Petro-Ghosts and Just Transitions

Latin America shows how hard it is for states dependent on oil and gas—that is, practically the whole world—to break with fossil fuel capitalism.

In Austin, Texas, momentum is growing for entwined political and economic programs that campaign not only against fossil fuels but for racial equity.1 Such a “just transition”—moving society away from fossil fuels and toward inclusive prosperity—is hard to imagine, even in a city like Austin, a city known for and proud of being “weird.”2 This is because Austin’s current wealth is founded on petrochemicals (oil and gas) produced within the renowned petrostate of Texas. Austin is weird, but even its weirdness can be traced back to geology and fossil-fuel capitalism. Earth systems set the stage, fueling oil wealth, with cascading effects across scales and systems. This doesn’t mean that Austin’s future is locked in, or that it can’t pull off a just transition. But it does mean that Austin—like all petrostates, like all polities the world over—is haunted by petro-ghosts: while the lingering specters of fossil-fuel capitalism don’t fully undercut alternatives, they do continue to shape them.

What will just transitions look like, and what will they take? These questions call for special attention today as the Biden administration promises to dramatically extend investment in both climate action and environmental justice in the United States.

There is also momentum in many other regions, at many scales, with work toward the Pacto Ecosocial del Sur (the Eco-Social Pact) in Latin America and plans for a just-transition-oriented Jubilee for the Earth across Asia Pacific and Oceania, for example. In the Latin American Eco-Social Pact, diverse groups have come together—in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—to build a vision for the future of the region that recognizes what the market can’t accomplish, and the ways human well-being is tightly coupled with ecological protection and restoration. The Jubilee for the Earth in Oceania and Asia Pacific is an initiative led by faith leaders with similar goals, calling for recognition of integral relationships between ecology, economics, politics, and social life.

Creative coalitions have also come together in cities, interlacing work toward just transition and Black self-determination. Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi powerfully tells one such story, describing practical initiatives to redistribute power and prosperity in the city by building community land trusts, gardens, kitchens, groceries, and other cooperatively run institutions.3

Decimation of oil and gas markets (exacerbated but not caused by the COVID-19 pandemic) clears ground for just transitions today. COVID-19 stimulus programs create specific, near-term opportunities for new directions.

Recently published books on oil and gas politics in Latin America help us envision what just transitions will entail—through their analyses of what just transitions must work against. These books provide important insight into Bolivia and Ecuador, and into fossil-fuel capitalism writ large. Bret Gustafson’s Bolivia in the Age of Gas describes the regime that was built to leverage Bolivia’s abundant natural-gas resources. Gustafson argues that fossil capital is inevitably violent and racist—and thus structurally unable to support left aspirations—with implications for places like Austin, no matter how weird and progressive it might be.


Energy “Realism” Is Climate Fatalism

By Sophia Kalantzakos

Questions about whether fossil fuel–based development can ever become just also animate Thea Riofrancos’s Resource Radicals. The book documents sharply divergent approaches to “twenty-first-century socialism”: one, focused on resource nationalism, pursues fossil fuels for collectivist ends; the other, focused on anti-extraction, operates on the belief (shared by Gustafson) that fossil fuels inevitably lead to injustice. Riofrancos’s analysis draws out the story behind the emergence and possibility of anti-extractivism as a political platform.

Together, these books push thinking about just transitions in important directions. They look backward, detailing the deeply entrenched cultural, political-economic, and technological formations that just transitions must work against. But they also look forward, sparking imaginings of what just transitions—as complex cultural, political-economic, and technological formations—will entail. Reading Gustafson and Riofrancos, it is clear that the petro-ghosts will haunt Austin and all other places pursuing just transitions; it is also clear that petro-ghosts, even if impossible to fully exorcize, can’t and don’t have to be allowed to rule.


Gaseous States

The “age of gas” in Bolivia that Gustafson details starts in the early 20th century with the country’s early oil exploration. This period continues through the 1960s and ’70s (when the first gas-export pipelines were built) and intensifies with the gas-commodity boom of the late 1990s, running through the fraught election of Evo Morales (who nationalized gas in 2006).

