When the question is: Should the state continue to subsidize fossil fuel or should it actively encourage, financially and regulatorily, renewable energy production and consumption? – then the more establishment or institutional parts of the left are on the same side as the owner of a solar company. But other parts of the left don't just want an energy transition – we want a transition that fundamentally changes the patterns of ownership and distribution of wealth and addresses the problem of who pays the social and economic costs of this environmental crisis.
You come from an internationalist tradition of the left – how is the Green New Deal that you and other propose connected to that internationalist vision?
The global economic infrastructure automatically gives any Green New Deal an international dimension – for example when it comes to supply chains and global production networks that underlie an energy transition in any one place. So we need in many ways to move beyond the nation-state and build alliances and coalitions that are transnational or global in scope – or, for that matter, regional or trans-local, connecting cities, like the radical municipalism movement in Europe.
What is what you call “supply chain justice”?
The Covid pandemic really only accelerated the geopolitical crisis and has brought supply chains to the fore of policy conversations. Which is good. For decades, they were kind of invisible, in an attempt to de-politicize globalization. But the structure of the global economy effect everybody and they are extremely unequal. And the supply chains of green technology for example illustrate the inequalities that are at the heart of the energy transition.
Anything that we need for a green transition, whether it is a solar panel, a lithium battery, or a wind turbine, is made in the same way that everything is made under capitalism. There are spatially dispersed supply chains, very fragmented from one another, and at each node you have the preexisting economic hierarchy of the world order – which is to say the most difficult manual labor and the most toxic forms of resource extraction, refining and processing.
Deep debt reinforces extractivism as an economic model throughout the Global South. It is a major obstacle to anything like economic equality globally.
What is the consequence?
I think that on the left, we realize that global supply chains don't just produce goods – they produce and reproduce deep forms of social and economic inequality. But things can be done right. These supply chains were constructed with certain goals in mind: profitability, the quick turnover of goods, political power. And they can be remade, piece by piece, with different pressure points – maybe taking advantage of the fact that supply chains span borders, thinking about how we can open up forms of leverage and alliances that also span borders.
This could be the source for a new internationalist movement.
But there is a difficult set of questions for the left: What about the valid and valiant protests at mine sites for lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper – when those materials are needed for an energy transition that the left supports? This is an important dilemma that we should confront head on. We should think very concretely how much of each of these materials is really needed for a democratic energy transition which is very different from the unjust energy transition that is unfolding.
You did extensive research in on this topic, more recently in Chile and from 2007 to 2017 in Ecuador. What did you find out?
Ecuador found itself at that time at the intersection of two processes: It had a left-wing government – and there was a global commodity boom driven in large part by China's rapid industrialization. This government – which came to power with the promise to end neoliberalism by increasing social spending public infrastructure and public investment – was paradoxically able to fulfill many of those promises because of the historically high prices for some of Ecuador’s key exports, like oil and minerals.
In your book “Resource Radicals”, you describe how this led to protests by some of the key constituencies of this government by President Correa – indigenous movements, peasant movements, environmentalist.
The situation became increasingly polarized, but there developed also a very fascinating and intellectually stimulating debate between two different leftist approaches to resource extraction: The classic approach is indebted to dependency theory and Third World Marxism. The solution here is for the state to get more involved, in some cases outright state ownership, in other cases public policies that try to get from oil to more value-added sectors. This really split the left and continues to affect possibilities of left unity in Ecuador.