The Mayapple Energy Transition Collective (Cara N. Daggett, Christine Labuski and Shannon Elizabeth Bell)
September 28 2022
In her two prior posts, Cara has written about the relationship between misogyny, fossil fuels, and green techno-visions. These energetic masculinities – petro and ecomodern alike – reflect an extractive approach to the Earth: one that seeks an unlimited amount of cheap fuel, and therefore cannot deliver a truly sustainable, much less just, transition. Confronting such challenges, in this piece we ask: what might an alternative feminist energy system look like – one that draws upon the wisdom and practice of feminist scholars and activists worldwide?
Attempting to combine feminism and energy planning might appear surprising – but this shouldn’t be the case. Adopting a feminist lens allows us to draw on its specific expertise in how ‘power’ works: from the injustice generated by naturalised, binary oppositions, such as male-female or nature-culture, to an intersectional understanding of categories of oppression, like disability, race, class, and sexuality, as multiple and interlacing.
What might an alternative feminist energy system look like – one that draws upon the wisdom and practice of feminist scholars and activists worldwide?
To imagine better energy systems, we cannot afford to overlook these important questions of power. This is because, while, in the first instance, energy is an important material resource (fuel); it is also a way of talking about work and the ways in which work is organised as a site where certain efforts are valued over others. Critically approaching energy systems requires acknowledging this multifaceted nature of power: a task for which feminism is well-placed.
Imagining feminist energy
Feminists are interested in many types of power relations, but we have learned a lot from studying household, family, and other domestic arrangements, in particular. Households and communities of all kinds, especially those providing care to dependent members, require regular maintenance and attention – work that is feminised and racialised. In terms of energy, capitalist and productivist demands – e.g. to commit to ‘full-time’ waged work, to perform unpaid and underpaid care work, or to spend additional hours working “overtime” or on multiple jobs to afford food and housing – also often supplant alternative rhythms by which many people would prefer to labour, produce, and consume.
A feminist approach to energy systems, in contrast, would put care and dependency relations at the center of energy redistribution schemes, aiming to provide sufficient energy for well-being rather than according to the dictates of profit or productivity. Feminist ideas like these are blooming worldwide, as in the call for a Feminist Green New Deal in the UK, or the work of Acción Ecológica in Ecuador, or NSS (We are the Solution), a network of African ecofeminists.
Feminist energy systems do not need to follow a single, top-down model or scale; rather, they should reflect the ecologies and needs of different communities. Nevertheless, energy practitioners, engineers, and community organisers could benefit from a guide that brings intersectional feminist insights to bear upon energy design processes. Energy is more than fuel and transmission lines. As Cara’s previous blogs have shown, it involves cultural values, consumption habits, religious practices, housing and food systems, and more.
As such, we have suggested approaching energy through four main dimensions – political, economic, socio-ecological, and technological – offering feminist insights for each (Figure 1).
Rather than review each dimension (see our article for details), in this post, we’d like to put this vision into practice. A feminist approach to energy systems, we argue, is particularly well-placed to respond to two major narratives currently threatening climate politics: ‘jobs’ and ‘babies’. Both of these – around the primacy of productive work, and the threat of over-population – reflect a masculinist view of energy problems.
Feminist energy & jobs
In energy politics, the ‘jobs’ narrative is totalizing, whether through the threat of unemployment at the hands of fossil fuel phase-out, or the promise of better ‘green’ jobs in solar and wind projects. Its focus, however, often neglects unpaid and underpaid work done by humans and nonhumans, including reproductive and care activities, as well as ‘pink collar jobs’.
Furthermore, as Kyle Lewis has also recently argued on the Autonomy blog, many ‘job-centric’ approaches to energy futures also take the modern system of waged labour for granted, as the necessary path to being a good citizen, deserving of food, shelter, and health care. In its stress on high-tech and blue-collar energy jobs, which are often masculinised, the jobs narrative rarely addresses the actual problems of work prominent in many current and former extractive zones. For example, in Appalachia, where coal jobs have long been on the decline, there has been a stark rise in precarious, poorly paid manufacturing and service jobs, increasingly performed by women.
Finally, the energy-jobs narrative neglects that energy work, particularly in the fossil fuel economy, can be disabling. Much of what we know about conditions like black lung or mesothelioma came out of vital disability justice work done by coal miners and their families themselves. In this light, crip theorists think about disability as a collective experience of both world-building and dismantling. This would mean not only ‘including’ disabled people in local energy economies but, more crucially, learning from these lives and bodies, and restructuring economic and social systems in response.
A feminist energy system informed by crip theory might, for example, start by acknowledging the harms – bodily and planetary – involved in all energy production, fossil and otherwise, “staying with the trouble” that these processes cause, rather than greenwashing or wishing them away. This could lead to collective projects that are less focused on meeting goals like “100% renewable” or “net zero emissions,” and more grounded in repairing harms and revitalizing community and ecological relations. Cymene Howe, who has studied a derailed mega-wind project in Mexico, calls this “an ethos of rehabilitation.”
