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Decolonising energy: Enabling just transitions

Insurgent Empire

Decolonising Energy: Enabling Just Transitions

Sumedha Basu

J.S. Mill, the British political philosopher and a known supporter of British colonialism1 famously stated in his essay On Liberty (1859)

Despotism, is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement.2 

Going beyond the repugnant nature of this statement and with the benefit of hindsight today, we can safely conclude that improvement is not what colonial powers sought in their colonies. The new developing academic pursuits on energy colonialism conclude the same.  

Development or Depletion?

Energy, and in particular electricity, served as the oil needed for the smooth functioning of the colonial machinery  not just maintaining critical infrastructure but also ensuring living conditions for the foreign population3. The developments in the electrical energy sphere in the western countries started in the 1800s. These, still emerging, technologies were transplanted to these new colonies and institutions and legislations were set up for their operation, giving little time for an organic adaptation and capacity evolution of these technologies for indigenous people.  

The energy colonialism scholarship has traditionally approached the study of energy from the perspective of resource extraction and resulting exploitation of the local population, environment, and labour involved. As Ostrom (2012), in proposing a framework for sustainability in Socio-Ecological Systems, mentions that colonial resource extraction, across the global south, disregarded the local resource institutions that enabled a sustainable resource interdependence over the centuries, resulting resource overuse if not destruction.4

A more contemporary scholarship has emerged to look at firstly, the ways in which most erstwhile colonies have been hurled into becoming extractive economies and secondly, material and institutional dependencies (also known as path dependence) created by these colonial impositions that are still shaping the use and social construction of energies, especially electrical energy in these countries. Njoh (2016) finds that current capacities of some of the African countries in the domain of power or electricity sector is determined by the duration and nature of colonial administration. Kale (2014), on the other hand, finds that in the electricity sector, the early decisions of the British government to decentralise the electricity sector developments in India have led to a highly heterogenous system and principles of operation in India that, she argues, shapes the electricity sector in India till date. 

Impending Legacies of Colonial Energy

This is considered to have a profound effect on not just the ways in which energy sector is contributing towards the impending climate emergency but also how we transition to a more sustainable climate compatible and adaptable economy. The colonial ideas and sensibilities of energy systems have gradually transformed themselves into contemporary market understandings declaring the worthiness of certain sections of the population to get access to modern energy services. Multilateral organisations often under the semblance of offering technical and soft financial aid set conditionalities that deepen the institutional and economical foothold of the incumbent powers that the colonial era governance helped to rise (see Newell and Phillips, 20165). Broto et al., (2018) contend that this kind of structural influence extends to the energy transition possibilities and futures of developing countries with huge access and capacity deficits6. More importantly though, the colonial roots of energy infrastructure have helped normalise and hegemonise certain sensibilities and principles of exchange, rendering certain technologies possible or impossible, certain actions legitimate or illegitimate. Lennon (2017) describes this pervasive understandings of energy not simply regimes of generating energy reify ontological hierarchies and their attendant structural inequalities.7

The development of the post-colonial understanding of energy systems firmly dislodges the prediscursive (Lennon, 2017) disposition of these systems. Scholars in this tradition urge the need for historical and contextualised study that slowly and patiently unties the equations of power in energy systems. Only by questioning the most given and taken-for-granted knowledge and structures of energy industry and institutions, a true transformation towards a more just, sustainable and equitable energy system can be achieved. 

1 Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill's Defense of British Rule in India, Mark Tunick, 2006

2 The Will to Improve, Tania Murray Li, 2007

3 A multivariate analysis of inter-country differentials in electricity supply as a function of colonialism in Africa, Ambe J. Njoh, 2016

4 A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems, Elinor Ostrom, 2009

5 Neoliberal energy transitions in the south: Kenyan experiences, Peter Newell and Jon Phillips, 2016

6 Energy justice and sustainability transitions in Mozambique, Vanesa Castán Broto, Idalina Baptista, Joshua Kirshner, Shaun Smith, Susana Neves Alves, 2018

7 Decolonizing energy: Black Lives Matter and technoscientific expertise amid solar transitions, Myles Lennon, 2017


Sumedha Basu is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick, researching how the multi-level political system interacts with urban energy governance in India.

Follow her @enabasu