Published: April 16, 2018

Sustainability scholars typically talk about the ‘greening’ of development as a process of low-carbon transition, which entails the eventual replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. I argue that it is also a process of low-carbon extraction, which subjects resource frontiers to land and water enclosures and economic volatility associated with traditional extractive industries. This presentation makes this argument using the example of small hydropower (SHP), China’s first and most widespread renewable energy technology. I trace how SHP has been re-framed from a tool of rural electrification in remote villages in western China, to a renewable energy that generates electricity for the national green economy. I suggest that SHP represents a broader transformation of rural western China into a ‘low-carbon frontier’, characterized by the rapid growth of renewable energy infrastructure far from urban centers. I show how the frontier is simultaneously constructed as a site of ecological degradation and of untapped low-carbon value, which enables energy firms and local governments to profit from natural resources at the expense of local livelihoods. This presentation thus demonstrates the innate role of the ‘frontier’ in green development transformations, and the ways that local resources and technologies can be re-purposed for broader economic and environmental goals.

Tyler Harlan is a postdoctoral fellow in sustainability in the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University. He studies the political economy and uneven socio-environmental impacts of China's green development transformation, and the implications of this transformation for other industrializing countries. He received his PhD in Geography from UCLA, an MPhil in Resource Management and Geography from the University of Melbourne, and a BA in Anthropology and East Asian Studies from Vanderbilt University.