The Museum of Fetishes

by Nicholas Hildyard and Larry Lohmann

first published 31 March 2013

Too often, discussions about energy alternatives resemble a visit to a 1950s world's fair exhibition displaying exhibits of the wonderful technology of the future. Against one wall stand shiny replicas of new green machines – wind turbines, solar panels, fuel cells, hypercars, supergrids – alongside diagrams showing how environmentally benign they are. Against another are arrayed labeled bottles of new “substitutes” for oil, coal and gas – corn-based ethanol, rapeseed-based biodiesel, hydrogen cracked out of water, hydrocarbons extruded by algae. On the wall there may be posters diagramming space missions to mine rare metals and water from asteroids. And in the innermost hall are illuminated dioramas depicting vibrant, happy, orchard-dotted communities maintained by a “green growth” (or, alternatively, “steady state” or “dematerialized”) economy benevolently clicking along like clockwork – the gift of clever policymakers, managers and technocrats who have at long last listened to the correct advice and “got it right”.

Most of the politics and material realities associated with the various contraptions and conveniences on show, or with the energy they use and transform, are simply missing, as are the strategies of popular movements that might be considering and agitating for different futures.

How should these new visions of technological or economic salvation be read? What role do they play in the real-world politics of energy? How and what can we learn from them? And, if necessary, how can we change the subject? What is glossed over in such displays of “alternatives”is usually more important than what is in them, and there is work to be done in finding out what that is.

There is little question that an “energy alternatives” discussion is at least as essential as any other regarding human futures, especially for the industrialised societies whose use of fossil fuels is threatening human survival. But if it is not to degenerate into an irrelevant show of magic tricks, an overdue debt of attention must be paid to voices that up to now have too seldom been heard.