Notably, Gustafson points to the geologic backstory: the way earth-systems dynamics created a massive gas field in Bolivia’s central region, which is the territory of the Indigenous Guarani people (with whom Gustafson had worked earlier on language and education issues). The movements of the earth itself set the stage for Bolivia’s age of gas, over time coupling and entangling with other systems, especially Bolivia’s political system.

Until the 2000s, the region had been treated as peripheral by a state more focused instead on the Andes region and the mining industry. This sidelining by the state changed with the Asia-centered commodity boom in the early 2000s, which increased the demand for and price of natural gas—launching a period of dramatic, uneven wealth creation in Bolivia. At this juncture, it was not only the earth but also increased demand for primary products in China that set the stage.

While the lingering specters of fossil-fuel capitalism don’t fully undercut alternatives, they do continue to shape them.

Bolivia in the Age of Gas moves through both geologic and political-economic time, tracking the hard logic of fossil-fuel capital across scales and systems. The geology matters, as do global consumption, imperialism, and industrialism (the last of these creating and legitimizing such intensive focus on productivity that concerns about sustainability—even of capitalist enterprises—are overrun). Building the technical and political-economic infrastructures of fossil-fuel capitalism becomes structurally linked to violent masculinities and destructive territorial appropriations. The connections between these are memorably illuminated by Gustafson, who directly connects the expansion of gas-industry activity to an increase in human trafficking, for example.

Fossil-fuel regimes regularly foment dissent, and Gustafson describes many ways this plays out in Bolivia—blockades, strikes, and mobilizations of miners to seize mines, for example. Gustafson’s key argument, however, is that petro-capitalism produces petro-cultures, which tend to overtake and overdetermine all resistance. In other words, fossil-fuel capitalism seizes not only the technical means of production but also memory and political imagination. The lessons for continued work toward just transitions are harsh. Gustafson makes baldly clear how fossil-fuel capitalism and a narrow focus on gas rents destroy not only landscapes but also fair political systems, ways of life, and ways of thinking. Gaseous states, Gustafson shows, cloud thought and take the breath out of alternatives. Gas—as both material and metaphor—is shown to be powerful indeed. Petrostates—all states, in effect—are like houses inhabited by ghosts that refuse to leave.


Resource Radicalisms

While not contradicting Gustafson, Riofrancos pushes in a different direction. Her focus is on how energy regimes have moved and can continue to move. Instead of focusing on the power of gas, she focuses on the power of discourse, and how movements of discourse can change the world.

Riofrancos’s story is about the emergence of anti-extractivist visions within petro-leftism, foregrounding both the role of social movements and the role of actors within Ecuador’s state apparatus. Her argument is that change can come from within, through slow and steady changes in the way people think and talk. Riofrancos recounts, for example, how indigenous leaders came to recognize resource nationalism as a disguised perpetuation of a centuries-long process of colonial extraction.

One of Riofrancos’s priorities is to contest approaches to social movements that treat them as mere responses to state or corporate policies, ideologies, and strategies. Instead, Riofrancos locates both state-sponsored and popular resource radicalisms “in a field of political struggle,” where positions and oppositions emerge in tandem. Centering on the shift from nationalist, extractivist development to anti-extractivism, Riofrancos shows there to be “a mutually determining relationship between how we talk about social life and the social structures that constrain and enable certain forms of political action.” In other words, a dialectic exists between the material conditioning of the political challenges we face and the discourses we develop and deploy to overcome them. And these discourses, too, have a way of feeding back on themselves. Riofrancos shows “how new problematics almost always involve recontextualized redeployments of discursive elements from earlier periods.” The work of activism and energy-regime shift, then, is partly about the gradual creation of new structures of meaning—like anti-extractivism in Ecuador or Austin’s nascent equity-centered environmentalism—that accrete, take shape, and become new grounds of possibility.


Just Transitions?

Gustafson reminds us that just transitions won’t unfold on blank slates—that undoing fossil-fuel capital will require what could be called backward integration of new social as well as technical and economic relations. For instance, his careful analysis of the divisive territorial politics of collecting gas rents gives flesh and feeling to the classic argument that capitalism dissipates and destroys social capital and collaborative sociality. Just transitions will have to rebuild these. Gustafson also shows how fossil-fuel capital locks in regimes of meaning, further undercutting alternative possibilities. The success of gas-contract negotiations, whatever the externalities, is often experienced as the endgame, for example. Ideas about different, more inclusive, and sustainable goals are off-grid, so to speak.

