by Giorgio Brocco, University of Vienna
Reviewed in this essay:
Ethnographies of Power: A Political Anthropology of Energy, edited by Tristan Loloum, Simone Abram, and Natalie Ortar (New York: Berghahn Books, 2021).
Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, by Cymene Howe (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019).
Energopolitics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, by Dominic Boyer (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2019).
Over the last decades, global media debates and political discussions around climate change, environmental pollution and fossil fuel extraction have arisen vehemently. Anthropological attention to energy has therefore grown more explicit, thanks to studies conducted by a crop of scholars reflecting on various political, economic, and social issues related to the use and commercialization of hydrocarbon energy resources. In the wake of the recent Paris Agreement on climate change, researchers in “Energy Humanities” (Boyer and Szeman 2016) have grappled more deeply with the social, political and cultural dimensions of alternative types of energy (Günel 2018). For instance, scholars have investigated human and technological efforts towards the implementation of alternative forms of energy production from green design (Günel 2019; Rademacher 2017) to renewable energy sources (Argenti and Knight 2015; Rignall 2016) and clean technology (Dean 2020; Barber 2016; Love and Garwood 2011). In the meantime, anthropological analyses of electricity infrastructures and global notions of climate change expertise have also set the pace (Degani et al. 2020).
Along this new fascinating scholarly path, the volume, Ethnographies of Power edited by Tristan Loloum, Simone Abram, and Natalie Ortar, as well as the “duograph” (two single-authored books with joint preface and conclusion and based on 16 months of fieldwork), Wind and Power in the Anthropocene, composed by Ecologics by Cymene Howe and Energopolitics by Dominic Boyer, succeed in adding new information to existing ethnographic data and theorizing about these topics. The three books mark the arrival of an anthropological attention to the political frictions and social inequalities involved in the (human) neoliberal extraction of new forms of non-carbon renewable energy resources (e.g., wind, water, wood and so on) and the conflicts within political processes of energy transition—from nuclear power and hydrocarbons to renewable energy sources. Additionally, these texts explore the political, social and economic practices around ecological pressing issues and more-than-human subjects within sites of energy extraction. The authors of these essays not only pay close attention to the pollution, violence and inequalities due to the forced exploitation of non-carbon energy sources, but also to the political design and unsustainability related to the utilization of such novel types of energy within the neoliberal extractive economy.
The ethnographies under review demonstrate the mechanisms through which multinational corporations endeavor to harness renewable power and earn huge profits from it by dominating and coopting local people and natural resources. They also report on the violent reactions and strenuous contrapositions to such projects from indigenous and activist groups. All the three books provide a profound and nuanced investigation of the intricate intertwinements between political power, social struggles, practices of energy statecraft, public and private economic interests, and the various types of renewable energy materialities. The topics, methodologies, and analytical perspectives differ from previous anthropological works on energy humanities and advance unanswered anthropological questions about the forthcoming goals of the neoliberal extractive economy and their countless drawbacks.
Ecologics by Howe engages with events regarding the implementation and subsequent failure of the megaproject of Mareña Renovable wind turbine park project inside the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Together with Boyer, the author conducted 16 months of fieldwork in the terrains and towns of the windiest areas of Mexico through interviews, surveys, and group discussions.
Composed of six chapters, the volume documents the socio-economic and political dimensions of the supposed implementation of the wind park and its final stagnation. Through various ethnographic insights, Ecologics innovatively traces the changing nature of wind: “from element to condition and from an experience into a resource that generates power and its effects” (p. 24). By drawing from new materialism and feminist theories, Howe’s analysis invites the readers to understand the various political struggles within the process of converting a natural force into a commodified resources. In other words, the book purports to show “how human aspirations for energy articulate with or against non-human beings, technomaterial objects, and the geophysical forces that are at the center of wind power and, ultimately, at the heart of the Anthropocene” (p. XI).
