the interest of making the material and concepts more available to a larger audience, the inclusion of either a glossary or expanded footnotes would greatly improve the usefulness of this edition. Because Sparking a New Energy Movement fails as a linear, progressive narrative, and because the quality and tone of the chapters are so varied, the book is best used as a reference text; the addition of an index would therefore be valuable for enhancing the accessibility of a future edition. As Bruce Pobodnik says in Chapter 3, "Building the Clean Energy Movement," “this inclusivity is important, because individuals understand and respond to different kinds of messages about energy-related dangers. If the clean energy movement can build a diverse coalition of leaders, each of whom can speak effectively to constituencies from all across the political and ideological spectrum, it will more likely spread deep roots into societies throughout the world.”(19)

Ultimately, the book’s strengths and utility as an educational overview of issues in the energy sector far outweigh its shortcomings of focus and readability. Much of its value lies in what it does not include; what is missing from this text indicates areas we need to investigate as a movement. For this reason, Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, it assembles--possibly for the first time--the most comprehensive and wide-reaching array of thought and action taking place on the Left regarding energy and energy production. For this reason alone, the book is an essential addition to any serious reading list aimed at forming a more complete picture of the world today and the project before us. On the other hand, its deficiencies delineate the questions we have yet to ask and answer as a movement. Exactly how can an anti-authoritarian, anti-capitalist social organization make the energy transitions necessary without creating devastating gaps in food production? What role will nation-states (or centralized authority structures) play, if any, in those transitions? On what economic models can we reliably build a free society? How do we make it happen?

Lara Messersmith-Glavin is an educator and writer based in Portland, Oregon. She is a member of Parasol Climate Collective and is on the board of the Institute for Anarchist Studies and the editorial collective of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. She also publishes the nonfiction journal Alltopia Antholozine.

Parasol Climate Collective is a study and outreach group based in Portland, Oregon. They have developed a 5-part curriculum composed of approximately 500 pages of text and 35 minutes of video that explores anthropogenic climate change from a radical perspective. The materials they have collected and outlined, through learning objectives and suggested discussion questions, encourage study participants to consider the origins of the ecological crisis as it is rooted in the capitalist system, and the ways in which it is linked to other social and economic struggles around the world. The materials are intended to direct participants to envision workable, equitable alternatives to the current social structures and build a movement capable of putting those structures in place. Parasol also performs community outreach and education by meeting with other groups engaged in a wide spectrum of social justice work and by facilitating discussions on the ways in which a warmer world may affect their issue(s) of focus. As their own goals are educational, they have read this book as a group and evaluated its successes and weaknesses through the lens of the text as a learning tool.

Parasol Climate Collective is Paul Messersmith-Glavin, Lara Messersmith-Glavin, Ian McBee, and Emily-Jane Dawson. To obtain a free copy of the curriculum, or to schedule a workshop, please contact: parasol.pdx@gmail.com, or visit parasolpdx.wordpress.com.

Notes
1. Abramsky, Kolya, (Ed.) “Racing to ‘Save’ the Economy and the Planet: Capitalist or Post-capitalist Transition to a Post-petrol World?” p. 29.
2. Ibid.
3. Keefer, Tom. “Machinery and Motive Power: Energy as a Substitute for and Enhancer of Human Labor.” p. 82.
4. Ibid., p. 85.
5. Ibid., p. 89.
6. Caffentzis, George. “Everything Must Change So That Everything Can Remain the Same: Reflections on Obama’s Energy Plan.” p. 566.
7. Ibid., p. 567.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid., p. 568.
11. Mueller, Tadzio and Passadakis, Alexis. “Another Capitalism is Possible? From World Economic Crisis to Green Capitalism.” p. 557.
12. Walsh, Shannon, and Stainsby, Macdonald. “The Smell of Money: Alberta’s Tar Sands.” p. 333.
13. Pobodnik, Bruce. “Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective.” p. 76-77.
14. Avendaño, Tatiana Roa, and Toloza, Jessica. “Dynamics of a Songful Resistance.” p. 465.
p. 155.
15. Abramsky, Kolya. “Racing to ‘Save’ the Economy and the Planet: Capitalist or Post-capitalist Transition to a Post-petrol World?” p. 24.
17. Oceransky, Sergio. “European Energy Policy on the Brink of Disaster.” p. 173. Note: The Gini coefficient is used to measure the concentration of a variable - that is, economic inequality. A Gini coefficient rating of 0 indicates perfect equality within in a society. A rating of 1 indicates perfect inequality.
18. Jasiewicz, Ewa. “Iraqi Oil Workers’ Movements.” p. 219.
19. Pobodnik, Bruce. “Building the Clean Energy Movement: Future Possibilities in Historical Perspective.” p. 77.

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