“The vision of a democratized energy future includes an informed and conscious community that understands the right relationship of people to natural resources and the need to live in ecological balance.”

Weinrub and Giancatarino

Abstract

Dissent is an integral part of a democracy that directly affects the people who are a part of the democratic order. The impact can be either classified as – constructive or detrimental. Instances of positive impacts of disagreement can include- voicing against the corruption that produces a change in the public policies and favors the people or social movements that bring a significant change to the society – socially, economically, politically, or culturally. However, disagreeing with the status quo can also produce negative results. Whereby the protesting masses are lynched, silenced by death threats, and subjected to moral policing, both at individual and collective levels; ultimately violating their human rights, such as their rights to protest, their freedom of expression, the rights to privacy, etc.

Energy democracy (ED), a relatively newer social movement, which became ubiquitous in the 2010s, majorly aimed to transition the energy usages of people, around the globe, from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energies. Hence, ED was intimately connected to community action, good governance, and participatory democracy, which made it obvious that dissent was inherently embedded in the concept as well. The article, therefore, takes a dig to primarily highlighting the character of dissent in an energy democracy, on philosophical and legal bases. For this, the authors have used indigenous communities as a means to achieve the mentioned ends. The article also tries to analyze various studies which were conducted across the globe, in a similar light and provides different perspectives to disagreement. Ultimately, this article tries to break the molds that see disagreements only as threats and advocates a progressive outlook towards it, in the context of an Energy Democracy.

Keywords- ‘energy democracy’, ‘dissent’, ‘indigenous communities’

Introduction

We have seen people getting rejected, cornered because they disagree with popular opinion. People get bullied because of their disagreements. The idea is to conform to the popular opinion and not think critically about why to agree. The present paper takes a philosophical dig at this new naïve aspect of disagreement. This is a new-age obsession in seeing disagreements as a threat to unity, uniformity, and sameness in thoughts. Recently in Hyderabad interfaith couples were cornered, asked to rationalize their identities, purpose behind loitering. We can also see the ideal ‘by-stander effect’ in it. Hence, people instead of stopping the gate-keepers of morality/ religion/ custom they started recording it on their phones. This recording was happening while directing statements at the women like, ‘call your parents’, ‘we are going to call your parents’, ‘what were you doing with him’, etcetera. As much as these statements stink of patriarchy, discrimination, and immodest behavior it also points towards the idea of ‘disagreement’. Not as an ideology but rather as an epistemic ground where the repercussions of disagreeing could be seen. This event in Hyderabad has raised certain epistemological questions for the philosophers. Of course on multiple grounds, it raises questions of privacy, expression, freedom but it raises a rather unique question on what happens if you disagree? What happens if you disagree with the status quo? In this case, despite popular propaganda on love, loitering, these people choose to disagree with it and hence face the wrath of social policing. As a collective, why do we see disagreements as a threat? As something detrimental in nature. Whether it’s the case of lynching, moral policing, death threats all collide to disagreements, not wanting one, can’t afford to have one too.

It is necessary to acknowledge how these disagreements ultimately facilitate ‘dialogue’. In contemporary times where precisely, no sphere is too far from the purview of politics, to sustain democracy in the true sense, disagreements should be accommodated. Energy as a commodity has gained much relevance over time, and the deliberation of Energy Democracy remains incomplete without the inclusion of native voices. The question that arises then is how do we include these voices? How do we instigate participation? And, if at all, the idea of dissent triggers an environment of better deliberation.

ED and Community Action/Control

Renewable Energy (RE) resources are gradually replacing fossil fuels. Statistics show that in 2014 renewable energy accounted for almost 19% of the total global final energy consumption, and the rate has increased, ever since then. This transition to renewable and clean energy also involves a socio-economic transformation and innovations in technology, which further impacts the social, economic, and political power structures involved in them. ED is a two-way process wherein – democratic control is exercised over the systems of energy, and the means of its generation and distribution are under the community control. 

Energy- Social or Political? 

Energy democracy combines ‘normative’ and ‘pragmatic’ arguments, and the need to secure social acceptance of these transitions which is subsequently pushing the different stakeholders in the process to engage with the ‘social’ aspects of energy policies and usages, which are deeply political.   

ED has been also recognized as the focal point of struggles around energy issues, wherein the civil society organizations have linked de-carbonization to the ownership and control over the production and distribution of energy resources. Such decentralization of the RE technologies is believed to have been implemented, to access popular control over ‘energy choices’. The focus groups here, i.e., the indigenous communities are henceforth, expected to actively participate in decision- making and this action is often regarded as a mobilizing agent used for tackling energy concerns- so that their needs and demands are met. 

The body of literature on ED portrays it as a social struggle, as well, since it invokes participatory democracy, advocates community-level governance of energy resources to produce clean energy which in turn delivers social benefits that restructures the social, economic, and political relations, between the communities and the other key stakeholders. 

