Socioecological Transformation: dominant developments, resistances and alternatives – energy as a crucial terrain

Ulrich Brand, Vienna University, June 2013

Introductory paper for the Seminar “Socioecological transformation focus energy” from 3-5 July 2013 in Vienna, organized by Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Brussels and Ulrich Brand, Department of Political Science, Vienna University

Analytical-political starting points

The energy landscape is presently shifting. We discussed last year – besides concrete resistances and alternatives – some dominant trends:


  • Growing demand of energy due to the intensification of a resource intensive mode of production and living in the capitalist centers and the rapid growth of so-called emerging economies (which in fact produce for the global North and for their own middle and upper classes).
  • Rising prices of energy with price volatilities and problematic distributional effects (energy poverty for many, subsidies for energy intensive industry etc.).
  • Depletion of cheap and available fossil resources which leads to a dynamic growth of the exploration of “unconventional” oil and gas.
  • The financialization of nature which means that over-accumulated capital tends to look for investment opportunities within the energy sector (which goes hand in hand with new enclosures)
  • Intensifying geopolitical competition and increasing “resource nationalism” which leads to a growing awareness of political and economic elites in Europe to pursue active energy and resource politics (“diplomacy”).
  • A lot of attention is given to the development of (capital intensive) infrastructures for the transport of energy (generated power or fossil fuels).
  • There is some awareness to foster policies towards energy efficiency and consistency of material and energy flows.
  • Energy (use and policies) are increasingly related to issues of climate change and resource depletion, to the food and agricultural sector.
  • The global distribution of energy use is still a disaster: 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity and one billion have only an instable access.
  • Dominant scientific and political thinking is still grounded in neoclassical environmental and resource economics: “Let develop markets and technology, the state should create an adequate framework (or should intervene in the case of market failure) – then private and public companies as well as consumers will decide rightly.”
  • The emergence or strengthening of a remarkable sector of renewable energy which is mainly understood as complementary to the dominant fossilist-nuclear path (Germany is here an exception which intends to substitute a share of nuclear and fossilist energy; however, this takes place within a corridor of eco-capitalist modernization).
  • Energy transition strategies are mainly technology driven (off-shore wind farming, large infrastructures, “second generation” agrofuels, CCS technologies).
  • Conflicts – which can be called energy struggles – about the negative consequence of resource extraction, energy production and distribution intensify. Whether they are going to have a common vision or horizon – like energy democracy or energy autonomy – needs to be discussed.


What is left out of the dominant trends and debates is a questioning of the assumption that energy demand is going to grow, the mode of production and living is not at stake and societal power relations are only mentioned when it comes to North-South relations. That an energy future might consist of a decrease of energy use in many countries is left out of the picture. He same is the case for the linkages between the energy sector and the military-industrial complex.

Behind this – and also usually denied – lies the logic of a capitalist appropriation of nature and the shaping of societal relations: the search for profit and capital accumulation, the tendency towards the commodification of societal (nature) relations and that capital wants to control the structures and processes of energy production and distribution which implies a tendency towards a centralized energy production system. And it intends to control nature as well.

At the end of the 2012 conference we detected that a more structured debate about what is going on in Europe is needed. Europe is key in a process of global socio-ecological transformation towards a just, democratic and really sustainable society.

In 2009 and according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Europe-27 consumed 13.6 per cent of global primary energy (oil, gas, coal, water, wind, solar energy, biomass, nuclear energy). But it must be included the energy which is used to produce goods and services elsewhere which are consumed in Europe (the so-called ecological backpack). The energy mix consisted of almost 35 per cent oil, 25 per cent gas, 16 per cent coal, 14 per cent nuclear energy and 10 per cent renewables (7 per cent biomass, 1,7 per cent water power, less that 1 per cent solar, wind and sea energy and 0,4 per cent geothermic) (sea energy: energy from power plants using tides, currents and waves).

However, there are remarkable differences. In France, more than 40 per cent of primary energy is produced in nuclear plants. In Norway, almost 40 per cent is covered by water energy, in Austria and Switzerland it´s more than 10 per cent. In Germany, the percentage of renewable energy within the energy mix of power generation (not heating and transport) grew within a few years up to 22 per cent in 2012.

One problem in Europe seems to be that energy transition seems to be in many countries quite high on the agenda but, in fact and beside Germany, it does not work.

