Back in Spring, the Kilburn Manifesto team asked whether we’d like to submit a chapter on energy to their project. Edited by Soundings founding editors Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey, and Mike Rustin, After Neoliberalism seeks to open up space to debate alternatives to current dominant neoliberal systems.
This project was different. Rather than directing attention on what is bad in the here-and-now, we tried to articulate a vision of a survivable and just energy future. This article seeks to explore energy alternatives that break with the foundational assumptions of the neoliberal order. Rather than begging for small palliative scraps, the left must make the argument for a new energy and economic settlement. We need to force the hand of neoliberalism and authoritarianism; to strangle corporate power by denying it what it needs – possibilities for ever greater accumulation.
Excerpt from the full ‘Energy beyond Neoliberalism’ paper:
Decolonising energy: transforming carbon colonialism into energy solidarity
Fuel flows through pipelines and along shipping routes from Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Kuwait to Britain. Except, of course, that neither crude, nor the far lighter gas, flow of their own accord. The web of pipelines and tanker routes is not a rain catchment area where mountain streams head downhill, joining tributaries and rivers to provide water to the city in the valley. Fossil fuels require pressure to be forced down a pipeline, while political and financial forces determine the route along which it is transported. The global oil market didn’t evolve into this form of its own accord. The transfer of fuel is the product of wars, labour and political struggles, costly infrastructure, mass displacement, imposition and arming of undemocratic regimes and intensive corporate lobbying.
In a 1993 meeting with BP directors, Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd emphasised that ‘there were some parts of the world, such as Azerbaijan and Colombia, where the most important British interest was BP’s operation. In those countries he was keen to ensure that our [the FCO’s] efforts intertwined effectively with BP’s’. This statement neatly sums up Britain’s external energy policy: the interests of the state (often also framed as ‘security’ of energy supply) are seen as ensuring British corporations’ control of fossil fuels.
This prevents crude from being managed and exchanged by countries outside the neoliberal consensus: it keeps the oil flowing. David Cameron’s broader instruction to British diplomats to prioritise British exports only underscores the point: ‘every submission and every brief for a visit now has to include the commercial interests’.
As well as diplomatic support, external energy policy mobilises UK export credit finance and DfID, the Ministry of Defence and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Carbon colonialism means that oil executives and shareholders in London’s City are reaping rewards from militarisation, repression and poverty, as well as the catastrophic consequences of climate change in the Global South.
New gas pipelines promoted by the EU on behalf of oil companies (such as BP’s Euro-Caspian Mega Pipeline from Azerbaijan to Italy) require continued pressure in the flow for another four or five decades. To counter concerns over the carbon and political impacts of such projects, state and corporate PR strategies deploy the ‘energy security’ argument as a way of setting parameters for media and public debate. The rhetoric of ‘keeping the lights on’ re-asserts a politics of demanding oil, gas and other fuels for ‘us’ – and not ‘them’. ‘Security’ also privileges top-down and militaristic solutions that disempower and exclude the majority. When government identifies ‘energy security’ as a priority, progressive and green campaigners – aiming for short-term victories – are sometimes tempted to adopt these frames in the hope of opening doors to decision-makers.
But accepting this framing further consolidates the power of the neoliberal energy consensus. It helps executives like Shell’s Jan Kopernicki in his demand that Britain redirects billions towards building new warships, on the grounds that ‘the UK’s economic security depends on energy security: without enough energy, the economy simply cannot keep going’. Kopernicki wanted more navy frigates to escort Shell tankers off the coast of Somalia: ‘I don’t want to be alarmist but I provide transport for essential oil and gas for this country and I want to be sure that the lights are on in Birmingham, my home city.’
Assisted by concepts like ‘energy security’, carbon colonialism keeps the violence of oil extraction invisible or distant from privileged publics in the Global North. Despite the appearance of an increased global interconnectedness, we remain oblivious ‘to the blood in the food we eat, the petroleum we use’. We need to overcome this invisibility by establishing a different relationship to the sources of our energy.
Norway has made some efforts in this regard: well-resourced Parliamentary committees investigate the international impacts of Statoil, actively engaging civil society in a process of collective learning. This has its limitations, but the outcome is a more deliberative politics of energy, a geography of responsibility that is different from Britain’s colonial practice.
In decolonising energy, we can also learn from recent attempts to create more reciprocal energy relations in Latin America. Venezuela has developed a practice of energy solidarity of sorts, including its 2007 provision of cheap fuel for London’s buses and subsidised heating oil to fuel-poor and indigenous communities in the US.
Dismantling energy colonialism and replacing it with energy solidarity means doing more than building new energy models grounded in justice, democracy and sustainability in Britain. First steps towards reparations for theft and abuses of the past should include
- support for grassroots climate adaptation plans and welcoming climate migrants
- cleaning up the toxic legacy of oil spills in the Niger Delta and elsewhere
- support for projects like Yasuni-ITT in Ecuador, in which oil would be left in the ground in exchange for compensation from rich countries
- support for public-public partnerships focused on public needs, rather than exporting energy and water privatisation camouflaged as ‘services’.