In her new book, Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice, Aviva Chomsky argues that science is not enough to change course on climate change: We need to put social, racial, and economic justice front and center and overhaul the global growth economy. In this excerpt, she defines the concept of energy democracy as a radical vision that “calls for public, grassroots, bottom-up control over basic economic institutions and decisions.”
The call for energy democracy is based on the belief that energy is a basic human need and human right. Our current market-based energy system is geared toward producing and selling as much fuel as possible to those who can best afford it, without regard for social and environmental costs. A very small number of powerful individuals and institutions set the rules and make the decisions, while the vast majority of the world population has no say at all. Control and exploitation of concentrated energy resources in the form of fossil fuels is at the heart of race and class divisions today; this control created wealth and poverty, development and underdevelopment, and, of course, the growing climate disaster. The costs are currently paid by the poor, whether in the oil fields of Nigeria or in the drought-ravaged countries of Central America, while the powerful enjoy the benefits. This status quo is the antithesis of democracy.
Energy democracy means wresting decision-making power from those who control the system: profit-seeking corporations, governments, and international institutions that appropriate energy resources for the benefit of the few. It means claiming energy as a common good and a human right, and developing ways to assert popular control over the decisions that affect us all. “[The] energy commons,” writes climate scholar and activist Ashley Dawson, “must be about more than simply switching from fossil fuels to solar power: at its heart, this struggle must enable radical redistributions of power that don’t just democratize but also effectively decolonize energy and society.” True democracy goes beyond elections and beyond national borders: It means transforming a global economic system to limit energy overuse by the wealthy while prioritizing the energy needed to fulfill basic human needs.
One way to do this is to take energy resources and decisions out of private hands and put them under public control, although government control alone doesn’t ensure lower emissions or fairer energy distribution. State-run oil and gas companies, like Saudi Aramco or Russia’s Gazprom, are not that different from publicly traded corporations, like BP or Exxon, in their drive to make money by exploiting, producing, and selling fossil fuels with little regard for the social and environmental costs. Some oil-producing countries offer hefty subsidies on gasoline and utilities, turning their populations into heavy consumers and amounting to another gift to the industry. State-owned fossil fuel producers, like private companies, seek to externalize costs, maximize profits, and evade regulation and taxes.
Even in a highly democratic country like Norway, a state-run oil industry can create perverse incentives to maximize fossil fuel extraction. Norway is a global leader in employing domestic policy to keep fossil fuel use low, at least in electricity production, while it continues to extract and export petroleum.
“Norway is almost entirely run on hydropower, which meets about 95 percent of the country’s energy needs,” writes the author of a 2018 study. “New buildings larger than 500 square meters (about 5,000 square feet) are required to get 60 percent of their energy from a renewable source. Cities have vast green spaces, bike lanes, and little traffic. Oslo’s city center is [close to] car-free. And if one must own a car, it should be an electric vehicle. Norwegians who own them get breaks on parking fees, tolls, and more. All this means that, by some measures, Norway is among the world’s greenest countries.” Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index ranks it 14th in the world for its sustainable practices.
Still, Norway’s emissions, mostly from transportation and industry, come to 8.3 metric tons per year per capita. That’s significantly lower than U.S. per-capita emissions, but it’s well above its neighbors the U.K., Italy, and France and far exceeds the 1.6 metric ton maximum necessary to reach the goal of remaining within 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. (Some studies using consumption-based accounting place Norway’s per-capita emissions much higher, at over 17 metric tons.) Furthermore, Norway is the world’s fifth-largest per-capita petroleum extractor; oil accounts for half of the country’s exports. Oil profits fund the country’s extensive social welfare system and the Government Pension Fund Global of Norway, the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. If we count the emissions from the petroleum Norway extracts and exports, the country falls to 128th place in Yale’s index.