As explained in Chapters 2, 4, and 6, the Mareña Renovable wind park project finally failed because of the repetitive neoliberal attempts to profit from both the wind and the land beneath it, as well as the local communities’ rising reciprocal suspicions about the ethical postures of all the actors involved in the construction of the wind park. A relevant element that acccelerated the standoff was the anti-wind local activists and their protests. In more general terms, the project stopped because of the contrasts and discrepancies “between local ecological impacts and global climatological care, and between sustainable development objectives and concerns about local sovereignty” (p. 72). Additionally, inequalities in the distribution of wealth and the consequent construction of industrialized blocked passages to the Isthmus reduced the access of people from the local communities to the seaside, producing an unstable future for its numerous inhabitants. Such multiple impasses materialize dramatic oppositions and halts. In line with histories of domination and militant counter-responses, mainly indigenous and mestizo istemeño’s communities envisioned the project as a further state/foreign attempt of domination that endangers terrestrial environment, indigenous land sovereignty, and maritime floras and faunas. In between the park’s promoters and opponents, local caciques (forms of local bosses) also tried to manipulate corporate representatives and companies’ actors in the attempt to benefit from the wind park.
While one part of Howe’s volume brings forth the tensions among the variegated socio-political factions involved in the Mareña Renovable wind park, the book’s Chapters 1, 3, and 5 shed light on the many connections between humans and more-than-human beings/things around the project. These more-than-human elements and things include wind, trucks, and other non-human creatures (such as, Tehuantepec’s diverse biosphere, especially jackrabbits, bats, and sea turtles). While Howe properly emphasizes the divergent ways indigenous and non-indigenous people devise wind, she considers trucks as technological indicator machines and transitional objects as well as tangible expressions of the diverging relationships between ‘petromodernity’ and alternative environmentally viable futures. Among other “tribes of living” (p. 139), the author points out how various species of non-human animals have been perceived, conceived, and categorized as ‘at risk of extinction’ through various symbolic devices such as taxonomic practices, indicators, and conservation levels.
In sum, Howe’s analysis demonstrates the limited political imagination and human perception of more-than-human beings and their ecological entanglements. Therefore, her focus indicates that human taxonomies of the environment were mainly guided by processes of land control as well as energy extraction and exploitation. The failure of the Mareña Renovable wind park epitomizes the ambivalent ways of human extractive aims to gain ‘green’ energy and how such proposals conflict and/or comply with the co-existence of more-than-human beings, various environmental reasons, indigenous ideas, and the presence of numerous techno-objects and natural forces such as the wind. Nonetheless, Howe’s analysis ultimately accounts for the energetic aims not only of various human actors, but also of multifaceted types of more-than-human beings and artificial artifacts.
Power of Politics, Politics of Power
As a complementary analysis of Howe’s exploration, Energopolitics by Dominic Boyer investigates the case of wind power in Mexico from the perspective of capital, biopower, and energopower. Building on his own concept of ‘energopower’, which he defines as “a genealogy of modern power that rethink political power through the twin analytics of electricity and fuel” (Boyer 2014: 325), Boyer outlines how electricity and diverse forms of energy enact and allow specific political possibilities of modern life and death, as well as their ways of knowing and being.
Energopolitics consists of five empirical chapters which examine measures of state sovereignty within Mexican federalism, clientelist networks, and corporatist connections around wind energy in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, other key sites in the Oaxaca region and Mexico City. In order to show the political terroir of wind development, Boyer outlines the central role played by various political actors at local, regional, and national level in the decisional process about the renewable energy resource. Two ethnographic case studies exemplify the main topics of the book. In Chapter 1, the attempt to implement a community-owned wind park in Yansa-Ixtepec constitutes an instance of the multiple intertwinements between energopolitical authorities and the vast bureaucracy produced by parastatal electricity monopoly. Additionally, this ethnographic instance highlights the enduring vitality of colonial clientelist legacy of agrarian power and the presence of neoliberal political ideologies. The second case exposed in Chapter 2 displays the two wind farms in La Ventosa and La Venta. Officially portrayed as successful stories of public-private-partnerships for wind development and local economic improvement, these two entrepreneurial attempts reveal various hidden issues connected to the conflicting late capitalist logic of profit, with the national aim to protect the Oaxacan environment.
