6 x 9
23 photos, 8 illustrations
A global energy war is underway. It is man versus nature, fossil fuel versus clean energy, the haves versus the have-nots, and, fundamentally, an extractive economy versus a regenerative economy. The near-unanimous consensus among climate scientists is that the massive burning of gas, oil, and coal is having a cataclysmic impact on our atmosphere and climate, and depleting earth’s natural resources, including its land, food, fresh water and biodiversity.
These climate and environmental impacts are particularly magnified and debilitating for low-income communities and communities of color that live closest to toxic sites, are disproportionately impacted by high incidences of asthma, cancer and rates of morbidity and mortality, and lack the financial resources to build resilience to climate change.
Energy democracy tenders a response and joins the environmental and climate movements with broader movements for social and economic change. Energy democracy is a way to frame 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. Energy democracy is more important than ever as climate and social justice advocates confront a shocking political reality in the U.S.
This volume brings together racial, cultural, and generational perspectives. This diversity is bound together by a common operating frame: 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. The contributors offer their perspectives and approaches to climate and clean energy from rural Mississippi, to the South Bronx, to Californian immigrant and refugee communities, to urban and semi-rural communities in the Northeast. Taken together, the contributions in this book show what an alternative, democratized energy future can look like, and will inspire others to take up the struggle to build the energy democracy movement.
"As we transition off fossil fuels, we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to build a fair and democratic economy that works for everyone. In this marvelous collection, you'll hear directly from many of the inspiring leaders who have been theorizing, organizing, and laying the policy groundwork for that leap forward—and you might just be moved to join them."
Naomi Klein, author of "No Is Not Enough" and "This Changes Everything"
"Want to know how to address climate change, structural racism, and economic inequality at the same time? Start by reading this book. This is a critical read for those seeking to build a broader movement for economic equity, environmental justice, and planetary health."
Manuel Pastor, Director, Program for Environmental & Regional Equity, University of Southern California
"Energy Democracy is a call to action and a powerful tool for activists and grassroots leaders seeking to create a new energy paradigm that empowers our most vulnerable communities and fosters equitable, resilient economies."
Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO, PolicyLink
"From the Flint water crisis to calamities like Superstorm Sandy, it is becoming more evident that our nation must get serious about addressing environmental injustice. Energy Democracy advances a conversation about the climate crisis and deepening racial inequality at a time when these issues are in the forefront of our political landscape."
Gerry Hudson, Secretary-Treasurer, Service Employees International Union (SEIU)
"Energy Democracy draws upon some of the most exciting voices in the growing movement for a new energy economy. It offers a clear vision of the clean energy future—pluralist, community-sustaining, and deeply democratic—that might just be possible if we learn to recognize and fight for it."
Gar Alperovitz, Co-founder of The Democracy Collaborative and Co-chair of The Next System Project
"There's no topic on the planet more important right now than democratizing energy—that's the precondition for the massive buildout of renewable energy that should be the chief occupation of a warming planet for decades to come. This book does a fine job of helping readers understand the perspectives and undercurrents that make breaking with the disastrous status quo both difficult and urgent."
Bill McKibben, author of "Deep Economy"
"True 'Energy Democracy' places us on a path where all communities, and especially our most vulnerable, have a chance to authentically participate in a holistic process focused on equitable, sustainable, resilient, and democratic changes that will benefit those who have often been overlooked, marginalized, and forgotten. This exceedingly important book connects the dots, and shares strategies on how we win on climate, how we win on renewable energy, and how we win on empowering vulnerable communities!"
Mustafa Santiago Ali, Senior Vice President, Hip Hop Caucus
Chapter 1. Introduction by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub
Chapter 2. From Commodification to the Commons: Charting the Pathway for Energy Democracy by Cecilia Martinez
Chapter 3. The Case for a Just Transition by Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan
Chapter 4. Energy Democracy Through Local Energy Equity by Strela Cervas and Anthony Giancatarino
Chapter 5. Base-Building and Leadership Development for Energy Democracy: APEN’s Work in East Bay Asian Immigrant and Refugee Communities by Vivian Yi Huang and Miya Yoshitani
Chapter 6. Organizing for Energy Democracy in Rural Electric Cooperatives by Derrick Johnson and Ashura Lewis
Chapter 7. Conflicting Agendas: Energy Democracy and the Labor Movement by Sean Sweeney
Chapter 8. Democratizing Municipal-Scale Power by Al Weinrub
Chapter 9. Community-Anchor Strategies for Energy Democracy by Maggie Tishman
Chapter 10. New Economy Energy Cooperatives Bring Power to the People by Lynn Benander, Diego Angarita Horowitz, and Isaac Baker
Chapter 11. Building Power Through Community-Based Project Development by Anya Schoolman and Ben Delman
Chapter 12. Conclusion: Building an Energy Democracy Movement by Denise Fairchild
Denise Fairchild at GWU 2018 Planet Forward Summit
Friday, April 6, 2018
10:30 –11:30 AM EDT
This unique Planet Forward Town Hall will explore whether America can still lead on climate change and renewable energy. Along with our audience, remarkable leaders in energy, environment and conservation, will consider the story of America’s energy future.
