Revisiting power and powerlessness: Speculating on West Virginia’s energy future and the externalities of the socioecological fix

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China is positioning itself as a global leader in both renewable energy research, development, and deployment, and fossil fuel investment, exploration, and consumption. The newly merged mega-company, China Energy Investment Corp., has agreed to invest an unprecedented $83.7 billion into shale gas, power, and chemical projects in West Virginia. This decision comes after a visit to China by the United States’ President Trump, during which he secured professed commitments for over $250 billion in energy investments across the United States. While investment and dispossession in Appalachia have long been international in scope, the scale of this investment, as well as its particular political-historical context, makes this case unique. This paper analyzes two key processes central to this conjuncture in West Virginia’s recent history. First, building on recent scholarship, it argues that the ways in which the social and environmental costs of meeting China’s energy needs are increasingly being externalized into global “sacrifice zones” at global scales, even as China is making massive domestic investments in renewable energy, may constitute a sort of regional “socioecological fix” to the environmental effects of capitalist development. Second, via a consideration of Gaventa’s classic and more recent analyses of power and powerlessness in an Appalachian coal community, it explores why and how political assent to such development—which seems to reprise so many historical patterns that local critics decry—is secured in West Virginia. In doing so, it pays particular attention to the ways in which these familiar processes are playing out in a distinctive contemporary context, one characterized by a combination of populist and authoritarian politics that, in the United States, have touted false promises to “bring back coal” and rejuvenate a struggling local economy, and in China have led an authoritarian state to maintain economic growth for the nation at all costs.

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Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space

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Appalachia, authoritarian populism, climate change, energy