In order to show the relevance of his theoretical framework, Boyer’s analysis uncovers wind politics in the regional capital of Oaxaca (Chapter 3) and the national capital of Mexico City (Chapter 4). Here, Energopolitics insightfully brings to the fore the performative sovereignty exercised by the Mexican federal and national government in mediating with energy companies, private stakeholders, party politics, administrative competences and Isthmus communities. The ethnographic materials collected in the book also portray media and public strategies set by the central and regional political authorities to discredit malcontents and protests organized by indigenous people. Portrayed as ‘ungovernable’, indigenous communities are represented as unequal and incapable interlocutors. Therefore, Energopolitics remarks on discourses and practices by those actors in government, industry, and finance in Oaxaca de Juaréz and the Distrito Federalwho believe in the socio-economic advantages of wind power for the regional communities and the Mexican population at large. Besides this idyllic image, however, the reader comes to terms with the turbulent contradictions among energy, infrastructure, finance, and the Mexican state.
In Chapter 5, all these tensions, frictions, and alliances among biopower measures, energopower, and capital ultimately materialize in Juchitán de Zaragoza. In that locality, public struggles of indigenous Zapotec communities against private companies and governmental actors involved in the istemeño’s wind project constitute the main ethnographic event. While proponents of wind power highlight the economic self-sufficiency and growth brought by the use of the wind power, opponents lament land expropriation and livelihood precarity due to development of the renewable energy resource. Protests against wind development in the Isthmus also reveal internal contrasts between the two citizenry factions of red politics (i.e., a political group representing urban elites, landowners, the commercial classes) and green politics (i.e., composed of campesino/as, fisherfolk and migrants).
From Boyer’s rich ethnographic account emerges the multiple and complex socio-political layers through which energopolitical power and political management of bio-energetic sources materialize into people’s life and influence their manifold interactions with various forms of energy, capital and power.
Energy Investigations, Political Outcomes
The volume Ethnographies of Power: A Political Anthropology of Energy provides a profound and nuanced investigation of the entanglements between political power, social struggles, practices of energy statecraft, public and private economic interests, and the various energy materialities.
Divided into six chapters plus an afterword, the volume unpacks the multiple arrangements of techno-material infrastructures, institutions, discourses, and citizenship practices around which specific and temporal energopolitical regimes are sustained and reinforced. As noted by the three editors in the introduction, an objective of the book is to chronicle how energy articulates into the life trajectories and socio-economic dynamics of human subjects in their daily lives. Critical analysis of political identities, practices of belonging, collective emotions, and senses of future becoming expose the ways to “overcome epistemological barriers to thinking politically about energy” (p. 3). Access to or exclusion from the enjoyment of governmental and human rights represent further expressions of the everyday life of energy issues. In the book’s afterword, Leo Coleman outlines that the volume’s ethnographic accounts expand on Boyer’s notions of energopower/energopolitics in order to include “the work of the population” (p. 187). Forms of resistance and protests against political management of biotic and energetic existences of national energy represent the people’s political power. The citizen struggles analyzed in the volume’s ethnographic contributions manifest closure and securitization of national energy resources in the face of a world envisioned as globalized.
Examining issues and power manifestations around a nuclear power plant under construction in the South Indian peninsula, Raminder Kaur’s Chapter 1 adds depth to Boyer’s concept of energopower and explores the post-colonial necro-political displays around Indian nuclear-electrical power. Through the concepts of “raw politics of energy” and “necro-energopower” (pp. 28-29), the author points out that the brutal materialities of displacements, oppression, and health threats depend on the energy projects and political power set by the Indian state. In Chapter 2, Chris Hebdon explores the political ecologies of energy transition policies and living people’s experiences in the Oriente, a historically marginalized area in the Ecuadorian Amazon rainforest subjected to intra-colonialism and affected by recurring discourses on the remoteness of the local indigenous population. Chapter 3 by Austin Lord and Matthäus Rest illustrates state rhetoric around hydropower development and practices of “securing future volumes” (p. 86) in Nepal. As the authors note, such narrative regimes are usually built on two main discursive practices: the immense developmental possibilities offered by the country’s natural water resources and the longstanding failure to bring this project to fruition.
