Renewable Energy and the War of Progress

By Alexander Dunlap

Ambiguous and positively loaded words are dangerous. Not only for their multiple interpretations, but also because people want to believe in what is being sold, and the imaginary attached to them. Everyone can rally behind “change,” “peace,” “justice” and, now with the popular acknowledgement of ecological and climate catastrophe, “renewable energy.” These words, as peace studies is well aware, are double-edged, have many interpretations, and, as with “peace,” are often a euphemism for social pacification (Dunlap, 2014). We know all too well that “social peace” is enforced by coercive violence of the police (Dunlap, 2014; Bachmann et al., 2015; Shanahan, 2021), and stands on military conquest of Indigenous territories (Galeano, 1997; Moses, 2008; Rodney, 2009) and the corresponding ecological degradation, if not ecocide (Brock, 2020a; Crook and Short, 2020), necessary for state formation, development, and modernity. 

Justice, like peace, is not much different. There are many interpretations of justice (Foucault, 1980), and Indigenous groups and decolonial scholars have long contested dominant or Western conceptions of justice (Mignolo and Escobar, 2010; Tuck and Yang, 2012). Recently, environmental justice studies has been brought to account by acknowledging multiple forms of justice that extend beyond the distribution of costs and benefits of development projects; the recognition of identity and rights, participation in project design and operation, and capabilities to engage in the latter three processes (Álvarez and Coolsaet, 2020; Menton et al., 2020). Lina Álvarez and Brendan Coolsaet (2020) demonstrate how there is a liberal presupposition embedded within environmental justice studies and the framework of ecological distribution conflicts, that assumes people desire integration into the hegemonic national, or transnational, techno-capitalist culture of “development” as opposed to rejecting it outright or tailoring it significantly to local cultures. 

The political stakes are high with this liberal assumption. First, this approach narrows the infinite field of pluriversal possibilities of (post)development (see Kothari et al., 2019), slowly regimenting people into more equitable and participatory forms of (techno-capitalist) development and/or extractivism. A development agenda largely set by states and executed by national and transnational consortiums further impoverishes and/or regiments local imaginaries and diverse cultural approaches to (post)development in a time when new socio-ecological practices are needed more than ever.  Second, this liberal imposition represents another “friendly” approach for integrating infrastructural-psychosocial apparatuses (see Dunlap, 2020a), or development projects into different habitats and cultures, thus leaving the ability to say “no” and propose alternative forms of life and co-creation off the table in favor of development as we know it. Moreover, developmental desires and aspirations are complicated (Dunlap and Sullivan, 2020), where desire-effects are engineered in various ways by the media industrial-complex, institutional signals, political violence, and concerted ecosystem degradation (Verweijen and Dunlap, 2021). The overall concern is how environmental, let alone other forms of justice, can prolong, integrate, and expand techno-capitalist cultural values and infrastructures into social fabrics and habitats across the world, at the expense of culturally appropriate alternatives.  

Finally, the focus of this article is “renewable energy.” What part does so-called “renewable energy” or “low-carbon” infrastructures play in this struggle for real peace and environmental justice? Low-carbon infrastructures such as wind, solar, and hydrological power sources are celebrated as key technologies to mitigate climate and ecological catastrophe (GreenPeace, 2015;, 2020). Renewable energy is “good” and fossil fuels—as symbolized by the Trump administration—are “bad.” The Green New Deal (GND), or the European Green Deal (EGD), are sold as a political possibility and environmental hope (see Aronoff et al., 2019; Chomsky and Pollin, 2020), yet these plans hinge on low-carbon infrastructures and digital technologies.

Jennifer Franco and Saturnino Borras (2019: 193) recognize “climate change politics may or can displace or dispossess more people from their land than actual climate change.” This article demonstrates, like conceptions of peace and justice, that so-called renewable energy continues the negative trajectory of development or the “war of progress” (Dunlap, 2014: 55). While the proliferation of “low-carbon” energy infrastructure conflicts are becoming well documented (Avila, 2018; Temper et al., 2020), the negative socio-ecological impacts are far greater than we realize once the multi-dimensional harms of their supply-webs are acknowledged. This article proceeds by introducing the concept of renewable energy, before breaking down five ways to understand its reality, demonstrating the serious stakes involved in the uncritical embrace and celebration of so-called “renewable energy.” The final section concludes by discussing what appropriate low-carbon technologies might look like and forms of renewable energy we should aim to create. 