Thus, ED emphasises on –collective focus to rethink and redesign the processes and institutions that are connected to the fulfilment of basic needs rather than individualist responses to climate and environmental issues. Hence the direct involvement of the local communities in energy governance is a key part of the process- enabling greater participation and control. Involvement of the local communities, with a special emphasis on dissent by these communities, ensures that the decisions around energy are more inclusive, more representative and generates cooperation. Such shared values, in turn, contribute to a ‘more sustainable relationship between just communities and a working environment’. 

The ED movement is also labeled as deeply political since it initiates discussions around energy as ‘social struggles’ and also disrupts the relations in the current systems. Hence, advocates interpret these movements as ‘parts of larger political struggles’. 

Dissent and Energy Democracy 

As it is evident from the above discussions that dissent, disagreements, a difference of opinions, resistance, and challenging the status quo- is an inseparable component of ED. However, there are different perspectives to it. Some believe that in the pursuits of common interests, the communities can sometimes inadvertently create a space characterized by homogeneity – which stifles dissent. Others, therefore, advocate for ‘agonistic pluralism’- a concept that legitimizes dissent & debates within community governance, and argue that the democratic nature is deeply embedded in ‘social mobilization & contestation’ as well as in ‘cooperation & civility’.  Therefore, ‘difference, disagreement, dissent’ must not be ‘ignored, overcome,and stifled through consensus but needs to be recognised, validated and negotiated’. Negotiating these differences in community energy governance would, furthermore, promote openness and inclusivity in the process.

An inclusive community project would also consider the framework of concerns and interests existing in particular places and would provide the disadvantaged communities an opportunity to participate, which is often limited to higher socio-economic groups.

Case Studies

Energy Democracy in Scotland

The concept of ED is increasingly becoming vital in Scotland. TheScottish Government  has set targets to generate 100% of the electricity demands by means of RE by 2020. In 2016, the Director of Energy & Climate Change under the country’s government, called for the future of RE in Scotland & made it ‘localized, democratized and mutualized’ and incorporated ED in the government discourse. ED was henceforth recognized by the State and set the trend for ‘decentralization’ and ‘community- led development’, there.

Astudy was conducted in Scotland, which involved the engagement of 15 community groups across the country, which represented 5 different community energy (CE) groups, between 2013 to 2016 and examined how communities shaped the democratic governance on the three bases, namely- ‘decision making, accountability and dispute resolution’. The authors have tried to highlight the prospects of disagreement, keeping other things at bay. Major observations from the study included-

  • Latent barriers to participation, within the community hierarchies- The involvement of a small number of people in community projects. In rural areas, people complained that it is ‘the same people’, or ‘the usual suspects’ and their involvement in community governing bodies. This resulted in a lack of leaders’ representativeness of the wider community and a substantial lack of diversity. This lack of diversity reflected the inability of the governing bodies’ ability to represent the varied interests of the whole community and was detrimental to the quality of decisions. The limited representation also reduces the chances of disagreements and the lack of diversity in decision-making directed towards the non- fulfillment of demands of the sections of the community, who were under-represented or not represented at all, barring their basic needs and rights.
  • Differences of opinion as a part of community life- The CE groups struggle to deal with disagreement. However, it is strongly believed that the ‘presence of disagreements was a cause for concern’ but indicated that ‘the strength of the community depended on their abilities to solve such disagreements’. The study also highlighted a case wherein- some local residents opposed a proposed CE project.  The objections primarily were concerned with the proposed wind turbine and the anticipated income from the project, and who would decide what it would be spent on. A local dissenter admitted that his disagreement with the group over the turbine had ‘nothing to do with energy, but with community’, implying how the social and power struggles behind such disputes are often masked by the technological & environmental aspects of CE projects. A court case was filed to resolve the dispute around their community wind turbine. The Court permitted the project to go ahead, but also questioned the group’s handling of discontent. The Court further inquired on why the group had sought to ‘stifle the expression of objections’, as well. This, example also points to the relevance of arbitration in cases of community disputes. Nonetheless, as the Court decision prompted to allow objections to be vented, this might help in combating a lingering sense of grievance towards a group and its activities.

Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Southern Mexico

The country of Mexico has implemented public policies that stand on the precepts ofSustainable Development Goal 7, United Nations. The reforms in the energy sector of Mexico date back to the late 1980s, following the Washington Consensus. The policies worked as Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) facilitators to the energy sector by limiting government intervention and thus idealized Mexico for raising FDI in Renewable Energy (RE), much before it became a party to the Paris Agreement in 2016. But Mexico also had enormous structural vulnerabilities in the form of corruption and social unrest which were exacerbated by the federal government’s transitions in public policies in 2018 thatreversed energy sector reforms diminishing RE investments.

