Guest post: The Emancipatory Potential of Decentralizing Power

Eden Luymes

By Eden Luymes

Power comes in many forms. For instance, power can be held by governments, the state, investors, and companies, as well as workers, local communities, and sovereign Indigenous nations. Power, however, also refers to the generation and output of energy that we rely on to fuel our activities and societies. As we grapple with addressing both climate change and socio-environmental inequalities – from the local to global scale – understanding how to best address power systems becomes essential to our collective future. 

This year, Women and Inclusivity in Sustainable Energy Research (WISER), in partnership with the Smart Prosperity Institute (SPI) and Women in Renewable Energy (WiRE) Canada, is hosting a three-part symposia series. The first symposium was held in May 2022, entitled “Transitioning Energy Systems: Who Leads? Who Benefits?” The symposium featured three panels, focusing respectively on Indigenous energy sovereignty, gender and power in clean energy spaces, workers and local communities, and Global North-South energy relationships, with the aim of sparking conversation around which communities must be centred in the clean energy transition, and how this transition might be most equitably achieved. 

One theme rang clear across the symposium: that decentralized energy sovereignty is emancipatory for all people. It was a current that flowed through all panels, which critiqued the current state of our fossil fuel energy economy shaped by colonial and patriarchal processes. The panels also, however, offered a compelling vision for more egalitarian and sustainable energy alternatives surrounding a need to decentralize power in our energy economies – both politically and geographically. Decentralizing power and building energy soereignty is essential to:

1) ensure the transition to clean energy centres energy justice, and; 

2) for clean energy to be able to replace fossil fuels at all

Without decentralizing power, which is currently tightly held by colonial states and fossil fuel companies, we won’t be able to address climate change, neither comprehensively, nor equitably. 

Decentralizing power: from the colonial state to Indigenous energy sovereignty 

In settler-colonial states, including Canada, energy policy and decisions are directed from the government bureaucracies. Settler-colonial states, as defined by Glen Coulthard (2014), are “characertized by a particular form of domination” where power – “economic, gendered, racial, and state power” – facilitates “dispossession of Indigoues peoples” both of their land and its resrouces, as well as their “self-determining authority.” In this way colonialism is a “structured dispossession” of both land and decision-making power, which in Canada are controlled by the colonial state and its industries. While our current model of profit generation is fused to fossil fuel production, Canada’s relationship to resources and energy in general is inherently dispossessive, extractive, and profit-focused. Thus even Canada’s efforts in its clean energy transition remain extractive and colonial – viewing the earth as a “resource,” often operating without the consent and involvement of Indignoeus peoples, and prioritizing the profit and “growth” of industry.

On the first panel of the symposium discussing the importance of Indigenous energy sovereignty, Rebecca Sinclair of Indigenous Climate Action and Judith Sayers of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council underscored the important difference between truly clean energy and energy that emits no GHG emissions. Truly clean energy “also means what is good for the land, for people, for animals, for culture” – not just what emits the least carbon, Sinclair stated. For instance, a hydroelectric dam that destroys habitat and displaces people is not “clean” in the fulsome understanding presented by Sayers and Sinclair. 

Sayers further illustrated what decentralized energy sovereignty can look like in practice, through her work setting up a small-scale run-of-the-river hydroelectric dam in her Nation, and building this capacity and knowledge in other First Nations. Energy generation that is not tied to the colonial state of Canada and to a multi-national fossil fuel company – or state-linked hydroelectric company for that matter, but that is informed by the knowledge and values of each community is true clean energy. Energy decentralization and sovereignty is emancipatory both from the claws of profit and of colonialism. 

Decentralizing power: from fossil fuel primacy to energy clusters  

Another area in need of decentralization is energy policy and investing in equitable and renewable energy systems. Sadly, so much of the global energy economy is wedded to fossil fuel primacy at all costs. 

Despite increased funding in renewable energy research and development, these funds cower in comparison to the public money still spent on fossil fuels in Canada, Christina Hoicka, an Associate Professor at the University of Victoria, explained in the third panel of the symposium, Transitioning Away from Fossil Fuel Lock-In. “There is a huge gap between what we should be spending on renewables and what is really being spent.” Moreover, cleaner technologies – such as wind, solar, and hydro – are treated as competitors for funding and contracts within the renewable energy market rather than as allies in the fight to render fossil fuels obsolete. 