Rebranding Destruction: 5 Stages of Injustice

Why do people think that wind, solar, and hydrological energy factories are “renewable?” Provisionally, two reasons. Long-term marketing arising from the 1973 Oil Crisis, which gave birth to the US Department of Energy and other institutions (Bonneuil and Fressoz, 2016), which began promoting the idea of energy transition and renewable energy (see also Smil, 2016). Then, once juxtaposed to the ecological horrors of thermal energy and nuclear power (Mitchell, 2011; Churchill, 2003), solar, hydropower, and wind energy factories could be positioned as “clean,” if not “renewable.” Second, the knowledge claims that wind, solar, and hydrological resources are infinite. This perspective is limited and disrespectful, neglecting the reality of vital forces, or kinetic energy, and how they are harvested. While the effects might be subtle, even marginal (compared to mineral and hydrocarbon extraction), there is a vital degradation and dissipation that accumulates resulting in the domestication of rivers, wind, and solar resources from different environments. In the case of large-scale wind factory zones, a wind “velocity deficiency” heats up downwind climates and landscapes (Abbasi et al., 2016). Because of ecological insensitivities, or ignorance, a form of epistemic violence occurs that neglects the cumulative impact of kinetic energy extractivisms.

The application of the concept of “renewable energy” remains riddled with epistemic prejudice and embedded with techno-capitalist values: utility, profit, and socio-ecological control. The category of “energy” itself and the laws of thermodynamics are highly problematic and deserve reorientation given their historical foundations (see Daggett, 2019). Epistemic insensitivity and the normalization of violence remains central to the war of techno-capitalist progress. These are animated further by briefly outlining five stages by which we should judge low-carbon energy generation technologies: raw material extraction, land contracting, operational impacts, energy use, and decommissioning. The intention here is to highlight how so-called “renewable energy” is a myth, perpetuating the war of progress predicated on injustice and skewed forms of peace.

Raw Material Extraction

The violence of low-carbon technologies hides within banal, yet complex supply-webs. This includes the procurement of raw materials, for example copper, aluminum, iron ore, rare earth elements, cobalt, lead, zinc, concrete, and so on. These procurement processes depend on large-scale hydrocarbon fueled infrastructures, from factories that produce mining equipment, mining operations, metal processing, smelting, manufacturing, and transportation. Coke coal is a key ingredient to smelting metal to create wind turbine steel towers or solar panel frames (Smil, 2016). The point, however, is more profound: every single aspect of so-called renewable energy infrastructure depends on extensive processes of hydrocarbon and mineral extraction. Which, as has been said elsewhere (Dunlap, 2018, 2019a), we might conceive so-called renewable energy as an accumulation of fossil fuel based extraction and manufacturing processes or fossil fuel+ technologies. The plus, here, symbolizes and recognizes the additional capturing of wind, solar or hydrological kinetic energy in connection with an enormous supply-web built on hydrocarbon extractivism. 

