Families across the world are staying home to try to stop the transmission of a deadly virus. Millions of people are out of work, making it tough to pay the bills. In many places, reliable and affordable access to water and energy sources is not a given, putting millions of people at higher risk to contract the virus.
In Houston, Texas, a mother of three who was let go from her explained the choice she had to make: food or utility bills. “I spent all of our money on food,” she said as the electric utility disconnected her. “That’s all that I could do. For a family of five with no income, we didn’t have enough for anything else.” Half a world away in Lagos, Nigeria, a utility union has pointed out that people are unable to wash their hands to stay safe because privatization has limited access to water. Our energy and water systems are hampering our ability to combat the crisis.
While Covid-19 has amplified the problem, our water and energy systems were making us sick prior to the pandemic. Fossil fuels power much of the world’s energy system, catalyzing climate change and creating “sacrifice zones”—communities shouldering more than their fair share of harmful pollution— across the world. Histories of extractive economic development and disinvested systems have also created a water pollution crisis, and water scarcity will be significantly exacerbated by climate change. Often, those communities most likely to experience increased risks from Covid-19—due to poverty, a dearth of secure housing and infrastructure, and lack of access to public services and good jobs—are also those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Moreover, the toxic combination of free-market fundamentalism and imperialism that has driven the climate crisis has proven both untenable and incapable during the pandemic.
Any effort to rebuild the economy must take on both the current crisis and the next existential risk: climate change. It must treat access to basic services like energy and water systems as human rights and public goods, not as commodities to be bought and sold on private markets. It must address the international nature of both the pandemic and climate change in a way that confronts systemic inequities, providing a framework for reparations. To accomplish any of this, we need to reclaim and rebuild our public services.
Full exploitation of oil, gas, and coal reserves in already-operating fields would take the world beyond the already unsafe level of 1.5 degrees warming. The fossil fuel industry’s vice-grip on politics across the world has proven a massive obstacle to abating the problem in time. It isn’t only carbon emissions that are an issue, though. Communities and local ecosystems are sacrificed to extract and produce fossil fuels, particularly in lower-income communities or communities of color, for the benefit of corporate interests. In Colombia, for example, activists have called out the Canadian company Pacific Exploration & Production for its multiple environmental damages, negative impacts on indigenous communities, and violations of labor regulations. In the United States, Black families are more likely to reside next to fossil fuel infrastructure and therefore endure a litany of health effects, like higher rates of asthma or cancer. We need to end fossil fuel extraction and exploitation, and transform energy systems and supply chains towards energy democracy — a democratic, renewable energy system that equitably distributes benefits and burdens. Democratic public and community ownership over our energy systems is an integral step towards actualizing energy democracy. Not only do we need control over our energy utilities so they truly treat access to clean energy as a human right, we also need to reclaim fossil fuel reserves so that they are no longer exploited, putting our communities and environment out of harm’s way.
Around the world, water pollution continues to be a massive problem, with corporations dumping pollutants into rivers and streams (including in the process of fossil fuel extraction). Water access will also become more unpredictable due to climate change — by 2050, it is estimated that 6 billion people will be affected by some form of water scarcity. Furthermore, water scarcity has the potential to exacerbate inequalities and incite domestic and international conflict. For instance, as climate expert Jessica Hartog describes, “water scarcity has affected both Iraq and Mali, largely due to economic development projects that reduce the water levels and flow in rivers — a situation made worse by climate change and increased demand due to population growth.” Much like energy, we need to build equitable systems of water governance that put people before corporations, and react to the new realities of climate change.
This look at water and energy stewardship (or lack thereof) exposes the cracks and contradictions of free-market economics. One of its well-known “Achilles heels” is externalities: societal, environmental, and human rights harms that corporate entities don’t consider or appropriately value in their profit and loss calculations. Another is market failure: the inability of private markets to efficiently and effectively — let alone equitably — deliver access to certain goods and services (a problem exacerbated by the monopoly or oligopoly in various sectors). A third is the heavy reliance on public subsidies and interventions, especially during economic downturns and times of crisis (as has recently been amply demonstrated during the Covid-19 pandemic).
More than ever, the world is witnessing the deep failures of capitalism to provide for anyone other than a select few. This has been glaringly evident in the United States’ profit-driven healthcare system, with hospitals ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic and patients in fear of being impoverished by medical bills. Similarly, profit and wealth accumulation have driven Western imperialism, the looting of the planet’s resources, and the devastation of communities across the Global South, all while driving up global temperatures.
