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The Day After: Energy

The third installment in an ongoing series analyzing the perils and possibilities of our collective response to COVID-19


Te Apiti Wind Farm, Manawatu, New Zealand. The wind farm’s 55 1.65 megawatt Vestas turbines have a total capacity of 90 megawatts. They generate enough electricity to meet the annual needs of approximately 45,000 average homes. Photo from Flickr.

The Day After: Energy marks the third installment in an ongoing curated series that asks contributors to imagine the perils and possibilities that will ground our collective response to or emergence from the COVID-19 crisis. The first installment was about animals, and the second was about food.

This series asks Canada’s leading scholars to respond to questions of human-environment relations to consider our post-COVID future: What opportunities make you hopeful and what risks do you see at the human-nature interface? How can we build an ethic of care for socioecological systems?

These scholars of critical environmental studies have dedicated their professional lives to grappling with questions of environmental conflict, governance and justice—here, we have asked them to turn their reflections toward the public. Together, we hope this contributes to a broad and ongoing discussion on how the COVID-19 crisis can produce visions of the future of human-environment relations, for better or worse.

Our third edition, about energy, includes contributions from Caroline Desbiens, Emily Eaton, Dr. Kathryn Nwajiaku, Dr. Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka, Anna Zalik, and Andrew Watson.

Caroline Desbiens is a professor of geography at Université Laval and author of Power from the North: Territory, Identity and the Culture of Hydroelectricity in Quebec.

January, February, March. My class is ticking along, keeping up with the Wet’suwet’en solidarity protests. Students are engaged, learning, present to the land and other ways of “being with.”

COVID-19 comes—we retreat. We separate. We sit in places of our own making: the living room, the small corner carved from the family fray. Latching on to keyboards, fingers grow longer. Eyes cover with scales scanning the screen. Zooming now through class time and meetings, we flip frames, peeking into people’s privacy when boredom leaks in.

All I can think of is the electricity we draw into these COVID zones. But the wire sags: energy consumption in Québec has dropped 40 to 50 percent. The electric car gathers moss in the driveway. Powerhouses quiet their relentless prayer as Hydro-Québec puts its global ambition on hold. On the North Shore, a river takes a breath now that greed is pointing in other directions.

But that river is lonely without her people who are facing confinement. Forced sedentariness has a new name, so Innu artists are again singing Philippe Mckenzie’s Ekuan Pua: “So this is the way it is / Where I always went, today I cannot go.” More than ever, Innus are dreaming of Nitassinan (Innu Land) as all the steps that would have been taken along the old trails circle the backyards and bungalows of Innu Assi (reserve land).

Here in Québec City, I make regular trips to the garden centre. I have taken home two trees, dozens of plants, incalculable seeds. This new world shoots, unfurls, creeps from under my hands and knees. In the back alley, three large cylinders atop a grey pole keep watch over the luminous green. Day in day out, Hydro-Québec’s transformers are chewing through currents of 25,000 volts. Buzzing, they feed bits of low voltage to everything that runs my world during these COVID times. I may try to save yet a little bit more of that precious energy.

What if my newfound garden means that Cree hunter Job’s land, his own “garden”, will surface from the flood, be pulsing with life again? Indigenous rivers and lands miss their people but Joséphine Bacon thinks that they are celebrating our absence: “La Terre célèbre mon absence / De ma fenêtre je cède mon regard / Pour retourner à sa beauté.” The day after confinement ends, we go back to northern river gardens with new understandings and intentions.

Taken at the Amsterdam Women’s March, January 20, 2017. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Emily Eaton is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina whose currently research focuses on the influence of the fossil fuels sector in Saskatchewan.

The day after there will be a transition to a new normal. Economies that were fundamentally extractive, linear, and based on theft will be transformed. We will dislodge the power and interests that profit from the extraction and theft inherent in our pre-COVID carbon economies and rebuild ourselves based on reciprocity: caring for one another, both human and non-human.

This transition will be three-dimensional working towards decolonization, democratization and decarbonization.

Decolonization will not be understood as a metaphor. It will mean, quite literally, returning land, jurisdiction, and environmental decision-making to Indigenous Nations and communities. We will start with ‘crown lands’ and move on to consider how to return private property. We will manage the commons as if our children’s futures mattered.

Democratization will also require redistribution. We will wrestle our economies and our workplaces away from a small elite who are enriching themselves off of our labour and our environments. We will tax and redistribute their wealth, we will strengthen solidarity, cooperative, and socialized economies. We will recognize and value the labour of so many people who had been unpaid and poorly paid (women, undocumented workers, frontline service and care workers, racialized workers, and so on).

Decarbonization will be necessary to rescue a habitable world. Climate change is the next curve we will flatten. Supply chains, kin networks, and production will all become more local. Private sufficiency will be augmented by public luxury: fare-free, accessible public transit and low-carbon public amenities. Fossil fuel production will be phased out in a way that allows workers to stay in their communities and enjoy dignified lives.

The day after, when this transition begins, we will draw on the lessons we learned from caring for one another during the COVID-19 pandemic and we will recognize the need for a transformation in all three dimensions.

