A Modest Proposal to Empower People and Save the Planet
Want a more just, equitable, sustainable and resilient world? Start by putting power (literally) in the hands of the people.
A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Article Was Originally Published January 11, 2018 in Colorlines.
There’s a power grab underway in Washington—a reverse Robin Hood strategy that transfers resources from working people to corporations and the 1 percent. It’s also reversing the global movement to replace dirty energy with renewables, in spite of the health and environmental impacts. Beneficiaries include the fossil fuel industry and multinational enterprises.
Energy democracy is a strategy to take some of those resources back, by putting power—literally—in the hands of the people. It has potentially game-changing benefits for low-income people and communities of color. To understand the promise of energy democracy, we need to consider the problems with our current systems of power, both the political variety and the kind that recharges your iPhone. (Spoiler: they are very closely connected.)
Today, our lives and economy are powered by fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. There are some notable downsides to this arrangement. First, burning fossil fuel pollutes our air and water, while wrapping Earth’s atmosphere in a blanket of heat-trapping carbon dioxide that is rapidly changing the climate. As a result, we are suffering ever-more deadly heat waves, crop failures, supercharged storms and catastrophic wildfires.
While no one can completely escape the effects of climate change, it won’t surprise you to learn that low-income people and people of color take the brunt of it. Those communities are least able to afford the rising price of food and other necessities, often lack access to health services, live in neighborhoods that are most vulnerable to floods and heat waves, and lack financial resources to bounce back after disasters. For example, according to a recent study by the NAACP, low-income, African-American women suffered the highest rates of injury and mortality in Hurricane Katrina. And because power plants and refineries are more likely to be sited in low-income communities of color, those communities have much higher rates of asthma, cancer and premature death.
At the same time, our fossil-fuel powered energy system has insidious effects on democracy and civic life. That massive, centralized system produces huge profits for the handful of corporations that control it. And, as wealth is increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, their political power has grown. (Consider, for example, the outsized influence of the Koch brothers.) The concentration of power, literal and otherwise, distorts public priorities and undermines democracy. That’s why the Trump Administration chose to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, though seven out of 10 Americans wanted to stay in. It also explains the astonishing $5.3 trillion in subsidies and other benefits that the world’s governments bestow upon the oil industry every year. In the U.S. alone, fossil fuel production receives $20 billion in subsidies each year.
So what’s the answer? A rapid transition to solar, wind and other clean-energy technologies are one part. But renewables alone can’t address the corrosive concentration of power in our society. Instead, we need an energy democracy movement that wrests control and ownership out of the hands of corporate interests, reclaiming it as a vital resource for advancing the environmental, economic and social-justice needs of our communities.
That movement is already under way. It seeks to bring energy resources under public or community control. It confronts the racial and other injustices at the heart of our current energy system, and prioritizes the needs and concerns of working families and communities of color in the struggle to define a new energy future.
While no community has energy democracy completely figured out, there are works in progress across the country that give us a glimpse of what’s possible. In Mississippi, for example, a group called One Voice is fighting to restore democratic control of the state’s rural electric cooperatives. During the Great Depression, those co-ops were founded to bring electricity to the state’s poorest, returning profits to their ratepayer members. But over the generations, electric cooperatives came instead to resemble their profit-making counterparts. Most enjoy monopolies in their service areas, and are heavily reliant on coal power. Co-op members—who are entitled to influence policy by voting for the board of directors—are not engaged in the planning, design and decision-making processes.
Perhaps as a result, Mississippi’s 26 electric co-ops sit on assets of $5.2 billion, while their impoverished, largely African-American customers pay as much as 42 percent of their income on electricity. And only 6 percent of the co-ops’ board members are Black, in a state that is 37 percent Black. To tackle these problems, One Voice is educating ratepayers about the rights and responsibilities of board members, the structure of co-ops, and the changing dynamics of the energy sector. Importantly, it offers guidance on how to effectively engage in membership meetings, and cultivates community leaders to serve on co-op boards.
And there’s more. From Oakland, California to New York State, local and state governments are experimenting with “Community Choice” programs that could ideally give communities control over where their electricity comes from and how their ratepayer dollars are spent. In the South Bronx, a public housing resident council called Mothers on the Move is leveraging the New York City Housing Authority’s investments in energy efficiency to conduct education and training in energy conservation and careers. And, across the Northeastern U.S. a consumer-owned energy cooperative called Co-Op Power is nurturing community-owned energy enterprises, including a biodiesel plant in Greenfield, Massachusetts, that produces fuel from recycled cooking oil, an energy-efficiency company called Energia in western Massachusetts that trains and employs young people of color, and a community-based solar development company, Resonant Energy, that uses innovative financing strategies to bring rooftop solar to low-income households in Boston.
These energy democracy initiatives are as diverse as the communities that launched them, but they have some things in common. They all go beyond simple “techno-fixes” to address power dynamics. And fundamentally, they recognize that energy—both fossil fuels and renewables—is not simply a commodity to be bought and sold; it is part of the commons—a precious global resource that must be respected, conserved and equitably shared.
That recognition poses a direct threat to the 1 percenters who now control our energy and political power. We should not expect them to give it up without a fight. (Neither did the slave-owners who enjoyed a similar lock on power in the antebellum South.) Energy democracy is a powerful way to fight back, by empowering people and communities to build a society worth living in.
This op-ed is adapted from Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions, edited by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub (Island Press, 2017).