There are, however, efforts to confront this, from wood based wind turbine towers (Lavars, 2020) to smelting plants operating on dam power (Hobson, 2017), to electric mega-dump trucks and digitalized or “smart” mining infrastructure (Fedulova et al., 2020). Despite these efforts, the enormous amount of resources needed for manufacturing “smart” technologies, the continuing reality of mineral extraction, and the expansive growth imperative within capitalism remain ignored (with the exception of Degrowth advocates, see D’Alisa, 2014; Hickel, 2020).  According to the World Bank (Hund et al., 2020: 11), under the moderate low-carbon development scenarios, “production of graphite, lithium, and cobalt will need to be significantly ramped up by more than 450 percent by 2050—from 2018 levels—to meet demand from energy storage technologies.” This includes a demand for aluminum and copper, under the same scenario, to rise to “103 million tons and 29 million tons by 2050, respectively.” This is across the board with other minerals, which are conservative (and incomplete) estimates that ignore secondary energy infrastructure needs (e.g. transmission towers and substations). While being positive about low-carbon energy infrastructures, the World Bank acknowledges the issue that “clean energy technologies… need more materials than fossil-fuel-based electricity generation technologies” (Hund et al., 2020: 11). This is why, when the Green New Deal (GND) makes righteous—and justified—proclamations against the fossil fuel industry, but claims smart technologies and electric vehicles are the remedy, we are witnessing a concerning combination of cognitive dissonance and green capitalist opportunism. There is a high-level unaccountability for digital technology supply chains/webs and, in reality, the GND should be negotiating with the hydrocarbon industry to redirect their efforts to create a flourishing green capitalism. Because unfortunately, as the term fossil fuel+ suggests, these industries are intimately intertwined and both affirm the existing ecological and climatic trajectory.  

Land Contracting

Photo by Miguel Mejia Castro

The next central issue is the process of securing land for developing “low-carbon” energy infrastructures. Land grabbing and control is more complicated than originally theorized (Franco and Borras, 2019; Oliveira et al., 2020), reflected in forms of how land is negotiated and controlled. It is analytically useful to think of land control emerging on a porous and cross-pollinating spectrum based on various intensities—or speeds—of coercion. At one end of the spectrum, there is “land expropriation,” which entails dispossessing populations rapidly with the military, police and extra-judicial forces in a “scorched-earth” or “bulldozer” approach. Said differently, people are violently taken from their land by security forces.  Secondly, there is the “moderate” approach. While always backed by the threat of coercive force, the moderate approach “rolls out” a process of institutional, sometimes “democratic” or market-based procedures to accomplish land expropriation. Land expropriation, in this approach, is time consuming, entangled with a series of bureaucratic legal procedures, consultations exercises, and compensation schemes for proposed land acquisitions and deals (Dunlap, 2020b). Important, however, is the controversial and contested nature in which these procedures unfold. Ideally, these land acquisitions—or “grabs”—seek to legitimize the land expropriation process, having inhabitants accept the offered processes that reinforce the socio-economic exchange for the desired land and/or natural resources. 

The third approach is a market-based focused land expropriation. Land acquisitions, embedded with statist-economic logics, are justified by market-mechanisms. Companies or government agencies negotiate with individual landowners or collective bodies to acquire land. This form of land control is more common in democratic countries and depends on old and new land regularization and privatization schemes. The coercive aspect, which transforms land deals into land grabbing (see Dunlap, 2020a), emerges with elite manipulation of institutions, acts of deception by companies or intermediaries (e.g. terms and conditions; payments; collective and individual benefits) and various forms of intimidation and threats of violence (e.g. verbal, physical and social) by intermediaries, police or other extra-judicial actors. 

Finally, at the other end of the spectrum, are land deals (as opposed to land grabs), which are non-coercive, legally and socially understood as legitimate by local populations. This coincides with increasingly complicated production webs and (sub)contracting schemes (see Franco and Borras, 2019; Oilveira et al., 2020). Observably, highly contested land deals are often portrayed this way, when in actuality they operate within the former three spectrums. The point, however, is that land contracting for different energy infrastructure projects, especially in the Global South, operates between a wide spectrum of coercive land grabbing and non-coercive land deals. 

Operational Impacts

The arrival of low-carbon energy generation technologies has significant operational impacts. Principally, there are three overlapping categories to consider: ecological, social and economic. Social and economic impacts relate to the arrival of foreign capital and workers to the region. This includes different class and cultural dynamics entering rural areas, which entails a new gentry of developers: managers and skilled workers. Different socio-cultural backgrounds merge, which entails new habits and lifestyles—or the reinforcement of existing lifestyles—that center on drugs, sex workers, and other “Boomtown” or “Man Camp” dynamics associated with (skilled) migrant labor (Kirsch, 2014; Ennis and Finlayson, 2015; Ruddell and Ray, 2018).  Similar developments emerge with large-scale wind energy development (see Lucio, 2016; Dunlap, 2017; 2019), which, in general, deserve greater acknowledgement and scrutiny across the development of low-carbon infrastructural projects. 