A hypothesis

There is a capitalist corridor to deal with energy problems, which is between business-as-usual and a partial greening of the energy sector. But this is a highly uncertain process – which has its capitalist and powerful push and pull factors – and a better understanding of the possible patterns and contradictions are crucial to develop emancipatory answers.

Some questions

What do we know about current political and economic strategies, of relevant private actors and their think tanks? Is a comprehensive mapping and an evaluation of strategies possible? If yes: how?

What does the hype for “unconventional” oil and gas really mean? In the U.S., for Europe?

Which potential really exists with biomass?

Which kind of technologies are actually developed and need to be criticized / stopped or welcomed / promoted?

It seems that the EU has actually problems to formulate a coherent energy policy which goes beyond 2020. What does this mean for alternatives?

Is the perspective of a reduction of energy production and use – beside a different mix towards renewables – really a perspective? To answer this question would imply a closer look to other sectors: industrial production, food and agriculture, housing, transport, communication.

The question of time (especially concerning climate change and potential tipping points): in what sense does this affect emancipatory energy politics?

And more general: How do we evaluate the strategies and moves towards a “Green Economy”? Are there positive or at least contradictory things in it? It is an open question whether the projects of a Green Economy or Green New Deal open up certain spaces against more brutal forms of capitalism.

Is the Green Economy an indicator of dissent within the power bloc? Which roles do play trade unions here?

Resistances and Alternatives

As the friends from The Corner House show in their May 2013 report “Energy Alternatives. Surveying the Territory” (and Nick Hildyard is going to present some insights at our conference), the landscape of alternatives is very complex. There are different questions asked, varying criteria applied, various spatial scales referred to.

I just want to prepare a bit our common reflection. An emancipatory perspective might start with the following assumption:

The production and use of energy is the basis of human activities in general and fossil energy for the capitalist mode of production in particular. It is not just the basis but a driving force of capitalist expansion itself. Energy is a social relation:


  • i.e. it bases on the existence of and access to resources, water etc., on different forms of technologies, infrastructures and consumption patterns.
  • It is linked to the production or wealth and poverty and (re-)distribution and to property structures,
  • Energy has a lot to do with production and consumption patterns, is the basis for local, national and global economies,
  • Has to do with displacement, territory and de-territorialization,
  • with finance, military and repression, with development policies and international organizations.
  • It is linked to manifold forms to organize labor / work (as formal work and informal work) and to the international, national and local division of labor, to its class, gender and racialised impacts.
  • Energy is not only resources but also waste, is the use of sinks and pressure on ecosystems.
  • The local (oil in the ground) can be highly global (production, finance and consumption).
  • Energy is highly related to societal orientations like “progress” or the growth imperative. Energy resources might have impact on identities (like in the extraction regions) or they can be made invisible (e.g. for consumers).


Energy is about power and domination – about resistance and alternatives.

However: From an emancipatory perspective we need to admit that actual energy politics is embedded into extractivism as a development model which is quite attractive for capital, the state, employees in the sector and those parts of the population which benefits from the revenues through redistributive politics. Resistance comes mainly from the negatively affected people in the region where the resources are extracted.

Given the existing conditions of high world market prices for many resources (despite its volatility) and the lack of alternatives, extractivism is broadly accepted and welcomed, i.e. we can call it hegemonic. The discovering of new resources is a major and positive notice in most countries.

How can we batter understand the contradictions of the dominant and ongoing processes, and here especially the fact that millions of people live from resource extraction and the existing energy model; the orientation at low energy prices and related problems to this?

Beside this “hegemonic constellation” concerning energy, there is another fact which was at stake last year. Esperanza Martínez from Oilwatch and Acción Ecologica in Ecuador argued in July 2012: “We need to understand the reasons why people do/don’t organise to struggle. Key factors are fear and misinformation. The most frequently invoked type of aggression: health problems; land occupation; ecological tensions in fragile/protected areas; human rights aggressions (murders/killings).”

So, what are entry point to think and realize resistance and alternatives?

1) Entry points

One entry point is concrete conflicts which sometimes suddenly emerge and might be further politicized (not by a vanguard but by offers to understand the root causes of conflicts, the interests of the “other side”, to go further). We all have many of those conflicts in our regions, countries and cities / towns in mind: Conflicts about energy prices, access to energy, about private or public ownership, large infrastructures, etc.

