As I move towards long-term work supporting Energy Democracy, I’m taking time out to explore the ideas and models that define this world. So far, I’ve asked What is Energy Democracy? and examined one example of an Energy Democracy group that is finding success in Spain. Today, I want to take a look at the philosophy of the Xarxa per la sobirania energètica (Energy Sovereignty Network), a Barcelona-based policy advocacy group that is pushing the theoretical boundaries of this work. Their website only exists in Catalan at this point, but you can access Spanish, Catalan and English versions of their manifesto here (English translation by me, with help from Maia Watkins and Jenna Stanley).
I grew up in the 1990s in America, in a world that held as one of its basic assumptions the link between progressive ideologies and a strong central government. We learned from the earliest years of our schooling about the role of the national government in ending slavery and reinforcing civil rights victories, and conversely, about the success of our freedom-loving leaders in the face of centrally controlled economies.
In Spain, the relationship between ideology and governance is more complicated–and again, it comes down to history. During the nation’s bloody civil war, Franco’s forces wrested control of the country from a democratically-controlled, republican government. In their newly captured territory, they established a government characterized by reactionary Christian values, the reversal of the Republic’s socialist policies, and perhaps above all, strong central control.
Counterbalancing the national capital of Madrid, Barcelona had always been a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Before the war, arsons and demonstrations targeted symbols of the church and the central government, earning the city the nickname “La rosa de fuego” (English: The Rose of Fire). It eventually became the last capital of the Republic, and even after it fell, partisans in the region fought to retain some modicum of local self-determination. Catalonian governments have renewed the push for local control in the years since the country’s return to democracy, and these efforts may soon culminate in an independence referendum.
As mainstream environmental movements begin to acknowledge the inherent linkages between economic, racial and environmental justice, it seems right that Catalonia would be a center for Energy Democracy, unifying principles of social justice and local self-determination to confront challenges in our energy systems. Today, Som Energia, the subject of my last post, and the Energy Sovereignty Network (XSE) have seen their biggest successes in the region.
Tbe XSE offers the following definition of their work:
Soberanía energética: f. El derecho de los individuos conscientes, las comunidades y los pueblos a tomar sus propias decisiones respecto a la generación, distribución y consumo de energía, de manera que estas sean apropiadas a las circunstancias ecológicas, sociales, económicas y culturales, y siempre que no afecten negativamente a terceros.
Energy Sovereignty: n. The right of conscious individuals, communities and peoples to make their own decisions with respect to the generation, distribution and consumption of energy, such as are appropriate to their social, economic, cultural and economic circumstances, and as long as they do no result in negative effects to third parties. (My translation)
They elaborate on the concept in their manifesto, naming five key principles: Democracy, Social Control of the Means of Production, Sustainability, Energy Degrowth, and Decentralization.
In my reading, democracy and social control together form the foundation of Energy Sovereignty and approximate the related concept of Energy Democracy. Decentralization, the principle that stakeholders should have a say in the structure and content of their own energy systems, addresses the not-in-my-backyard attitude that allows powerful corporations and constituencies to push the environmental and health impacts of energy systems onto poorer and less privileged communities (Think the Dakota Access Pipeline’s environmental racism).
I tend to agree with all of these–we can discuss this as a possible over-extension of the concept of human rights, or the form that democratic/social control of our energy systems ought to take, but the principles seem right and fit to the cause. The XSE’s other two principles, sustainability and degrowth, require a little more unpacking.
Degrowth has been a component of some environmental movements’ efforts to shift our dominant culture away from consumer capitalism. I don’t think it makes sense to argue that it is impossible to power an energy-hungry world only on renewable energy, especially given that most plans to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050 accomplish usage reductions primarily through efficiency gains and not lifestyle changes.
Because so much of the world’s dirtiest energy goes to manufacturing, heating and transportation (and is never converted to electricity), reducing energy use by boosting local economies, cleaning up supply chains and reducing overall consumption can be just as important as energy degrowth. That being said, I like that groups are questioning our current growth model, and I agree that these efforts can reduce energy scarcity and generate support for change in our energy systems.
Sustainability fleshes out the idea that energy decisions should not “result in negative effects to third parties.” I’m concerned that this principle could exacerbate the same problems that it attempts to solve. Choices on energy are increasingly clear, as the death toll of climate and air pollution accumulates and the costs of renewable energy and storage fall. But these decisions are not free of harmful consequences, whether they be lost jobs or temporarily increased costs of production. The principle of eliminating harm to third parties, if codified into law, could be leveraged by more powerful and privileged communities to interfere with the sovereignty of groups with less power (See: Standing Rock).
For me, it comes down to this: If we believe that localized, democratic control of energy systems will bring more equity to those systems, then that is what we should strive for. Prescribing objectives for the content and purpose of those systems is a worthy exercise, and understanding and minimizing third-part effects should be part of any energy decision. But these goals can’t be dictated down from above, because that’s what sovereignty entails–placing trust in advocacy, placing trust innovation, and placing trust in the democratic process. The core structure of democracy can’t be partisan, or it cannot stand.
A few final thoughts for this week.
The manifesto can feel like inside baseball, but that’s because it is. This is a local organization, working on the issues that face its own community. That’s the point—that local concerns have been dismissed for too long. The benefits of our energy systems have been shared to a certain extent, but the consequences of these systems are foisted disproportionately on those same communities that haven’t yet gained access to these benefits.
But today, local fights aren’t just local. The Standing Rock Sioux’s resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline was built on a foundation of brave and well-organized direct action, but what set them apart from past campaigns was their ability to leverage the support of like-minded groups across the nation and around the world. Communication and coordination across distance and culture are vital components of advocacy today, multiplying impacts through the spread of ideas and active solidarity.
This work requires specific and powerful storytelling, communication of immediate on-the-ground realities and needs. But as we turn towards broader communities, I think we must also differentiate the local from the universal manifesting locally–not because either is of greater importance, but because this is how an audience connects to a conflict.
Again, this type of communication is not the XSE’s main body of work to date, and they’ve already made inroads with the municipal government. Their work may not require this other dimension. But the potential is there, and I’d like to see this work impact a broader audience.
Thanks to Maia Watkins and Jenna Stanley for help on the XSE manifesto translation.