Riofrancos, on the other hand, shows that regimes of meaning can shift, through the slow work of building discursive alternatives.

Where can we go, thinking in these terms—considering the factors and forms, the scales and systems that produce conditions of possibility for just transitions? We’ll consider this very concretely, thinking through the implications for just transition in Austin, Texas, where a key turn in the story took place a century ago.

In 1923, the Santa Rita No. 1 struck oil on land belonging to the University of Texas (UT), turning the value of the permanent university fund (PUF) from a mere pittance to $4 million in just a few years. In 1928, the PUF was restructured to allow the university to issue bonds against the PUF’s annual income, which could be spent on capital purchases like land, buildings, and machinery. UT’s strength as a university—and as a center for energy research in particular—began to grow, with great momentum. That same year, Austin passed the 1928 Master Plan, which designated East Austin as the city’s industrial sector and the segregated “Negro District.”4 Long after legal segregation was abolished, East Austin continued to be Austin’s sacrifice zone. Alongside its weirdness and recognition as one of the best places to live in the United States, Austin has also consistently ranked among the top cities in the United States for income inequality.5

Moving beyond petro-capital will be possible, though petro-ghosts will haunt every house and initiative.

In the mid-1980s, as Texas weathered the infamous OPEC-driven oil bust, Austin’s real estate market crashed, and the city’s numerous newly built skyscrapers went vacant. In parallel, in 1984, Texas passed a constitutional amendment that enabled the University of Texas to increase the issue of bonds against its permanent university fund to 30 percent of the billions of dollars of accrued fossil-fuel revenues. Bond revenue was then used to acquire the properties and build the infrastructure needed to lure high-tech industry to the city.6 This made the city and university more competitive for government partnerships and R&D funding in burgeoning industries like renewable energy. In 1989, UT founded the Austin Tech Incubator, which in 2001 in turn founded the Clean Energy Incubator, one of the oldest and longest-run such organizations in the United States.

Renewable energy became a prominent means of keeping Austin going and, to some extent, weird. As Ecuador and Bolivia invested in oil-and-gas nationalism, Austin invested in solar and wind—powered, ironically, by many of the same logics and structures of fossil-fuel capitalism. For many leading Austin’s energy transition, the necessity and value of economic growth and energy intensification continued to be assumed; technological fixes were fetishized; negative externalities (skyrocketing property values, coupled with increasing policing, for example) weren’t anticipated or acknowledged; environmental justice was barely in the conversation. Meanwhile, deindustrialization and gentrification in the city intensified, and Austin became the only city of its size and growth rate in the United States to undergo consistent Black attrition.7

In Austin, fossil-fuel capital plus a business-friendly regulation environment built a high-tech and R&D sector that, on top of the charming local landscape and vibrant cultural scene, drew in a new, young, and elite (majority Californian) population to the city. As this new elite moved into formerly neglected East Austin neighborhoods, policing and police violence increased.8 As Gustafson described in Bolivia, upswings in (petro)investment have driven aggressive, racialized territorialism.

Dissent has brewed and cohered over time in Austin. Similar to what Riofrancos describes in Ecuador, the work in Austin has been slow and cumulative. In the 1990s, for example, People Organized in Defense of Earth and her Resources (PODER) came together to protest local environmental injustices in Austin, foregrounding uneven distributions of pollution in the city. Ironically, real estate developers took advantage of these critiques to accelerate redevelopment of the city’s central-business district and the former industrial areas in the eastern corridor. This arrangement satisfied Austin’s liberal-minded environmentalists, whose attention was focused on the problem of suburban sprawl to the west, which would impact the beloved springs and wooded areas above the Edwards Aquifer. Environmental-justice activists had different views. As in Ecuador, the divergence of competing progressive visions became increasingly apparent.


