— If desire shapes energy infrastructure, how do we build a non-extractive libido?
“For what happens to whomever does not want to recognize that political economy is libidinal, is that he reproduces in other terms the same phantasy of an externalized region where desire would be sheltered from every treacherous transcription into production, labour and the law of value.” – Mark Fisher, Post-Capitalist Desire
Renewable energy does not exist. At the industrial scale that energy infrastructure is continuously built and maintained to supply the energy desires of the Global North, renewable energy is not actually renewable. The wind turbines, solar panels, and battery packs that we currently call renewable technologies are made up of nonrenewable materials such as lithium, cobalt, copper, nickel, and water . Yet the phrase “renewable energy” gives technocrats, policymakers, and finance capitalists the perfect storyline for why they should be allowed to continue exploiting and killing people, destroying ecologies, occupying and destabilizing other countries and using what’s left of the world’s water. It serves those who are currently benefiting from the violence of racial capitalism to replace the story of “dirty” coal with the story of “clean” energy – all while doing everything they were doing before, sometimes at an intensified scale and with renewed horizons and events of extraction. By creating a moral substitution narrative, the conditions of power and domination inscribed through the global energy landscape remain intact – and indeed are made less worthy of critical inquiry. The energy desires of the State become reconstructed as inevitable givens, rather than as dynamic processes with multiple intervention points.
In this way, renewable energy is a concept with story power. Its “for the greater good” storyline is definitely sexy: it’s both an ethical mandate that mobilizes a wartime effort to “save the world” through an “all-out battle” to build as much wind, solar, and nuclear infrastructure as governmentally and privately possible, as well as an offer to the everyday person of a hopeful technofuture. Yet “renewable energy” is reinforcing the same violent dynamics as fossil fuels and is enacting new or renewed colonial relations to ensure a steady supply of energy for the people who already have it. The race to mine lithium — the keystone technology for batteries and electric cars — has already stirred up huge conflicts in Chile, Bolivia, and the US over the ecological and human impacts of the extraction process. In Nevada, the “Lithium Americas” project is speculating on billions of profit in lithium. It is bringing Trump-era lobbyists to the table in their fight against ranchers, environmental groups, and tribal members from the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes. As the NYT reports, the mine is “expected to use billions of gallons of precious groundwater, potentially contaminating some of it for 300 years, while leaving behind a giant mound of waste.”
“Renewable” energy still relies on extraction, violence, and imperialism — just without the political stigma of fossil fuels. It is not enough to hope for a “just transition” away from fossil fuels. Trying to meet current and future energy demands by simply replacing extractive fossil fuels with extractive non-fossil fuels is not going to transform the conditions of violence we live in. If what we mean when we say a “just transition” is actually to interrupt violence, we must have a conversation about what it will take to interrupt the violence of the energy infrastructure that, under coercion, we collectively choose every moment.
The myth of renewable energy is a narrative that presents the transition to clean energy as a solution to the violence and exploitation inherent in the current global energy system. This narrative suggests that by replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and other forms of renewable energy, we can address the ecological and social impacts of energy production and consumption, and move toward a more just and sustainable future. However, as Mark Fisher and others have pointed out, this narrative is overly simplistic and ignores the complex and dynamic nature of energy systems.
One of the key problems with the myth of renewable energy is that it reinforces the assumptions and ideologies of capitalism, and does not fundamentally challenge the underlying drivers of energy desire. As Fisher argues, our desire for energy is shaped by the libidinal economy of capitalism, in which our psychological and emotional needs and motivations are shaped by the constant consumption of goods and services. This libidinal economy promotes the idea that our energy needs are natural, inevitable, and endless, and that the only way to meet these needs is through the continued exploitation of nonrenewable resources and the oppression of marginalized communities.
To overcome the limitations of the myth of renewable energy, we need to critically examine the assumptions and ideologies that support our current energy system, and to consider alternative ways of thinking about and addressing our energy needs. This may involve exploring new technologies and practices that are not based on the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, and developing a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of energy desire that takes into account the complex and dynamic nature of energy systems. By raising consciousness about the myth of renewable energy and its implications for the future, we can begin to imagine and build a more just and sustainable world.
We must refuse the assumptions of capitalist growth and endless demand for energy that engineers use to calculate the “future energy needs” of the Global North. If the “energy needs” we are told that “we” have — somehow always skyrocketing, natural, and inevitable — are used to justify the continued occupation and extraction of value from the Global South, it is imperative that we question the natural, inevitable, and endless nature of this need. Instead of asking how to meet energy needs through “renewable energy,” it is time to ask how to unsettle and delaminate the “need” for energy itself.
What is an energy need? What is an energy desire? Energy desire refers to the psychological and emotional motivations behind an individual’s or society’s need or desire for energy. This may include the desire for the convenience and comfort provided by energy, as well as the desire for power and control over energy sources. Energy desire may be influenced by capitalist ideologies that promote the consumption of energy and the acquisition of technology powered by energy. It may also be influenced by cultural and social norms that dictate the acceptable use and consumption of energy.
