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Rethinking Energy Politics

Fracking, Coal, and the Question of Social Reproduction

by MATTHEW T. HUBER

I live in fractivist country. While there are vibrant pockets of fractivism essentially anywhere hydraulic fracturing occurs – from New Mexico to Pennsylvania – New York State fractivists have the esteemed honor of actually preventing (at least, thus far) the expansion of fracking in New York State. I’ve lived here since 2009 and each winter the drumbeat of ’drilling will commence in spring‘ appears inevitable, until it doesn’t. Summer after summer (and the summer of 2013 will be no different), NY state is spared the fate of many communities directly to the south in Pennsylvania who have had their water poisoned, infrastructure smashed, and countryside industrialized. The struggle continues. New York fractivists will not rest easy until the current ‘moratorium’ is transformed into an outright and permanent ‘ban’ on fracking in NY. Given the low price of gas at the moment, gas producers would likely shirk much investment in NY anyway. But, if export markets for fracked gas open up as the industry hopes, and the price increases, NY could be the next frontier of the shale gas ‘revolution’. With that in mind, some municipalities – like Dryden, NY – have attempted to ban fracking at the local level. Mora County, New Mexico has just recently illustrated the power of local government to create conditions, “where it is a crime to be an oil company.”

I know an easy way to make my NY fractivist friends uncomfortable. I mention that the massive boom in shale gas has essentially hastened a dramatic decline in coal use for electricity – and thus, a decline in coal mining and production. Many new coal-fired electric plants can easily be switched to gas, and, as gas prices have declined, they have. Since 2006 U.S. coal production has declinedsome 13 percent. The percentage of electricity derived from coal has declined from nearly 50 percent as recently as 2008, to 37 percent in 2012. Forecasts predict this will not last (coal is expected to rise again in the mix), but there is clearly a palatable crisis in coal country that can be directly attributed to the expansion of shale gas production. In November 2012, Patriot Coal effectively ended their Mountaintop Removal Mining Operations. This is partly because of massive organized resistance against this practice, but it is also because cheap shale gas is overrunning coal’s most important source of demand in electric power.

So, more exploding faucets in Dimock, PA, earthquakes in eastern Ohio, contaminated water in Wyoming, has led to less mountaintop removal coal mining; less Appalachian landscape destruction;fewer valleys filled in with toxic waste rock and chemicals. Although some disagree, it also probably means less Greenhouse gas emissions, as has been reported. How do we make sense of this? The knee-jerk reaction is to proclaim fracking is “good.” There are certainly arguments to be made that the extractive process is much worse and destructive for mountaintop removal coal mining when compared to fracking. Yet, those who have experienced the often horrific local consequences of fracking would surely protest such a conclusion. Others would argue that it is a false ‘choice’ to have to choose which form of dirty fossil fuel extraction will destroy whose ‘commons’– fresh air, water, and even the atmosphere/climate.  NY fractivists hope it is not their commons in the beautiful Southern Tier region of upstate NY – but, does the prevention of NY fracking create more tragic consequences for ‘other’ people’s commons?

Even if it is often extremely difficult, the most obvious politics is to reject the local destruction of the commons. The logic is compelling and powerful. In Mora County – the jurisdiction that recently banned fracking – local activists have situated the protection of their local water and land at the center of their opposition. As one local resident told The Washington Post, “To me, the fresh air and the land, and water. It’s better than money.” Hard to argue with that. Yet, it fails to confront that we live in a capitalist world where life is only reproduced through money.

While most fractivism (in fact, most environmental activism) is positioned as a “defense” of precious local landscapes and resources, the more difficult politics is to confront the underlying questions presented by the shift from coal to gas. We live in a society and economy utterly dependent upon high levels of energy consumption. The energy must come from somewhere. The extraction of energy almost always has negative effects (e.g. even the solar photovoltaic industry can leave a toxic legacy for workers and landscapes). We need to go beyond just rejecting Huber_Coverextraction because of its negative local effects of land dispossession, poison and violence. We need to ask broader questions about energy and the social reproduction of life itself. How can we balance the destructive aspects of energy extraction with the necessity of energy (and electricity) for everyday life? I would suggest that it is alienation under capitalism which allows us to see these two moments – extraction and the use of energy in everyday life – as separate and disconnected. I would argue that an anti-capitalist energy politics needs to promote connections between these two domains.

