Opinionista Saliem Fakir 11 January 2021

Unpacking the Just Transition (Part One): The conceptual terrain

The concept of a ‘just transition’ in which worker jobs in a dying industry like coal mining are transformed into new skills in clean energy, is, in essence, not new. Every industrial revolution has brought about radical change, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution is no different.

Part One of a three-part series

“Look for a form for the whole of knowledge. Goal. Conditions required of this form – Its essential relation to language.” (Paul Valéry: Cahiers, Volume 5).

Around 2015, I participated in a government-led initiative, Mining Phakisa. This was perhaps the first time I encountered and had to grapple with the concept of a “just transition” in such a rapt way, given how the concept is now taking centre stage as a ritual discourse among environmentalists, renewable energy and climate proponents.

The year 2015 was also important in another respect — it was the year the Paris Agreement was concluded and specific mention was made of the concept of the just transition in this agreement.

It was put to me by an enthusiastic mining engineer, with a twinkle in his eyes, who believed the solution was to ensure increased automation in platinum mines. Machines had to replace human labour because they offered a neat solution to the labour problem (this all happened after the Marikana massacre in 2012) and additionally no mine worker would have to endure conditions deep down in these mines — often 1 or 2 kilometres deep into the crevices of the earth with intolerable conditions of heat, dust and stale air that needs constant ventilation.

Since machines would displace labour, nobody really knew what to do with the displaced workers after these machines took over.

The event of the automated robot and the thinking machine is one that we have to increasingly bring into the picture of just transitions and the clean energy revolution. Everybody is talking about the Fourth Industrial Revolution and given that it is a general-purpose technology, with potential downsides for unskilled labour, you are sure to encounter its presence in the world of green industrialisation.

Having got an earful from an unexpected proponent of the just transition, and having overcome my bewilderment, the discussion with the mining engineer helped frame a crucial dimension of the clean energy revolution. Platinum is an essential part of the clean energy revolution but what happens to the platinum worker and, for that matter, to be extended to lithium, cobalt copper, graphite, rare-earth metals and many more, underscores the unresolved tension. Could we have a jobless green revolution due to automation?

The form of the system underlying the clean revolution cannot be divorced from a narrow debate hovering, as it were, as to what the just transition means only for those jobs lost in the coal sector and other fossil fuels.

New energy carriers and technologies disrupt the old and their displacement of the old creates winners and losers. These displacements do not lead to an organic transition from one being in the position of a displaced mine worker to an employee within the renewables industry. It can be disorderly, random and unmanaged — which is usually the case if you have an unfocused government and rapacious capitalism.

It is much more anarchic, and this is something every coal worker astutely understands and why labour unions are resistant to ambiguous and bland promises, especially if their own members will not be direct beneficiaries of the new wave of energy investments.

Worker A from coal mine Y is not going to be worker B from a renewables programme X because new technologies require different types of skills, they operate their own enclave of networks and most likely will be in very different geographic spaces. There will be unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workers who themselves have to be trained and facilitated into a new energy sector.

There is always the question of what to do with those workers who cannot make it into this new providence of investment activity and enterprise, and how much can be sustained if most of the high job intensity is semi-skilled and dependent on the rate of installation during construction phases.

Unskilled and semi-skilled workers will further, in this just transition, be competing with the thinking machine as most clean energy technology solutions involve a high degree of digitisation and automation throughout the value chain.

Worker anxiety about new technologies is not a new phenomenon. In 340 BC the Greek philosopher Aristotle recognised that autonomous thinking machines can make human labour redundant. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm co-wrote a seminal piece of work called “Captain Swing” in reference to mysterious threatening letters sent to landowners who displaced labour-intensive grain threshing with mechanical threshers.

Mazzocchi called for a ‘superfund’ for workers and communities that not only supported workers in the transition but also helped them find new types of jobs, either in environmental clean-up programmes or alternative jobs. Years later this superfund idea finds a new life as a just transition concept that is adopted and advanced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Thanks to the ILO and ITUC, it found its way into the Paris Agreement.

Hobsbawm not only describes the friction points — worker protests, riots and often violent destruction of the offending threshing machines — but identifies, in a forensic way, that the predicament begins with the pauperisation of labour. This comes as a result of a shift in the political economy of land ownership and how decisions of holders of capital – with great liberty and freedom of power – systematically increased capital intensity against the interests of labour. This pattern from yesteryear is a familiar pattern today.

