Politicians and environmental activists often make it seem as if a transition to a green, climate-friendly energy future were primarily a matter of finding and deploying trillions of dollars to replace fossil fuels, improve energy efficiency, solve energy poverty, and so on.

But they seldom ask just what these “trillions” might consist of, what ATM they might come from — and what damage attempts to harness them might do to the goal of equality and subsistence for all.

Progressive energy campaigns cannot succeed unless they take such issues seriously. This report, Energy, Work and Finance, aims to understand how both energy and finance have been constructed and contested during stormy transformations in industry, livelihood and exploitation over the past two centuries.

The report first traces the ways in which modern energy practices were shaped by 19th-century industrial elites struggling to accumulate as much as possible from the work of ordinary people. It shows how thermodynamics helped untangle different energies — heat, mechanical, electromagnetic, chemical — from their social and natural contexts, before combining them into a single commodifiable whole. It relates how the steam-coal combination enabled capital to concentrate labour at any urban location it chose, disentangle it from place and the cyclical time of days and seasons, and make good on its perennial threat to discard and impoverish workers who did not come up to proper standards of obedience while micromanaging them at minimal cost.

The report then follows some of the connections that have linked energy to finance ever since energy supply networks and a distinguishable “energy sector” first emerged in the 1800s. It describes how financial institutions have made possible infrastructure for transferring high-quality energy from hinterland to metropolis. It also also touches on the ways in which energy and financial speculation are linked; an oil-based pattern of house ownership, particularly in the US, became integral to the growth of speculative real-estate-based credit; and the ways in which finance is pushing other sectors, including infrastructure development, into exaggerated forms of plunder in order to attain unrealistic rates of profit.

Throughout, the report stresses the destructive creativity and innovation of today’s financial sector, with its plethora of investment banks, private equity firms, mutual funds, development banks, hedge funds, sovereign wealth funds, master limited partnerships, climate funds, oil companies and real estate investment trusts.

In this context, the report finds, small-scale, decommodified energy projects, controlled by and for local people, are extremely unlikely to attract pension funds and other institutional investors. The most that can be expected is that investors will try to siphon off a portion of publicly-funded contracts intended for off-grid village electrification or university or hospital schemes for their own benefit. As energy mining and energy consumption climbs, ordinary people’s opportunities for provisioning themselves, getting about independently, or learning autonomously, are closed out in both extraction and production zones. A “green” or “democratic” energy on the thermodynamic model developed during the 19th century is virtually a contradiction in terms.

The report concludes that looking at energy and finance not as static “things” but as political processes in motion is crucial to strategies for a green, democratic, liveable energy future. Effective energy activists will challenge dominant notions of both energy and finance, and join existing oppositional forces in struggles already being waged over a wide variety of arenas, from science to feminism to labour rights and race. For such activists, the deeper, more pertinent question about evolving struggles over energy — in which bitterly antagonistic social groups are constantly responding and adjusting to their opponents — is not “what is your alternative?” but rather “whose side are you on?”.


A limited number of paper copies of this report are available. Please contact The Corner House for more information.

A longer synopsis of the report is available.

This report builds on two previous reports:

Energy Security For Whom? For What?

Energy Alternatives: Surveying the Territory

2014 Corner House Energy Work and Finance title page

Energy, work and finance