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Energy at the End of the World is an exploration into how a place seemingly at the edge of the global economy, the remote and scarcely populated Orkney Islands in the North Atlantic, is making and imagining energy futures that are central to the international renewable marine energy industry and to creating a post-fossil fuel energy system. In the book, Laura Watts takes the reader on a tour of these rugged and secluded islands describing the sights, feelings, and smells of the crashing ocean waves and relentless winds, and the cultural sensibilities, histories, fables, and ontologies of Orkney residents, scientists, and investors that constitute energy infrastructures. Watts argues that the specificities of this place, constructed through webs of human and non-human actors, shape the practices of multi-national energy corporations. Understanding how energy futures are constructed in the rural Orkney Islands, Watts argues, offers a lens into how our broader energy futures could be something other.
The book begins with a travelogue-style introduction that brings the reader into the world of Orkney, which is an archipelago of roughly 70 islands, 20 of which are populated by a total of around 20,000 people, located off the coast of Scotland. It is part of the UK but closer to the Arctic Circle than London and shares Nordic cultural and historical affinities. The Orkney Islands are a hub for research and development into marine (tidal and wave) energy technologies, focused around the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) which is the oldest and largest test-site for marine energy in the world. Throughout the book, Watts explores the contradictions and the disconnects between the images of a high-tech global industry with on-the-ground realities and limitations. For example, EMEC was the first site in which offshore wave power was generated for a national electrical grid. Despite EMEC’s prominence in this growing and hyped industry, the center is quite small: roughly 10 staff work out of an old school building, and the center receives relatively little funding or government support.
Discussions about renewable energy are often focused on ways to expand capacity and generation, and production for and in urban centers, yet Orkney offers a counter example. The rural Orkney Islands now produce more energy than they consume –– largely through over 700 micro-wind turbines –– and they have transitioned to a localized, post-fossil fuel energy system. But Orkney is unable to continue expanding renewable electricity generation because of the limited capacity of infrastructure – a single cable connects the island to the mainland UK national grid which means the electrons cannot get off the island to the places consuming energy.
Energy at the End of the World is not simply another empirical study of the politics and policies of renewable energy. Watts transverses academic disciplines, theories, and genres to weave together “factual stories and creative fables” in a creative and expressive writing format. She uses fiction and first-person narrative to tell a story about a place that describes the different sensibilities, knowledges, and histories that shape how energy, infrastructure, and technology are understood and enacted. The rich detail and poetic and sensual descriptions and photos bring the Orkney Islands alive for the reader. Watts engages with the uncanny and irrational to take local ontologies and knowledge seriously. Drawing from Norse mythologies, the book is structured around three thematic sagas and the text weaves together discussions of theoretical concepts, ethnographic vignettes, and fictionalized stories that bring to life the everyday experiences of energy infrastructures. The unconventional narrative format provokes the reader to follow the story but also makes it difficult to succinctly draw out the main takeaways related to the role of culture, local knowledge, and nonhuman actors in renewable energy systems, and the creativity of “edge” places within globalization. Vernacular and cultural sensibilities are emphasized over a broader assessment of systems of power, particularly the political economy of energy, and strategies of resistance. Thus, the book engages STS and anthropology of globalization scholarship with less connection to political ecology and political economy.
One theme is that infrastructures are complex multi-species webs which are cultural and biophysical objects. Watts draws on Haraway (1991, 2013) to think through technical, human, and nonhuman relations and uses the signifier SF (science fiction, speculative fabulation) to explore and represent these connections. Watts is also in conversation with STS scholarship on infrastructure and theorizing on posthumanism, ontology, and science, such as Stengers (2010). Using these approaches to unpack the black box of government reports and company predictions, Watts reveals the politics and power that are embedded in science and expertise. Maps of potential marine energy resources attempt to render the ocean as blank and uniform — thus manageable and open for enclosure. Local knowledge and experience is left out, but this knowledge is actually vital to testing and operating turbines that confront the challenges of working in the deep sea and rough ocean conditions that residents have the most experience with. The lack of local input led to attempts at developing marine energy in prime areas for fishing, which is a major industry in Orkney. I also wanted to know how, or if, residents and workers are using this local knowledge to resist private development rather than simply being a constraint for international corporations.
