Reluctance towards decarbonized futures in a coal mining town in Northern Montenegro

Miloš Đurović, Graduate School for East and Southeast European Studies, University of Regensburg

Email: milos.djurovic.milos@gmail.com

While the collapse of many industrial activities in the postsocialist space of former Yugoslavia led (often unintentionally) to some environmental improvements (Špirić 2018), it did not occur in the coal-mining border town of Pljevlja in northern Montenegro, where my fieldwork has taken place, or as its locals rather call it grad na tromeđi [three-border town]. Instead, neoliberal transformations have created a shrinking town shaped by high unemployment and perpetuated environmental degradation, while the town, by various media and expert reports, has been labelled as one of the most air-polluted in Europe. It hosts some of the country’s last (largely) state-owned enterprises, which are interdependent – the coal mine, and the coal-fired thermal power plant built in the late socialist period responsible for up to half of the domestic electricity production. Due to the coal combustion in the power station, the city boiler room(s), and the households, and as a result of human-built infrastructure, and nonhuman atmospheric and geophysical agents, the town has been facing high air pollution, often exceeding the legally permissible level and creating a local ‘toxic world’ (Geissler & J. Prince 2020; Nading 2020). The episodes of technological disasters (Hoffman 2017) that affected not only the air quality have not been unnoted. As such, the local urban ecology has negatively impacted human health and well-being, but more-than-human-worlds as well. 

At the same time, the European Union has been calling for the decarbonisation of energy systems in Europe, embarking on an eco-capitalist project based on renewable energy technologies shaped by a ‘green growth’ agenda. Shutting down coal-fired power plants within the non-EU space of Europe (including the so-called Western Balkans) has become part of that future-making process and a new criterion for ‘Europeanness’. This also became a requirement for Montenegro and its power station in Pljevlja due to its EU candidate membership position, especially as it did not meet the current EU directive on industrial emissions. Nevertheless, in Montenegro, the state actors highlighted the power station’s indispensability for the country’s energy independence and protection from energy poverty, while the livelihood of the town’s residents has been vastly dependent on lignite coal excavation performed in its peri-urban area just a few kilometers from the town. 

Meanwhile, energy sector executives and politicians have been offering to the local population promises and hopes for a cleaner environment through the longstanding vision of ‘ekološka rekontrukcija’ [ecological reconstruction], which infrastructurally should decrease the airborne pollutants such as sulfur and nitrogen oxides emitted from the power station and meet the EU directives on emissions. It is primarily a locally focused future-making project grounded in the ecological modernisation paradigm of techno-fixes, defining environmental protection through the notion of human environmental public health, yet mostly decoupled from the idea of post-carbon future. Its vision is twofold. On the one hand, it would serve as an infrastructural agent that would decrease atmospheric violence (Choy and Zee 2015); on the other, it would mitigate the image of the town as the ‘black ecological spot’ within the first legally ‘ecological country’ (Adamović and Pavlović 1995; Turnock 2001). This project is additionally anticipated as a milestone for the local ecology and human well-being; it would serve as a base for the creation of toplifikacija [district heating] – a more than four-decades waiting project that should introduce the heating pipelines between the power station and the town, and thus bring the heat into the homes, closedown the polluting local boiler room(s) and decrease personal consumption of coal. While everyday comfort within the projects of the Yugoslav socialist modernity for many urbanites consisted of extensive heating infrastructure (Jovanović 2019; Tuvikene et al. 2020), most residents of Pljevlja have been living off-the-grid and combusting dark lignite coal and wood in home furnaces.

Although people have been quite ambivalent regarding the promised ecological reconstruction and district heating, my ethnographic experience reveals the overt reluctance of my interlocutors towards a ‘decarbonised future’. With little hesitation, most rejected the vision of the local future without the operating power plant. “Bez termoelektrane? Postali bismo kao Gradac i Šule!” [Without the power plant? We would become like Gradac and Šule] – people would often warn me, bewailing the small postindustrial places in their municipality, which are a picturesque resemblance of the post-urbanised yet now-almost-abandoned rural environments within postsocialist space, visibly shaped by the absence of humans, that anthropologist Dzenovska has written about (Dzenovska 2011; 2020). Those urbanised rural places were hosting the state-owned lead and zinc mine, which used to be one of the most lucrative companies in Montenegro and the town’s large employer and pertinent ‘developer’, and those spaces – once full of pupils and the new infrastructure of Yugoslav modernity, are now decaying and emptied of prominent human presence. Today, the mine complex is owned by a Polish state-owned company with significantly fewer workers. The raw materials are transported to Poland – thus undermining the idea of a ‘unified postsocialist condition’ (Tlostanova 2012; Müller 2019), and provocatively questioning and redefining our usual understanding of the (European) centre and periphery.

Figure 1. Ruined and almost-abandoned post office in Gradac, Winter 2023 (Photo by Miloš Đurović)

The complaints of my interlocutors about their town being once important and now existing just as a space for ‘uzimanje’ [taking], a space of extraction of ‘natural resources’ and human capital – have been a prominent feature of local discourses and everyday conversations. “Mi smo obična kolonija!” [We are just a colony!] – people would often mention, while with an emotional compound of resentment, despair, alienation, and contempt, they were complaining about the ‘socionatural strategies’ (Hornborg 2019) of those in power, the state and the capital city taking economic value from their natural landscape and human labour from their community while neglecting them.

In the course of the war in Ukraine and redefined energopolitics of Europe, my interlocutors would at times affectively mention the energy systems of Germany and compare their situation to the country that has been seen as a symbol of the European Union and as its leader. “And they are opening new thermal power plants!” – people were complaining with irony in their tones. Their reflections articulated the ‘discrepancy between Western talk and Western walk’ (Gille 2010), where ‘the climate leader’ is one of the EU countries with the most enormous amount of coal generation and power sector emission and has been very slow in its trajectory of coal phase-out and decarbonisation (Hermwille and Kiyar 2022). Pictures of extended open-pit coal mines in front of the (dismantled) wind turbines in the western part of Germany as the consequence of the ongoing ‘energy crisis’, and data on diversified energy resources of Germany, were vividly mentioned during my fieldwork in late 2022.

The sense of being marginalised has been remarkably shaping the discourses and affects of people I spent time with during my fieldwork, creating internally peripheralised subjects entangled with external peripheralisation, a process linked to economic marginality but also political passivity (Franquesa 2018). A sense of being peripheralised in the country on the European margin has created the local cosmology and subjects of mistrust and indignation (Franquesa 2018), while forming their positions in and towards the world. At the same time, those positions have been reproducing, embedding, and affirming their peripheralised subjectivities. Locally experienced and learned histories, different internal and global power relations, geographies and mental maps, and everyday experiences on the outskirts and at the border have shaped the imageries of desired and conceivable energy infrastructures and environmental futures.

As such, the reluctance among the residents of Pljevlja towards the prescribed top-bottom vision of ‘the common European post-carbon future’ goes beyond their economic dependence on the excavation and combustion of coal as a ‘crucial commodity’ (Freese 2006). If energy as materiality can expose us to ways societies conceive and engage with various aspects of life – from the environments to identity (Kirby 2017) – in this town of Southeast Europe the discussion over decarbonised future that is to come is disclosing the imbuing affects and effects of peripheralisation, while shedding light on the negotiation of the unequal positions in the ‘common’ future-making process.

Figure 2. The coal-fired power plant in the peri-urban area of Pljevlja, Winter 2022 (Photo by Miloš Đurović)
Figure 3. The power station seen from the hill above, Winter 2022 (Photo by Miloš Đurović)

References

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