Feminist energy & babies
While some green plans tout more jobs, others fret about more babies. As the atmosphere warms and the seas rise, humans are also depicted in oceanic terms: a ‘surging’ population, ‘tidal waves’ of migrants. The focus on population numbers shifts attention away from capitalist production and accumulation, and intensifies long-standing misogynist and racist efforts to control sexuality and pregnancy. Historically, fears of over-population have been mirrored by elite efforts to manage and coerce reproduction in the name of producing more and better labourers; to forcibly eradicate other ways of life, as happened in the North American boarding schools for Indigenous children; and in the centuries-long control of Black women’s reproduction in the U.S., from rape and forced pregnancy “to help build America’s budding economy” in plantation regimes, to forced sterilization, medical experimentation, and ongoing racism in health care.
In short, controlling reproduction has been a crucial plank in sustaining extractive regimes of all types. The recent Dobbs Supreme Court decision in the U.S., which removed constitutional protections for abortion, is part of this violent history. This makes the Dobbs decision relevant for climate and energy politics, given that those extractive regimes, and not over-population, cause climate change.
Controlling reproduction has been a crucial plank in sustaining extractive regimes of all types
For feminists, conceiving and bearing children is intensely bound up with the ability to raise those children in a healthy and safe world. Brutally felt environmental and climate disasters now intersect in the U.S. with a post-Dobbs landscape of compulsory parenthood. Without robust alternative models in place, fossil fuel companies and their political supporters will continue to exploit these newly intersecting precarities, promising cheaper energy to economically stretched households.
The cost of energy is not a neutral fact that emerges out of a “free” market of supply and demand. Energy can be made cheaper by undervaluing the labor and materials that produce it, and by displacing the costs of the damage to public and ecological health, whether in its extraction, consumption, or pollution. That is why “renewable” energy does not necessarily mean sustainable energy, as has been made clear by the looming international solar e-waste crisis.
The quest for cheaper energy also reinforces the notion that individual consumers are the ones who will, and should, pay for those burdens. Instead, feminist energy systems would seek to provide sufficient energy as a public good, while naming the injustices inherent in the lifecycles of all types of energy production. Many people on Earth do not have enough energy, while the American way of life uses far too much. For richer, high-energy communities, this might involve collective efforts to mitigate these injustices, including a reduction of overall demand for energy, whether that be through increased commons spaces and public goods; built environments that promote movement of all kinds; passive solar heating designs; or other locally grown solutions.
Feminist ideas about energy are not utopian, though they do fly in the face of capitalist “common sense.” Elite policymakers keep demanding new ideas and new technology, but the world does not lack good ideas, nor the technological means, for a just transition. People everywhere are proposing, and in some cases attempting to build, beautiful alternatives. The problem is that these ideas are often not allowed to bloom; they are blocked by powerful interests, they are underfunded, or they are dismissed as impractical when they do not align with motivations of profit and growth. Feminism offers more than a mere critical diagnosis; it can also provide the means to chart out the just, inclusive energy systems of the future that we desperately need.
Mayapple Energy Transition Collective is the name that the authors have given to the non-hierarchical and collaborative research they are doing together. Mayapple is an understory plant that grows throughout the forests of the Appalachian Mountains that they call home. It is also a plant that grows in communities via a shared rhizome. The symbolism of this plant represents their work together.
Cara Daggett is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Virginia Tech in the United States. She is interested in the politics of energy and the environment, feminist studies of science and technology, and histories of empire. Her book, ‘The Birth of Energy: Fossil Fuels, Thermodynamics, and the Politics of Work’ (Duke, 2019), was awarded the Clay Morgan Award for best book in environmental political theory and the Yale H. Ferguson Book Award from the International Association Northeast. Her work has been published in journals including Environmental Politics, Energy Research & Social Science, Millennium: Journal of International Studies and the International Feminist Journal of Politics.
Christine Labuski is an anthropologist and Associate Professor of Science, Technology and Society and Women’s and Gender Studies at Virginia Tech. She teaches courses about sexual medicine, queer tech, and ecofeminisms, she directs the Gender, Bodies & Technology initiative at VT, and is a founding member of the Mayapple Energy Transition Collective.
Shannon Elizabeth Bell is Professor of Sociology at Virginia Tech in the United States. Her research is broadly focused on environmental and climate justice, with a particular interest in just energy transitions in fossil fuel-extraction communities. She is author of two multiple-award-winning books: Fighting King Coal: The Challenges to Micromobilization in Central Appalachia (MIT Press, 2016), and Our Roots Run Deep as Ironweed: Appalachian Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice (University of Illinois Press, 2013).