Following the themes elucidated in the first three chapters, Aleksandra Lis in Chapter 4 presents a broad and deep reflection of the political frictions and alliances around dioxide reduction infrastructures in Poland after its entrance in the European Union. Her study points out that projects such as the carbon capture and storage (CCS) and the creation of the electromobility, while epitomizing the country’s ‘Green Revolution’, sustain state narratives of political conservatism and national economic autonomy. In line with analyses of internal colonialism previously exposed in Hebdon and Kaur’s works, Chapter 5 by Elisabeth Molenaar describes the energy controversies around practices of natural gas extraction in the economically depressed Dutch region of Groningen as well as widespread local claims about the region being a “resource colony” (p. 144).
While the French state struggles with meeting European energy goals to reduce global warming and relies on nuclear power for electricity production, individual energy choices reveal how the return to wood is conceived of as a significant source of domestic energy and generates various forms of parallel economies. Such conclusions are drawn by Nathalie Ortar’s ethnographic study in Chapter 6. In her analysis, the author describes the use of wood as an alternative energy resource to the state-sponsored traditional energy (nuclear) sources and a symbolic form of resistance enacted by her research participants.
Building on previous anthropological studies of energy, the three volumes under review offer novel themes and questions within the field of ‘Energy Humanities’. They examine the multiple practices and complex articulations around extractive forms of non-carbon renewable energy resources for the production of electrical power and the political implementation of energy transition. Other relevant themes variously touched upon in these works are connected to, on the one hand, the role played by more-than-human beings/things in the process of energy production and extraction, and, on the other hand, the (human) politics involved in the imaginative formation of ecological complexities and socio-economic connections. Such multiple intertwinements reveal new landscapes of energy consumption and extractive issues today. In more general terms, the three books interrogate the multiple relationships between nature and human beings. While Howe remarks on the importance of including more-than-human subjects into the examination of the Anthropocene, Boyer explores political questions that frame human-environment connections. On a similar level, the chapters of the volume edited byLoloum, Abram and Ortar enrich these questions by exposing the human conflicts and contestations about the future of the environment and the politics of energy transitions.
Furthermore, the three books contribute to a more comprehensive and ethnographically rich anthropological investigation of the everyday life of various forms of energy use and extractive practices around renewable and alternative sources of energy: from nuclear and natural gas to wind power and wood. Each book tackles a particular geographical area in both the Global North and South and considers specific types of energy transitions. Together these essays allow readers to reflect on and engage with the numerous and diverging social, economic, political, and cultural complexities around renewable energy development, use, production, and consequent extraction. More importantly, these essays invite the readers to understand anthropology’s potentialities in crafting a critical analysis of such intricate realities and processes.
Suggested for both graduate and post-graduate students, as well as scholars in, or wishing to approach, the field of energy anthropology, Anthropocene and climate change, these studies bring forth first-hand ethnographic information, data and materials. In the pages of these books, readers can gain insights into multiple repertoires, frictions and discrepancies that comprise compelling energy politics, power intertwinements and socio-economic inequalities. In fact, these essays indicate how conjointly these aspects produce affective interconnections, sentiments of resistance as well as cultural and political resilience/resistance in people and more-than-human entities. Although these various actors participate indirectly or directly in such extractive activities, they do not hold profit from such energy practices. They are in fact excluded from these networks of relations, and/or oppose the bottom-up political management and ‘economization’ of shared non-human beings and power resources. In summary, the three volumes chronicle the multiple ways human and more-than-human subjects hamper the univocal focus on energy and otherwise impel us to explore its pluriverse nature.
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