One important question here is: Are there specific “momentums” of politicization (e.g. Fukushima), of a critical mass, of successful and visible experiments, niches etc.?

2) Contradictions within the power bloc and of dominant strategies

I already said that the contested character and uncertainty of actual energy politics might be a point of departure. In Europe, some contradictions could be politicized.


  • The EU Commission advocates in its strategy papers a resource light and low-carbon economy while in its policies, imports of oil, gas, coal and uranium and respective infrastructures are promoted.
  • The strategy towards a green economy has a major implication in the energy sector, i.e. the import of agrofuels – 20-30% of biodiesel comes from Argentina – which leads to a use and concentration of land in the producer countries.
  • The question of a historical energy and resource debt of Europe and the Global North in general.


3) The manifold resistances and contradictions should be framed and put into a wider context of principles and horizons; and crucial questions should be asked.

Here I see our task as a network (or better said: one of many networks) sharing experiences and producing knowledge (even more than information; because in many respects this is there – however, we might detect during the conference that we need also information, e.g. about energy companies). This kind of knowledge might influence strategies of certain actors like political parties, NGOs, social movements, public entities, private actors.

Principles: There should be principles of democratic, just and renewable forms of energy production, distribution and consumption as well as the principle of a dramatic reduction of the overuse of energy (as a principle! – it is highly contested what this means)… what else?

Horizons: We contest a “naïve cosmopolitism” in the global North which wants to save “the planet” but does not contest global and social power relations, does not consider the realities in the global South and, in fact, might promote authoritarian solutions in order to save the planet.

An important aspect seems to be that emancipatory perspectives against the dominant capitalist-fossilist-industrialist energy regime and related resource extractivism need to offer attractive alternative socio-economic ways of production and living for the masses. One general criterion for this process can be called a just transition and for this we should develop and refer to energy transition scenarios.

Emancipatory energy politics is much more about energy transition! It is about a comprehensive socio-ecological transformation (some call it green socialism) which aims to change in a much more profound way the mode of production and living, social and individual desires and psychology, forms of politics and the dealing with common problems etc.

Alternatives definitely need to question actual imperatives like world market competitiveness and competition at any cost, they imply forms of societal and political planning, a diversity of property regimes (including a strong public sector and a strong solidarity economy). Despite a lot of emphasis on learning processes in transition and transformation debates, emancipatory alternatives probably need to be implemented against the political and economic interests of the elites; but also aim to shape the direct interests of many people in the Global North and the middle-classes in the Global South.

I think that we can learn here from the current debates about de-growth.

Some questions to be asked:

I conclude this first input to our conference with some open questions (there are much more, of course).

A crucial question to me is how to overcome the hegemonic constellation which binds people materially, mentally and with their desires to the existing mode of production and living and its related energy system. The strengths of the Green Economy proposals is that they do not question the former by aiming to alter the latter, i.e. the energy and other socio-economic systems within a corridor of eco-capitalist modernization.

Another question here is how to organize work and the international and societal division of labour differently. How to get people and their trade unions on board, in countries which are affected by the crisis (and where unions are weakened and hope for a re-start of the growth engine) or in countries which are not so affected and people have the feeling that they have a lot to lose?

However, we should not go in the radical-conservative trap to throw out the baby with the bathwater, i.e. to sacrifice social achievements on the altar of ecological urgency or even a portrayed collapse. This is not a leftist answer.

A second question becomes more and more obvious. Against the background of the experience that many people know that a lot needs to be changed, but that their everyday practice continues to be the same, we might put more energy into the development of attractive stories of a better life and living which can convince people today that its worth to act differently (without creating the illusion that the critical consumer is the answer to all our problems).

How to do this? What is an adequate methodology to develop and tell radical-emancipatory stories – in general and in the energy sector? (which would contrast the manifold catastrophic stories the book stores are full with)

A final note

At the end of our conference we should detect carefully what to do. Hopefully, a lot of suggestions for the own practices in party and state, association, NGO and social movement, academia, think tank and broader public can be taken home.I think that we might enter into a phase to produce some written (or audio-visual) material to clarify issues and to promote alternatives. Moreover, we should think which kind of networking is needed.

There is a lot going on. I trust our collective knowledge and experience that we can agree on some initiatives which are urgently needed and which do not repeat existing.

The strength of our group (which is fluid but has a core) is that it has since the beginning an internationalist perspective. Moreover, it is close to leftist political actors.