Energy Commons

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Overview page:

* Introduction: Energy from the Perspective of the Commons

Energy in the context of Commons Regimes

Larry Lohman:

"Commons regimes are regions of life in all societies that are neither private nor public. They may vest in their members the power to determine access to almost anything: land, forests, water, fish, radio wavelengths, seeds, streets.

Commons regimes are perhaps better defined through social characteristics than physical domains: local or group power, distinctions between members and nonmembers, rough parity among members, a concern with common survival and security rather than individual accumulation. The rules, regulations and practices of the commons ensure checks and balances on members’ activities and shared responsibilities, but are also adaptable to change. Commons regimes do not arise simply out of shared values, or common property or specific institutions – although all three play a part in shaping governance. Critically, they depend on an everyday struggle to limit the power of any one group or individual to exert control over others.

Commons are ubiquitous in industrialised and urbanised societies as well as in rural or historical societies. Contemporary commons include inshore marine commons, irrigation systems and forests as well as many city spaces.

In Denmark, wind power took off in the 1980s and 1990s as local residents set up wind turbine cooperatives. Planning permission for one turbine only on each farmer’s land was conditional upon cooperative shares being owned by local members only, thereby excluding those unconnected with the area, while the number of shares that each member could hold was limited. The ownership model led to high public acceptance of wind power, faster deployment and tremendous good will.

The structure was disrupted only in the late 1990s when the national government abolished restrictions on planning permission and ownership. Outside financial investors muscled their way in to build more and larger turbines, resulting in local opposition, bitter conflicts and long delays or cancellations."


Larry Lohman:

"The political influences over the concept of energy are no accident, but have had a particular historical development. The abstract concept of “energy” that we use today – call it Energy with a capital “E” – was not always there, with all its elusiveness and biases. Creating it took a lot of hard work. Just as commons were not always conceptualised as resources, water not always seen as H2O, and forests not always viewed as stands of timber or quantities of industrial pulpwood, a charcoal fire or a bullock drawing a plough through a field were not always regarded as an instance of characterless, quantifiable “energy consumption”.

Nor, in many societies, are they necessarily seen this way today. Understanding today’s notion of upper-case Energy as a relatively new development requires trying to recapture what was there before, and what will always remain as one foundation of energy politics: namely, the vernacular, varied, lower-case subsistence “energies” of commons regimes.

Lower-case “energies” are multiple, incommensurable. Each is associated with a particular survival purpose. Indeed, it is part of their logic that in ordinary speech they seldom go by any single name – least of all “energy”. Heat from burning biomass is used for cooking, washing, keeping warm, preparing land for seed. Light from the sun drives the growth of crops. Mechanical energy from animal muscle (or diesel engines) is used to get around the country. The amount of each “energy” used is fitted to the task at hand. What would be the point of using twice as much wood as you needed to bake a loaf of bread? In times of hardship, moreover, it is expected that specific “energies” will be shared around so that even the poor have a crack at them. On remote mountain roads in the global South (and the North), it is a given, not a choice, that drivers of pickup trucks will give lifts to whomever they encounter on foot, even if there is hardly any room.

Outside the ambit of fossil fuels, what we now call energy had a different relationship to time – and still has today. The accumulation of plant growth required for food for muscle power depends on the annual rhythm of the seasons, and the growth of wood over several years if not decades of sunlight. Work has to be done mostly during the hours of daylight. Before the age of coal and oil, plant (and marine life) energy stored and concentrated over millions of years deep underground played little part in either livelihood or commerce.

Outside the fossil-fuelled world, energy has always also been tied to a multitude of disparate but particular activities that have no omnibus category or abstract quantity linking them all. There was seldom any reason, for example, to treat heat and mechanical energy as equivalent or exchangeable, physically or economically.

As economic historian Joel Mokyr notes:

“the equivalence of the two forms was not suspected by people in the eighteenth century; the notion that a horse pulling a treadmill and a coal fire heating a lime kiln were in some sense doing the same thing would have appeared absurd to them.”

Agriculture was driven by sunlight and muscles, long-range trade by wind and water currents. Cooking and heating depended on wood and sometimes coal, which, together with charcoal and falling water, helped power industry. People did not think of themselves as “energy constrained” in the contemporary sense: an energy unbounded by seasons and the land still lay in the future. Capital “E” Energy as we know it today was in fact nowhere to be found.

What we now recognise as Energy was also embedded in particular places in a fairly non-flexible geographical pattern. In European countries, grain-milling was scattered across the countryside, depending on where rivers could provide sufficient mechanical energy. As late as 1838, water still powered one-quarter of Britain’s cotton factories (and even the coal-powered upstarts were nevertheless called “mills” in a mark of their watery heritage). The size of towns depended on how much firewood was available within range of horse-powered transport.

Global trade relied on understanding geographically specific wind patterns that had to be worked with, not against. Energy was not mobile, liquid, transferable in large quantities over long distances. The age of Btus, kilojoules and oil-equivalents lay in an unimagined future.

As a result, there was no politics of energy of the kind that has become familiar in the fossil-fuel era. Controlling muscles meant controlling people and animals. Amassing power over production meant, above all, amassing human bodies – through slavery, for example. Exploitation of firewood and charcoal depended on access to land. How energy was used was subject to different kinds of monitoring: for example, the practices of millers scattered along rivers were vulnerable, to a certain extent, to surveillance by the local peasants whose business they sought. One person could control only limited quantities of energy, both in absolute terms and relative to others."


  • Report: Energy Security For What? For Whom? Corner House, February 2012

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Related items:

  1. Petroleum Commons
  2. Solar Commons