The fact is, there is no one, silver-bullet technology that will replace fossil fuels. This can be seen in a positive light, as it avoids the continued centralization of both political and energy power in certain industries, geographies, institutions, and in the hands of select executives. Instead, Hoicka’s research shows we will need a variety of technologies working together and in tandem to replace our fossil fuel dependence. These different, decentralized energy generations working together are what she calls “clusters” – they are complementary, flexible, reliable, cost-effective, and resilient. They don’t just rely on one solution, but many overlapping solutions. They are tailored to the communities they are in – inherently smaller scale, decentralized, and place-based. Different resources will be available based on different geographies – whether sunny, windy, coastal, geothermal – these energy solutions are informed by a sense of place, not top-down policy, industry lobbies, or foreign financing. 

Decentralizing power: from corporate elites to workers and communities 

On the second symposium panel, Gender Diverse Leadership in Energy Transitions, Jennie Stephens – a Professor of Northeastern University – critiqued the corporate clean energy movement for its focus on technological innovation without meaningful social innovation. She argued that “homogenous leadership constrains us” – that we need to decentralize decision-making power from predominantly white, male elites in both government and the private sector. We need diverse perspectives across gender, culture, race, and various lived experiences to find unique solutions to the energy crisis at hand. Moving to new technologies without drastically redistributing power will only reinforce the socio-economic ills that plagued the fossil fuel industry, just in a new “technically” cleaner industry. It won’t address the root issues of colonial oppression, gender inequality, and class domination. 

Furthering this argument, Shanti Gamper-Rabindran, a Professor at Pittsburgh Unviersity, unpacked and debunked the argument that coal, oil and gas companies are trying to protect their workers’ jobs and communities – a talking point frequently spouted by right-wing politicians and fossil fuel lobbyists alike. “We need to be very careful when we hear about strategies, being justified as protection for oil and gas workers, when they really are not.” In reality, their aims are to block progressive energy transitions to pad the pockets of executives and ensure profit. There is a huge difference between local wealth generation and extractive wealth generation – which has been the fossil fuel profit model around the world. Sarah E. Sharma, an Assistant Professor at the University of Victoria, also underscored this point in her discussion of fossil fuel lock-in the global South. Sharma spoke to the uneven relations of power present when corporations from the Global North shape local energy decisions through financial investment decision-making practices in Global South communities that strip communities of their energy sovereignty. “The key is to involve marginalized communities in these economic decision making processes;” to return the power to make energy investment decisions from corporate elites to the grassroots.

Importantly, as Hoicka highlighted, energy clusters also return power to the working class. Many small-scale energy generation projects can be owned and operated by and for communities, rather than multi-national corporate elites. Energy decentralization is therefore emancipatory for communities and workers around the world, delivering a just transition that keeps jobs and profits in local communities and First Nations. 

Reflecting on power in energy systems 

As the symposium came to a close, I was left with many lessons, but the following one was central: Energy sovereignty is both necessary and emancipatory for all. We will need decentralized diversified systems, including resilient clusters of power generation. To avoid perpetuating the same systems of inequality and centralized power dynamics of the fossil fuel economy, we must centre the voices and teachings of Indigenous nations, working-class people, local communities, and women and gender-diverse people in our solutions. 

Pressing this point, Sinclair stresses, “we are not addendums; we are not a consultation.” Indigenous peoples not only need to be included – they need to be at the very forefront of the energy transition conversation. This is what effective energy sovereignty can look like. Energy sovereignty is, as Sinclair said, the sovereignty to be able to think about the future – generations into the future. To make decisions based on place, community, and Indigenous knowledge, which has been “peer-reviewed” by millennia of knowledge building, learning, and passing on to the next generation. “Songs can be science,” Melissa Quesnelle, of the Indigenous Sustainable Structures Collaborative reminded us. “Land can be law.” 

Decentralizing power – from the state and the boardroom to communities; from fossil fuel supremacy to diverse, place-based and informed energy projects – is the only powerfully free way forward.

Eden Luymes is a political science Masters student at the University of British Columbia and is passionate about environmental policy and climate justice. She holds undergraduate degrees from the University of British Columbia, with an Honours in Political Science with International Relations, and from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (SciencesPo). Her research focuses on climate justice and the influences of neoliberalism and neocolonialism in global climate governance.  Eden sees addressing climate change as an unprecedented opportunity to heal our relationships with the Earth and with each other. She loves hiking on glaciers, bike camping, and scanning the Salish Sea for orcas in her free time.

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