This is a moment to truly pause and decide to take our energy desires back from the State. Let’s stop making it easy for the state and other power actors to posit renewable energy as a social good. What would it be like to really challenge what we’re told our energy needs are, and to strip down and embody the energy needs of our own areas and webs of relations?
Although my colleagues argue that I should be offering some sort of technological solution to this issue, Mark Fisher would perhaps argue that the pursuit of better energy technology does not address the underlying psychological and emotional drivers of energy desire, and therefore does not fundamentally challenge the violence and exploitation inherent in the current global energy landscape. Instead, Fisher would likely encourage a more critical examination of the assumptions and ideologies that support our current energy system, and a reimagining of our relationship with energy that does not rely on extraction, violence, and imperialism. This may involve exploring alternative ways of meeting our energy needs that do not rely on the current industrial model and developing new technologies that are not based on the exploitation of nonrenewable resources and oppression. Which, perhaps, is really what my colleagues are saying.
Yet my argument is really a bit of a pivot from large-scale solutionism. It’s about desire, about the body, and about knowing WHY we want all these technological solutions, and what they are serving. It’s about having more willingness to decide what it is we need energy for, exactly, and then determine how to power it with each other.
To me, being able to get in touch with desire for the otherwise requires both understanding and acknowledging each of our own libidinal desire for what we currently have, as well as a willingness to interrupt and halt the processes that are powering the industrial energy infrastructures we currently have (ie, machine breaking).
As Fisher writes, we “may claim, ethically, that [we] want to live in a different world but libidinally, at the level of desire, [we] are committed to living within the current capitalist world… is there really a desire for something beyond capitalism?” Libido, if it is “not only what we want but why we want it” is caused by objects, in some sense. So we must also be attentive to our objects.
We must take seriously some key questions as we move into different terrains. To what extent do people want capitalistic energy infrastructures? Conversely, to what extent do people want postcapitalism and its potential infrastructures?
I’m not saying that we have to abandon everything we currently have; that’s not, in fact, possible. We can “begin with, work with, the pleasures of capitalism, as well as its oppressions.” We already have a terrain that pleases our libidos. I like turning on the lights with a switch when I get home. I like lighting my stove with its adorable knob. I like charging my laptop in every corner of my home. Etcétera. Instead of a reactionary striving for a pre-capitalist primitivism; the “libidinal attractions of consumer capitalism,” Fisher suggests, need “to be met with a counterlibidio, not simply an anti-libidinal dampening.”
What is a counterlibido in the realm of energy and infrastructure? It can’t be a moralistic framing of individual desire as bad, which would reify the idea of something outside of and pure from Capital. Instead, taking seriously where we are, what can we do together?
We know that it was not simply the railroad barons and what they wanted but actually the desire of the industrial proletariat who helped fuel the industrial revolution, in their “enjoyment of the dissolution of the old world” (Fisher). So what, then, might we build libido around as we dissolve this current world of racial capitalism? Instead of arguing that we should be building solar to “save us all,” what if we offered something sexy and something with a political arena? And what if this sexiness came out of where we are?
I’m picturing some speculative days where we address parts of our energy lives like Sean Roy Parker addressed parts of our food lives with “12 reasons never to buy spinach again.” What are 12 reasons to never buy a car or an iPhone again that are not primitivist or pleasure-refusing?
12 reasons to never buy spinach again
Lamb’s Tongue Plantain
Now we no longer require the food to feed the pickers the petrol to drive the harvester the petrol to drive the van the electricity to refrigerate the van the electricity to light the warehouse the petrol to drive the van the petrol to fly the plane the food to feed the attendants the fuel to drive the van the electricity to light the supermarket the electricity to refrigerate the spinach the food to feed the shelfstackers the electricity to scan the spinach the petrol to drive it home the electricity to refrigerate the spinach
All to watch it rot
I’m dreaming of something where we map the energy infrastructure that we have (Power Tours). How does the power actually get to us, and from where? Where in the actual ground? Beyond that, we can collectively go through “A Day in the Life” and figure out what energy use is sexy in each of our lives. For instance, I find it sexy in my life that I experience the power to leave the house to get in the car and go wherever I want. The power to read books into the night. The power to fly to see a friend read poems in New York City. The capacity to watch YouTube videos on felting.
I want to sit with my friends, talk about our energy desires, make decisions, and reflect on how they go. I want to come up with abundance that we don’t have to buy. I want to build solar with my friends, build micro-hydro, figure out how much we need and only wash our clothes at high noon. I want to do the work of living with our energy desires in mind.
- Biogas and ethanol stills for biodiesel may be viable for small communities at a non-industrial and anarchist scale.