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a region of Southern Mexico, is home to large populations of indigenous communities whose major means of livelihood are agriculture, fishing, and commerce. Isthmus is also the hub to many wind energy projects due to its excellent resources in wind energy.  Hence aqualitative study was undertaken from 2013 to 2020 to assess the challenges in the energy democracy implementation at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. A key challenge that was identified was the substantial lack of good governance i.e. corruption, poor means of accountability and limited accessibility to information about energy and the environment- for the indigenous communities; since the principle of good governance is regarded as the touchstone of energy democracy and is ingrained in community governance, closely related to theSustainable Development Goal 16.

The study identified that-

  • Governance was inherently important where the RE investments right away affected the communities, such as, when large agricultural farmlands were converted to industrial lands for operating wind farms, often built in the rural areas and were inhabited by these communities. These lands were mostly owned and used by the local people, and the conversion adversely affected their rights of ownership and livelihood. The interesting fact here is that the – indigenous communities were traditionally known toconfront the corrupt governments and blocked the RE investments of the Multinational Enterprises (MNEs). Public policies that integrated these communities were thereafter used as tools to diminish these conflicts.

We can, however, well say that the community resistance and challenging the status quo, created opportunities for community participation, which if utilized properly can produce positive community attitudes and further build relationships of mutual trust and cooperation between the communities and the MNEs, in an energy democracy. 

  • ‘Inclusivity and transparent decision making’ are a key characteristic of good governance in ED. The study revealed that the wind energy investments at Isthmus considerably lacked participatory governance and democratic engagement with the community. The Mexican legislation called, Electricity Industry Law, 2014 only required the energy developers to intimate the property owners and the Mexican energy Secretary of their proposed plan, under article 73 of the law, which was in accordance with theIndicator 16.10 under Sustainable Development Goal 16. Problems arose when the consultations only happened after the approval of FDI by the federal government of Mexico, and were not ‘free, prior and of informed consent’, violating the principles ofInternational Labour Organization’s Convention 169. It was, therefore, concluded that these consultations were only addressed to meet the legal demands and did not entirely engage community opinion, thereby eliminating the opportunities of ‘informed dissent’.

This absence of dissent, particularly resulted in the- limited accessibility to important information on the development, potential effects and financial aspects of wind energy investments, for the local communities, which in turn fostered skepticism fueling their experiences of corrupt practices of the local government. It also created feelings of mistrust towards the MNEs, among the locals, at Isthmus. 

Indigenous communities are opposed to the process by which wind-energy investments have been carried out in their region, as well as their lack of involvement; the schism of local communities has evolved into social unrest between opponents and supporters of wind-energy investments at the Isthmus. Disputes between communities frequently devolved into violence, conflict, and violations of human rights. Between July 2015 and July 2016, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law reported 35 attacks on human rights defenders in Oaxaca related to mega-projects and other wind-energy investments. In relation to wind-energy projects, one assassination was registered in 2013 and another in 2016, with eight human rights violations in 2015 and four in 2016, including intimidation, criminalization by physical aggression, harassment, defamation, and illegal deprivation of liberty. The Mexican Constitution establishes accountability mechanisms to protect human rights enshrined in international treaties, as well as social and economic rights. However, when human rights violations associated with wind energy investments in Oaxaca were reported to officials, local police forces did not respond.  Despite the fact that public policies directed at democratising the energy sector have been implemented in Mexico since the 1980s, advocacy of human rights remains a tightrope to walk. In contrast to the ongoing human rights violations associated with wind energy development, multinational corporations (MNCs) have publicly stated that their practices respect human rights.

Conclusion

Energy democracy has progressed from a buzzword used by activists seeking a stronger voice in energy-related decision-making, especially within the context of climate and de-carbonization policy, to a term used within policy documents and, vastly, in the scholarly literature on energy governance and energy transitions. The concept of energy democracy remains flexible and malleable, allowing researchers to interpret it through the eyes of actual players in real situations. The actual players are the stakeholders whose life would be directly or indirectly affected by energy projects. At the heart of democracy lies the virtues of dissent. The emerging energy movement has been a testament to the feeling of dissent, which in a true sense has genesis from ‘disagreement’ of these stakeholders to the perceived idea of energy governance. The case studies of Scotland and Mexico shed light on the respective unique cases of community disagreement and participation and how each affected the energy governance of the respective place. Living in the context of an ever-evolving world, where climate change and environmental degradation are a reality, the politics surrounding energy projects take prominence. The existence of ‘disagreement’ becomes necessary to facilitate voices and participation.

About the Authors

Dr. Richa Shukla is a Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Jindal Global University, NCR.

Abhinandita Biswas is a 4th year Law student at the Adamas University, and an Associate Editor at IJPIEL.

Editorial Team

Managing Editor: Naman Anand

Editors-in-Chief: Aakaansha Arya and Akanksha Goel

Senior Editor: Jhalak Shrivastava

Associate Editor: Abhinandita Biswas

Junior Editor: Harshita Tyagi

Preferred Method of Citation

Dr. Richa Shukla and Abhinandita Biswas “The Role of Dissent in Energy Democracy” (22 November, 2021)

<https://ijpiel.com/index.php/2021/11/21/the-role-of-dissent-in-energy-democracy/>