Maintaining the Rule of Experts? Interrogating the Contradictions of Energy

April 7, 2022

Ayesha Vemuri

Although Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy has been rightly lauded for its influence in the field of energy studies, my own work has been shaped to a greater degree by his arguments about the politically productive role of expertise. Two lessons from Mitchell’s work have been especially meaningful for my thinking: first, that many seemingly natural categories of the contemporary world, such as “nature,” the “economy,” and “democracy” are historically constructed forces developed through interactions with the material world, rather than pre-existing categories applied to the world. Second, that the locus of politics and history does not originate in so-called “Western thought” but rather in the interactions, frictions, and negotiations between different regions of the world. In other words, Mitchell reveals how expertise not only emerges in relation to the material world, but also that such expert knowledge is productive of the world.  

These insights about the contingent, situated, and productive nature of expertise have deeply influenced my thinking around how the climate crisis might yield new forms of governance and politics, especially in countries in the Global South, where the longstanding concerns of development and energy poverty are now articulated alongside the urgency of energy transition. Thinking along the lines of argumentation developed in Carbon Democracy, I am interested in the question, as countries like India shift towards the large-scale exploitation of so-called green energy sources like solar power, of what forms of politics might emerge from the intersection of material, political, and knowledge worlds? How is the authoritarian political landscape in India shaped by, and how does it shape in turn, the specific path of energy transition? What forms of expertise and calculation arise with this transition, and how are they developed alongside the political landscape not only in India, but at a global scale?

In December 2020, at the virtual meeting of the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India’s “renewable energy capacity is the fourth largest in the world. It will reach 175 gigawatts before 2022.” Modi went on to triumphantly state, “India is not only on track to achieve Paris targets but to exceed them beyond your expectations.” The targets Modi was referring to are the nationally determined contributions (NDCs), one of the central outcomes of the COP21 Paris Agreement, in which each country set its own targets to reduce carbon emissions. While it may be true that India is indeed increasing its renewable energy capacity and meeting the emissions targets it set for itself, these large and abstract numbers tell us little about the realities of how such goals are met. Nor do they enable us to learn much about the messy and contradictory developments often underlying the neat metrics of renewable energy capacity and carbon emissions.

For instance, earlier in 2020, the Indian government opened coal mining to private investment, putting up over 40 mining sites for auction. Most of these coal mines are located in environmentally fragile and protected areas in the states of Jharkhand, Odisha, and Chattisgarh, and are home to many Adivasi (indigenous) communities, who are internationally recognized as guardians of biodiversity. Over the past decade, large scale evictions of Adivasi communities from forest ecologies have become commonplace, sometimes justified by “green” arguments of conserving endangered species, or the need for renewable energy projects like solar farms and hydroelectric projects.

The metrics of renewable energy capacity also do not account for the hidden costs of large solar power. As some activists and researchers warn, the expansion of India’s solar energy mission might have dire consequences on its already constrained groundwater reserves. A recent report from the World Resource Institute states, “79% of new energy capacity in India is expected to be built in areas that already face water scarcity or water stress.” Given that solar panels need to be washed regularly to maintain efficiency, and the manufacturing of solar equipment requires large quantities of water, this is a potentially disastrous ecological and social cost for India. Yet, such social and ecological costs are left unaccounted for in the metrics shared at international fora like the UN. What does this strategic celebration of India as “exceeding expectations” in renewable energy transition tell us, and through what calculative processes is it enabled?

Solar panels in Karnataka, India, 2017. Photo by Vinaykumar8687, CC BY-SA 4.0.

I offer that, in the contemporary moment of the climate crisis, we are witnessing an extension of what Timothy Mitchell has identified as the rule of experts. One of the key points that Mitchell makes in Carbon Democracy, building on his previous work in The Rule of Experts, is that experts use various instruments and calculative apparatuses in ways that do not merely represent the world, but produce it in new and differently governable ways. Mitchell argues that one of the critical inventions of colonial modernity was the introduction of “the character of calculability” through technoscientific instruments such as the cadastral survey, the population census, and national income (Mitchell 2002, 73). These render critical aspects of the world into abstracted objects of calculation that have the veneer of greater accuracy and objective truth. However, as Mitchell explains, these instruments are often less accurate than existing, situated forms of knowledge, and not only conceal more than they reveal but also occlude existing expertise and cleave local communities’ relations with their surroundings. What they accomplish, however, is rendering the lived world into abstract objects that can be compared according to ostensibly objective standards and measures.

In the contemporary moment of the climate crisis, we are witnessing an extension of what Timothy Mitchell has identified as the rule of experts.

One of the key examples that Mitchell focuses on is the birth of the modern economy as a category of governance that was materialized through new calculative practices that were developed alongside the rise of oil as the key commodity in global trade. He explains how economists, financial speculators, and experts devised a calculative apparatus “tying the value of money to the movement of oil” as well as a new system for “managing the domestic circulation of money” (Mitchell 2011, 123). After the Second World War, economists and financial speculators produced the entity known as the national economy, a single number that made it possible to represent the size, structure, and growth of each nation state in monetary terms. This net calculation does not differentiate between desirable and undesirable costs: the cost of a water pipeline to an underserved community and the cost of cleaning a toxic oil spill are equally counted.

Now known as GDP, this single number became a standardized means through which every nation could be compared and assessed. As Mitchell explains, GDP introduced a new global political order where the governance of national economies became the primary function of governments.

In the contemporary moment, we are witnessing the emergence of environmental responsibility, alongside existing structures of economic responsibility, as a key function of national governments. A new cadre of experts primarily based in elite institutions in the Global North—scientists, policymakers, politicians, economists, risk analysts, and more—are producing the idea of environmental responsibility calculated through the abstract numbers of carbon emissions and renewable energy capacity. These numbers function with a very similar logic to the GDP: in counting net emissions and overall energy capacity, they obscure the environmental costs of these energy and emissions-focused policies in favor of highlighting energy and emissions metrics. This has several effects. It allows politicians like Modi to position themselves as leaders in energy transition and environmental responsibility despite their authoritarian and deeply unjust social and political practices. It also allows the logic of perpetual economic growth—and systems of extractive capitalism—to remain unchallenged. Finally, the overall reduction in emissions does indeed help address the warming effects of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, but offloads the costs of this reduction onto indigenous, poor, and marginalized communities.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at COP26 in Glasgow, November 3, 2021. GODL-India.

The promise of more green energy does not necessarily entail greater justice. Rather, the rule of experts keeps intact the very structures of power that produced the climate crisis, while the costs of development and transition are once again borne by the very communities who contributed least to the problem. Mitchell’s insight into the role of expertise in producing the carbon economy might apply equally to the production of the environmental economies that will succeed it. Importantly, this is not a denial of the importance of scientific expertise, but rather a call for the inclusion and foregrounding of long-ignored forms of expertise of farmers, forest dwellers, fisherfolk and other communities. The forms of place-based, lived ecological expertise they hold is crucial for better understanding both the nuanced effects of climate change, as well as the unforeseen and uncounted effects of climate solutions. Depending solely on the abstract instruments of elite experts will deepen existing inequalities and outsource damage and costs to marginalized communities. An environmental justice approach requires not only the counting of carbon emissions, but an altogether different paradigm of expertise.

Ayesha Vemuri is a PhD Candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University. Her research focuses on the ways in which experts, including scientists, policy makers, analysts, and politicians, calculate the risk of climate change-induced flooding and migration in the Northeastern Indian state of Assam.

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