Another material tension on Orkney Island is that the existing energy infrastructure is not designed for decentralized renewable energy. The growing marine energy sector needs more grid capacity beyond the single cable connecting the island to the mainland which cannot carry more electricity back to the national grid and places that demand more energy. Yet, no individual company can or will fund this expansion in infrastructure. Thus, according to Watts, market logics are leading to a market failure and not creating a good future. Yet, the constraints have also mobilized people and businesses on Orkney to create alternatives such as expanding local energy use with electric cars and finding ways to move the electrons via alternative fuels and batteries. Watts’ unique contribution is not simply in providing more evidence about market failures to provide public goods, but also in revealing creative local and decentralized responses to the limitations of large-scale and centralized infrastructure.
By exploring the complexities of infrastructure, Watts examines globalization using Tsing’s (2005, 2015) concept of friction to challenge depictions of globalization as a juggernaut that annihilates difference according to universal logics directed by the center. Instead, Watts describes globalization as spinning and often directed by the edges to emphasize how places remain powerful socially and physically. Therefore, marine energy technology needs to adapt to the distinct geographies and histories of Orkney, particularly the materiality of oceans that are living ecosystems. Watts argues that experimentation is particularly possible on the “edge” and in the socio-geographic context of Orkney, rather than in global cities that are often presented as the center of innovation. Edge places are often less constrained by the uniformities of global culture and the power of international capital and national politics which enables creativity. Meanwhile the material, social, and economic challenges of living in more remote places contributes to creation of innovative solutions and strategies for survival but also prevents capital from flowing freely.
Yet, Watts could provide more theorization of why these edge spaces are unique and why edge is a more insightful concept than periphery or margin. For example, is experimentation due to being on the edge or simply the material constraints of biophysical systems and infrastructure? Do creative strategies for living well also occur in the center and within the internal edges of global cities? More assessment of power and politics is needed since these strategies could be forms of resistance and creation of alternatives, but can also be coopted by powerful actors and privatized for capital accumulation, ameliorating rather than resolving the eco-social contradictions of capitalism.
Different regimes, laws, and ontologies of property also create frictions. Watts describes how Orkney has a complex mix of English feudal and Norse udal property rights which don’t mix. Feudal property is based on the premise of original State ownership granted to citizens which can then be taken back. For udal property, the State never had ownership and cannot take property back or dictate how people divide it. Watts argues that udal property creates legal barriers to acquiring land and water rights for marine energy development, but also shapes a different sensibility and ontology based on self-determination, flexibility, and guardianship. Property is also messy when dealing with the fluid and shifting boundaries of sea beds, coastlines, and the ocean, which disrupts attempts to assign rigid lines of ownership.
Another major theme is around futures and temporality. Watts understands the future as made through everyday actions and mundane experiences that are intertwined with the present and past. She describes how Orkney residents engage with energy infrastructures in their daily lives, such as the discards of past wind turbine experiments, and see marine energy as a way to continue their collective history into the future. Unlike other research on temporality and natural resources that emphasizes nostalgic hope that new technologies will renew a mythic past (Hogan and Pursell, 2008; Mah, 2012; Strangleman, 2013), Watts finds that people on Orkney don’t hold romantic visions of an idyllic past but are motivated by a deep sense of time and connection to the place. They see renewable energy as enabling a way to continue surviving into the future. Using Haraway’s (2016) ideas about “living with the trouble” to create futures, Watts describes Orkney as ahead of other places in figuring out ways to survive in the face of the capitalist Anthropocene and climate change. However, it was not clear to me whether the energy futures being developed in Orkney are necessarily more just and if there are lessons to learn from this case that could be applied in other contexts in which people are struggling to enact livable futures or create anti-capitalist alternatives.
