An Energy Islands Saga by Laura Watts

Highest sea cliffs in UK, Hoy, Orkney. © Laura Watts

The islands of Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland, are closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. Surrounded by fierce seas and shrouded by clouds and mist, the islands seem to mark the edge of the known world. And yet they are a center for energy technology innovation, from marine energy to hydrogen fuel networks, attracting the interest of venture capitalists and local communities. In Energy at the End of the World, Laura Watts tells a story of making energy futures at the edge of the world.

Read an excerpt from the book below.

Wandering monster

It is early evening, and the spring air gnaws on my exposed cheeks. I have gone for a walk beyond the streets of Stromness, following a well-worn footpath around a headland, and northwards, along the Atlantic coast of the Scottish islands of Orkney.

I stop beside a stretch of beach. Dark cliffs fall into the sea from the island of Hoy in my left eye. Atlantic ocean swell, dark as peatwater, is in my right. The beach disappears under rotting seaweed, sculpted high into tangled, reeking dunes. The bladderwrack dunes end in a sheer line where the flagstones on which they sit have fractured. The smell is so strong that salt crystals seem to be forming in my nose. My gloves are soaked and freezing. No matter. I clench my fists, turn and walk on. The town’s cemetery is just ahead, dim angels and the silhouette of a cross caught behind a dry-stone wall.

Orkney electrons haunt me. They are generated all around me from the islands’ wind, waves and tides. They are brightening, growing, multiplying, in the face of the full power of capitalism and an energy market that want to keep them dark — the islands generate 140% of their own electricity from renewables. Orkney electrons seem irrepressible, despite being disadvantaged by the limited infrastructure and the transmission charge required by the National Grid. They make me feel hope.

They make me feel that our planet does not need to end with the Anthropocene: the geological age of the Anthropos, when the human species has marked the planet so hard it is inscribed into geological record, and will be there until the Sun grows red and envelops what remains. Except that it is not the result of homo sapiens per se, but some humans and some of their decisions over the last century. Anna Tsing makes the argument that the Anthropocene begins with modern capitalism and its obsession with progress and turning ecologies and their people into resources, from plastic to line-workers.[i] Many feel we live in an era of mutual grief for our damaged planet.[ii]

But the saga I am telling is not another end-of-the-world Climate Fiction. It is not a prepper’s saga of how to survive some coming apocalypse. It does not grind to a halt in the face of capitalism’s rapacious devouring of the planet’s resources. The Orkney electron gives me hope that the future can be otherwise, that there is another way of being and living that is not apocalyptic. The Orkney electron tells me the end is not nigh. There are some people who are just getting on with making a low carbon and renewable energy future, centralisation be damned, the rules of capitalism be damned — even while they are within and reliant on both.

Perhaps ‘hope’ is another property of the Orkney electron? But, even so, how can it travel and make a difference elsewhere? How might the hope I feel from the Orkney electron be a guide to creating such hope in landscapes very different to these islands?

Cold air hits the back of my neck. I shiver and turn to look.

There is a figure coming out of the dark, walking towards me along the coastal path. It lumbers along the line of the cemetery wall ahead. The figure stumbles along with a limping, awkward gait.

The skin on my arms begins to prickle, and I rub away the static from my clothing. I try to focus on the figure, look for details, but it remains an outline, coming closer but no clearer.

Orkney is a place where the world seems thin and a little malleable. Many people I know can tell a story about feeling watched when no one is there, or finding places that should not be real. I have been spooked in the pitch dark by odd sounds on the wind.

The figure stops at the rusting cemetery gate in the wall and turns to me, head moving in what feels like intense curiosity. A long dark coat hides its solid shape, although its rounded weight seems woman-ish. The yellowing moon, still low, reflects only the dark line of a hood over a hidden face. The hairs on my arm are like iron needles, all pulling forward, towards the figure. I stare and probably stop breathing.

Then the figure turns back to the iron gate in the pale cemetery wall. It reaches out an arm, and the gate gives a squeal as it opens. And then she(?) is gone into the resting place of former islanders, along with their stones and bones.

I wait for a moment, listening to my breath, and for some footsteps from the cemetery that will tell me it was just another walker enjoying the evening air. People walk this path around the headland from Stromness to the beach and cemetery all the time. I hear nothing.

Of course, she — I feel certain it is a she — could have been a stray visitor like myself. But there are other creatures that wander these islands. I have been told many times about a monster, a famous female monster, who was created in Orkney. She was born from the fire of electricity, with electric skin, and then abandoned by her maker a hundred years ago. You may know this monster. You almost certainly know her male companion, although you will know the name of her maker better: Victor Frankenstein. This is what he says in his diary during the days he made his second monster in Orkney.

“I determined to visit some remote spot of Scotland and finish my work in solitude. I did not doubt but that the monster followed me and would discover himself to me when I should have finished, that he might receive his companion. With this resolution I traversed the northern highlands and fixed on one of the remotest of the Orkneys as the scene of my labours […] In this retreat I devoted the morning to labour; but in the evening, when the weather permitted, I walked on the stony beach of the sea to listen to the waves as they roared and dashed at my feet […] I was now about to form another being of whose dispositions I was alike ignorant; she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate…”

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein gave neither male nor female monster a name. When he came to the islands he made a new creature from sliced Orcadian flesh and local electricity. He made a cyborg from islanders and their electrons, sparking together in the dark. This cyborg embodies Orkney electrons; she was made from them, so perhaps she can help me to understand them. It would not be the first time that one of Frankenstein’s cyborgs has guided a scholar in their research.

Her kin guided Donna Haraway back in the Cold War years.[iii] That cyborg was not just a cybernetic organism, combining tech and flesh, s/he was a political manifesto for mixture and impurity across genders and races, sciences and knowledges, who changed the scholars that took her/him into their lives as a companion. Haraway’s cyborg was a monster that showed how far monsters could travel.

Victor Frankenstein thought he could create life from stolen flesh and the fire of electric technology. But he abandoned the first monster he created, he did not love and care for the cyborg he had made. Still, he tried again, and made a female companion in Orkney, sparking her in the dark, only to abandon her to the sea.

Now, I think she has been electrified by all that is happening here in the islands. I think Orkney electrons flow through her once more. But I do not fear her. “Stay with the trouble” is what I have been taught to do by scholars who have gone before me.[iv] Not all wandering monsters are dangerous. And I hope she will wander my way again.

I hear the gate on the far side of the cemetery clang, and squint into the moonlit gloom. Up the hill, where the stone wall ends in the empty shadow of a car park, I can see the figure of the monster, moving slow and awkward. She stops for a moment, shoulders rising and falling, perhaps with laboured breath. But she does not turn, just continues her way up the long, straight road.

[i] See Anna Tsing’s book, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

[ii] See Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, edited by Anna Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Elaine Gan, and Heather Swanson.

[iii] See Donna Haraway’s, A Cyborg Manifesto, in her book Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature.

[iv] “Stay with the trouble” is a call made by many, including Donna Haraway in her latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.