The Social Dimension of Energy Transition

Written by Dr Clemens Hoffmann, lecturer in International Politics, University of Stirling, Scotland. The present text is the speech of Dr Hoffmann at Direct Democracy Festival, held on 06/09/18 in Thessaloniki.

Thanks for the invite, it is great to be part of something I had always dreamt of in a way doing myself but the realities of neoliberal managerial and feudalist academia have always kept me from fully realizing. I’m looking forward to engaged debates and please do forgive me for rambling on about abstractions possibly for a little bit too long.

Talking about Social Energy is not just about reporting about projects in far away places as inspiring and amazing as they may be.

It is also rather personal. It also means thinking about how I got here physically, on a plane, how I prepared this talk, using a lot of coffee and electricity, then how I switched on the hot water boiler, etc.

So, all my standing in front of you is mediated through energy relations. How I prepared this talk and how we engage with one another at a time when you wouldn’t be able to see or hear me if it wasn’t for electricity. Planes, phones, food, nutrition, coffees, hot showers, powerpoint presentations and the resources they require are all part of a social metabolism with nature. So, it is not just ‘a resource’ they require, but it’s a social system.

There is no social relation outside of nature, no human society elevating itself on top of nature to then appropriate and exploit it! But there is also no pristine nature outside of the social relations that have historically grown to ensure our form of social reproduction -in this case giving a talk on social energy relations at a time of crisis.

So, I also didn’t come here merely through this metabolism.

I went through three different jurisdictions, obeyed different laws, paid different amounts of taxes, helped financing different crimes, from the coffee plantation workers to the inefficient use of scarce water resources for high value crops like coffee, to the low wages of the waiter serving the coffee when I need a ‘kick’ to think about social energy and, of course, my own consent in the exploitation inherent in academic publishers like Elsevier -which is nevertheless the medium that brought us together and the very reason I’m here…

Therefore, me coming here is not just about relating to nature, but also about global value chains, which, don’t exist in a vacuum, but are mediated by and embedded in geopolitical social structures.

The interest, however, in these social relations, from IPE to Intl. Politics is not merely academic. Because even if I don’t care whether all life on this planet is doing well or even if I wanted to deny that we have reached a point whereby saving the earth from catastrophic climate change is about our own selfish survival, if it is possible at all, even if I’d be ignorant enough and say that the house is on fire, but this is going to be fine, even then, I will still always have a stake in those plants and fruits that feed the world because they’re also my sources of nutrition, energy and subsistence.

The social metabolism is what maintains all life, as a collective strategy of social reproduction. And the one we’re currently engaged in is still full throttle climate destructive hydro-carbon capitalism -something that is not only physically, but also socially corrosive.

This paper came out of a general concern with the current global crisis, or, rather its multiple crises, of the international order, the global economy and the earth’s environment and how they intersect.

And nowhere else does this intersection play out more clearly than in the Middle East.

Classically, this prominence of resources in the politics of the Middle East is understood as a never-ending resource curse, food insecurity, the effects of climate change on water availability, which, in turn, has an impact on trans-boundary water sharing.

In short, a new age of old oil and new water wars, climate conflicts, etc., is ushered in as part of a global crisis of the ‘Anthropocene’. And it takes on particularly violent and unstable forms in the Middle East.

In general, the region’s peculiar geo-physical properties are seen as determinants of its political problems: The politically poisonous hydro-carbon economy and its semi-arid climate, including many droughts are thought to combine with a traditionally passive social life, lacking agency.

Nature society relations in the MDE are conventionally thought of as static, organic, instinctive, irrational, traditional and, therefore, lack the capacity to deal either with modernity, environmental problems, similarly caused by a lack of care or to deal with any externally generated environmental crises, such as climate change. But of course I don’t want to leave you or even myself with such a deterministic and orientalist neo-malthusian understanding of the world.

There is an alternative reading of the region’s political ecology. If, instead of seeing nature as something outside of society worth preserving or rescuing from the greed of locals and markets alike, I suggest to understand nature social and therefore as an intrinsic part of a wider project of social and political emancipation.

Main Part

The negative Malthusian interpretation of this would be that we have a constant increase in resource demand based on demographic and economic growth imperatives, leading to an outstripping of nature’s limited supply, thus, leading to resource scarcity, competition, failure of governmental structures, war, destruction, including more environmental damage, etc.

Quite popular as it is, this treats nature and society not only as two separate spheres, but also as potential or actual adversaries, thus, confirming the Cartesian hierarchical reading.

Optimistically and progressively, however, if we assume, for a minute, that we’re not hostage to these mechanistic developments, but that nature itself is not outside of humanity, but is in fact, more than anything, a social category, part of our changeable consciousness, it can, therefore, also be changed for the better.

This idea about a dialectical nature-society relation goes back to the American Eco-Anarchist (he didn’t like this term, but I’ll use it to make it more understandable), Murray Bookchin who termed it a social ecology. In his progressive reading, social change ultimately about overcoming hierarchies (above all encapsulated in the capitalist state) and social practices of domination, crucially that of humans over nature but also of men over women. His thought didn’t end there though and he demonstrated how, for example, concepts like ‘scarcity’ were aiding the reproduction of power relations.

