Socio-ecological Transformation and Energy Policy in Latin America and Europe

Ulrich Brand, Vienna University

Introduction to the seminar in Vienna, 11-14 July 2012

The central issue of the seminar: What does emancipatory social-ecological transformation mean concretely, and, in terms of practical policy, particularly in the area of energy resources and their production, distribution and consumption – today and in future?

The goals of the Conference are (a) an analysis of the very dynamic, controversial and often contradictory developments and political experiences in Europe and in Latin America, and (b) based on that, the medium and long-term development of emancipatory strategies, alliance options and actions; for that purpose, the concept of socio-ecological transformation is to be defined more precisely. (c) The international networking of relevant stakeholders from various spectrums is an ad-ditional goal. Here, the purpose is a well-prepared exchange of experiences and assessments which are up to date and promise to move us forward politically.

Below, I will outline the background to this Conference, and suggest a few matters of substance to be considered.

In the current multiple crisis of global capitalism, which is developing differently in different regions, a variety of real and potential breaks are emerging, together with search processes for ways to handle the crisis. One major factor to be taken into account here is that of the continuities – as, in Europe, the still dominant neo-liberal social power relations, the security interests of property owners and the model of industrial competitiveness at any cost; or, in Latin America, the tendency to continue to cling to a development model based on resource extraction and cheap labour.

The forms of handling the crisis can thus not be conceived independently of historical developments and contingencies, of the depth of the economic, political and socio-ecological crisis, of social institutions and power relations, or of strategy and struggle. It would hence be possible, generally speaking, for politically authoritarian and/or neo-liberal authoritarian and/or conservative, social-liberal, social-democratic or emancipatory paths to be chosen and stabilized.

One thing seems certain: The handling of the multiple crisis will need to provide answers to the socio-ecological crisis; in particular the design of the energy supply will be the main focus.

Answers may differ: One possibility is a further valorization of nature, a prominent example of that being the emissions trading for the purpose of climate protection; another possibility might involve eco-authoritarian variants, in which internal social policy would be structured to benefit a minority; or an international system under which the western model of wealth would be defended by armed might, and billions of people would be kept in poverty by authoritarian means; or proposals for a Green Economy might be implemented, such as in the form of the “Green New Deal” being advanced in Germany, based on a combination of the market, state control and social compromise. All these variants share one thing in common: a measure of faith in the capitalist global market, in the existing political institutions, and in the technologies developed by capitalism for handling these multiple crises.

This may well be different in different societies.

By contrast to these potential development options, the approaches subsumed under the heading of a socio-ecological transformation see the capitalist and imperial dynamics – including not only the relations of production, but also the living conditions of the people – more as the cause of the current problems than as their solution. Accordingly, more comprehensive policies have been formulated in this context.

The concept of a socio-ecological transformation is first of all a perspective that should not be misunderstood as being socio-technological. Whether it can in the coming years develop as a pluralist project is currently an open question. It must be substantively formulated, and be borne by a broad array of radical reform-oriented forces, must clearly shift the discourse, and must change institutional practices. It must be open to the reformulation of interests and values, for the settlement of conflicts, and for the critical consideration of experiences.

Let us illustrate this by reference to the example of energy production, distribution and consumption, which is indeed the foundation of all modes of production and life.

For this, we first of all need thorough knowledge of historical and current developments and debates, in order to assess them critically. At this conference, we would like to do that on the basis of a well-prepared exchange of experience between European and Latin American people from a variety of social contexts– movements, associations/foundations, political parties and academia.

From a critical perspective, the following aspects should be taken into account:

  • Energy sources and methods of energy production are not societally neutral, but are rather closely connected with capitalist social forms, i.e., the form of value and of money, the form of the bourgeois state and of the relevant international institutions, and even that of the sub-jects. This aspect is important for an understanding of the dynamics of development and the position of place of renewable energy sources, their production and their transformation sys-tems. The switch to renewables under capitalist terms is possible, and is taking place, as is discussed under the heading “green economy”, but it is likely to remain a complementary strategy, and, unless checked, to remain under the control of capital.
  • The capitalist dynamics of the valorization of nature and the related claim of powerful eco-nomic and political forces to control access to nature and its use for their own benefit, has not to date been questioned in the context of the strategies for a “green economy”.
  • The role of the military in the protection of the existing resource and energy system must be considered. Not coincidentally, important technological innovations are taking place within military structures. The military plays an important role in the North-South relationship, and – together with the police – in the specific societies, protecting the existing power relations.
  • The use of energy in the capitalistic production process is the basis for the replacement of human labour by machines. Here too, energy is not neutral; rather, cheap fossil energy enables the dynamics of the capitalist development of productive forces and its corresponding valorization. The availability of cheap energy might be interpreted, among other things, as part of the class struggle, and of the preservation of the power of capital.
  • The current energy system is destructive of nature, and capitalistic in its dynamics; fossilistic industrialism is also an element of the class compromise that ensures the domination of the existing rulers, and integrates the subaltern strata materially. This has historically worked in the capitalist centers. What trends are we currently seeing? What is the position of place of energy in the global generalization of the “imperial way of life?”
  • The dominant resource and energy system is part of a neo-colonial world order, under which certain regions and countries are assigned the role of resource suppliers for the internal and world markets in the international division of labour. The current high world market prices have the effect of strengthening rather than changing this constellation.

