Politics, geopolitics, and internal others: Just transition in North Poland

Magdalena Dąbkowska, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin


Figure 1. A view of coal stored in a coal terminal, seen from a private garden in a village in the region of Warmia, north Poland. (Photo by author)

This paper illustrates how coal can be at the same time empowering and limiting, ethical and unethical, desirable and controversial, and how these dichotomies impact on the meaning of the “post-socialist”. What follows is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in north Poland, in various locations near the border with Russia, as well as in the ports of Gdańsk and Gdynia.

Imagining post-fossil futures cannot happen without first imagining coal as a resource, and imagining resources often has a strong temporal aspect. My focus is on materiality and entanglements to demonstrate the process whereby things become, namely, how specific characteristics and capacities of coal turn it into a natural resource that can be studied ethnographically. The beginning of this story can be set in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the first Polish coal-importing companies started setting up operations near the Russian border in the north of the country. Imported Russian coal was mined in Siberia. Its distinguishing feature is its superior quality (parameters), compared to the one mined in Poland, which is particularly important for individual consumers who use coal to heat their homes. The main difference between Russian and Polish coal is sulphur: the higher the sulphur content in coal the less effective the burning process, and higher sulphur dioxide production. In Polish mines, the average sulphur level is 0.8%. Russian coal, on the other hand, is characterized by sulphur levels of 0.3 – 0.4%. In Poland, the only mine which extracts coal with 0.4% sulphur, the lowest in Poland, is the Bobrek mine in Silesia, which could not meet the entire market demand.  Another difference is the ash content level, which indicates how much non-combustible matter is contained in the fuel, in other words, how much ash will remain as a result of combustion.  Russian coal has ash level of 10 – 12%, whereas Polish coal 18 – 20%.

In the last twenty years Poland experienced a downward trend in production and demand for hard coal, mainly due to the EU’s climate policy, which aims to achieve climate neutrality by 2050 (The European Green Deal). Consequently, it became almost impossible to obtain financing for new investments in the mining sector, which translated to a reduction in domestic hard coal production, which had to be complemented with import. Between 2000 and 2022 Russia strengthen its position as the main exporter of coal to Poland, reaching  75% of the total imports—an increase of almost 12 times (from 0.8 million tonnes in 2000 to 9.4 million tonnes in 2020) (Poland’s energy transition and Russian fossil fuels phaseout report, 2022).

After the introduction of an embargo on Russian coal in April 2022 as a result of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, many coal-importing companies shut down, leaving local residents jobless. In the first months after the embargo, the fate of the companies and their terminals (an area where coal is stored and sorted into different sizes) was uncertain. The importers that survived the embargo and continue operating to this day, did so because they were able to replace old business contacts with international coal traders who would sell them Colombian, Indonesian, or Australian coal in the global markets.

The embargo was a turning point in the research which, originally, was planned as a project looking into opposition to the imported coal by local residents, who complained about dust which was a byproduct of coal processing. The aim was to look at how humans use coal to change their environment: how coal importing companies process it in rural locations, near people’s houses. The ethnography lasted from June 2022 until July 2023 and was based on interviews with local residents and authorities, coal importers, logistics companies, and port operators, thus a variety of individuals who may have diverse relationships with coal. The abruptly introduced embargo put in jeopardy the existence of the importers and jobs. Yet imported coal managed to find its way back to the country through new supply chains and infrastructure, thus securing employment in the sector, at least for now.

This uncertain time in the immediate aftermath of the embargo was marked by widespread panic: people started expressing beliefs and feelings about coal, which until then, were silent and invisible. Suddenly, everyone was talking about coal as something desirable, important, almost life-sustaining, in contrast to the narrative just one year before the embargo, when coal was dirty, ancient, a thing of the past. The balance between the presence and the lack of coal implies questions of economic and social justice that appear whenever individual consumers directly face hegemonic global players, in this case, the global energy markets. If not coal, then what? Who will pay for the transition? Who will have access to coal in times of market panic, and if so, at what price? Until when? It has been very difficult to convince people to take part in the study. Local residents did not feel they had anything to say about energy, and companies’ representatives did not know what to say in the constantly changing market. My primary data, therefore, was the intangible affects which I observed: panic, confusion, fear, uncertainty and doubt.

Although the defining feature of natural resources is that they are finite, the process of decarbonization that is currently taking place is a political, legal and administrative process. Therefore, it is tempting to put the issue of “just” post-fossil future-making in a world- historical frame, paying special attention to East Europe as a geopolitical experience, where the post-communist countries represent an extensive and complex system. This system has a spatial, but also a temporal dimension that is still subject to much discussion, the “before” and “after” (now), to which we must immediately add “in the future”, as the debate around energy transition necessitates. It seems that the pivotal role that decarbonization plays in the European Union proves particularly challenging for the former post-communist states, precisely because it is assumed that the process of transitioning from a centrally planned economy to a market economy has been accomplished with the privatization of the last state-owned company that was up for sale. I contend that the term “post-socialist” does not necessarily denote “after” socialism, a time-period that followed its fall. The notion of “transition” whereby the fall of communism would seamlessly lead to capitalism and democracy was questioned by the anthropologists of the 1990s who argued that transition is an open-ended process of becoming, one that is complex, messy, and ambivalent, because elements of the past are only transformed, never eradicated completely (eg. Ringel 2022; Gallinat 2022).

Temporal aspects of post-socialism are therefore closely linked to materiality of natural resources. Energy transition presupposes that the path to net-zero will be linear, and just like the transformation of the 1990s, the narrative of energy transition is heavily ideologically loaded. We therefore must turn to ethnography to explore what is actually happening now, and what costs such transition will bring.

Socio-technical imaginaries inherited from communist times surrounding infrastructures of coal mining and coal combustion in Poland can, at least partly, explain why to this day coal is fundamental for household heating (Kuchler and Bridge 2018). Revisiting the term “post-socialism” to reinvigorate its use more than thirty years after the era of socialism came to an end, is not to ask what remains of it in the present time, nor to ask about the influence of the socialist past through invocations of it in the present, but to inquire to what extent it shapes the process of future-making in the very specific example of energy transition.

The relevance of historical experience for how energy transitions are perceived and addressed invites us to explore connections between post-socialism and post-colonialism, whereby one could view eastern Europe as ‘peripheral’ alongside other world peripheries, not in a context of dependency, but as being faced with the need to “catch up”, and ultimately, to become decarbonized, and thus, post “post-socialist”. The challenge thus, is to explore new categories of comparison to overcome the eastern–western, free–totalitarian, socialist–capitalist, and now: clean energy–dirty coal binaries that reinforce old stereotypes and impede the potential for solutions to urgent dilemmas.

Figure 2. Loading of coal on a train in the port of Gdańsk. (Photo by author)


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