Ecologically, solar and wind projects require the clearing of land, which necessitates, depending on the geography, different levels of deforestation, habitat loss, and soil compaction with the construction of roads (Yenneti et al., 2016; Dunlap, 2019a; Yang et al., 2017; Dar et al., 2020). Wind turbines have, depending on subsoil features, between 7-14 meters (32-45 ft.) deep and about 16-21 meters (52-68 ft.) in diameter concrete foundations, that along with roads, subterranean, or above ground power lines, will also have significant environmental impacts (Dunlap, 2017, 2019a; Tabassum-Abbasi et al., 2014; Dar et al., 2020). In the unique Santa Teresa sand bar, in Oaxaca, Mexico, bedrock depths ranged between 17-48 meters (56-157 ft.) for wind turbines. Geographic, hydrological and socio-cultural perspective and/or relationships will dictate levels of resistance and, consequently, reveal the socio-ecological impacts. 

While wind turbines have reportedly leaked oil (lubricating the turbines) into the ground and open wells (Dunlap, 2019a), solar plants risk leaking coolant liquids (Yang et al., 2018). Dar and colleagues (2020: 9) claim that “many activities can continue to occur among the operating turbines, such as agriculture, aquaculture, and grazing.” Empirical studies, however, suggest greater complications. Animals grazing around wind turbines has led to numerous reports from locals claiming that oil leaking from wind turbines has affected the health, reproduction, and has even killed cattle (see Dunlap, 2019a; Siamanta, 2019), which combines with negative soil compaction and changes in hydrology that can negatively impact agricultural practices (Lucio, 2016; Dunlap, 2019a). Wind parks are also known for killing avian species—birds and bats (Tabassum-Abbasi et al., 2014) – and solar projects contribute to four types of light pollution: urban sky glow, light trespass, glare, and clutter (see Yang et al., 2018). This includes variegated marine life and human impacts (Tabassum-Abbasi et al., 2014), which requires greater acknowledgement, further research, and connecting ecological studies with social science research to further unravel the total impact of low-carbon infrastructures. There are increasing and unexpected ecological costs, the severity of which depends on geographic location, quantity of turbines or solar park density, and the mitigation measures put in place.

Energy Use

Energy use remains another central factor in analyzing low-carbon infrastructures. “Clean,” “renewable,” and low-carbon infrastructures are celebrated for their environmentally friendly qualities, yet they often emerge to power ecologically destructive practices. The Isthmus of Tehuantepc region, as mentioned before, with over 2,000 wind turbines, powers Wal-Mart, CENMEX, Grupo Bimbo (industrial food), mining companies (GrupoMexico & Peñoles), and various industrial construction companies. This also includes exporting energy to Guatemala, Belize, and the United States, while towns are engulfed by wind turbines as electricity prices are increasing (Dunlap, 2019a). In Catalyuna, Jaume Franquesa (2018: 231) recognizes the “extractive, centralized character of wind energy development has emerged without any concomitant vision of development for the locals.” National and transnational companies managing so-called renewable energy in southern Catalyuna, articulate ownership, decision making, and profiteering schemes that are largely external to the region (Franquesa, 2018). Greece and Crete exemplify similar dynamics with solar and wind energy development. As Christina Siamanta explains (2017, 2019: 289), in post-crisis Greece, wind and solar energy are employed as “interrelated marketisation, reregulation, deregulation and privatisation strategies.” Siamanta and Dunlap (2019) contend the privatization and profiteering from “renewable” resources exemplifies a process of “accumulation by wind energy.” 