Starting in the 1970s, the doctrine of neoliberalism — with its political-economic agenda of privatization, marketization, liberalization, and commodification — spread from its ideological bases in the West to countries across the globe. The 1980s and 1990s involved a frenzy of privatizing water, energy, and transportation sectors because “consumer choice” would supposedly be far more efficient than public monopoly. In an attempt to open up new markets for Western firms in the style of new-age imperialism, European and American forces marshalled their privatization schemes through international institutions like the International Monetary Fund. For example, as part of their infamous “Structural Adjustment Programs”, the IMF made their loans to developing countries conditional upon the adoption of austerity measures and the privatization of core services. The social and economic benefits promised failed to materialize, leaving countries impoverished, with failing public services, and indebted to Western interests.
While structural adjustment has been officially disavowed by many international institutions and their backers—and neoliberalism, at least according to some, might be on the retreat due to its manifold failures and contradictions—serious dangers remain. Corporations and free-market fundamentalists are primed to pounce on the opportunities presented by the global Covid-19 crisis. In The Shock Doctrine, PI Council member Naomi Klein lays out the history of neoliberal advances made during moments of crisis, including “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting market opportunities.”
After climate-induced Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, for instance, a group of lobbyists swooped in and formulated a comprehensive privatization package that eroded already-inadequate support housing systems, public land, and public schools. Indoctrinated by decades of market supremacy, even many climate solutions involve market-based strategies. This approach has not delivered the necessary changes in the required (and shrinking) time frames. Moreover, it has further imperiled workers and vulnerable communities. The ongoing fight over South Africa’s state-owned utility, Eskom, is only one example among many. In the 1990s, the World Bank intervened to corporatize the public utility, shifting its focus to provide major discounts for wholesale energy consumers (i.e. large corporations), while raising residential rates high enough that half of Soweto was disconnected for failing to pay its bills. Today, Eskom is both in financial trouble and in need of transitioning to renewables. Investors and current President are pushing to liberalize the sector, putting union workers’ jobs at risk and allowing multinationals, rather than the community, to swoop in and capture revenues from the energy transition.
The Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the old, extractive fossil-fuel centered economy. We must not simply put it back together in the same way in an attempt to return to the status quo. We desperately need an International Green New Deal that can build a new, more equitable, sustainable, and democratic economy that can stave off the looming climate crisis. Reversing the trend of privatization, we must ensure that critical services like energy and water are treated like the public goods they are—collectively stewarded, clean, and universally affordable. Moreover, low income, Indigenous, and Black communities, as well as the Global South, must be centered, prioritized, and repaired.
Across the world, communities have already begun fighting to reclaim their public services as a way to decommodify, decarbonize, and decolonize. In Reclaiming Public Services, the Transnational Institute tracks over 800 stories of re-municipalization in seven different key industries (including water and energy), from Spain to Japan. One of the key drivers it identifies behind the public ownership movement is building resilience and climate-friendly cities.
This process is underway the world over. The Cochabamba Water Wars in 2000 were an early example of the resistance to international pressure for privatization and the burgeoning movement for public services. Under the World Bank’s direction, Cochabamba privatized its water system, increasing the cost of water services by 300 percent and criminalizing a network of informal water systems. A collective of residents and trade unionists fought and won re-municipalization, putting water services back in the hands of the people. Democratically owned, Bolivians now have much more leverage to fight for resilient water systems. In Germany, the energy transition (Energiewende) has been fueled by re-municipalization. Hamburg’s newly-formed municipal utility opened up the opportunity to deploy more solar and wind.
Today Costa Rica’s publicly-owned energy system—a network that includes a national public utility working in coordination with local, cooperative and municipal utilities—is the only one on the planet to run an entire country on 100 percent renewable energy.Unlike private utilities focused solely on profit, revenues from the public utility are used to help support social services for Costa Ricans, like education and healthcare.
As the activists and organizers who have won these campaigns know, public ownership does not guarantee climate justice. We must also reclaim the public services that have been marginalized via austerity or gone through neoliberal corporatization. Many not-yet-privatized public services have been hollowed out via contracting, have lost their democratic oversight, or even operate as imperialist actors beyond their own national borders. We need democratic, accountable public ownership that centers people and community priorities over a technocratic system that obscures decision-making or behaves like a private multinational. We also need well-run services that create good, unionized jobs, care about our communities and have institutional infrastructure for democratic input, and design for climate resilience.
What stands before us is a choice that will determine the future of the planet. Either we continue the shock doctrine of exploitation in response to the pandemic, allowing the “economic recovery” packages posed by fossil fuel companies and allied corporations to ride roughshod over our climate goals. Or we deal with the underlying systemic crises of both the pandemic and climate change, building a pro-worker, pro-public, international movement that makes massive investments in our critical services that align with our principles of climate justice. We need new international climate solidarity that refuses to impose austerity when confronted by crisis, and builds power for the reparative, regenerative economy to come.
Photo: Pedro Szekely