The Energy Humanities and Russian Energy Futures

12 Min Read

March 3, 2021

Taste the Waste is a small media project that brings radical ecological thought to Russian-speaking people through journalism and art.

Since the advent of modernity, the Russian-speaking intellectual field has been powered by ideas about the creation of a communal future (the principle of "sobornost" – the equivalent of "conciliarity" – in Russian religious philosophy, the concept of "permanent revolution," or contemporary Eurasianism). Such narratives are deeply rooted in social institutions that are now being challenged by nature itself.

The Russian government officially accepts the anthropogenic explanation of climate change. This is stated in the Climate Doctrine of the Russian Federation (2009) and the National Action Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change (2019). In October 2020, even Vladimir Putin called climate change a problem requiring action, noting that warming threatens vast areas of the country beyond the Arctic Circle and could cause people to emigrate. Anatoly Chubais (former Rusnano CEO, now Putin's representative to international organizations concerned with sustainability) has also argued that Russia must "develop renewable energy because it is necessary to think about the future.” “The Stone Age,” he warns, “didn't end because we ran out of stones." 

Vladimir Putin addresses the UN Climate Change Conference. Courtesy of UNClimatechange, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Yet, Chubais also claims that hydrocarbons offer a systemic advantage for Russia and cannot be abandoned, even for the sake of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fulfilling the obligations of the Paris Agreement, which Russia ratified in 2019. His comments reflect the reality that the Russian government’s thinking about climate change and the future has not really changed for more than a decade, despite paying lip service to the need for action. It seems that the hydrocarbon age will only end for Russia if we run out of hydrocarbons. 

Russia’s doctrine of energy security prevents the country from pursuing different futures. It describes the unacceptability of impairing "the interests of energy producing states" and designates the accelerating shift to a green economy as primarily a foreign policy challenge. The President himself has unambiguously expressed his position at the VTB Capital investment forum: "Mankind will not be able to survive and preserve its civilization without technologies such as hydrocarbon raw materials, nuclear power and hydropower". He warned that people could find themselves in caves again if they really give up fossil fuels, while noting that wind turbines kill birds and worms. It isn’t very surprising that, according to Energy Minister Alexander Novak, renewable energy sources will account for only 4% of Russia’s total energy mix by 2035. 

The President’s vision of energy policy excludes from the future those inhabitants of the country who will not benefit from greening but will be affected by its costs, including the residents of eco-settlements, religious communities, and ancestral estates who have consciously rejected fossil-fueled civilization. It excludes Indigenous peoples, who endure ecological disasters and colonial devastation on their territories. It excludes the inhabitants of villages and hard-to-reach towns that lay far from the center of Russia, where all the transport and commercial infrastructure, and the scientific and technological industries are located. Putin’s future isolates and marginalizes these groups. 

It isn’t very surprising that, according to Energy Minister Alexander Novak, renewable energy sources will account for only 4% of Russia’s total energy mix by 2035.

The residents and workers of Russia’s many single-industry towns also remain excluded. The industrial towns built for factory workers have endured a jobs crisis for the past 30 years. The Soviet Union (SU) subordinated the environment to industrialization and dreams of building a communist future. These towns were based on colonial expansion and global construction, but were finally abandoned along with the city of Pripyat after the Chernobyl disaster. In addition to the centralized and lifeless energy infrastructure of the SU, Russia inherited related internal political and bureaucratic contradictions. In today's Russian state, many inhabitants of Soviet-built working-class cities often have nowhere else to turn for work. Norilsk, Volgodonsk, Vorkuta, Pervouralsk, Severodvinsk, Zheleznogorsk, and many other cities, including cities and lands where radioactive waste is buried, are now experiencing the environmental fate of Pripyat. The business of companies in the energy, military, mining, and manufacturing sectors has been harming human health and the planet for decades, in many ways violating the laws and constitution of Russia. 

Indigenous tribes, whose lands are often most rich in fuel, don't have a say in how their lands will be used. Oil, gas, coal, and other minerals are not classified as "commonly occurring resources," the extraction of which is permitted to everyone, but belong to the state. Because of this, even indigenous peoples' territories, which are legally called "territories of traditional nature use," do not belong to them completely; the state can always come after their property. Extraction on their lands disturbs traditional activities, displaces communities from their habitat, and destroys the earth's landscapes and climate. This has been the practice for many years for the inhabitants of the northern Yamal-Nenets and Khanty-Mansi regions, where the Nenets and Khanty indengious peoples live. The oil and gas industry causes oil spills and the loss of the yagel and fish, as well as affecting nomadic tribes' paths and reindeer migration and subsistence. 

Large companies merely pay lip service to the needs of indigenous peoples and ecology. For example, Nornickel was called a leader in corporate philanthropy in 2020 for its World of New Opportunities program. That same year, however, the company caused the largest oil spill in the Arctic. Shortly thereafter, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples appealed to Elon Musk not to deal with Nornickel until the consequences of the accident had been resolved and the company's policy on indigenous peoples had been revised. Such an appeal to an outside person indicates a failure to influence the corporation through internal political practices. Corporate and indigenous visions of the future have split.

Satellite imagery taken on 31 May 2020 near Norilsk of an oil spill in rivers (coloring the water red). Courtesy of European Space Agency Copernicus Programme, distributed under CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO. Image contains modified Copernicus Sentinal data 2020.

The possibilities for a trustworthy green policy in Russia also are undercut by the non-existent public consensus on energy development and the unequal political decision-making mechanism. Russia is not a single political-geographical area, but a hierarchical system of regions headed by Moscow. Today Moscow, a beautiful city with a developed infrastructure, has concentrated not only political power, but also capital. It is the circulation (or rather settling?) of capital that establishes the "policy of disposal" of garbage and nuclear waste to the towns mentioned above. This disposition fatally affects the ecological stability of the regions of Russia that are sacrificed to support Moscow's economic well-being.

The humanistic study of energy represents an important way forward. Studying energy reveals the complex institutional relationships between the distribution of power and capital and the contradiction between individual energy consumption and geopolitical goals. Perhaps energy is a new attractor capable of changing the asymmetry of powers on the contemporary political map of Russia and the world. But it will be necessary to go beyond the study of negative aspects of Russian energy practices, to move on to the creation of new knowledge, rethinking the existing philosophical, sociological and practical approaches to energy. In the long term, this will allow us to overcome the current problems and open the path to a new energy future.

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