Interview: A feminist sociologist on renewable energy transition

After taking two Sociology of Globalization courses (SOC269 and SOC369) with Dr. Sourayan Mookerjea, I started to notice a key trend…climate change and its related energy issues are not just about the environment, but also all kinds of global, social and human rights issues.

I interviewed Dr. Mookerjea, Associate Professor of Sociology and Co-Director of the research project Feminist Energy Futures at the University of Alberta to for an introduction to energy transition, and its connections to social and feminist issues.



Freya: What is renewable energy transition? 

Mookerjea: I would say that the renewable energy transition is a social process of change that enables us to radically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. So, in other words, to decarbonise our societies. But there’s one key thing about this process- that we do it without reproducing the injustices of the world that was made with fossil fuels. If you think more deeply about what renewable means, then it has to include people’s lives in various ways as well.


F: What are the top 3 things you would want people to know about renewable energy transition?

M: The first thing would be that that it can’t be done through changes in consumption patterns alone. Of course, that is important, but just choosing between product A, B or C…That’s not going to be enough to make a transition happen because it won’t engage people deeply enough.

The second point is connected to the first, in that transition can’t be done through the market as the leading institution for setting priorities and allocating resources because the market gets itself tangled up in too many conflicting or contradictory imperatives.

Thirdly, the transition to renewables has to be just. We cannot externalize and outsource sacrifices to the world’s most powerless populations which is what the world economy has been doing for a long time to produce its wealth. We need to produce a different kind of wealth altogether which is common wealth.


F: Could you give me an example of a market contradictions for those who haven’t encountered this concept before?

M: I think Alberta gives us many. People in Alberta do care about the environment and don’t want runaway climate change. Yet we are caught up in this situation where we think that we have to expand the oil sands, and that we have to mine the last bit of bitumen, and that somehow, we can have our cake and eat it too.


F: What might one of the consequences for Albertans be, if we don’t pursue a renewable energy transition?

M: There’s a lot of things we need to be quite worried about in Alberta. Geographically and geologically, there’s a drought problem in this part of the planet. Because oil sands mining is so water-intensive, the danger of exhausting our water tables or polluting them is a major issue.

Further, we’ve never done anything like this before as a collective. Now, more than ever, we need to think about these issues not in terms of “us Albertans” versus everybody else in the world, but in terms of our identity as humans in an ecology of life- that’s absolutely fundamental. Despite wanting to do something about this and introducing a Climate Action Plan, our previous provincial government found it completely impossible to solve this problem at the level of the province alone.


Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 4.45.07 PM.png
Photo from Feminist Energy Futures website.


F: What light does sociology shed on renewable energy transitions? 

M: Sociology contributes a key idea in understanding how people experience their day-to-day lives. This idea is crisis, and how crises are connected to each other. As people have been saying, we’ve had an economic crisis in Alberta as the price of oil declined. People lost their jobs and unemployment rates have been rising. Well, that kind of a crisis is connected to a number of other experiences, such as poverty, mental illness, and a lack of belonging, which are also kinds of crises.


F: Who do you see as the most important actor in energy transitions? Who will/must drive the change?

M: I think one of the things that we have seen here in Alberta in but also everywhere else, for about 20 years now, is that political elites have all demonstrated that either they have no political will to do this, or they’re hopelessly confused about what to do. Although many have come up with a climate action plan, we still don’t even do many minimal steps. What’s left, and who will, in my view, drive this change are ordinary people.


F: How might ordinary people work towards this change?

M: It will require an alliance between two social groups who, historically, have had a very problematic relationship with one another. Firstly, the world’s marginalized, many of whom are, at the moment, very resentful of all kinds of institutions in the world today and, in fact, are increasingly listening to very worrying forms of leadership. Secondly, the people who are well-educated citizens, with a better understanding of how institutions and how to get things done in courts, classrooms, etc. Between these groups, people have to be able to work together. Otherwise there will be no change.


F: In your research with Feminist Energy Futures, you relate feminism to renewable energy transition.

M: People ask us this question all the time, about feminism and renewable energy transition. In a way, we called the project feminist energy futures to kind of invite that question because part of the issue is that people don’t easily associate feminism with renewable energy transition. How is it that the renewable energy transition has been gendered?


F: Tell us more.

M: The key we have drawn from feminism is the idea of sustainability, which is a buzz word now. If sustainability means anything at all, it has to mean the intergenerational sustainability of households and the people who make them up- not the sustainability of profit or of capital. Not of anything else but what is it that makes households flourish. All parts of people’s wellbeing, their health, the quality of the food that they eat, how they work, and what kinds of work that they do, is connected to the relationship that households have with each other and with their environments. So that is our methodological point of departure.


Dr. Mookerjea directing Perfect Storm, a feminist energy transition role-playing game.


F: Regarding energy transition: where do we start?

M: That’s a question that I’ve been thinking about for some time. Where we start is with developing alternative economic institutions that enable people to meet their needs in a world where these crises are deepening and the institutions that were built in the age of oil are failing people. The key tool people have in their hands is the ability to create cooperative organizations that produce a different kind of wealth which people can relate to, distribute and exchange…we can begin to build from there.


F: Any final thoughts?

M: It might be beneficial to highlight that there are a number of social movements around the world that are working in parallel on this issue, such as the energy democracy, Transition Towns, and anti-poverty movements. Many social justice movements have come together in this crisis based on common interests, which has created a remarkable opportunity for all kinds of people to start working together.

Freya H-T
Photos used with permission from Dr. Mookerjea.

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