Normatively, one key issue is that of opening up for society the possibility of an alternative, self-determined energy supply system, with a minimum of domination relations. Such an alternative sys-tem, and the struggles and policies required for it, would thus require changing forms in such areas as how socially necessary and desirable work is to be carried out, how the societal division of labour is to be organized, which standards of production and consumption are desirable and are to be provided, and what the political realm and the formation of interest structures are to play.

The sustainable use of the environment can only be addressed in conjunction with socio-ecological justice; hence, the key issue is the democratically controlled production of, access to and sustainable use of food. That involves not simply investment in “green” areas, but rather democratic decision-making power over investments, and also an answer to the fundamental question as to who is in fact to determine the direction of the development of society.

In short: An emancipatory, socio-ecological transformation-based energy policy and energy supply system would focus on the fact that the scarcity of resources has been produced by capitalism, and that the forms determining how such crises are to be handled – including increased resource, mate-rial and energy efficiency – are also capitalistic. These are important factors; the materiality of social relations to nature must be considered, but they must be linked with social power and domination relations.

This comprehensive perspective can be normatively charged, and linked to demands for determining societal direction. The normative requirement would be: An adequate supply of energy must be organized democratically, and is a human right – one of several that we will be discussing at this Conference.

Such demands for determining societal direction would include such things as support for public transport, and the avoidance of unwanted mobility to curb the construction of roads and automobiles, and thus the growth of energy consumption for auto-mobility. At issue is the democratic organization of cities – the construction and renovation of buildings and infrastructure in a manner not dictated by the primacy of land rents and of capital valuation.

Demands for determining societal direction are decidedly critical of domination, they are democratic and emancipatory, which is what distinguishes our approach from that of such other “transformative” energy policies as those of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), or of the UN agencies. Thus, more accurate and – hopefully – more precise questions will emerge than will answers – and yet they will open the field for the appropriate answers.

Our perspective
includes obtaining an understanding of the breadth of transformation, and communicating that to society. The conversion of the energy and transport system is directly related to mechanical engineering, to the electrical and chemical industries, and to agriculture. And research and technology policy, too, needs to be completely reoriented. How, then, are the societal productive forces and the related forms of societal labour, but also the appropriate political and economic forces and power relations, to be changed?

This issue then leads to questions of alliances and points of approach to the prevailing everyday common sense of people.

It is striking that even on the side of the rulers, interpretations of the multiple crisis are very far-reaching; however, the resulting policy proposals dare not break with the existing capitalist and im-perial patterns of socialization. A prominent example in the German debate is the report of the WBGU titled, in English, Social Contract for Sustainability, and in German, literally, “Social Contract for a Great Transformation”. In that report, a very extrenive description of the problem is followed by policy proposals which are incremental and in conformity with the existing institutions. Social dominance and power relations are thus largely de-identified as causes of the crisis. And yet, points of contact exist, even here.

What should be discussed in greater detail is the extent to which an emancipatory energy policy and energy supply might link up to the contradictions arising in the common-sense awareness of people, or of specific groups, in the context of a socio-ecological transformation. There is indeed an awareness of ecological problems; however, the dominant proposals and practices consist largely of such individual actions as saving electricity.

The topics of the seminar:

  1. Our point of departure is the experiences and struggles in Latin America and Europe – politicization, mobilization, the role of social movements and political-institutional actors, alliances, and key terms that place issues in perspective: Which dynamics, demands – for example, “Leave the resources in the ground!” – and strategies does the specific resistance to the extraction and use of fossil energy resources have? To what extent are they – or are they not – part of broader societal projects? Why are so many movements local (Maristella Svampa “giro eco-territorial “)? What is the role not only of protests and movements, but also of already legally established forms of struggle, such as environmental impact assessments (example: the Hidroaysén dam project in Chile was postponed twice by such instruments, only to ultimately be approved under the new president)? And are progressive actors not depending on precisely this, when they call for new constitutions and laws: upon the legal establishment of emancipatory concerns? What does that mean?
  2. We intend to link this complex of issues to the specific contexts of action (structures) which are being changed or need to be changed in order to stabilize, to strengthen, and if necessary to societally generalize the concrete alternatives. We will analyze in which coalitions of rulership these experiences and struggles occur: capitalism, the global market, geo-politics, the financial markets, opponents, extractivism, the imperial way of life, political conditions.
  3. Only in the third stage will we, selectively and in an open process, address the issue of the requirements for a socio-ecological transformation which have previously not been part of the struggle, such as a North-South relationship based on solidarity, global sustainability in terms of real resource availability, or new technologies. Some struggles, such as those against resource depletion, are defensive, and induce alternatives elsewhere and very indirectly, thus raising issues not only politically/strategically, but also substantively, i.e., in terms of technology, natural spaces, and realizability taking resource scarcity into account, without simply assuming a “peak-everything” situ-ation, or the limits of the global carrying capacity. The issue of needs and subjectivities is one that is to be addressed here.
  4. Open questions: What problems of intra-left tensions and confrontation exist? One strategically important factor is: Here, we are connecting to a broad socio-political debate in this country, where the concept of socio-ecological transformation/restructuring is frequently used – which implies an important process of clarification for the left political spectrum in the narrow sense.

See also:

>> Website of international seminar with Introduction in Spanisch, German and English in the compilation of papers