2017 Holiday Gift Guide
This holiday season, consider the Icelandic tradition of gifting books. They don't go bad, are one-size-fits-all,...
This holiday season, consider the Icelandic tradition of gifting books. They don't go bad, are one-size-fits-all, and are sure to make anyone on your shopping list smile.With a library of more than 1,000 books, make Island Press your one-stop shop for book buying, so you can get back to enjoying the holidays. To help you out, we've compiled a list of staff selections and mentions on various best-of lists.
Get any of these books at your favorite neighborhood bookstore or online retailer!
For the health nut in your life – Whitewash
Let me just say I am unequivocally a health nut; I am definitely that friend who will straight up say “you so should not eat, it is so unhealthy for you.” So If you have a friend or family member that is kind of like me and cares about the kind of food and chemicals they put in their body; Carey Gillam Whitewash is the book to have! This riveting number exposes just how far one company is willing to go to line their pockets while showing total disregard for public health and safety. You think you know what is being sprayed on your food, well this book is here to say think again!
Whitewash is aslo one of Civil Eats' Favorite Food and Farming Books of 2017
For the Lego lover in your life – Design for Good
What good is building something if it doesn’t help the people it’s build for? In John Cary’s Design for Good, readers are presented with colorful, character-driven stories about project around that are designed with dignity in mind. Did we mention it also contains a ton of drool-worthy photos of architecture?
For the peacekeeper in your life – The Spirit of Dialogue
Know someone who always serves as the conflict resolver for your friends or family? Give them some new ideas of masterful mediation with The Spirit of Dialogue which draws lessons from a diversity of faith traditions to transform conflict. Whether atheist or fundamentalist, Muslim or Jewish, Quaker or Hindu, any reader involved in difficult dialogue will find concrete steps towards meeting of souls.
For the history buff in your life – Toms River
Toms River recounts the sixty-year saga that plagued this small New Jersey town. Your history-loving friend will meet industrial polluters and the government regulators who enabled them, the pioneering scientists who first identified pollutants as a cause of cancer, and the brave individuals who fought for justice. Longtime journalist Dan Fagin won the Pulitzer Prize for this page-turner, and gives us all a reason to think twice about what’s lurking in the water.
For the person in your life who thinks the environmental movement is made up of white outdoorsmen (or for the person in your life who thinks that the environmental movements doesn’t include them) – Energy Democracy
Energy Democracy frames the international struggle of working people, low-income communities, and communities of color to take control of energy resources from the energy establishment and use those resources to empower their communities—literally providing energy, economically, and politically. The diverse voices in this book show that the global fight to save the planet—to conserve and restore our natural resources to be life-sustaining—must fully engage community residents and must change the larger economy to be sustainable, democratic, and just.
For the lazy environmentalist in your life – Design Professionals Guide to Zero-Net Energy Building
We all know someone who really means well and cares about the environment, but cannot be bothered to change his lifestyle. With the Design Professionals Guide to Zero-Net Energy Building, you can introduce the zero-net energy building, which offers a practical and cost-effective way to address climate change without compromising quality of life.
For the foodie in your life – No One Eats Alone
For your favorite gourmand, give the gift of No One Eats Alone, an exploration of how to deepen connections to our food sources and to our own communities. Through over 250 interviews, Michael Carolan shows concerned food citizens opportunities for creating a more equitable and sustainable foodscape
For the conservation warrior in your life – Nature’s Allies
Worried about the state of nature in our divided world? Or know someone who is? Nature’s Allies is a refreshing antidote to helplessness and inertia. Within its pages Larry Nielsen brings alive stories of brave men and women around the world who have responded to the conservation crises of their time by risking their reputations, well-being, and even lives to stand up for nature when no one else would do so. These stories provide inspiration for a new generation of conservationists to step up in the face of adversity and challenge social and environmental injustice occurring today—and to assure them that they can make a difference by speaking out. This year, give a holiday gift of courage and inspiration: Nature’s Allies.
For the traveler in your life – Let Them Eat Shrimp
This book brings to life the importance of mangroves. Mangroves have many jobs: protecting coastlines, acting as nurseries for all kinds of fish, provide livlihoods and food for people. Kennedy Warne dives into the muddy waters of the mangrove world and shares the stories of the people who depend on them. The book is both a well-written travelogue and exploration of the science of the mangroves ecological service they provide.
Don't just take our word for it, check out these best-of lists:
For the nature-in-cities lover in your life – Handbook of Biophilic City Planning & Design
Featured on the ASLA's The Dirt Best Books of 2017
For the bike lover in your life – Bike Boom
Empowering Communities—Denise Fairchild Podcast Interview
Denise Fairchild, co-editor of the new book Energy Democracy, explores what an alternative, democratized energy future can look like
What does it mean to get real about climate change and take back control of our energy resources? What energy alternatives represent real solutions to the economic and environmental crisis confronting our civilization today?
For the latest podcast episode in our series on urban resilience, Infinite Earth Radio interviews Denise Fairchild, who serves as president/CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative and is also a frequent Urban Resilience Project contributor. In her book Energy Democracy, Denise brings together racial, cultural, and generational perspectives to show what an alternative, democratized energy future can look like.
Listen below as Denise explores how we can dismantle the extractive economy and transition to a greener, fairer energy future!
Check out our entire series of podcasts on urban resilience topics HERE.
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