NICK AKINS, President and CEO American Electric Power
SUSAN EISENHOWER, CEO and Chairman Eisenhower Group, Inc.
TED ROOSEVELT IV, Managing Director, Barclays Capital Corporation
Join Denise Fairchild for a conversation around building the movement for energy democracy. Denise will draw from her recent book, Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions, and we will hear from local panel of experts about work going on in our region to advance community-owned energy and improve access to both energy efficiency and renewable energy.
As the current federal government tries to breathe new life into a dying fossil fuel economy, foment racial intolerance, reassert U.S. military dominance, eliminate health and other protections, and otherwise bow to corporate interests, it is a critical time to strengthen and empower our communities. To save the planet—and ourselves—we must find solutions that democratize energy, making it a vital resource for advancing the environmental, economic, and social justice needs of our communities. Confronting racial discrimination and advancing equity is central to developing a sustainable, decentralized energy alternative.
Edited by Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub, Energy Democracy: Advancing Equity in Clean Energy Solutions is the first book to show what building an alternative, democratized energy future can look like. Check out an excerpt from the book below.
Katharine is the Publicity & Marketing Associate at Island Press.
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.
Kyler Geoffroy is the Online Marketing Manager for Island Press
These are challenging times for environmental justice — at least at the federal level. Earlier this year, Mustafa Ali, who led environmental justice work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, resigned rather than preside over the dismantling of his program.
To understand the prospects for environmental justice work in Trump’s America, we gathered (by phone) an impressive cadre of leaders from across the country:
Listen below to a two-part excerpt from the call. For more on what was said, click here.
Laurie Mazur is the editor for the Kresge Foundation/Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is working to advance a holistic, transformative approach to urban resilience in the era of climate change, grounded in a commitment to sustainability and equity. Laurie has written extensively about gender, health, and environment issues.
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.
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
Island Press' Associate Director of Marketing.
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).
Denise Fairchild is president/CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor, and community groups dedicated to climate resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic, and equity outcomes.
Back in May, Island Press co-hosted a webinar with the Security and Sustainability Forum on how the energy democracy movement goes beyond technological solutions to address the legacy of social and racial injustice in the fossil fuel industry. Featured on the webinar was Energy Democracy contributor Ashura Lewis who does communications work for the Mississippi based One Voice.
Below are Ashura’s answers to select questions from webinar attendees. If you missed the webinar, you can view it here.
Yes, this is precisely what our energy democracy campaign is attempting to accomplish within Mississippi’s electric cooperatives. The principles and laws governing the creation and operation of electric cooperatives already exist and support truly democratic functioning. However, because of the historical strife, disdain, and dishonesty found in Mississippi’s race relations, what should have been protective, supportive institutions have
become like the for-profit monsters their inception was designed to avoid.
Our campaign is to ensure that the cooperative members know their own power as member-owners and that control of the energy and economic futures of a community is not left in the hands of a few, particularly if those few do not share the interests of the community itself.
This question divided the team so I will give the two answers that dominated our discussion. (1) American democracy, though flawed and inefficient, still exists despite failures of democratic participation in subsets of the overall, subsets like energy democracy. (2) American democracy, with its flaws and inefficiency, is not currently whole nor will it ever be whole and complete until all subsets of democratic participation are fully democratized as well.
As for the second part of your question, communities with lower quality housing stock that often suffer from nightly energy loss, also suffer from compounding issues of persistent poverty statuses, lack of economic security, poor quality of life, and other similar and poverty-related issues.
A board of directors can opt to form a relationship with a local bank or other financial institution (or tap into the cooperative’s equity) to offer to their member-owners tariff based ways to make energy-related improvements to their housing stocks. It should be noted that the tariff-based is tied to the meter not the individual who may have requested the improvement. However, that would require a progressive board that is fully engaged and invested into the cooperative principle of concern for community.