Various mining and construction companies, as well as Google, are utilizing solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources for their operations. Examples of energy extraction companies range from Gas Natural Fenosa, which is investing in wind parks in Mexico (Dunlap, 2019a) and RWE coal mines in Germany, which is setting up their own green daughter company — “Innogy” — to invest in wind energy and other “renewables” after spending years subverting and lobbying against them (Brock, 2020b).  Grupo Mexico also owns a wind park in Mexico and solar parks in the US to refine a “green” image, while mining copper and other minerals in southern Peru (Dunlap, 2019b). Chile, meanwhile, has developed wind and solar energy generation as central to expanding mining operations (Furnaro, 2019). The magazine Energy and Mines is completely dedicated to promoting the use of renewable energy in mining, documenting the rising quantity of mining projects, enlisting the help of wind, solar, and other forms of kinetic energy extraction in the service of conventional resource extraction. Dunlap and Andrea Brock (2021) call this the “renewable energy-extraction nexus” (Dunlap, 2018), which demonstrates the intimate and mutually reinforcing web of conventional and green resource extraction that collaborate in the processes of capital accumulation and techno-capitalist development. 


Sovacool et al., 2020
From Sovacool et al., 2020

Finally, decommissioning solar and wind energy projects happens after 25-40 years. The high-grade industrial toxics associated with photovoltaic solar leads to various concerns about proper disposal and recycling methods, which companies are hesitant to take up (Aman et al., 2015). The World Bank report discusses two recycling analyses: End of life (EOL), which gives how much of a mineral is recycled at the end of its use in a product; and recycled content (RC), which gives the percentage of secondary material that goes into end-use demand for a mineral” (Hund et al., 2020: 25). Recycling analysis, moreover, needs to account for four factors that the WB report (Hund et al., 2020: 28) describe as “shifting electricity mix, reducing ore grades, relative prices of commodities, and changing mining and production techniques.” As the WB report (Hund, et al., 2020: 25) explains, aluminum, which has “recycling rates as high as 90 percent in some countries,” has further issues:    

[T]he recycled content of new aluminum products has been estimated at between 34 and 36 percent. This is because the availability of scrap is simply not enough to meet the growing demand for aluminum. In addition, some recycling processes cause losses in the material itself and it may not be technically or economically feasible to recover material suitable for recycling from some applications.

This demonstrates the complications of different recycling analyses, as well as the intense levels of aluminum extraction required for energy transition.

Lithium, for Li-ion batteries, has a particularly low recycling rate, less than 1%. Between 2017-2030, it is expected that there will be 11 million tons of spent lithium ion batteries in need of recycling (Sovacool et al., 2020). This relates to material losses in recycling processes, which includes the technical or economic feasibility to recover the suitable quality of material from the recycling process (Hund et al., 2020). The WB report states that Aluminum has a 42-70% EOL and 34-36% RC rate; Cobalt has a 68% EOL and 32% RC rate; Copper has a 43-53% EOL and 20-37% RC rate; and Nickel has 57-63% EOL and 29-41% RC rate (Hund et al., 2020: 25). Recycling rates will vary according to technological changes, valuation and institutional regulations. Yet, it should be remembered, while steels have high-levels of recyclability (between 80-90%), they are often “locked-up in long-term, durable structures, limiting the amount of steel that is available for recycling, especially when demand is increasing” (Hund et al., 2020: 84).  A typical household solar system entails roughly 80 kgs of waste, compared to 3.5 kgs from computer notebooks, while the 2016 global solar panel waste stands around 3250,000t and 2050 estimations are 60 million tons (Sovacool et al., 2020). A 3.1-megawatt wind turbine, according to Sovacool and colleagues (2020: 4), creates “772 to 1807 tons of landfill waste, 40 to 85 tons of waste sent for incineration, and about 7.3 tons of e-waste per unit,” with estimates of 100,000 new wind turbines by 2050, creating 730,000 tons of e-waste. 

