Ever since its launch in 2012, Powershop Australia has marketed itself not just as a provider of clean energy but as an ally in the fight against climate change. Thanks in part to support from green NGOs — and access to their distribution lists — Powershop has built a customer base of 185,000 people over the last ten years.
In November this year, Shell announced that it would acquire the green energy company — along with all of its customers. Shell is one of the world’s biggest climate and human rights villains. Unsurprisingly, the move provoked an outcry from Powershop’s customers and defenders.
Powershop’s betrayal highlights not only the risks of partnering with private capital, but the limitations of consumer activism and corporate lobbying as strategies for averting climate disaster. The climate movement must learn from this mistake and avoid being seduced by the promise of market-driven shortcuts.
From Political Defeat to Corporate Partnerships
GetUp, a center-left campaign group, was the first organization to partner with Powershop in 2014. They ran a campaign under the slogan “Better Power,” that promised to mobilize the “collective consumer power” of the group’s supporters to defend Australia’s Renewable Energy Target (RET) from the then recently elected conservative Tony Abbott government.
GetUp’s pitch went like this: Australia’s three largest energy retailers — Origin Energy, AGL, and Energy Australia — were lobbying the government to lower the RET. By switching to Powershop, GetUp proposed its support base could “positively impact markets by supporting companies who share our values.” In return, Powershop would pay GetUp a commission for each person they signed up. GetUp promised to use these funds to “support renewable energy and campaign against dirty coal and coal seam gas.”
GetUp claims to have persuaded around 20,000 people to switch to Powershop as a result of their campaign, earning about $2 million worth of commissions in the process. Signaling GetUp’s ongoing commitment to the partnership, then executive director Sam McLean heralded the deal with Powershop as “a new model for campaigning [and] a form of tangible direct action (our supporters) are taking. It’s a tactic that we’ve never used until the last year or so — and it’s working.”
The idea that one could use consumer activism to influence political policy is implausible in the best of times — and 2015 was far from the best of times. When then PM Tony Abbott successfully brokered a cut in the RET with the Labor Party opposition, it dealt a significant blow to the climate movement’s hopes for influencing Parliament.
Bruised by Abbott’s successful campaign against carbon pricing, large sections of the climate movement joined GetUp’s retreat into consumer-focused campaigns aimed at influencing corporate behavior. As the Saturday Paper reported at the time:
At a time when the Abbott government is winding back the modest steps Australia has taken to reduce emissions and dismantling measures supporting clean energy developments, climate campaign organizers are seizing on the notion that the most effective action open to them is to persuade their constituents to vote with their wallets.
The fate of Powershop is proof that this desperate strategy is a dead end. Far from pressuring Shell to clean up its act, Powershop and its NGO backers have handed the oil company a ready-made, greenwashed marketing campaign.
This is a step backward for the environmental movement. Leaked internal documents show that Shell both knew about the risks of global warming as early as 1988 and fully understood their role in causing it. Like Exxon, Shell’s internal documents never disputed the links between their product and planetwide environmental devastation. Despite this, they continue to fund lobbying and climate denial front groups, to delay even modest regulations.
While Shell claims that purchasing Powershop is part of their efforts to become a clean energy company, the new acquisition represents an immaterially small part of their portfolio, which is still largely dirty energy.
There’s No Substitute for Political Struggle
Shell’s purchase of Powershop demonstrates the futility of consumer and corporate-oriented campaigns against fossil fuels. Instead of dreaming that capitalism can be harnessed, the climate movement needs to redouble its focus on mass political action.
If the work of decarbonizing the economy is left to financiers and market forces, the transition away from fossil fuels will not only take place too slowly — it will also ravage communities and hurt workers’ livelihoods. When decisions about our energy production are made in corporate board rooms, workers and the communities are left to clean up the damage, often without warning and with limited government support. For decarbonization to be effective and just, it will require, at the very least, strong state intervention and far more than minor legislative or technocratic market nudges.
Winning — and later, defending — the kind of decades-long governing project required to solve the climate crisis should be the number-one priority of the environmental movement. Building the necessary political power will require sustained organizing and a commitment to building the structures and political infrastructure capable of retaining knowledge, training leaders, and supporting our movements while surviving political attacks. Only through sustained, collective organizing can we rally mass support for national climate policies and ultimately win political power in coalition with unions and other movements.
Tony Abbott’s successful campaign against a carbon price demonstrated the limits of centrist, policy-based, technocratic approaches. Fossil fuel lobbyists and their political representatives find it easy to paint technocratic policies such as carbon taxes, emission trading schemes, or emission reduction targets “as policies that appeal to the interests of a new class of liberal elites while hurting ordinary working people.”
This is part of the explanation why technocratic climate policies have proven unpopular and difficult to defend, despite consistently high support for climate action. Policies that rely on abstract goals or mechanisms that don’t tangibly improve people’s lives are vulnerable to misinformation campaigns from the fossil fuel lobby about the science or negative economic impacts. At worst, if the climate movement fails to address the economic impacts of decarbonization, it can inadvertently drive people who are already feeling the stress of increasing precarity toward right-wing grifters who pretend to care about their livelihoods.
Consumer Choice Is Not a Weapon
Too much of the existing climate movement’s attention is divided between piecemeal local projects, technocratic policy instruments, and corporate lobbying efforts. These efforts won’t add up to enough to solve the crisis at the speed and scale necessary.
The barriers to mobilizing sufficient political power are large, but the private sector won’t help us bypass them. Working with banks and investors to implement decarbonization policies may only exacerbate the myth that the climate movement is driven by an urban elite unconcerned with the hardships faced by workers.
Rather, the climate movement should seek to build solidarity across the working class to resist private capital’s power to unilaterally make decisions about our collective future. If we are to create a mass movement capable of wielding real political power, we must advocate for climate policies that not only reduce emissions but obviously and tangibly improve the lives of the working class now and into the future.
Alternative energy providers may have a role to play, but only if they are democratically owned and keep power in the hands of their members. This is the case with Cooperative Power, a union-backed green energy cooperative, and Indigo Power, a renewable energy cooperative servicing regional communities in North East Victoria. However, the climate movement has to be clear that meaningful change will require ongoing organizing to challenge the political and economic logic that led to climate change in the first place.
In this respect, the Sunrise Movement and the emerging Green New Deal alignment in the United States offer lessons for their budding counterparts in Australian. We need to combine protest with ongoing political work. This entails, as Matt Huber has argued in Jacobin, tying decarbonization
directly to public investment and visible material benefits for the working class — and in doing so, stitch together the majoritarian bloc required to both pass a climate agenda and stave off the advance of the Right.
Winning the political battle against corporate power won’t be easy. Working-class institutions are weak, popular engagement in politics is at an all-time low, and we face opposition from a populist right revitalized by the anti-vaccine movement. However, there’s no shortcut. The climate movement’s most powerful allies are in workplaces around the country, not in corporate boardrooms.