From Slaves to Oil to Sunlight
Africa has supplied the wants and desires of the global north with many many things over the years through the process known as colonialism. People talk about our times as being “post-Colonial”, as if somehow the process of Colonial resource extraction has ended and the people of Africa can once more live at peace without Europe sucking them dry of anything of any value. But then, if solar-energy is the solution to Climate Change, and Africa has lots of sunlight, why not just exploit Africa for that too?
Its one of the big problems of finding an equitable solution to Climate Change: how to find a new energy source that doesn’t rely on colonialism, land grabbing and exploitation when in practice fossil fuels have always relied on all of these. Many of you will be aware of at least the basic issue with bio-fuels: lands that should be used to grow crops for farmers in the global south being taken over for huge plantations to feed our cars and continue our consumerism. People lose their ability to support themselves just we can go on living in affluence.
But imagine that the very land in Africa was found to have a new usage for generating electricity. Not the fertile lands where crops can be grown but the stereotypical African desert. Who should get that electricity? Who should be in charge of that project? I suppose I hope anyone reading this might have the decency to answer “the local population”. Unfortunately, in our world where colonialism is alive and well, the answer is apparently Europe.
Enter Desertec, a consortium looking to build a series of vast solar arrays using North African desert space. Before we begin dissecting their project, it should be noted that the equipment they propose to use is very different from the kind of over-grown calculator-solar-cells that are being installed on some buildings in the UK, and which actually require a large emissions investment of in order to manufacture. In their defence, they’re using a system based on heating water to create pressure that will drive turbines, not unlike the conventional fossil fuel power station and the solar cooker combined.
But what should be alarming is that Desertec is essentially being designed with exclusively European energy usage in mind. Forget that electricity being used in Africa to help with development and improving base-line living conditions, it will simply be piped (wired I suppose) away north into Europe for our benefit. Just like slaves, crops, oil, diamonds, rubber, coffee, and so on and so forth.
Why is no one really up in arms about this? Perhaps its because we’ve become desensitised to the violations of Africa, accepting it as simply a fact that will always continue. Its a brilliant idea, but this consortium contains some dead giveaways as to the spirit of the project: old foes E.On are one of the biggest energy companies involved, yet again looking to make sure they hold the keys to power. There may be talk of “African Partners” but this is a recent development given the project launched in 2007 with an assumption that all the power would be transported to Europe rather than other parts of Africa.
This is a very critical issue in the run up to Copenhagen. It shows how a workable solution to climate change proposed by the Global North could very easily represent further oppression of the Global South. It highlights the ongoing, unattainable motivation of an uninterrupted electricity supply for all Europe’s current wants, trumping the very real and basic needs of the African continent, so often the most abused of all populations, who’s ability to support itself has consistently been sucked away to fuel our greed..