The amount of industrial waste generated for low-carbon technologies is extensive and under acknowledged. Forthcoming articles will elaborate more on these issues. The purpose here, however, is to recognize this problem associated with industrial and low-carbon infrastructural development. This should revitalize and begin creating new pressures on the developmental direction and trajectory most familiar to people acclimated to industrial environments. Green capitalism and so-called “renewable” energy generation technologies are not creating a future predicated on peace, justice, and sustainability. Instead, low-carbon technologies are animating and advancing the war of progress in line with the development of industrial civilization and techno-capitalism — a trend that must change for the better.  


This article has outlined how so-called “renewable” energy and low-carbon infrastructures in fact advance environmental discord and injustice. By examining the concept of “renewable energy” and outlining five central processes of low-carbon energy development and life cycles, issues of extreme socio-ecological concern arise.  This, however, in no way suggests that low-carbon technologies cannot perform a positive (post)developmental role. In fact, they do (on micro and community scales) and can continue to develop in a more positive and ecologically reaffirming direction (see Burke and Stephens, 2018; Batel and Rudolph, 2020; Siamanta, 2021). Yet, this will require structural changes in how we think about low-carbon technologies, and further grounding our perceptions and conceptions of them to acknowledge their extensive socio-ecological costs, which must be reconciled. 

The challenge begins by asking: how can we make renewable energy a reality and practice? This, arguably, necessitates taking control of how one produces and consumes electricity; understanding its socio-ecological costs; and trying to create a reciprocal relationship to repair and nourish the costs of extractivism associated with energy infrastructure. This is a significant challenge obstructed by energy infrastructure designed for profit, breakdown, and expansion. This is a call for building nourishing socio-ecological infrastructures or, as Christina Siamanta (2021) charts, community renewable energy ecologies (CREE) that improve the qualitative and relational dimensions of environments. All infrastructures must be genuinely socially and ecologically renewable to humans, nonhumans, and their habitats. This is challenging and antithetical to techno-capitalist development, but a multi-dimensional necessity for a truer sense of peace and justice.

The first step is minimizing energy-use, encouraging strategies of (material-energy) degrowth, and employing existing micro and meso (community) scale fossil fuel+ technologies in a responsible way. This even entails asserting aspirations for “energy autonomy,” which means organizing autonomous energy use and resisting grid dependence and control (despite its convenience and benefit). Using existing technology to consume less in reasonable ways, disassociated from the techno-capitalist industrial complex that empowers militarism, political control, and rampant extractivism. Public policy can play an instrumental role in supporting this transitional development, but at present this looks disappointing. For the more organizationally concerned, bioregional political proposals (Sale, 2000) and libertarian Municipalism (Bookchin, 2015) are clear avenues to organize socio-ecologically renewable habitats. This, however, is not to discount chaotic organizing and antagonistic praxis in times with enormous challenges (Dunlap, 2020c). All experiments are open for creating real renewable energy and reciprocal habitats. 

Briefly considered. In urban areas, this might look like neighborhood or block cooperatives that are creating new architectural spaces utilizing passive solar, de-paving specific roads, innovative gardening and construction techniques that utilize space to employ micro-meso scale solar and wind energy generation systems. This can take communal or individual forms, yet state regulations are noticeable obstructions in this regard, highlighting a point of political intervention for the bureaucratically inclined. In suburban and rural areas, micro and meso scale wind and solar energy generation systems are feasible, which again can be direct or based on small-scale and decentralized grid systems. An industrial scale-wind turbine can generate a great deal of energy, and there are innovative ways for energy storage (e.g. pumped-storage electricity). All of these strategies, however, must work towards the active degrowth of consumer and techno-capitalist society, which entails focusing more on joyful activities (Hiking, surfing, skateboarding, meditating, climbing, etc.), improving ecological relationships through Indigenous knowledges (where you are located) and permaculture techniques. While this conclusion is limited and underdeveloped, the point is to create experiments in post-development to turn the term “renewable energy” into a reality and not just a billboard on the highway to permanent ecological and climate catastrophe. 


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Alexander Dunlap is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Development and Environment at the University of Oslo. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology, his PhD thesis examined the social ecological impact of wind energy development on the indigenous people of Oaxaca, Mexico. His work has critically examined police military transformations, market-based conservation, wind energy development and other extractive projects.