Roads to an energy commons

Within the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, the commodification of vitality reached its peak, within the period of so referred to as globalisation, the supremacy of economic capital, and the privatisation drive of the Nineteen Nineties that’s significantly related to electrical energy provision.

However, the resistance to the logic of this commodification additionally grew.

First, there was organised resistance to the way in which that the costs of vitality merchandise had been pushed up within the international south, by governments whose financial insurance policies had been typically carefully managed by worldwide monetary establishments.

Second, a broader resistance by city populations, significantly within the newly-urbanising components of the worldwide south, to the concept that electrical energy or gasoline is a commodity. There have been huge social struggles by communities who see electrical energy without any consideration.


These struggles are normally waged by folks residing on the perimeters of the commodified vitality system. They may sometimes use a small quantity of electrical energy for heating, lighting and charging telephones, and wooden gasoline for cooking.

A lot of this vitality just isn’t purchased and bought in any respect. And there are tons of of thousands and thousands extra folks, largely within the countryside within the international south, who stay utterly outdoors the commodified system.

That system is a central and {powerful} manifestation of capitalist social relations, however it’s not ubiquitous, not a monolith and never omnipotent. It may be challenged.  

Seeking to the long run, the concept of decommodification is related, first, to altering the technological, social and financial methods via which vitality is consumed; second, to altering electrical energy methods particularly; and, third, to political platforms that social and labour actions are figuring out that mix tackling local weather change with our aspirations to social justice.

First, with regard to the technological, social and financial methods that eat fossil fuels: social and labour actions ought to focus extra constantly on vitality conservation as a key to altering these methods.


And to do that means breaking via the analytical frameworks during which vitality as seen as a commodity.

There are 4 overlapping methods during which the quantity of fossil-fuelled vitality going via technological methods could be decreased:

1. lowering the quantity of vitality companies offered – e.g. by not making pointless work-related journeys, not making and utilizing army jets.

2. lowering the quantity of ultimate vitality wanted to offer vitality companies – e.g. by insulating buildings to cut back warmth demand, or substituting SUVs with bicycles.

3. lowering conversion losses in technological methods – e.g. by reorganising electrical energy networks, lowering waste in business, and so on.

4. changing methods depending on fossil fuels with methods powered by renewable sources.


In public dialogue of decarbonisation, the primary three of those are nearly at all times bundled collectively beneath the label “demand discount”.

“Power companies”, an idea devised within the Seventies to make vitality flows via the system extra clear, has been given a brand new that means inflected by economics.

Power is known to be a commodity. Some politicians argue that “the economic system” wants a set quantity of this commodity, and methods should be discovered to offer it with out fossil fuels; some others argue that extra consideration needs to be paid to lowering demand for this commodity.

However neither of those viewpoints questions the character of the technological methods by and thru which vitality is consumed, nor the social and financial methods that underpin them.

For instance, city transport. Politicians discuss changing fossil fuelled vehicles by electrical vehicles, and about “demand discount” by convincing folks to drive much less.


Such approaches go away the methods unquestioned – the technological methods during which vehicles are the predominant mode of transport, financial methods during which automobile producers and oil firms are so {powerful}, and political methods that reinforce these energy relations.

As soon as large-scale manufacturing and use of vitality commodities is seen as a operate of those methods, somewhat than as a response to “demand”, methods to supercede these methods could be extra successfully labored out.

Second, with regard to electrical energy methods particularly, the technical potential for vitality conservation can solely be realised if social and financial adjustments are additionally made.

Essentially the most superior applied sciences may, within the context of decommodification, take vitality conservation ahead by leaps and bounds.

Within the coming years, it is vitally very possible that (i) electrical energy will turn into much more dominant in technological methods, (ii) it would more and more be produced from renewables, and (iii) methods will technologically turn into extra decentralised – extra smaller sources of electrical energy.


Electrical energy networks will probably be tailored to renewably-generated provide; there will probably be extra microgrids; electrical energy networks will probably be built-in with different networks.

These adjustments will happen whether or not or not social and financial methods change. Electrical energy firms are conscious of this, and in some instances are investing large sums of cash into managing these adjustments and discovering methods to make them worthwhile.

Might society, versus governments and firms, use this expertise to its benefit, to produce vitality companies that allow folks to reside higher, and to cut back the consumption of fossil fuels?

In precept, sure. Breaking with the concept of electrical energy as a commodity to be purchased and bought is central to doing so.

Might microgrids, mixed with the newest data and communication expertise, present the premise for extra far-reaching decommodification?


Sure, they may, say electrical engineers and ICT specialists who see the potential for an “electrical energy commons”. Others have written concerning the potential for an web “commons” free from company management.

A central query, raised by this literature however not answered by it, is how we envisage the transition from the present state of affairs, during which each electrical energy networks and the web are nearly utterly enclosed beneath company management, to any such future state of affairs.

Third, an understanding of decommodification is essential for the political platforms and calls for that social and labour actions undertake.

As issues stand, most variations of the Inexperienced New Deal try to reconcile decarbonisation with “financial progress”.

Social democratic political motion, reminiscent of envisaged by the Inexperienced New Deal, is constrained by the relationships of wealth and energy inherent in capitalism.


Social actions at native and group degree, somewhat than nationwide degree, additionally come up towards these constraints.

In these actions the concept of an “vitality commons”, which implicitly stands in opposition to commodification, is being mentioned. A few of these discussions have centered on how society, communities can act “in, via and past the state”.

Decommodification of vitality implies social relations during which people take sources of vitality from the pure world, and use them, freed from commodified types of change.

In such a state of affairs, the present technological methods based mostly on fossil fuels, and the social and financial methods during which they’re embedded, must be reworked.

Whereas these relationships could be prefigured at group degree, such initiatives will at all times be constrained by the bigger, extra {powerful} commodified vitality system that overshadows them.

This doesn’t imply that co-operative, native or municipal makes an attempt to carve out areas for “vitality commons” needs to be deserted.

However we have to be conscious that not solely the state, but in addition the commodity kind and the ability relations inherent within the capitalist economic system, are obstacles that we now have to confront.

This Writer

Dr Simon Pirani is an vitality researcher and historian. His most up-to-date e-book is Burning Up: A World Historical past of Fossil Gas Consumption (Pluto 2018). He blogs at People and Nature – the place this article first appeared – and tweets as @SimonPirani1.

The total paper, How energy was commodified, and how it could be decommodified, is available online here. It may be downloaded as a pdf here.

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