Visualizing New Political Ecologies: A Critical Data Studies Analysis of the World Bank’s Renewable Energy Resource Mapping Initiative

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In the context of climate change and concerns about fossil fuels, territories around the world are being remapped for their renewable energy generation potential. The World Bank and other institutions dominated by the global North are urging countries, especially in the global South, to undertake such mapping. The resulting maps are shown to potential investors in efforts to accelerate and direct the rapidly growing flow of capital into the renewable energy sector. These representations of territory and the new patterns of investment and land use they facilitate and foreshadow engage core concerns of political ecology: who claims, uses, and controls rural lands and resources; how are competing claims contested and legitimated; and who benefits or suffers as new visions of development, accumulation, and ‘sustainability’ are inscribed upon the land and new aspects of ‘nature’ are drawn into circuits of capital. We make two arguments in this paper. First, the dramatic expansion of renewable energy production from abiotic sources is an important but under-researched component of the global land rush, one that differs in key analytical ways from the agricultural and extractive sectors examined by most scholarship in that domain. Second, since powerful new visualizations are central to this expansion, there is an urgent need for closer engagement between political ecology and critical data studies to analyze their production, deployment, and effects. We support these arguments through analysis of examples drawn from the work of the Renewable Energy Resource Mapping Initiative of the World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program.

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