Dr. Kathryn Nwajiaku is currently a visiting Research fellow in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Oxford University, where she completed her PhD (Nuffield College) in 2005 on the subject of her forthcoming book Oil Made Man: Identity Politics in Nigeria (Amalion Publishers). Dr Isaac ‘Asume’ Osuoka coordinates Social Action International, an organisation promoting resource democracy and the human rights and livelihoods of marginalised communities in West and Central Africa. Anna Zalik is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University whose research concerns the political economy and ecology of extractive industry.

The relationship between imperial history, the enslavement of black and brown bodies and the extraction of “oil wealth” by (settler) colonial states from the land of Indigenous people is well documented. The police murder of George Floyd has drawn renewed attention this history. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the disproportionate number of people of African descent who have died at its hands, this context has sparked widespread protests against anti-Black racism. Black activists in North America have pointed to divestment as an appropriate response to racist violence, notably the need to defund the police. One prominent African American journalist has even called for divestment from the United States. “Divestment” here is associated with systemic transformation, in the direction of anti-racism.

In the case of climate activism, calls for pension and university divestment from fossil fuels may be read as a liberal strategy to shift funding toward green energy, although divestment campaigns are also tied to more radical politics. Here we shift attention from divestment as climate activism to examine the various ways in which the term is related to contemporary environmental racism.

Globally, the practices of the oil majors in Nigeria’s Delta have been especially notorious in the last thirty years not only due to decades of pollution, but also collusion in murder. In the 1990s this was brought to international attention in the “judicial murder” of Ogoni leader Ken Saro-Wiwa with Shell’s complicity. In recent years Shell has been divesting various assets, notably their onshore holdings in Nigeria, purportedly to avoid social conflict with local communities. Through this practice, Shell off-loads responsibility for decades of accumulated oil pollution to Nigerian firms who take over their operations. The profit structure of oil firms, (and other major industrial sectors) is predicated upon not paying for the damages entailed by their operations, “externalizing” socio-ecological costs. Shell’s “externalization” of costs in Nigeria, and indeed the oil industry’s current activities in the Alberta tar sands, are built atop racism and colonialism.

To their credit, climate justice activists have highlighted the racist and colonial dimensions of carbon emissions. However, hydrocarbon extraction, long prior to its contemporary manifestation in climate change, was built upon racist and colonial violence. As Nick Estes has underlined, it may be easier for some to imagine a post-carbon future than the end of (settler) colonialism. Today, oil majors such as Shell seek, through their divestment of holdings, to evade paying for the damage they have done to Black and Indigenous people in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.

As part of a post-COVID future and at this conjunctural moment, it is time to consider divestment from the oil majors as a whole—and reparations to colonized communities in the Niger Delta and elsewhere—on the basis of their long-standing racist practice.

Industrial pollution accounts for a large proportion of global emissions. Photo from Living-Water UK.

Andrew Watson is an assistant professor in the School of Environment and Sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan whose current research focuses on the history of settler-colonialism and environmental realities of Muskoka, Ontario; the history of coal in Canada; and socioecological transition in agriculture on the Great Plains of the United States.

These closing years of the fossil fuel era will be remembered for their technological optimism. Confronted with the evidence that most people understood anthropogenic climate change, future historians will find it revealing that so many people believed so completely that technology would save them.

Technology has a role to play in the next energy transition away from fossil fuels, and we should take comfort in knowing that the technology needed to decarbonize the global economy exists in 2020.

It is not an option to simply shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and expect to continue using the same amount (or more) energy. Renewable energy cannot replace the scale of fossil fuel energy currently consumed on an annual basis. In 2018, global energy consumption was 157,000 terawatt-hours (TWh). Only 11 percent of that energy came from renewable energy: solar (0.8 percent), wind (0.8 percent), hydropower (2.7 percent), traditional biofuels (7 percent), other renewable energy (0.4 percent). The overwhelming majority of it, 87 percent, came from fossil fuels: oil (34.5 percent), coal (27.9 percent), natural gas (24.5 percent). Nuclear accounts for just 1.7 percent.

Biofuels come with a land cost. More nuclear presents extraordinary risks at the scale required. And hydropower is already close to its global capacity. So the technological panacea are solar and wind, which combined account for 2,540 TWh (1.6 percent) of global energy use. Replacing fossil fuels means producing approximately 5,400 percent more energy from solar and wind.

Even if such an undertaking were politically and economically desirable, we still come up against some important limitations.

Replacing conventional vehicles with electric ones would entail an enormous energy cost, almost all of which would come from fossil fuels. Currently, there are roughly one billion cars globally. Replacing just half would consume nearly 6,658 TWh—equivalent to more than 20 percent of all the energy consumed in North America in 2018.

Switching to solar and wind also requires a dramatic increase in battery storage capacity. Lithium is the most critical material in rechargeable batteries. In 2018, global projected demand for lithium to 2025 was 3,581,000 metric tonnes—approximately 24 percent of current global reserves. We expect solar and wind to replace fossil fuels, but it is unlikely that there is enough lithium to satisfy demand.

So if technology cannot save us from climate catastrophe, where does this leave us? It is not enough to imagine a low-carbon energy future. A dramatic reduction in overall energy consumption is necessary. Renewable energy will help this transition, but a new relationship with energy is far more important than any new technology. When that happens, technological optimism will become a thing of the past.

Jonathan Peyton is an associate professor of geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia.

James Wilt is a master’s student in geography at the University of Manitoba and author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Cars? Public Transit in the Age of Google, Uber, and Elon Musk.


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