The underlying issue for the Captain Swing (1830) campaigns was the desire for a minimum wage and the ending of rural unemployment.

It seemed history, continuously, repeats itself just like it did with the Luddites (1811-1816). At the heart of it all is the accumulated power of the owners of land and machines, who are free to act against the needs and will of workers, with workers having no protection against the form – the system governing the arrangement of the distribution of public and private goods within that system.

It is no surprise then that these historical lessons did not escape the mind and calculus of Tony Mazzocchi, the labour leader of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union, who recognised that shifts were afoot as the US began to introduce environmental standards and laws with increased pressure for nuclear disarmament, which would lead to the displacement of workers in these various sectors. Mazzocchi also sought to forge stronger ties between the labour and green movement so they could speak with one voice.

Mazzocchi called for a “superfund” for workers and communities that not only supported workers in the transition but also helped them find new types of jobs, either in environmental clean-up programmes or alternative jobs. Years later this superfund idea finds a new life as a just transition concept that is adopted and advanced by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Thanks to the ILO and ITUC, it found its way into the Paris Agreement.

What Mazzocchi was asking for was a form of safety net against a type of dog-eat-dog capitalism, where job or income protection increasingly becomes germane in countries where state welfare has been driven to be as minimalist as possible.

Enlightened regard for fellow citizens, who are victims of unintended or intended consequences of a larger system — Valéry’s form — need not be limited to the good judgement of the left. History has its quirky moments, even from unexpected quarters, as the ripples of life can be the wise guide of prudent action rather than ideology.

Jay Hammond was not a typical Republican figure and caricature. As governor of Alaska, from 1974 to 1982, he set up a superfund of sorts called the Alaska Permanent Fund to deal with the same problem Mazzocchi wanted to deal with in his superfund idea. In Hammond’s case, the focus was on the loss of jobs in the Alaskan fishing industry due to overfishing and expansion of oil and gas extraction.

Hammond advocated fiscal and environmental responsibility in Alaska. Hammond became governor of Alaska during an oil and gas bonanza. The Alaska Permanent Fund introduced a royalty levy on oil and gas revenues that supported the state’s budget shortfall and served as a savings account. Every Alaskan gets an annual dividend from the fund and other savings are used to support the diversification of the Alaskan economy.

These examples illustrate the important shift we have to make between the rhetoric and the substance going into the form. If the just transition is to have any meaning in real life, it has to be taken out of the enclaved language of the environmental and climate change movements, to its next level, the way the language has a relation with the form – the system under which all of this transition from coal to clean is going to happen in the coming decades.

Countries with deep inequality will need more than just transition funds to solve their stumbling and sclerotic economies, but it may be a good start.

Just transitions in the climate arena are not divorced from the larger world and they will not succeed in solving the climate problem if they do not address the broader economic issues of structural and racial inequality.

The fork in the road for what is seemingly one movement under the umbrella of a just transition language does not tell us how they perceive or are willing to change the form of the system that has simply not worked before, and cannot work in the future if it too is left unaltered.

Clean energy revolutions, as will be shown in Part Two of this series, are pointers to (depending on who you read or speak to) a different civilisational model. We are in what Antonio Gramsci once called “interregnum” in which the new is being built on the old, but the new has not gelled its final form and substance as yet. DM

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  • “. . . but the new has not gelled its final form and substance as yet”. That will happen only when the dross of the old system has been relinquished. Major problem in this is that people’s fears have to be addressed at first. The Westminster system of parliament is nothing better than a faction fight. The formalized expression of the attitude I am bet . . . sorry, more equal than you, extension of the notion of nobility. Then there is a curious observation, the higher you meet people in nobility, the more they have the common touch. Yet, the only solution that is right is the solution that works, regardless of who thought it up. Exclusion of problems does not solve them. Come to think of it, political parties are foregone conclusions in telling you to do as they tell you, not as they do. We need to understand that we have a problem and a future to face. We live like the baboon stripping a mielieland having only one cob under the arm as he exits the field. We trail waste as far as we go. Mr Fakir is dead on the button here. This new new is something like a century away according to research into the social upheaval of previous industrial revolutions.

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