Watts spent ten years on the research beginning in 2008 and clearly created relationships with people on Orkney and developed a nuanced understanding of the sensibilities and geography of the place that come from extended fieldwork. These cultural meanings and local strategies are missed in international and national level research on energy industries, and survey or interview research disconnected from longer-term ethnographic engagement. Watts describes the ethos, sensibilities, and worldviews of Orkney Islanders through stories and vernacular language and idioms. For example, “bruck” is a term for forgotten and discarded items that have potential future use which reflects the creativity, resourcefulness, and spirit of making do on Orkney (p. 180). Another term is “bigsy” which is similar to hubris or greed and used to shun people who seek out personal wealth or success (p. 224). This reflects the spirit of collaboration that is necessary to survive on the harsh island climate that is regularly cut-off from the mainland: Different local companies and institutions collaborate to expand the renewable energy industry, and promote the place itself for investment, rather than focusing on the profit-making motives of single companies or individuals. Local language and stories provide details into how global capitalism is shaped and interpreted through particular places and everyday actions, which is important for understanding how climate change and energy transitions are experienced and respond to frictions.
Emphasizing the link between place and culture could lead to essentializing an innate Orkney character or a functional analysis of culture as a direct response to environmental conditions rather than something contingent and constructed. Watts largely avoids this trap by providing a fluid and detailed account of how and why these sensibilities have been developed and re-interpreted. Orkney is also a uniquely insular and long-standing island community that may have a stronger collective and place-based identity than other places near energy and resource extraction infrastructures. Still, the book does not adequately focus on the dynamics of power, institutions, and ideologies that produce and reproduce these hegemonic cultural frameworks. More engagement with political ecology scholarship on energy and natural resources, that focuses on questions of power, social difference, and resistance, would be productive for assessing the political dynamics and implications. Unpacking the potential exclusionary and reactionary aspects of energy imaginaries is important because natural resources are often connected to nationalism and notions of belonging and citizenship (Perreault 2013). One question the book does not sufficiently interrogate is thus: who gets excluded from dominant narratives and identities in Orkney?
The strength of Watts’ depiction of marine energy lies in its grounded relation to place, but this does mean that the book provides little assessment of the broader political economy of marine energy and the corporations that are developing and financing marine energy. Company representatives are interviewed – including interesting accounts of meetings between potential investors and leaders of EMEC – but there is not an analysis of the industry including corporate strategies, ownership, and market dynamics. I was interested in more information about the role of financialization and speculation in the industry, and how the actions of international companies and markets are reshaping this particular place. Watts discussed the conflicting timescales between investors who want a rapid return and the slower-pace of developing energy systems as well as how estimates of energy production and rapid growth are used to hype the industry. These insights, particularly the concept of hype and stories, could contribute to and benefit from connections with research on performativity, measurement, and finance, and scholarship on natural resources and capital accumulation in political ecology (Beckert and Bronk, 2018; Bracking, 2019; Christophers, 2017).
Another potential productive angle for understanding how global industries are enacted in particular contexts is through the labor and employment relations that produce marine energy, and the role of workers’ everyday actions and knowledge. Watts argues that Orkney fisherman have intimate knowledge of the seas and tides that would be helpful in developing marine energy. Yet, would use of this local knowledge for private commercial development be a form of appropriation and privatization? Is there a just way for local knowledge to be incorporated into industrial development and investment decisions? Another friction is the labor required to build marine energy infrastructure that is logistically and physically difficult which creates challenges for companies and means workers have some power and agency. Yet, working deep underwater and in rough waters creates occupational risks for workers – something not discussed in the book.
Watts argues that understanding how energy futures have been made will allow us to envision other possibilities and make other futures. Stories from the Orkney Islands challenge many taken-for-granted notions about the potential of renewable energy and relationships of power between the local and global, which could open-up possibilities for more just energy futures organized around decentralized, democratic, and community-managed energy. Yet, I also felt that the book fell short in living up to the promise of imagining alternatives and did not provide clear insights relevant for the climate justice movement and struggles to create sustainable and just communities.