Commercial Countermovements: The Case of Alternative Energy Support

Friday, June 24, 2016: 4:15 PM-5:45 PM
205 South Hall (South Hall)
Timur Ergen, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany; Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
Systematic efforts for environmental protection have arguably constituted the most momentous countermovement of the neoliberal era. Notably in the field of energy they rarely conform to simple readings of Polanyi's analytics. Beginning in the 1970s in the United States and increasingly predominant on a global scale since the 1990s, initiatives to combat environmental side-effects of capitalist societies' energy provision to an important degree resorted to market-making rather than market-restraining policy toolkits. In the case of alternative energy sources and fuels these ranged from large scale artificial markets for pollutants and state-guided industry creation through to entrepreneurial activism and monetary citizen mobilization. In parts such measures consisted in the outright commodificaton of the physical environment, in parts they aimed at making the protection of the environment a wellspring of business profits. A significant fraction of protective measures in the field of energy share the characteristic to channel, or direct, market forces to dismantle polluting practices, industries, and organizational structures. End-of-century alternative energy policies – which, no matter how far from ideal, are arguably the most effective environmentalist energy policies in the history of capitalism – regularly took the form of politics with and through markets, instead of politics against markets.

The paper reconstructs the pathway of environmental policies in the energy field from the 1970s to the present with a focus on the influential cases of the United States and Western Germany. It documents the incremental amalgamation of environmental, industrial, technological, and security concerns in green energy support initiatives. Still in the early 1970s, environmental movements in the energy arena were to a significant degree marked by a fundamental critique of economic growth imperatives, unchecked consumerism, free markets, and industry. At the same time, the most important political line of conflict lay between conservative factions, pushing for collective restraint imposed by the deregulation of fuel trade and markets for energy, and progressive forces, trying to buffer the societal effects of fuel price changes with regulatory intervention in energy industries and markets. Against the backdrop of far-reaching political gridlocks, very heterogenous groups and interests fused around the idea of combating problems in energy provision with state-led efforts to get new technologies and industries ready to dismantle established energy systems in the open market. While alternative energy support policies certainly were subject to considerable change, experimentation, and up- and downswings over the last four decades, the idea of a "commercial countermovement" came to dominate intervention into energy provision systems in rich societies.

The paper contributes to the understanding of Polanyian countermovements in three ways. First, it explores a case of collective efforts to offset the effects of market dynamics on societies through the creation and manipulation of market dynamics themselves. Second, it illuminates the coalitional dynamics of an influential countermovement. The decade-long quest to cope with the effects of modern energy systems pulled social movements into state-led initiatives and business logics, states into entrepreneurial and environmentalist logics, and businesses into the realm of collective problem solving and environmental protection. The history of alternative energy technology policies is fraught with problems of collective mobilization over time, instances of cooptation, and incremental changes of character of the movement as a whole, processes which should be visible in most sustained countermovements. Third, the paper reflects on the scope of Polanyian analytics. A wide range of readings of Polanyi's Double Movement came to understand "society" as a constraining immovable force setting or removing boundaries to "the market." Although such a reading might be perfectly justified in certain important cases and historical episodes (notably in markets for labor and money), environmentalist energy policy is a case in which the boundaries between the economic and the social sphere are permeable, in which both are subject to considerable change in character over time, and in which the Double Movement works through non-trivial logics.