CESET Presentation on Energy and Intersectionality at the Centre of Climate and Energy Transformation

11th September, 2020

Vanesa Castán Broto of the Urban Institute, University of Sheffield, gave a virtual presentation at the Centre of Climate and Energy Transformation at the University of Bergen, Norway on Gender Equality, Climate and Research. The workshop had two focus points: one was to think about how to broaden our research and incorporate new [gender-inspired] theoretical lenses. The other was more practical, towards creating an inclusive research environment. Vanesa had the honor to intervene alongside two prominent thinkers on gender and climate change: Annica Kronsell and Seema Arora-Jonsson.

In her intervention, Vanesa spoke of the points of departure to think about intersectionality within the project CESET but also of her own experiences of research. Below is the text of her intervention.





I am interested in intersectionality because it reveals the fundamental barriers people encounter in their lives, those visible and invisible. Intersectionality grapples with oppression and how it impacts everyday life.

Sarah Ahmed speaks of doing diversity work as a job like "banging your head against the wall"- the walls built by tacit knowledge and assumed norms. I also like that she speaks of diversity work as plumbers' work, working against institutional blockages.


Blockages that prevent sexual harassment complaints.

Blockages that shame those who are not willing to ignore a passing racist or sexist joke.

Blockages that disable protests again pseudo-scientific anti-trans activism.

Blockages whereby academic institutions reproduce oppression in everyday life.

These blockages are not only part of academia, but also they are part of the society we live in. These blockages expand into our consciousness and our lives and shape our ecological and social relations. These blockages shape our futures under climate change.


Intersectionality is messy and embodied.

During the last year, I have had the privilege to work with my colleague Andrea Rigon at University College London on a forthcoming book on Inclusive Urban Development.

In the book, we examine how homogenizing notions of community work against emancipatory practices of urban development.

Andrea describes identity as a 'moving target.' A moving target, we argue, because of its two characteristics, simultaneity and fluidity.

First, there is a question of simultaneity. Any person is not just one thing. I may be a woman; I may be chronically ill; I may be a mother; I may be an emigrant. Any person is many things at the same time.


It would be a mistake to think of intersectionality as a collection of things that we are. Identity is not a compound of overlapping and fixed layers on our bodies.

So, second, intersectionality also points towards the fluidity of identity.

Identities are fluid because they change.

They change in time. Of course, everything does. Even if the substance of identity does not change, the markers of identity will and so will change the person's relations with the rest of the world

They change in time, but they also change in space. I am not the same in Bergen as in my home in the Pyrenees. Or maybe I am the same, but what I encounter in every context determines what aspects of that identity are emphasized.

Here in Bergen, I am, most of all, an academic. A friend also, perhaps.

In my village in the Pyrenees, I am most of all a daughter and granddaughter returning home.

In every place, identity shows up within social and material relations within which bodies act, feel, and think.

In the context of the rapidly globalizing world of the 1990s, Stuart Hall spoke of "expressions of identity" because identity is performed in specific locations.

Those expressions of identity will vary depending on the conditions we find ourselves.

For example, in the book that I have edited with Andrea Rigon, Julius Musevenzi and Barbara Chibvamushure, from the University of Zimbabwe, have explained how the discrimination of the descendants of foreign farm workers brought during colonialism from Malawi, Zambia, and Mozambique continues until today. The state media portrayed them as non-citizens during the 1980s, and they were banned from land ownership in the land reform. An immigrant-descendant identity is imposed as a defining characteristic adding strain to the already racialized social structures established through colonialism. The extent to which they are still socially excluded today makes it difficult to change their situation.

However, other times identity is the gel that helps people to mobilize and come together.

In another chapter, Philipp Horn explores how the constitution of indigenous communities has become a tool of political and-crucially- legal mobilization- although not exempt of contradictions, as shown, for example, by the role played by women within those movements. Expressions of identity in communities can help to build solidarity across groups and people working for a shared interest


Which brings me to the question of community energy systems.

What are community energy systems?

Community energy systems relate to the possibility of starting projects of decentralized energy provision managed and controlled by the communities that receive that service.

Usually "the community" part of community energy refers to the group of people who live in a bounded geographical area, who share loose social and institutional connections, and who will benefit from shared energy services. Community energy systems have enormous potential because off-grid systems are essential to reach remote or excluded areas that otherwise would not have energy access. More fundamentally, community energy systems help us reimagine the foundations of the energy system and how can we address climate change.

But there is, of course, a problem with the 'community' of the 'community energy systems.'

'Communities' appear as homogeneous groups with a fixed set of needs and interests. We know that is not true. Community energy systems are as diverse as there are community energy projects: almost everyone is different and particular on their own.

Coupling technology with the multiple needs and constraints of a given community is never a straightforward process. In particular, community governance, finance, and conflict resolution processes are vital aspects to consider in community energy projects.

Community energy projects require a continuous reflection process to check privileges and exclusions embodied in our ideals of sustainable energy and climate-resilient futures.


In any case, community energy systems involve co-production projects, in which different partners come together and pull shared assets to deliver a common practical outcome, in this case, energy services

In my previous work, I have argued that co-production demands an intersectional perspective: An intersectional perspective that will raise critical and uncomfortable questions through the project.

For example:

  • Questions about technological design should address whose uses are considered and whether we prioritize some uses over others;
  • Questions of institutional innovation must examine carefully the norms and values that maintain the project. Community energy systems involve the creation of new institutions that will no doubt impact the development of the community;
  • Questions of governance require reflecting upon how decisions are taken, who has voice in those decisions and how those voices are translated into action;
  • Questions of signification require thinking carefully which kinds of values are we enacting through technological innovation processes, and whether symbolic violence is also part of the process.

This is the kind of question that we are seeking to answer in our project CESET. The project was due to start in April 2020, but we have now delayed until 2021 because of COVID19. CESET is about developing an intersectional perspective on community energy projects in East Africa.

Do let me us know if you would like to know further about this project.