Energy is complicit in racial and economic inequality, here in the US and around the world. That reality should motivate us to make social justice an integral part of the energy revolution.
Energy has made the world prosperous. Energy powers the global economy. Energy makes possible the comfortable lives that most of live: fueling our commutes and our trips to the mall, heating and cooling our houses, charging our phones and our computers.
Precisely because energy is a critical infrastructure, however, it has all too often up to this point in history also been seen as too-big-to-fail and therefore overlooked forms of inequality and injustice enmeshed in the massive technological systems required to produce, transport, and consume energy around the globe on the scales required by today’s societies and economies.
The result is that, alongside the recognition that carbon emissions from the world’s energy systems are now helping to drive the Earth’s climate system into dangerous new territory, the energy sector also faces a portfolio of challenges grounded in social and economic inequality, political corruption, environmental and health injustice, sacrifice zones, and the exacerbation of extreme poverty.
At the Center for Energy and Society, we are committed to working with the energy sector and energy governance institutions to ensure that the coming energy revolution is not only clean but also just.
Consider, for example, our work to end the energy-poverty nexus. Over the course of his time as a student and a postdoc at ASU, Saurabh Biswas has focused his theoretical work on understanding how the energy-poverty nexus works and what we can do to create solutions to it. The concept of the energy-poverty nexus captures the reality that, at the lowest rungs of the economic ladder in many societies, energy insecurity acts through multiple pathways to exacerbate poverty–and poverty, in turn, through multiple pathways, exacerbates energy insecurity. The result is a complex network of negative feedback loops that can systematically perpetuate impoverishment and undermine the capacities of communities to secure wellbeing and thriving.
The challenge is to reconfigure the design of energy systems and, at the same time, the capacities of people to orchestrate energy systems and use energy, in ways that cut through the Gordian knot of the energy-poverty nexus, disrupt it, and replace it with positive feedback loops that, over time, are generative of community wellbeing and thriving. This challenge is not simple, but we believe it can be done. It will require, however, that we fully recognize that energy systems are not just power plants and fuels and wires but also ownership rules, revenue streams, workforces, generators of risk, and much, much more. Redesign of these facets of energy systems will be just as critical as redesign of their technical components.
You can read more in our report, Poverty Eradication through Energy Innovation, and in Saurabh Biswas’s fascinating dissertation: Creating Social Value of Energy at the Grassroots: Investigating the Energy-Poverty Nexus and Co-Producing Solutions for Energy Thriving.
Photo by Saurabh Biswas, taken in the Philippines.
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