EAN/FAN Workshop 2023: Electrical Entanglements

Kari Dahlgren, Monash University

Electricity is always mediated – it is a flow of electrons from production to distribution to demand. Its visibility is derived from its movement through infrastructures of use, where it powers devices like light bulbs and appliances, enabling practices like cleaning and heating. Moreover, it is mediated through infrastructures of production, from coal-burning power plants to wind turbines, and moved through transmission wires. It is electricity’s interrelations that enable its generative potential.

The following contributions explore electricity as both a generative site and a theoretical lens, delving into the question of what happens when we think with electricity. Thinking with electricity necessitates attention to entanglement, recognizing the intricate webs of interconnections, ethical complexities, and historic infrastructures upon which its agentive possibilities depend. As a result, the following contributions center on the infrastructures, policy, landscapes, affect, and attachment through which electricity is in interrelation.

Lauren Lee Barrett offers insight into the infrastructures of demand through the Weatherization Assistance Program in the US. This government energy efficiency program takes a “house as a system” approach, recognizing “the assemblage of human and non-human relationships, materialities, policies, and daily rhythms that represent ‘home’.” However, Barrett also highlights how such approaches are mediated through visions of justice, inequity, and are entangled in political histories and changing bureaucratic forms. Barrett calls on anthropologists to “apply this knowledge in actionable ways” and to take risks in shifting epistemologies to foster positive change.

Gina Hakim sheds light on the connections between water and electricity, migration, and environmental degradation in translocal communities. She illustrates the strong ties between Urequío, a town in northern Michoacan, Mexico, and its migrants living in Southern California’s Wilmington. Remittances from Wilmington helped build the water infrastructure in Urequío, but the recent installation of solar panels for pumping were funded by the municipal government. Hakim explains the significant difference between the protection of water resources and the ambivalence towards the solar electricity as an opportunity to recognize the “alternative ways that communities steward their environments” and expand approaches to the understanding of the “imaginaries and frictions of climate change mitigation and the energy transition.”

Andrea Pia brings attention to China’s hydropower expansion into Southeast Asia as part of its decarbonization efforts. Considering China’s responsibility for 33% of global carbon emissions, Pia explores how justice intersects with the imperatives and impacts of hydropower, including dams’ destructive and generative potential. He tells us, “Hydropower dams are kinetic machines for the conversion of material flows: they slow down the water flow while enabling parallel acceleration of other kinds of flows: electricity, people, biome, and of capital” as they alter ecosystems and shape ontologies.

Our panel collectively embraced the concept of “electrical entanglement,” recognizing that the experience of electricity is intricately woven into socio-technical systems and entangled with complex socio-natural histories and politics, of migrations, colonial legacies, multispecies relations, and environmental and economic injustices. Our exploration with electricity illuminates the intricate connections and dependencies that underlie its existence and therefore expand possibilities for addressing energy justice and collaborative survival.

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