The North’s energy dependence impoverishes living environments in the Global South

The world is networked, and everyone is interdependent. Inexpensive energy solutions, a boon for some, can cause others serious harm that is difficult to compensate and fix.

In her project entitled ‘Repair and responsibility in ruined environments’, Professor of Global Development Studies Anja Nygren  investigates how to restore and recover areas where massive oil drilling and mining have been ongoing for a long time, extensive dam projects have been carried out and large tree plantations established.

“All of these activities are linked to global energy production, which means that they are not just projects somewhere out there,” Nygren says. 

Cheaper labour, but on what terms?

Nygren’s project focuses on, among other locations, Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, Indonesia and Cambodia. The project investigates the strong links between energy production in the countries, and the energy needs and transitions the Global North. Labour is cheaper in the South, but is the economy more important than the environment? 

“The living environments of people who are already disadvantaged have been subjected to enormous excavation, dredging and water cycle alterations, with the surface water, groundwater and soil severely polluted or impoverished in places partly precisely because of large-scale energy production projects,” says Nygren, answering her own question. 

Argentina, Bolivia and Chile have the world’s largest reservoirs of lithium, a primordial metal that is pumped from salt lakes to, for example, produce batteries for electric cars. Pumping is a cheaper solution compared to excavation from the rock, even though it consumes groundwater. 

“What kind of risks and socially unequally distributed detrimental effects are associated with the production of lithium and other strategic minerals for the needs of electric cars, especially when the production takes place in dry areas in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina where water is scarce and lithium production consumes a lot of water?”

In Indonesia, huge oil palm and tree plantations are being established to meet the Global North’s demand for biofuels. In Mexico, oil is extracted both on the mainland and at sea for both domestic needs and those of the Global North.

“What consideration should be given to the changes in water circulation caused by enormous dams and their effects on human food production and livelihoods? And how does the establishment of tree plantations affect sensitive tropic peatlands as well as the lives and livelihoods of local residents? All of these aspects must be considered when planning further action.”

From fossil fuels to renewable sources, different forms of energy are interlinked

Different forms of energy production are closely interlinked. Novel forms have not entirely replaced fossil fuel production. 

According to Nygren, it is important to examine the significance of the oil industry in the coming decades of evolving energy production, and how oil companies contribute to the restoration of living environments, the improvement of human livelihoods and social recovery in areas where oil has been drilled for decades and will continue to be drilled in the future.

Who is responsible for restoration? 

Nygren is interested in questions of responsibility. 

“Who is responsible for restoring such areas, improving livelihood opportunities and boosting social recovery?” the professor muses. “What are the future prospects in such areas, and how can we identify new kinds of coping strategies, methods of influencing and ways of being involved in decision-making?”

“We are investigating how such nearly destroyed environments can be restored and recovered so that they become viable and energy can be produced on a more sustainable and responsible footing.”

Nygren finds it important for people in these regions to feel that unequally distributed harms and long-term accumulations of suffering are recognized, and that people have the opportunity to make their voice heard in the plans pertaining to their living environments.

Social recovery after environmental disasters does not take place on its own. Instead, the private sector, the state and various civil society operators must be involved in addition to local people. 

Read more 

Heikkinen, A., Nygren, A. & Custodio, M. 2023. The slow violence of mining and environmental suffering in the Andean waterscapes. Extractive Industries and Society 

Nygren, A. & Lounela, A. 2023. Remaking of wetlands and copying with vulnerabilities in Mexico and Indonesia. Water Alternatives 16(1): 295-320. 

Käkönen, M. & Nygren, A. 2022. Resurgent dams: Shifting power formations, persistent harms, and obscured responsibilitiesGlobalizations. 

Nygren, A. 2021. Water and power, water’s power: State-making and socionature shaping volatile rivers and riverine people in Mexico. World Development 146: 1-17.