19 November 2018

Jesse Hoffman on the dangers of the transition to sustainability

The social risks of sustainability

Zonnepanelen op een dak

Positive, green and small-scale — these three words are often associated with sustainable energy. According to Jesse Hoffman, postdoc and researcher at Utrecht University Urban Future Studios (UFS), the reality is far more fickle. ‘The transition to sustainability is fraught with risks. The world could suffer from many negative consequences, both large and small.’

Cycle through any Dutch neighbourhood and you’re bound to spot a few roofs with solar panels on them, but have you ever thought about how these polished panels are widening the gap between rich and poor? ‘To give an example, poor families in rented homes cannot afford solar panels, which means the benefits go to the wealthy, increasing inequality in society,’ says Hoffman, a political scientist who completed his PhD at the University of Amsterdam on the role of power relationships in the energy transition.

Nobody is interested in abstract reports of gas-free neighbourhouds
Jesse Hoffman

His own research and that of his colleagues in South Africa and India have revealed countless examples all over the world. ‘In the Global South, sustainable energy gives rich enclaves a nice opportunity to stabilise their energy supply. This only serves to bolster their position and autonomy, and ultimately means they can seclude themselves from the rest of society. An example is in India, where a solar energy sector has emerged with all manner of hightech startups. The result is a kind of local economy that is only accessible to a small group of people. In thirdworld countries, solar parks are being built alongside small villages that do not benefit from them at all. The profits often go straight to huge international companies.’

Afbeelding van zonnepaneel

According to Hoffman, the energy transition revolves around a question of power: who benefits and who does not? ‘The energy transition is often an issue of technology, which remains very abstract for many people. As a result, people often resort to the catchphrase “We need to reduce carbon emissions!” What is often left out is the social dimension. What is in it for the population, and why is it so important? My future research will go a step further, and look at the relationship between the energy transition and democracy.’ Although the number of local sustainable initiatives in the Netherlands is noticeably increasing, the opportunities are still largely going unnoticed. ‘The government and industry argue mostly in terms of economic efficiency and technology, but a convincing alternative perspective is often lacking that includes a proper consideration of social and political infrastructure.’

Through his work at the UFS, Hoffman is trying to change this. ‘We are working on an alternative rationale that looks at harnessing the democratic potential of the energy transition, including concrete policy options.’ This concept is explored in greater detail by the ‘Places of Hope’ exhibition in Leeuwarden, which appeals first and foremost to the imagination. ‘Nobody is interested in abstract reports of gas-free neighbourhoods. That’s why we are collaborating with designers and artists who can show the public the possibilities offered by the energy transition, and who encourage people to think about the possibilities, rather than the doom and gloom.’

Artists

It is a refreshing approach, says Hoffman, who organised an energydemocracy event in July that was attended by cooperatives, investors, architects, citizens and public servants at national and provincial level. ‘Researchers are good at classifying and defining problems, but not so good at showing the possibilities. Artists are far better at demonstrating possibilities, which is important, because a strong response to the climate crisis requires us to reimagine what is possible and desirable for the future