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Energy security for what? For whom?

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
The Corner House

Nuclear power is necessary for the energy security of nations, nuclear advocates often declare. But many people who hear the term “energy security” are rightly suspicious of the word “security”. It seems to mean so many things. What kind of security is being talked about? Whose security? Over what time scale? Does “energy security” mean having secure contracts to buy fossil fuels or uranium? Being able to project military force to defend trading routes? Protecting vulnerable centralized energy systems against guerrilla attacks? Or does it mean having enough heat in the winter? Or reducing demand? Or developing renewable energy?

A newly report written by Nicholas Hildyard, Larry Lohmann and Sarah Sexton and published by the Corner House, called "Energy security for what? For whom?" tries to explores the pitfalls of “energy security” as rhetoric and as policy.

Energy is never far from the headlines these days. Conflicts of all kinds – political, economic, social, military – seem to be proliferating over oil, coal, gas, nuclear and biomass. While some interests struggle to keep cheap fossil fuels circulating worldwide, a growing number of communities are resisting their extraction and use. While an increasingly urbanized populace experiences fuel poverty and many people in rural areas have no access whatsoever to electricity, large commercial enterprises enjoy subsidized supplies. As increasingly globalized manufacturing and transport systems spew out ever more carbon dioxide, environmentalists warn that the current era of profligate use of coal, oil and gas is a historical anomaly that has to come to an end as soon as possible, and that neither nuclear energy, agrofuels or renewables (even supposing they could be delivered in an environmentally sustainable and safe manner) will ever constitute effective substitutes for them. For progressive activists, all this raises an unavoidable yet unresolved question: how to keep fossil fuels and uranium in the ground and agrofuels off the land in a way that does not inflict suffering on millions? What analytic and political tools are available to formulate democratic policies regarding “energy” that reflect these realities?

Mainstream policy responses to such issues are largely framed in terms of “energy security”. The focus is on “securing” new and continued supplies of oil, coal and gas, building nuclear plants and even translating renewables into a massive export system; energy efficiency is accorded a lower priority, but transition away from fossil fuels is nowhere to be seen at all. Climate change objectives, though once at the forefront of policy responses, are increasingly relegated as concerns about “keeping the lights on” predominate.

Yet, instead of making energy supplies more secure, such policies are triggering a cascade of new insecurities for millions of people – whether as a result of the everyday violence that frequently accompanies the development of frontier oil and gas reserves, or because the pursuit of “energy security” through market-based policies denies many people access to the energy produced. Indeed, the more that the term “energy security” is invoked, the less clear it is just what is being “secured”.

Like many other political buzzwords, “energy security” has become a plastic phrase used by a range of different interest groups to signify many often contradictory goals. For many individuals, energy security may simply mean being able to afford heating in the depths of a cold winter or having access to a means of cooking – a “logic of subsistence”. For political parties in government, it may mean ensuring that a nation’s most important corporations have reliable contracts with guaranteed fuel suppliers until the next election. For exporting countries, it may mean making certain that their customers maintain their demand for their oil or gas via long-term contracts.

The multiple meanings of “energy security” have become an obstacle to clear thinking and good policymaking. They are also an open invitation for deception and demagoguery, making it easy for politicians and their advisers to use fear to push regressive, militaristic social and environmental programs:

“Energy security is a concept notorious for its vague and slippery nature, no less so because it is bound to mean different things at different times to different actors within the international energy system.” (*1)

This multi-faceted nature makes it difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a definition that is accepted by all, which is hardly surprising given that no single term can capture realities on the ground involving different histories and materialities.

Both the word “energy” and the word “security” have in fact become so detached from their vernacular meaning that they are themselves problems. “Energy”, usually treated today as an abstract concept from physics, makes no distinction among energies derived from wood, muscles, coal, oil, gas, nuclear materials, falling water or moving air. It ignores the diversity of things that different groups want energy for – cooking food for your family? extracting more surplus from workers? – and the different types of political struggle connected with each. It hides the different ways in which energies are bought and sold, and the differing politics of class, race, gender and nation that characterize each energy source. Measuring “energy” and “energy sources” cannot by itself help decide which types, amounts or uses of energy are more important for humanity’s future. It may even get in the way. “Security” is just as problematic. “What kind of “security”? For whom? Which kinds of security are connected with which energy sources? What kinds of strategies are required for each kind of security? How do they conflict or overlap? The word abstracts from all these questions.

By concealing differences and conflicts that have to be acknowledged and brought out into the open, it hinders effective, democratic policymaking related to agriculture, electricity, trade, aid, transport, manufacturing, housing, banking, national development and the role of the military in society.

This Corner House report explores the pitfalls of “energy security” as rhetoric and as policy. Instead of illuminating possible ways forward, the phrase (and the policies that are framed by it) obscures increasing inequality, diverts attention from the need to slow global warming and nurtures underlying conflicts. In sum, it gets in the way of effective discussion about, and organization for, a democratic, fossil-free future. A critical examination is needed to find ways to talk about poverty, climate and other issues connected with “energy” that are more coherent and analytically fruitful as well as better attuned to progressive goals. Putting the collective security and survival of all above the individual short term gain of a few, and acknowledging the deep political, economic, social – and even psychological – entrenchment of today’s locked-in dependence on coal, oil and gas, it would be wise to start now to make transitions in how we produce and transport food and goods – how we live and organize our livelihoods, societies and economies around the world.

*1. Paul Isbell, “Security of Supply”, Oxford Energy Forum, Issue 71, November 2007, pp.3-6 [p.3].

"Energy security for what? For whom?" is published on 16 February 2012, by The Corner House in collaboration with Hnuti DUHA– Friends of the Earth Czech Republic, CEE Bankwatch Network, Les Amis de la Terre-Friends of the Earth France, Campagna per la riforma della Banca Mondiale and urgewald e.V..

It is available at:

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