Personal Comfort, Planetary Costs

By Jacob Goessling

By 2019, a discursive shift akin to the one in Ecuador drawn out by Riofrancos had begun to take hold in Austin. At this point, PODER and other social- and environmental-justice organizations had been organizing in Austin for decades, winning significant victories. For example, Undoing Racism Austin started hosting trainings, educating Austinites about the historic and present struggles against environmental racism in their city. In 2016, the City of Austin established an Equity Office “to focus on advancing equity in all aspects of City operations.” In the summer of 2019, as Austin’s Office of Sustainability prepared to update their 2015 climate-protection plan, “it became clear not only from our stakeholders, but from city commission members as well as our Equity Office, that we couldn’t create a plan focused on climate change in the city of Austin without addressing inequities.”9

Just as the meaning and politics of resource radicalism have shifted in Latin America, the meaning and politics of environmental radicalism have shifted in Austin. Through building and borrowing, but also diverging from Austin’s investment in weirdness, racial equity is now an explicit, institutionalized aspiration, creating new conditions of possibility. Commitment to energy transition has become—for many—a commitment to a just transition. It is exciting to watch and support. But both organizational capacity and new structures of meaning still need to be built, at many scales. As we write, Elon Musk and other techno-fetishists are mobilizing well-funded efforts to convert Austin’s fossil-fuel-capital regimes into renewable doppelgängers, all in the name of saving our planet, but also to save and even bolster fossil-fueled ways of life. Gustafson’s work provides a strong warning here, reminding us how the endgame of petro-logic is far from inclusive and prosperous for all. Riofrancos’s cue comes from another direction, warning us that we should not discount Austin’s grassroots and equity-centered opposition, though this opposition’s rejection of petro-logics is still struggling to cohere and gain ground.

What remains after reading Gustafson’s and Riofrancos’s new books is a palpable, hard-to-shake sense of the lingering power of fossil-fuel capitalism. Gustafson puts it well, describing the political challenge for future generations as “rethinking radical and progressive change that can move beyond the social and ecological violence inherent in the material things we know as fossil fuels and the excesses they intensify.” Moving beyond petro-capital will be possible, though petro-ghosts will haunt every house and initiative.


This article was commissioned by Joanne Randa Nucho. icon

  1. Austin is the site of James Adams’s extended ethnographic research and a node in a collaborative project to characterize “quotidian anthropocenes.” The quotidian-anthropocene project is designed to entwine critical localism and critical globalism (as also called for by Bret Gustafson, drawing on the work of Venezuelan anthropologist Fernando Coronil), through collaborative research practices that link researchers with one another and with local experts in different places, moving between sites to understand their particularities, capacities, and needs in a planetary frame. Austin was scheduled to be the next stop on the quotidian-anthropocene tour (after its touching down in St. Louis, New Orleans, and Seoul), before the COVID-19 halt. Adams’s work in Austin has nevertheless continued, examining how different understandings of energy transition interrelate and are driving Austin’s transition planning.
  2. Joshua Long, Weird City: Sense of Place and Creative Resistance in Austin, Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010).
  3. Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi (Daraja, 2017); see also Bertie Russell, “Jackson Rising,” openDemocracy, September 13, 2018.
  4. Koch and Fowler Consulting Engineers, “A City Plan for Austin, Texas,” Austin City Planning Commission, 1928.
  5. Austin, Texas, Is the No. 1 Best Place to Live, according to US News and World Report,” US News and World Report, April 9, 2019; Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander, Segregated City: The Geography of Economic Segregation in America’s Metros (Martin Prosperity Institute, 2015).
  6. Eliot M. Tretter, Shadows of a Sunbelt City: The Environment, Racism, and the Knowledge Economy in Austin (University of Georgia Press, 2016).
  7. Eric Tang and Chunhui Ren, “Outlier: The Case of Austin’s Declining African-American Population” (issue brief, Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, University of Texas at Austin, May 8, 2014); see also “Top Ten Demographic Trends in Austin, Texas,” City of Austin, updated March 2016.
  8. See Tane Ward, “East Austin Mosaic: The Shape and Color of Gentrification” (working paper, University of Texas, 2009).
  9. See Austin’s climate-program manager Zach Baumer’s presentation during this panel discussion of the climate-equity planning process.
Featured-image photograph by Zbynek Burival / Upsplash