Beware the fetishisation of renewable energy

I spent my childhood living in coal country. Unable to articulate it at the time, the power of the coal industry got under my skin as much as the coal dust got into my lungs. A pervasive itch I couldn’t yet scratch, which would follow me long after I had moved away.

Coming out from under a cloud of pollution, and beginning to scratch that itch, I spent my twenties learning about the coal industry and organising against its expansion. A child of coal country turned anti-coal organiser. It is an occasionally contradictory position, yet one that provides important insights into both worlds. I’m keenly aware that there are workers and communities across Australia that rely almost solely on the coal industry for employment, including family friends and schoolmates. Keenly aware that a haphazard transition out of the industry would be devastating. Yet simultaneously, deeply committed to seeing the coal industry dismantled.

Thankfully, discussions are emerging around the need for just transitions away from the coal industry. These discussions are important and necessary; these communities need and deserve a plan for their future. But recently I’ve been thinking about the other side of this, the less discussed – at least in detail – transitions to renewable energy. What would just transitions to renewable energy look like? I find myself asking this question, in part because I don’t want kids in future renewable energy centres to grow up with that sense of discomfort. That lingering feeling that the industry in their town is a malignant force, rather than one of regeneration, care and solidarity. 

My discomfort with the coal industry began at an early age. I’d sit in the backseat of the car as my parents raced against time to beat the coal train so we could make it through the crossing before the gates went down. Yet we always seemed to miss. Forget an abacus or imaginary sheep, kids in coal country honed their counting skills as coal trains roared past with load upon load of uncovered coal, carrying asthma and respiratory illnesses along with it. One carriage, two carriages, thirty carriages. Depending on how many coal trains were thundering along the tracks, you could be sitting at that rail crossing for ten minutes, although as a kid it felt like hours. It was clear to me from a young age that getting coal to the port was more important than anywhere we were going.

With little to do in town other than smoke weed down by the too-polluted-to-swim river, summer weekends saw kids pile onto the train to Newcastle to spend a day at the beach. The only problem being that coal trains had priority over the only rail line in the Hunter, so a trip to the beach meant getting on the 6.45am train in the morning and the 6pm train home at night- and the journey was over 90 minutes. Having lived in Sydney for almost a decade now, it’s almost comical to think that there was only one passenger train per day on weekends. What’s the movement of people when there’s coal to be moved?

Our experience of career guidance in high school was very different to what I hear from friends who grew up in Sydney. City kids were asked “what do you want to do when you leave school?” We were asked “do you want to work in the mines?” At age fifteen, the boys at our high school started disappearing  as they got apprenticeships at one of the many mines nearby. It was basically assumed that if you were a boy you would leave high school before the end of Year 12. Girls were more encouraged to finish school or attend university, but there was always the option of marrying a miner. (We hadn’t even ever heard of non-binary folk – though I now know they were there).

Of course, there were other things - apart from my career options and the occasional transport inconvenience -  that should’ve sparked discomfort in me about the coal industry. I would soon learn about them. Being not particularly interested in marriage, I went down the university route. I did the classic Arts student thing and got involved in student politics. Then I became an environmentalist and  an anarcho-feminist, and solidified my discomfort with the coal industry into a socio-economic critique. I’ve spent the last decade researching the coal industry, how it impacts local communities, its relationship to representative democracy, how it impacts our ability to respond to the climate crisis – and I’ve been involved in many campaigns against its expansion.

Negative impacts from the fossil fuel industry are not just limited to carbon emissions and global warming. Fossil fuel extraction, export and production has myriad social, economic, environmental and political impacts, including Aboriginal dispossession, land-use conflicts, access to political power and decision-making, habitat destruction, water usage and pollution, corruption, local community (non)engagement, physical and mental health issues and so much more. In thinking about these issues, it became clear to me that transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based energy system toward a renewable energy based system definitely could prevent many of these issues from arising, but that doesn’t mean that it necessarily would.

As transitions from fossil fuels towards renewable energy are starting to happen – yes, even here in Australia despite the best efforts of both major parties - care needs to be taken to ensure that the renewable energy industry doesn’t become fetishised, and its negative consequences made invisible for those privileged enough not to be impacted. A few years ago I became concerned with what I perceived to be uncritical, worshipful reverence of renewable energy’s potential to save us from ecological and social collapse. Within the mainstream climate movement in most of the global North, the main response put forward to the climate crisis is a transition to renewable energy. But other than pushing rooftop solar – for those wealthy enough to own a house, and have cash left over for solar panels – detailed transition strategies and plans are few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll find a lot written about Australia’s  technical and financial ability to transition to 100% renewable energy, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find much mainstream discussion on what the social relations of transitions to renewable energy could look like. Notable exceptions include the work of Community Power Agency and recent discussions and nascent organising for an Australian Green New Deal - although neither of these could really be referred to as mainstream.

