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date: 14 April 2021

(p. 401) Energy (Re)takes Center Stage in Politics

Abstract and Keywords

The chapter presents a number of energy-focused campaigns organized by activists in developed and developing countries. After contrasting reactive campaigns that oppose various energy projects with proactive campaigns that support renewable energy, the chapter discusses the ways in which governments and energy companies have responded to these campaigns. The main argument is that we are witnessing the beginning of an energy-focused global movement, which has organized large protests and demonstrations to attract mass media attention and influence public opinion. This movement has also triggered a backlash from the fossil fuel countermovement. The conclusion of the chapter explores current and future trends in energy production around the world.

Emphasis in this section will be on the growing rise to prominence of energy issues in social movements activity, which has emerged in several guises. Once outside of the limelight of civil society, energy has increasingly become the subject of attention by a diverse spread of social movement organizations. As Delicado has described in Chapter 18, local peoples have special interest in energy development that takes place near their homes. In some cases, these interests coalesce into mobilized opposition. Local opposition to risky development is not new, but the growth in number, and successes, of those efforts directed specifically toward energy development is noteworthy.

Ion Bogdan Vasi offers an overview of the growth and coalescence of this movement activity in Chapter 21. He notes in particular that movements originally confined to local opposition to existing and proposed new energy infrastructure and facilities have a tendency to expand in scope. Initially dominated by attention to nuclear energy, (p. 402) fossil fuels have today received the lion’s share of social movement attention, with campaigns critiquing the entire production chain, from extraction (mines) to transport (pipelines) to combustion (electricity plants). Particularly in developing countries, hydro power is subject to increasing criticism and organized opposition. Other forms of renewable energy are not immune to critique either; however, wind and solar have also received extensive social movement support. All this has culminated an increasingly global phenomenon, especially regarding the integration of climate change with energy issues. According to Vasi, this energy-based social movement activity has had an effect on current energy-society relations on par with technological innovations and market forces, perhaps best illustrated by the 2015 Paris Agreement, a political feat unimaginable just a year prior.

The next two chapters look more closely at specific social movement campaigns that have shaken up energy politics, and serve as confirmation of Vasi’s statements on the potential influence of social movement activity. In Chapter 22, Jennifer Dodge traces the development of conflicts over hydraulic fracturing in New York, which culminated in the banning of those practices, despite the touted scale of shale deposits in the region. This conflict, as is the case with so many others, hinged on discourse, particularly divergent depictions of the potential, and risks, associated with the techniques deployed to access unconventional oil and gas reserves. Dodge finds three mutually exclusive “sociotechnical imaginaries” present in the media analysis of this conflict. One imaginary depicts dreams of riches and plenty; another offers nightmares of environmental and health tragedies; and yet a third is situated somewhere in between. The nightmare imaginary ultimately prevailed, and New York’s governor eventually banned fracking from the state. Dodge attributes this outcome to the association of this nightmare imaginary with strong narratives of place attachment that served as a notable departure from the scientific and technical frames that often constitute energy imaginaries. Perhaps unexpectedly, this nightmare imaginary has taken hold in many regions of the world, even within the United States, where progressive dream imaginaries still prevail at the national level.

In Chapter 23, Mark C.J. Stoddart, Jillian Rene Smith, and Paula Graham direct our gaze north of New York, to observe oil politics in Canada, a nation-state that is perhaps even more enmeshed in a “carbon complex” than is the United States, in which oil and gas industries have become a financial mainstay. And yet even here, fossil fuel dependence is becoming problematized, and once again, the expansion of non-conventional oil and gas development activities seems to be a key instigator. One particular set of players has emerged at the forefront, representing a unique position in oil politics. Indigenous peoples in Canada have become formidable opponents of oil and gas development, portraying such development as merely the latest chapter in a long colonial history of expropriation, constituting a fundamental breach of their rights. Alliances among Indigenous and environmental groups have allowed for powerful arguments that integrate treaty rights with environmental justice, and social protest (p. 403) tactics including “Healing Walks.” This alliance is not without friction, however, as each contingent tends to represent different depictions of justice. As with Dodge, Stoddart and his colleagues highlight the means by which divergent visions of place transpire in divergent local positions toward fracking.

We then move from defensive to proactive social movements, in support of renewable energy. In Chapter 24, Cyria Emelianoff compares Germany and Sweden, both of which are well along the path toward a substantial transition to renewable energy. Yet the pathways to transition taken in these two countries are starkly different, highlighting the fact that there is no single transition pathway. While the differences in these cases, however, are often attributed to national actors and laws as well as international events, Emelianoff tells a different story through in-depth interviews with actors in other realms. As with other chapters in this section, her work highlights the relevance of the local level, which “can be the origin of ‘path creation.’ ” In both countries, organized activism in a small handful of cities became instrumental in leading national transitions. (p. 404)