torsdag 7 juli 2016

The green democratic energy narrative

This is blog post #1 in my "summer spillover series". I'm currently on vacation but this blog post is about something I "should" have written about before I went on vacation. My goal on this blog has however always been to post a minimum of one and a maximum of two blog posts per week and there are some blog post topics that are "backed up" right now due to excessive activity on my behalf during the month of June. I will therefore publish a series of "delayed" blog posts in July to so to speak "catch up".

This paper is in itself sort of spillover, or rather a spin-off from the panel that Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling organised and that I participated in at a conference back in March. After the panel I almost immediately grabbed hold of Ulrika and Karin Bradley. The basic idea for the paper came from my reading of Timothy Mitchell's book “Carbon Democracy: Political power in the age of oil” which I read last spring but wrote about in a blog post only a few months ago, in March. At the time, earlier this spring, this was only an idea about "something interesting we should work on". We met and started to discuss a future paper but only became goal-oriented at the end of May when we saw this call for papers for a special issue of the journal Energy Research & Social Science:

Narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research

In recent years, references to narratives, stories, and storytelling have become common in energy and climate change research and policy (Randall 2009; Fine & O'Neill 2010; Open University 2014). Stories are used to communicate with, influence, and engage audiences; they serve as artefacts to investigate in terms of content, actors, relationships, power, and structure; they can be used to gather information, provide insight, and reframe evidence in a way that question-and-answer formats miss. But they are not simply benign or neutral, and a critical stance is needed. This special issue aims to cultivate a solid structure for understanding, interpreting, and applying stories within energy and climate change research and policy ... There are several reasons that this collection is timely. First, stories abound in research and policy, with a rhetorical structure different from that of the rational approaches, facts, and numbers that have been the ordinary face of knowledge in policy and science.  Stories allow tellers to represent multiple perspectives simultaneously, and observers to see different facets of complex issues, complicating notions of “the truth.” 

We will find out if our "bid" for writing a short paper for the special issue (1000-3000 words) is successful at the end of July. If so, we then have until mid-October to write a first draft of our paper and another four months until the final papers are due (Feb 21, 2017). Below is our paper proposal and it is already 700+ words long (1050+ if the plentiful references are added).

The green democratic energy narrative 

Daniel Pargman (1), Ulrika Gunnarsson Östling (2) & Karin Bradley (2)
KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden
(1) School of Computer Science and Communication
(2) School of Architecture and the Built Environment


It has become a truism that the current fossil energy regime is unsustainable (Aleklett 2012) and that CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions pose great risks for humankind as well as for flora and fauna (IPCC 2014, Steffen et. al. 2015). Proposed solutions - beyond hopes for more high-tech energy systems and urgent breakthroughs in breeder reactors and fusion energy - almost exclusively point in the direction of a rapid scaling-up of renewable energy sources, e.g. solar, wind and biofuels. Renewable energy sources is and have been a continuing source of hope for more than four decades, stretching from the anti-nuclear movement, green political movements and the proto-green political parties of the 1970’s and the 1980’s (Dobson 2007) to renewable energy ideologist and German “Energiwende” architect Hermann Scheer’s visions about a “Solar Economy” (Scheer 2001, Scheer 2007, Scheer 2013) and more recently to The Tesla Powerwall; super entrepreneur Elon Musk’s Tesla home battery for storing solar energy.

These visions can also be seen as stories that narrate a shift away from fossil fuels to ushering in a utopian, green, future, decentralised, affordable, democratic, equitable renewable and resilient energy regime. But both talk and visions are easy to express in words and on paper while the actual realisation of “the whole package” (e.g. for example renewable energy and an equitable democratic society) might prove considerably more difficult than just wishing for it to happen (Hornborg 2014). However, even if visions about renewable energy tell a coherent story, storytelling should not only be seen as putting things in order. Storytelling can also be seen as something that distorts the commonplace and causes disorder in “the great story”. In this paper, we aim to question and to “defamiliarize” the reader with the familiar story of renewable energy as a unique source of redressing everything that is wrong in society today.

Timothy Mitchell has in his recent book “Carbon Democracy: Political power in the age of oil” (2011) argued that certain specific characteristics of fossil fuels (see also Winner 1986) and the concomitant (political economy) consequences of those characteristics are crucial for understanding social developments such as the spread of democratic ideas and a more equitable division of power in society. These developments happened first in the UK and later in other first-world, Western countries:

"Between the 1880s and the interwar decades, workers in the industrialised countries of Europe and North America [...] acquired a power that would have seemed impossible before the late nineteenth century. [...] Workers were gradually connected together [...] by the increasing and highly concentrated quantities of carbon energy they mined, loaded, carried, stoked and put to work. The coordinated acts of interrupting, slowing down or diverting its movement created a decisive political machinery, a new form of collective capability built out of coalmines, railways, power stations, and their operators [and] was put to work for a series of democratic claims whose gradual implementation radically reduced the precariousness of life in industrial societies." (Mitchell 2011, p.26-27).

Mitchell explores the link between the origins of coal- and oil-based fossil fuel regimes (Debeir et. al. 1991, Sieferle 2001, Malm 2016), fossil economies and the emergence of democratic values and he also dares to ask (but not to answer) the question: What if the system of democratic governance in itself is carbon-based? 

This leads up to the two main question we will explore in our proposed submission (in the form of a short communication) to the ER&SS special issue on “Narratives and storytelling in energy and climate change research”, namely: 

  • If the system of democratic governance is carbon-based, what then happens when we either voluntarily wind down or involuntarily run out of fossil fuels?
  • What if specific characteristics of present and future renewable energy systems, in our case solar energy, challenge some of the values we hold most dear in Western liberal democracies? 

That is, what are the effects of running up to various biophysical limits (Nardi 2015) and what more specifically are the implications of solar energy on democracy? Perhaps a “green”, decentralised future renewable energy regime is at odds with equitable and democratic developments (Desvallées 2016)? Perhaps we are only telling ourselves stories when we imagine a future renewable energy regime as being green and distributed and affordable and democratic and equitable?

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