Even as renewables become a more common energy source around the world, they still face major obstacles. Some barriers are inherent with all new technologies; others are the result of skewed regulatory frameworks and marketplaces. Through what confluence of conditions will clean energy become the norm?
The Union of Concerned Scientists states that wind and solar already have overcome numerous barriers to become competitive with coal, natural gas, and nuclear power. The shift towards the adoption of renewable energy is not mainly driven by the federal government, but by state governments, private corporations, and community initiatives. The growth rates of various energy sources, the flows of clean energy investment, and the world’s progress on its sustainability goals are solid beginning points.
But, in a world driven by corporate, political, and media influences, under what conditions can clean energy as a normal be possible? Thinking through the conditions that enable and constrain agency and action helps us better understand precisely how individuals and collectives set social changes into motion and can point us toward a clean energy world.
That’s the gist behind research from the University of Minnesota which invites us to extend and consider how social change precedes and provokes transformations of many kinds: technological, ecological, economic, political, legal, ethical, cultural, ideological, and intellectual.
The scholarship indicates that, when we ask about the conditions of social change, we are revealing both the preconditions for transformation and how encounters encourage us to think and feel and act, not just individually but collectively as well. It’s that collective response, that sense of moving beyond our individual satisfaction and desire, that might promote the conditions where pervasive applications of clean energy become the norm.
Philosophizing about Ways Clean Energy Will Become the Norm
Anthropogenic climate change has necessitated innovations of green energy that could force the conditions for an energy transition away from fossil fuel dependence, at least in slow stages. The University of Minnesota investigation compels us to ask, “How could a framework of sustainable energy production and extraction be drawn from philosophers who have framed western ideas about the language of knowledge?”
They call on us to interrogate the way that language is mobilized to marginalize some people and foreground others. The discourse around renewables is morphing by significant degrees, no longer the fodder for controversy and radical thought. Our comfort with the once-accepted energy source of fossil fuels is incrementally translating into acceptable of new energies that are carbon free. What does a a philosophy of energy look like?
Friedrich Nietzsche spoke about a kind of “peace treaty” that would come about as a means of securing stability — it would require establishing and enforcing a linguistic code of conduct. For Nietzsche, truths are created, not discovered, invented, not found – and language is the fundamental condition of their formation. He asks us to create new ways of becoming with/in the world.
So the conditions that usher in clean energy would require a language in which, for example, decentralized models become commonplace. Smaller generating stations, spread across a large area, would work together to provide power. And capital costs, like the expenses of building and installing solar and wind farms, could be viewed differently, as part of a larger profitability equation. Solar and wind, like other renewables, are inexpensive to operate with endless energy supply and minimal maintenance. The condition of clean energy full life expenses, as a result, come from innovation and constructing the resulting stable technology.
As Judith Butler relates, “Our acts are not self-generated, but conditioned. We are at once acted upon and acting.” It’s becoming common to see school climate strikes and social movements like Extinction Rebellion. Numerous governments around the world have declared a climate emergency. The Green New Deal is on the lips of the Democratic party in the US with the impetus that a rapid transition to clean energy is possible.
With such clean energy norms emerging around us, the conditions that persuade us to act are making people around the world less skeptical of clean energy and more ready to act. But, as Butler writes, “The forces that act upon us are not finally responsible for what we do, in part because we are able to modify the conditions themselves.” Transformations are necessarily conditioned by language and, indeed, have to pass through language. Change only occurs through individual and collective efforts which create the pathway for resignification. We act, we react, and we transcend, relying but also emerging from the conditions which form us, which we, in turn, reform.
New energy technologies must demonstrate conditions of scale, as most investors want large quantities of energy, ideally at times when wind and solar aren’t available. And we must make visible the disconnect between science and policy and how the price we pay for coal and gas isn’t representative of the true cost of fossil fuels. We must expose the enormous costs of the climate crisis and other externalities, and, through such language, we have the capacity to change the conditions where fossil fuels seem inevitable.
Jacques Derrida admits, ‘Yes, I only have one language, yet it is not mine.” The gist here is that we may — on the surface — have a common language where clean energy holds inevitable dominance. But the conditions that will reframe fossil fuels as an historic anomaly and renewables as primary reliance imply that individuals will achieve agency that rises from particular relations. The well-established nature of existing fossil fuel infrastructure has created pervasive ways of being and erects formidable barriers for renewable energy.
Solar, wind, and other renewable resources need to compete with wealthier industries that benefit from existing infrastructure, expertise, and policy. It’s a difficult market to enter, but the force of language and collective action can create conditions where marketplaces react positively to renewable energy shifts.
Oil Change International estimates that the United States spends $37.5 billion on subsidies for fossil fuels every year. Through direct subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives and loopholes, US taxpayers help fund the industry’s research and development, mining, drilling, and electricity generation.
Hannah Arendt reminds us, “Earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.” The existential crisis in which we find ourselves as a planet requires us to speak collectively and robustly about the philosophy of clean energy alongside its pragmatic side. Slightly higher energy costs today are worth the investment if they lead to more affordable, efficient, and cleaner energy to sustain the Earth, and it is the language we choose to wield that can create the conditions for such a clean energy society.
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