Particularly here in Australia after a decade of energy and climate policy vacuum, it feels as if many climate and energy advocates are panicking that we’re running out of time and that we should transition to renewable energy by any means necessary. There is a danger in using the rhetoric of urgency when it could very easily be turned against the left if (when?) we begin to stare down the face of eco-fascism. I’ve recently found some solace and inspiration in the work of Dr Kyle Powys Whyte, a Potawatomi scholar and activist whose writing on Indigenous futurism and decolonising the Anthropocene unpacks the rhetoric of urgency as a continuation of settler-colonialism. He argues that the rhetoric of urgency and the portrayal of the current climate crisis as unprecedented ignores the fact that Indigenous peoples around the world have already lived through ecological and social destruction caused by invasion and colonialism. He argues that we need to move away from concepts of sustainability and urgency and that instead, as we seek transformative responses to the climate crisis caused by patriarchal colonial-capitalism, we need to be upholding values of regeneration, care and solidarity. These are the values I would like to see upheld in transitions to renewable energy.

There is of course a tension here between Whyte’s critique of the rhetoric of urgency when it comes from predominantly Western, middle-class climate organisations and the necessary and valid demands for large-scale emission reduction being made by people from places already threatened by the effects of climate change (such as flood-prone Bangladesh and low-lying Pacific Island nations). The difference in power relations is important. In wielding the rhetoric of urgency, capital and state institutions have far greater potential to replicate or expand exploitative socio-economic relations in response to the climate crisis than ordinary people whose homes and lives are under threat. Western climate activists can support calls for urgent climate action that are made by Indigenous peoples and people in the global south without reinforcing the settler-colonial dynamics Whyte is concerned with. We can do this through careful consideration of global power relations, through centring non-Western voices, knowledges and values, and by actively working to dismantle the capitalist state. We need to be enacting this solidarity and care in energy transitions.  

Recently the NSW government allocated three regions in the state as ‘renewable energy hubs’. These regions will be the Hunter Valley of renewables. Large swathes of land and water will be utilised for wind farms, solar arrays and pumped hydro. These proposed projects will likely have a multitude of impacts on the land and people. Yet from my research for my PhD thus far, it doesn’t appear that local communities have been genuinely engaged about their regions becoming renewable energy hubs. I’ve been spending time on Anaiwan land, commonly known as New England, where multiple large-scale corporate renewable energy projects are already causing discord in the local community.

Some of you reading this might be asking ‘so what?’ What’s a bit of change in a few rural regions if it means we can transition to renewable energy? Indeed, I was recently discussing this issue and said that I believed mainstream climate organisations who have campaigned against the coal industry for engaging in anti-social behaviour should be equally outraged if the same behaviour manifests in renewable energy projects. The person I was speaking to responded with, “If it helps lower emissions why should they care?” This, to me, sums up a disconnect between action on climate change and climate justice.

If you’re someone who views transitions to renewable energy as part of a larger, liberatory project that seeks to dismantle the exploitative socio-economic systems that created the climate crisis – then the method of transition to renewable energy should be of the utmost importance to you. Transitions to renewable energy will need to navigate land-use conflicts, labour practices, extraction of raw materials, biodiversity and conservation concerns, pollution and waste, ownership and energy use models - much of which renewable energy  holds in common with fossil energy systems.

The good news is there are movements – globally and here in Australia – aiming to do energy differently. Dotted around the country are small groups of people who, even if they wouldn’t all identify it as such, are enacting alternative models of energy. People who are deeply and genuinely engaging in energy transitions as a community. People who are coordinating their skills, knowledge and time to help renters and low-income households use less energy, in order to save money on their bills without having to go without warmth, comfort or nourishment. People who are pooling funds to go in together on small-scale community energy projects – where jobs and profits are fed back into the community. People who are going off-grid and are teaching others how they can do so, in an affordable and accessible way. People who are crowd-funding to get renewable energy in Aboriginal communities. And people who are asking where their solar panels are manufactured, where the raw materials came from, who are they manufactured by and what their work conditions are like.

Seeing the different ways that people are enacting their own transformative energy futures has given me much joy and inspiration over the past twelve months spent researching in this field. But the emergence and effects of large-scale, corporate-owned renewable energy has confirmed some of my fears. Renewable energy in the hands of corporations, based on a profit motive, may help to lower our carbon emissions, but it will allow further accumulation of capital and a continuation of the socio-economic system that has created the climate crisis. Beware the fetishisation of renewable energy by any means necessary. We need to ensure that energy transitions put power back in the hands of the people. 

Alana West is a PhD student with the UTS Climate Justice Research Centre. An active participant in climate and social justice movements, she strives to be an activist academic who produces knowledge and ideas useful to social movements and social change. You can find her on twitter @energyyells