While we need the wisdom of our elders and the energy of our youth, in Mississippi history has provided us with a model of community engagement and organization that works well to advance the goals of energy democracy within the particularities that define our political and economic reality.
As to the narrative of previous generations “screwing things up,” it is understood and continually communicated in state-wide, progressive narratives that the only fault, if there was one, was that the previous generations had other directly pressing concerns (lynching, police brutality, rape, etc.) that perhaps distracted from important energy concerns.
Finding a way to communicate the effects of climate change to the everyday person rather than the term-heavy, very academic approaches used now. Additionally, support would be welcomed if the academic community could find a way to bring the effects and consequences of climate change and community climate resilience to a personal or familial level of impact.
This book may speak to your question in far more detail than I dare to. It’s called Humanizing the Economy by John Restakis. However, I will say that the cooperative model as used in other countries tend to be better implemented than those here, and as a result are reaping more benefits than American co-ops manage on average.
The NRECA is a resource for work. It does try to emphasize the best practice models and the seven principles that should guide all electric cooperatives. The NRECA, however, is not an enforcement agency.
The Public Service Commission approves or certifies any investor owned utilities (IOU), municipally owned utilities (MOU), or cooperative moving into an area, which makes the possibility of coops moving into already existing IOU or MOU territory highly improbable.
To a certain extent, cooperatives by their nature are community choice aggregators. This nature is magnified particularly if a cooperative chooses to join with another cooperative or group of cooperatives. This is also one of the principles of cooperatives— working together.
As mentioned in the previous answer, cooperatives are already a type of CCA organization, therefore, it comes down to the control and moral operation of the cooperative of traditional CCA itself. In regard to the second part of your question, to form a cooperative, it only takes a determined group of people. The issue then comes down to funding.
Historically, cooperatives received federal funding under the New Deal. Today and in a highly concentrated area of underserved population, that funding (and connected infrastructure) would be a significant obstacle toward the creation of a new electric cooperative.
Regardless of the entity and how it is formed, it will always come down to the human nature, greed, and a communities’ ability to direct and influence those that govern them or their interests in a democratic framework. If that democratic framework does not exist, however, it is likely inevitable that such corruptions will occur.
Vaguely, but they do not exist in Mississippi at this time and the current political landscape likely precludes their introduction in the near future.
These questions and answers were edited for clarity and length
Congratulations to the following Island Press authors and Urban Resilience Contributors called to serve the country in the new administration!
Cecilia Martinez, an URP contributor and contributor to Energy Democracy, is now senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality
Island Press' Associate Director of Marketing.
On June 18, 2021, The Biden-Harris Administration signed Senate Bill 475 (S.475), the National Independence Day Act, which proclaimed Juneteenth a federal holiday. The president defined it as a day to “commemorate the past; celebrate the emancipation of the formerly enslaved; and remind us of our capacity to “heal, hope and emerge in new ways.”
Juneteenth can be all that and more. The formerly enslaved African Americans who celebrated the first Juneteenth have much to teach us about living within, surviving, and overcoming the ills of an extractive economy that depletes and commodifies our human and natural resources. It’s a lesson with new urgency and relevance in the era of climate change.
The origins of Juneteenth and its commemoration are very particular to African Americans. Considered the oldest African-American holiday, it celebrated the news of emancipation of enslaved Africans in Galveston, Texas, two years after the signing of the emancipation proclamation. There are similar Emancipation Day celebrations in Columbus, Mississippi (aka (8ofMay), Western Kentucky (aka – 8thofAugust) Washington, D.C. (April 15) and elsewhere. These are joyous celebrations of freedom. But there can – and should – be more to Juneteenth than barbecues and music festivals.
As a national holiday, Juneteenth must be relevant to all Americans. It can provide a platform for all Americans to remember and lift up our ancestors, their wisdom and their ways of living under harsh circumstances. With that wisdom, we can rebuild a culture and civic infrastructure to withstand the ongoing disruptions to our natural, built, political, economic, and social environments.
Juneteenth tells a cultural story of resilience, family reunification, mutual aid, educational uplift, community building, collective economics, “commoning” and stewardship of the land. These values and ways of living were indispensable for the formerly enslaved to overcome daily hardships, for thriving in a resource-limited world, and for building new communities and new possibilities after emancipation. We celebrate Juneteenth today because of the struggle then and now to build a cooperative and communal culture. “It took a village” to overcome the challenges.
