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Tilting at Windmills: Part II

Can industrialized countries move away from fossil fuels?


This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from Inkstick Media and The World. Subscribe here.

We have arrived in the 21st century propelled by an explosion of power and productivity. The defining resource of the 19th century was coal and the defining resource of the 20th century was oil. The big question for the 21st century is if it will be possible for the whole of the world, but especially the industrialized and massively energy consuming countries, to move away from fossil fuels. Development of new, alternative, and renewable or long-lasting energy resources, instead, will come with their own politics, and those material changes could drive constitutional changes, depending on how they are managed and resolved.

In “Climate Change, Energy Transition, and Constitutional Identity,” J.S. Maloy offers an approach for thinking how a change in energy production and consumption might lead to changes in the relative autocracy or democracy of governments. To build this theoretical framework, Maloy leans on two different notions of energy relationships to government, the “oil curse” and “carbon democracy,” both theories that hinge greatly on not just the type of resource extracted, but how that resource is managed.

The big question for the 21st century is if it will be possible for the whole of the world, but especially the industrialized and massively energy consuming countries, to move away from fossil fuels.

“Carbon Democracy” is a term that comes from Timothy Mitchell, and it describes how the relationship between bulky, labor-intensive fossil fuel extraction in the 19th century can be seen in the ability of workers to secure demands.

“The key mechanism linking coal and democracy was industrial sabotage,” writes Maloy. “Organized groups of miners, railworkers, and dockworkers — small in numbers but strategically placed in networks for producing and distributing coal — possessed means of shutting down the urban economies of countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France by cutting off their chief source of energy. Wealthy industrialists and their political defenders therefore felt compelled to make concessions to organized labor as the price of keeping coal-fired economies in continuous operation.”

Oil (and by this Maloy notes petroleum and natural gas are often grouped under the same term) instead is geographically concentrated, and requires engineers more than laborers. That reliance on technical expertise, as well as the ability to ship it by pipelines instead of driven vehicles, makes it easier for states to control and hold onto, especially through national oil companies.

“The political question is about authority and control over the operations of an energy regime, however spatially centralized or decentralized,” writes Maloy. “It suggests that different sources of energy vary in their ability to be used by different parties in political competition. What counts is not the concentration of the energy source as much as its social and technical embeddedness in larger processes of production, distribution, and use.”

By looking at how governments have managed extractive power resources with different degrees of deference to workers, this approach offers insight into how factors around renewable resource development might change the political composition of the states in which they take plane.

“The logic of leverage forces us to ask how far the organized masses have the practical wherewithal to interrupt the production of wind turbines and solar cells, of the new generation of ‘modular’ nuclear reactors, or of the transmission of electricity on the grid,” writes Maloy.

Kelsey D. Atherton


Kelsey D. Atherton is a defense technology journalist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the author of Inkstick's weekly newsletter, Critical State. His reporting has appeared in Popular Science, C4ISRNET, and The New York Times.


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