Energy derived from sources like the sun, air, and water, on the other hand, is imbued with immense liberatory potential. In principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power. No longer would power lines and gigantic, leak prone tankers be needed for the transportation of energy; no longer would workers have to toil in underground mines or remote deserts or rough seas; there would be no need for the long supply chains required by fossil fuels. (Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, p. 102, emphasis mine)
Context makes it clear Ghosh is thinking of coal mining, oil fields, and offshore platforms when he dreams of a world where workers no longer toil. But in his reverie, Ghosh neglects an important and undeniable feature of renewable energy: it is mining intensive.
The IEA sees demand for critical minerals surging from 2020-2050 even as the demand for and value of coal drops. In green growth scenarios, workers will likely have to keep toiling in mines as they now do in Chile’s Atacama desert, the cobalt mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the copper and nickel mines of South Asia, South America, or Siberia. The list of potential sacrifice zones will grow and could someday extend from American public lands to offshore oil platforms converted to deep-sea mining.
This observation is not an argument against the transition from fossil fuels. It’s just to say that right now there are no signs the shift to renewables will undo the resource curse. Extraction for global markets continues to exact a local toll: serious human rights violations, unremediated (or irremediable) environmental destruction, conflicts over water (which Ghosh himself mentions briefly in a list of “conflicts that global warming will create or exacerbate,” p. 127), and social division. And for the foreseeable future, mineral supply chains will be nearly as long as those required by fossil fuels, strung across the globe and fraught with geopolitical tension.
A decisive shift from fossil fuels could see the end of the petro-dollar and the toppling of “global hierarchies of power,” as Ghosh imagines: “The liberatory potential of renewable energy has a very important international dimension as well: if adopted at scale it could transform, indeed revolutionize, the current global order” (p. 103). It could also precipitate another set of crises – environmental, humanitarian, and military — and it’s worth considering that eventuality.
Postscript, 20 January 2022: For more on the geopolitical risks of the energy transition, see Jason Bordoff and Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “Green Upheaval The New Geopolitics of Energy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2022.