Drawing from feminist and Marxist theory, scholar-activists like Silvia Federici and Cindi Katz have shown the analytical and political importance of focusing on everyday practices of “social reproduction” – that is, the actual material and cultural “work” it takes to reproduce lived existence (e.g., household work, cooking, child and medical care). The key is to understand how capitalist social relations set the conditions and constraints on how everyday life is reproduced.  Under capitalism – and specifically the social relations of wage labor – we are alienated from the means of social reproduction. Firstly, insofar as ‘production’ is a realm controlled by private industry for profit, we are alienated from the productive process that underlies the things we need in order to live – including the decisions and control over all forms of energy production which is oriented toward profit above all else. Secondly, the nature of the wage relation – money in exchange for our labor capacities – ensures that we are alienated from the means of social reproduction – commodities. Although some aspects of social reproduction remain partially uncommodified (love, sleep, household work –there are exceptions to all of these!), we mostly access food, energy, and shelter through the commodity form. This is alienating because we access these goods in a marketplace saturated only with price signals attached to goods – hiding the social and ecological conditions of their production (this is also what Marx called “commodity fetishism”). Thus, living in a capitalist society makes accessing commodities produced under exploitative conditions (like fracked gas or coal) a matter of necessity and survival. Yet, this also means it is much harder to create a politics around social reproduction. Alienation means the real conditions of our social reproduction is hidden from us, and, it is harder to rally people to organize around things which they ‘need’ in life. On the other hand, it also makes the world of local nature around us – threatened by various forms of extraction –  seem more ‘real’ and distant from the world of ‘money’ – even as we use  money on a daily basis to consume commodities premised on the destruction of ‘other’ natures.

Confronting social reproduction under capitalism means we have to ask thorny questions about the displacement of coal from the electricity mix. Obviously, one of the critical aspects of social reproduction is energy. From firewood in developing world contexts, or heat, electricity and motor fuel in the United States, energy literally fuels the processes of everyday life.  It is natural for us to understand we need energy to reproduce our lives, but the world of how that energy is produced is alienated from us by gasoline prices and utility bills that only appear ‘exploitative’ when prices rise. Lately we might have noticed the bills we pay for electricity – a vital component to social reproduction – have declined, but what we did not see is that decline in price might have something to do with the shift from coal to shale gas in the electricity mix. Thus, many of us have no idea if our electricity comes from a coal-fired plant, a nuclear power station, or a wind farm. Alienation means we don’t have to know. What we do know – what we can see – is that the destruction of the local commons (air, water, infrastructure) by multinational fossil fuel companies really sucks. It is easy to conclude that the beauty and importance of these landscapes is, “better than money.” But, meanwhile our lives are reproduced through high levels of energy use paid for by money. As we send off online petitions with electric powered laptops/smart phones; as we travel to rallies in oil powered hybrid cars; as we wear clothes produced in buildings bound for collapse in Bangladesh (all purchased with money!), the opposition – not only the companies, but also the landowners and rural people (among others) who support energy extraction – easily caricature such activism as hypocritical. The opposition can always say: society needs energy and we will provide it at reasonable prices. As long as our energy politics is wholly focused on the destructive forms of extraction (From the tar sands to Dimock, PA), and not on some alternative form of energy provision, this politics will not only be easily marginalized as scattered, fragmented, and localistic, but also mocked as just another form of NIMBYism.

Overcoming capitalist alienation requires organizing a decidedly anti-capitalist politics that rejects capitalist forms of dispossession and recognizes the need to propose alternative forms of social reproduction. This politics must not only be about capitalism’s dispossession of that which is ‘outside’ capitalism – clean air, rivers and forests  – but also, how the internal relations of capitalism structure and constrain our lives in the abstract world of money and commodities. It means we need to agitate and organize for completely different social relations around how energy is produced (in fact how all production unfolds). Private, for-profit energy production (guided by money and shareholder value) is taking the planet to the brink, and it is clear that we require a more collective and democratic approach to energy provision. This collective and democratic approach would only be born out of struggle and its outcome highly uncertain. One would hope the struggle would result in overcoming the false choice between coal and gas and move toward clean and renewable energy sources (what David Schwartzmann calls “solar communism”). What is clear is we cannot leave it up to the venture ‘green capitalists’ (even if their hearts and technologies are in the right place) to develop a clean, green economy. Green capitalism means green alienation. Rather than leaving it to the market, we need to assert conscious and collective control over our energy future.

Matthew T. Huber is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Syracuse University. His forthcoming book is entitled, Lifeblood: Oil, Freedom and the Forces of Capital (University of Minnesota Press, August 2013).

This essay first appeared in La Jicarita: An Online Magazine of Environmental Politics