So democratic Norway does a great job of meeting its citizens’ needs and, in some important aspects, protecting the environment at home, but is more problematic in terms of its contribution to global emissions. (On the other hand, Norway produces only about 2% of the world’s oil, and its share would readily be replaced by larger producers were it to cut back.) In a world as globally connected as ours, democracy can’t end at a country’s borders. Can we call it democracy if the victims of fossil fuel extraction—the global poor who are losing their lands to rising seas, hurricanes, and drought—have no voice in the policies of countries like Norway (and Saudi Arabia, Russia, and so on) that are destroying their livelihoods?
Right now, most of us have little or no say over how our energy is produced. In fact, most of us don’t even know. We pay private companies to keep gasoline, electricity, and natural gas flowing into our homes and cars, to supply food to our supermarkets, and to keep our economy humming. But we generally have no idea how and where the fuels are produced and extracted, how much money company executives make, or how much their shareholders are paid in dividends.
When we have the chance to find out, a lot of us don’t like what we see. When I take people from my hometown of Salem, Massachusetts, to Colombia to visit the coal mine that until a decade ago supplied coal to our local power plant, they are horrified. They see the Indigenous and Afro-Colombian peasants displaced and made homeless by the massive operation; traditional livelihoods and farmlands destroyed; rivers dried up and diverted; and dust contaminating air, land, and water.
Around the United States and the world, frontline communities have mobilized to resist coal mines, pipelines, natural gas fracking operations, and oil drilling. But our energy system keeps us so distanced and ignorant, most of us just see the light switch in our kitchen or the pump at our local gas station.
In some ways, it is easier to remain ignorant. It’s awfully convenient to have all the energy and products we want at our fingertips, without having to think about how they got there.
But it’s morally problematic, too. Most of us don’t actually want to be complicit in human rights violations and environmental destruction. Not only are we, in the United States, privileged because of our access to way more than our fair share of the world’s energy resources, we’re privileged by not having to suffer the discomfort of knowing or seeing the real-world consequences of our consumption.
Like a just transition, energy democracy is a concept that can help highlight common interests among consumers, workers, and frontline communities. Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, formed in 2013, is a coalition of 29 unions and national and international labor federations. Its mission is “to advocate strongly for public direction and social ownership of energy at the local to the global levels, to assist in laying the foundations for durable and effective alliances between unions and other social movements.” Energy democracy, writes TUED’s Sean Sweeney, means going beyond the idea of a greener capitalism to address “the fundamental question of who owns and controls energy resources and for what reason energy is generated and used.” In concrete terms, this means reclaiming public control over privatized parts of the energy industry, creating real democratic control over publicly owned energy operations, and developing a new publicly owned, unionized, and democratic non-fossil-based energy system.
Energy democracy advocates offer differing scenarios for how democratic control could work. Some emphasize small-scale, decentralized, locally controlled, community-based renewable energy systems. Others believe that economies of scale and existing infrastructure mean we should focus on democratizing large-scale energy projects. Unions caution that, given high levels of unionization in existing energy systems, we must be sure decentralization does not become part of the larger corporate attack on unions.
Some in the Global South call for energy sovereignty, or energy justice, noting that far too often “democracy” there has been a veneer for colonial and corporate domination. The concept of energy democracy is based on a more radical vision than one limited to political, electoral, and representative systems; it calls for public, grassroots, bottom-up control over basic economic institutions and decisions. Still, the terms “energy sovereignty” and “energy justice” more specifically emphasize the ways the Global South and the poor have been systematically exploited by our historical and current energy systems.
The energy democracy, energy sovereignty, or energy justice movement seeks to create alternatives while directly challenging the institutions that control our energy system and the regulatory apparatus that sustains it. Most energy democracy projects focus on the distribution of energy in the form of electricity rather than on extraction and production and its uses in other sectors. But the principles of popular democracy and transparency also shape movements in communities affected by extraction; they could be expanded to different economic sectors that use energy. Because of the fundamental role of energy in our economy, energy democracy relates deeply to the struggle for social, racial, and economic justice.
This excerpt is from Is Science Enough?: Forty Critical Questions About Climate Justice by Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2022) and reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Aviva Chomsky is a professor of history and the coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University. The author of several books including Undocumented and “They Take Our Jobs!”, Chomsky has been active in the Latin American solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for over 30 years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.