Orientalist environmental determinism, by contrast, sees these hierarchies as stable and unchangeable, equally based in the region’s intricately linked nature and culture. This portrays natives as helpless in the light of the overwhelming forces of nature and global market forces attracted by its richness, at the same time, they are uniquely responsible for its destruction.

In many ways, orientalist narratives see natives as part of the nature that needs to be tamed, controlled, regulated, but also saved from themselves and, in the last instance, dominated.

My alternative avenue of exploration starts from understanding nature-society relations as historically, socially and dialectically constituted.

Second, it understands that there is a material element in this, but not of the Malthusian kind. Rather, it starts from the circulation of matter as constitutive to the region’s social relations up to the current social, ecological and geopolitical crises.

However, rather than being a constant drive to the bottom, the underlying assumption here is that energy, water, soil, nutrition, like all matter, is circulated, rather than just used and depleted. Energy, as we all know from physics class, is never destroyed but transformed, not only materially, but also ideationally and above all: socially.

This dialectical naturalist understanding, thus, understands nature-society relations dialectically, not as a separate sphere of ‘natural’ interaction, but as an integral part of social life, a circulating social matter, which is, therefore, also open to change.

Empirical History

Let’s see how this plays out empirically looking at the origins of this environmental orientalism. Arguably, nothing represents hierarchical relationships better than colonialism, but also, to some extent the post-colonial state.

Both have been integral in driving environmentally destructive and exhaustive notions of competitive state development, notably by appropriating nature, frequently in hydro-engineering projects. Most of the time, these projects did and do involve the active reproduction of hierarchies, let it be from displacement or changed labour relations to geopolitical relations between upstream and downstream countries across many river basins such as the Euphrates and the Nile.

Methodologically this means that we do have to go back at least to some number crunching, though not necessarily of the economistic type. Ecological data gathering, combined with financial flows, qualitative social analysis would offer clues about patio-temporally specific nature-society relations, how they have been constituted historically and how they may potentially be changed.

This includes critical understandings of decarbonisation projects, such as dams, or specific energy policies looking for the social contradictions. Ethiopia’s and Morocco’s zero carbon growth strategies imply social dimensions which question whether decarbonisation is indeed a mechanism of social emancipation or to which extend patterns of uneven development are reproduced. Water conflicts around Morocco’s new parabolic and steam driven solar plants (the world’s largest) are one case in point here.

Social Ecology in Rojava

Education, Household Waste Collection: fertilisation, Low intensity agriculture, crops rotation instead of chemical fertilisation.

However, away from the anarchist utopia, there is also a strong geopolitical element:

First, all of this takes place within a war economy, producing not only food but also fuel for the military, or rather militaries.

Second, this lies at a precarious geopolitical conjuncture where the protective shield of the US can disappear any minute, though so far it hasn’t. In any case, this has its own contradictions.

Third, electricity production and irrigation are conditioned upon occupying crucial post-colonial Baathist infrastructure.

Given that this project came out of a geopolitical conjuncture of the Syrian civil war, by which it is at the same time conditioned and constrained, I suggest to think of this more as a geo-political ecology.

Looking at the upstream development of the GAP/Southeast Anatolian Project reveals how these cannot be looked at in isolation.

Inter-state relations matter within the region, not least in the form of competing developmentalist regimes, which, usually have a noticeable ecological footprint. Globally, international markets play as much a role as do neo-imperialist interventions in the region.

However, none of this is either socially or environmentally prescribed.


In sum, the narrative on the Middle East’s social ecology needs to be rectified. Rather than natural scarcity or abundance leading to conflict (automatically or otherwise), it suggested to research all nature-society as social relations. In other words, the interest is not just in nature as a pristine world in need of preservation but as an intrinsic part of socio-ecological reproduction and potential transformation.

Changing electricity sources from coal to hydro or solar may have a positive impact on the climate, but it doesn’t necessarily represent progress if they leave the social structures of hydro-carbon capitalism untouched.

So, why is all of this important?

First, it is important because our own survival as a species can only be ensured by trying to mediate the catastrophic changes which are upon us. Second, rather than seeing transformation as a threat, we can also see the necessary changes as an opportunity and use de-carbonisation in particular as a tool for wider societal change away from the ‘hydro-carbon democracy’ described by Timothy Mitchell.

Understanding the relationship between society and nature historically and dialectically not only offers an analytical way forward. It is also a political opportunity. Social Ecology can be an analytical as much as a political tool.

Rethinking nature-society relations socially-dialectically can become an intricate part of political emancipation from power relations dominated by the financialised hydrocarbon economy towards true democratisation.

The way forward

In abstract terms:

Thinking about nature (and energy in particular) as social relations avoids any deterministic trap. Any potential for change, in other words, our agency is, thus, tightly bound up with understanding and changing our own social metabolism with nature.

For example, when we think about resources, not just about adjusting the supply side upwards, but thinking about the ‘real’ origins of demand in our coffees, citrus fruit, plane tickets, holiday cruises.

Last, thinking about the forms of development historically shows that they are not only (but also) dictated by capital relations, but also by geopolitical competition which frequently acts as a catalyst, like in the E. Med.

Let me finish by again thankng you and tell you that I look forward too our debates.

November 7, 2018

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