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Byron Shire
May 18, 2024

Is there an alternative to exploitation to sustain us in our luxury?

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Child labour is widespread in the production of cars and electronics. Photo www.somo.nl.

It is interesting to note how the energy transition and decarbonisation plans have been gaining prominence in the media for some time now. We can see it on the front pages of newspapers, in political debates, in governments’ strategic energy transition plans and in companies’ apparent climate commitments.

We would think that after last year’s IPCC report warning that the world is on track to exceed 2°C by 2100 owing to inaction and lack of global commitment, awareness of the terrible crisis in which we are immersed, and the obligation to do something about it, we would have been awakened.

But the reality of the continued mediatisation of the concepts of energy transition and renewables, far from being an honest commitment to fight the climate crisis, is a reflection of the desperate search for new sources of profitability and the stabilisation of the economic growth of a system that is beginning to see its energy and material base begin to decay.

It is not a moral gesture of the system towards the planet to meet the Paris goals of limiting the temperature to 1.5 degrees; it is a transition forced by the depletion of the profitability provided by fossil fuels.

Fossil feast

With the peak production of most non-renewable fuels now over, fossil capitalism heavily dependent on a continuous flow of energy is seeing the exit of major supply-side players (whether for reasons of war or declining production) shaking up a global system in need of price stability. ‘The era of abundance is over,’ said French President Macron.

Now that the fossil feast is coming to an end, renewable energies are reappearing to, in a very simple equation for the system, replace polluting energy with ‘clean energy’, in ambitious decarbonisation plans with various phases and an end date of 2050.

There is a widely understood idea in the environmental movement, which is the question of limits. For us, it is a concept that helps us understand that possibilities do not always lie in the ability of human beings to develop a technology or perfect a system, but that outside our control there are elements that limit our ability to act. 

The laws of entropy described by Georgescu-Roegen, for example, help us to understand the limits set by thermodynamics in terms of energy and materials, and ecological economics helps us to understand that we cannot grow unlimitedly with finite resources.

Equity of energy

With this idea of limits that neoliberal economic orthodoxy omits, we carefully analyse the real possibilities of developing an energy transition, understanding the metabolism of our system. And the intended transition faces serious risks of not being able to cover the over-demand for energy in our society. 

The limitations of renewable systems, the scarcity of critical materials, and the current high price of energy make it difficult to replace the fossil energy matrix with a renewable one, and above all, calls into question whether the transition can be global and fair.

For the system, for the economic actors involved, the only thing that matters in this transition is whether it offers profit margins. And the overall picture shows that profit margins can be reduced by those limitations that diminish the possibility of finding pockets of profitability in an industry with so many uncertainties.

Faced with this situation, the market will look for solutions to boost the development of these technologies and will find ways to reduce costs to make the product attractive and viable.

Therefore, news such as the one published by The Guardian recently warning of the use of slave labour, child labour, prison inmates, and illegal immigrants in the production chains of the renewable industry gives us clues as to how companies are coping with the rising cost of materials and energy.

Such practices are not new; they happen with every major industry because it is capitalism’s way of reproducing itself, through the exploitation of labour and natural resources. But it is undoubtedly very important to recognise the new dynamic that is being reproduced in this transition that will only be possible for a few at the expense, once again, of the most impoverished social majority and the plundering of the resources of the least developed countries.

From the Republic of Congo for its cobalt mines to Bolivia for its lithium, our energy transition will be based on a voracious neo-colonialism to sustain the consumerist delusions of capitalist society.

It is our duty to demand that this transition is not just based on imperialism and exploitation. Conflicts over strategic minerals will multiply and threaten to displace communities, undermine the sovereignty of countries, and deepen the gap of growing inequality. We need to decide where our ethical boundaries lie. No transition is possible for all without energy degrowth.

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  1. Those who invest in the fossils, also invest in renewables. Once you have bought up the panels and windmills, and figure out that doesn’t work, you will run back to their fossils which will suddenly be much more expensive. They win on the boom and the bust. That’s why these protest groups keep getting caught with funding from fossil investors.

  2. Alejandro, nicely written.
    Australia need not point to overseas about labour exploitations.
    We do it all so well here at home in our own way, with all the revelations in recent times of businesses ripping off their employees – take a bow Woolworths leading that charge, ripping off employees to the tune of over $500millions!


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