Solar Technology and Global Environmental Justice: The Vision and the Reality

12 Min Read

October 6, 2023

Andreas Roos is a postdoctoral researcher at KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory (Stockholm, Sweden) and an adjunct lecturer at the Human Ecology Division, Lund University, Sweden. His latest book, Solar Technology and Global Environmental Justice: The Vision and the Reality is available now from Routledge.

When most of us think of solar technology, we picture photovoltaic panels on sunny rooftops capturing clean energy for self-sufficient households. This vision suggests that increasing the installation of solar panels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and encourage more democratic energy pathways. But the way solar technology relates to global environmental and social problems is actually very different. 

My interest in the difference between the vision and the reality of solar technology began with a visit to a well-known solar park in Sweden. Funded by subscribers to a sustainability magazine, the solar park is a key part of ETC's goal to build a clean solar-powered energy system owned and operated democratically by the people. As I arrived, the park’s manager, David, greeted me and showed me around. ETC had curated the site like a museum exhibition, with information signs detailing the efficacies of different solar technologies. David explained how ETC’s CEO drew inspiration from the burgeoning energy cooperatives in Germany. The drop in the prices of solar cells had been making the surge of such cooperatives possible, David explained. I was curious to know why the prices had fallen. “It is because of the Chinese,” he replied, “and that there is now mass production [of solar cells].” With the analogy of textile production in Asia, he explained how clothes would be far too expensive for Swedish consumers if they were produced with Swedish wages and environmental regulations. Both David and I saw the problem. 

The problem was that ETC’s vision of a sustainable and democratic society based on solar power appeared to require that solar technologies were produced on the other side of the world under poor working conditions, with low environmental regulations, and in fossil-powered industries. My task became to understand the nature and significance of this globally uneven relation for the development of solar technology. To what degree are global price differences necessary for “green” solar-powered societies, how does this condition challenge conventional visions of a sustainable future, and why is this condition so rarely acknowledged? 

Conventional solar visions rooted in local initiatives are commendable and inspirational, but to the degree that they overlook the reality of the global price differences and unequal exchange, they lead us astray by obscuring what solar technology is.

I turned to the theory of ecologically unequal exchange in my search for answers. Ecologically unequal exchange explains how wealthier nations rely on net imports of resources to sustain their high levels of consumption and technological development while displacing a significant amount of work and environmental loads to poorer nations. According to this theory, impoverished nations are further disadvantaged through exchanges in international trade, which are conventionally measured in money as opposed to physical resources. The theory explains how global price differences facilitate an unequal exchange of physical resources obscured by conventional economic accounting. This mechanism, which is likely as old as the modern world economy itself, explains the globally uneven technological development observable through nighttime satellite images of the Earth, as originally suggested by Alf Hornborg

A composite image of Earth seen from space at night. Courtesy of NASA.

Could the same ecologically unequal exchange generating the uneven distribution of nighttime light help to explain the inequalities in the global solar industry? I started by analyzing the global solar boom between 2000 and 2018. During this time, solar technology went from being an alternative technology to becoming a commercially lucrative option. The boom coincided with the shift of manufacturing facilities from Europe and North America to Asia. Focusing on the economic relation between China and Germany, I analyzed the presence of ecologically unequal exchange in the solar industry and found that Germany’s success in installing massive amounts of solar cells was the result of Germany’s appropriation of resources from China. The results showed how Germany installed solar cells at fifteen times lower production costs and significantly lower resource requirements by outsourcing solar cell manufacturing to China. This suggests that the relocation of manufacturing facilities was not coincidental to the boom but a necessary condition for it to occur at all. Curiously, however, serious consideration of this uneven development was nowhere to be found, even among scholars and organizations who knew about it.

World total installations of solar photovoltaic capacity 2006-2021 (GW). 

An intensifying appropriation of embodied energy, land, labour, and CO2-equivalents from China to Germany, calculated per $10,000 worth of solar commodities, 2002-2018.

What struck me only later was that David and his colleagues at ETC were aware of this issue yet chose not to convey this information to the public. The park’s information signs displaying the efficacies of the solar panels said nothing about slave-like working conditions, land grabbing, and fossil-fueled manufacturing on the other side of the world, even if these were necessary for keeping the prices low enough for ETC’s political narrative to have teeth.

To overlook the social relations necessary for commodities is, in Marxist terms, to “fetishize” them. Applied to technologies, the term is “machine fetishism,” which explains how the global conditions of modern technologies are overlooked, obscured, or downplayed. Such machine fetishism has numerous explanations, some of which I explore in the book. The consequence of machine fetishism is that solar technology’s true social and ecological implications remain hidden from view. This means that we remain culturally blind to the potential, or lack of potential, that technologies have in truly transforming our relationship with the environment. Conventional solar visions rooted in local initiatives are commendable and inspirational, but to the degree that they overlook the reality of the global price differences and unequal exchange, they lead us astray by obscuring what solar technology is.

The complex supply chain of a simple computer mouse. Not taking into account supply chains encourage fetishized narratives of technologies. Courtesy of Nager IT. 

In the book, I look at this issue through the allegory of a tree. I argue that fetishized visions of solar technologies are essentially inspiring narratives concerning the tree’s leaves which often exclude the root system. But it is of course impossible to separate the leaves from the root system when defining a tree. The two are inextricably linked in the life and evolution of the tree, each contributing to its metabolic needs. The results presented in my book imply that commercial solar development is similarly difficult to separate from the globally uneven distribution of labour, resource extraction, and pollution. 

A tree with exposed roots. Courtesy of Omar Ram under the Unsplash license. 

The book’s message is essentially a message of disillusionment from techno-optimistic visions of solar power, which overlook or downplay ecological dimensions to economic growth and development. In the words of Robert Jordan, “Disillusionment is a noble task, but not a happy one,” and I have regularly found that solar disillusionment comes at the expense of a sense of passion and the puncturing of inspiring dreams. 

Inspiring visions are necessary though, which is why the last chapter of my book includes a guide on what I call “realistic envisioning.” This is a tool for communities and grassroots organizations to identify appropriate ways of harnessing energy. I present this tool along with the call for a movement-traversing rally around more sustainable, democratic, and desirable ways of harnessing solar energy in the active hope of creating a new social metabolism.

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