Black-owned cooperatives were one way to do so. Collective Courage, by Dr. Jessica Gordon Nembrand, documents over 160 legally incorporated Black-owned cooperatives since the mid-1880s. These coops were a way to survive, to provide family security and prosperity, and create stable, lasting systems for housing, food, and land conservation. African Americans also created self-sufficient communities: Maroon communities, built by runaway slaves, and Freedman settlements, built by formerly enslaved Africans after emancipation. While many of these towns -- such as “Black Wall Street,” the Greenwood district in in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Rosewood, Florida; and Wilmington, North Carolina -- were torched and their Black residents were run out of town, hundreds still exist.
Building community resilience was clearly born out of necessity, but more importantly, it was grounded in a shared African cultural ethos of Ubuntu, meaning, “I am because you/we are.” Ubuntu uplifts our oneness and recognizes that well-being flows from caring relationships with each other, our community, and nature. Ubuntu maintained us through enslavement and reconstruction, and while somewhat eroded over time through assimilation into western culture, it is finding a resurgence. The cooperative spirit of Ubuntu is central to the Juneteenth story, and provides a way forward in this new era of climate, political, economic, and social disruptions.
While the African-American experience of slavery is singular, this cultural ethos is not unique to African Americans. There are similar stories by those who lived the legacy of the Trail of Tears, the Holocaust, Japanese internment, the potato famine, immigration, wars and political oppression, as well as racial, gender, and religious discrimination and persecution. Juneteenth affords Americans the opportunity to take pride in our unique and common history of resistance and resilience, to remember the communal values and behaviors of sharing and care, and to restore and carry forward these principles and practices. These cultural values and lifeways are essential for mitigating and adapting to climate change.
The Climate Connection
Now more than ever, America needs a climate breakthrough. Our solutions are predominantly technological in nature: greening our buildings, cars, and transit systems, fuel sources and communities – Scope 1 and 2 emissions. These measures are important and necessary, but insufficient. Most emissions come from the massive, global supply chain of material extraction, processing, and distribution, powered by underpaid (if not enslaved) labor, to feed consumer demands.
If we are to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we need to resist the market demand for massive production and conspicuous consumption. We need new economies that are localized, generative, and cooperative. We need community energy, food, and housing systems. We need to restore the commons.
This, in turn, requires a major cultural shift. The western, Cartesian philosophy of “I think, therefore I am” spawned an ego-centered, utilitarian belief system that has us on the brink of environmental, social, and economic disaster. This culture of individualism and materialism is driving a global economy that reveres mass production, mass consumption, massive waste and massive wealth accumulation from the privatization and extraction of the commons. The paradigm is both unsustainable and unjust.
Surviving and adapting to climate change in a resource-limited world demands more than new technologies to decarbonize our economy. It compels us to rethink how we live with each other and nature. It calls us to ferret out the root causes of our current crisis and fashion alternatives to systems of extraction and degradation of our natural and human resources.
Ubuntu is one such alternative. It reminds us that we can’t thrive if the planet is dying. We can’t thrive without community. It recognizes that humans are part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world. It is the belief in a universal bond of sharing and being responsible for the gifts and limits of nature. It is the foundation of building the society that protects the well-being of people and planet.
Similar beliefs and practices are found in Native American, East Asian and other cultures, such as Kapwa in Filipino cultures. These are the cultural roots to mitigate and adapt to climate change and to create the social capital to withstand the resource competition that has bitterly divided our nation.
Juneteenth Call to Action
On Juneteenth, we should clearly celebrate the emancipation of the formerly enslaved and call out the continued struggle for freedom, voting rights, economic opportunities, and more. But this holiday is also an opportunity to remember and honor the ancestors on whose shoulders we stand. By uplifting their wisdom and ways of being, we can envision – and build -- alternative economies and lifestyles grounded in an ethos of interdependence, cooperation, and respect for nature. Let’s use Juneteenth to build the political will and community action to do this.
Just as MLK Day is a day of service, let’s make Juneteenth “Heritage Day” – a call to action to reclaim, and celebrate our legacy and cooperative traditions, and to strengthen the bonds of collective struggle and community resilience – past, present and future -- that we share.
Denise Fairchild is president/CEO of Emerald Cities Collaborative, a national nonprofit organization of business, labor, and community groups dedicated to climate resilience strategies that produce environmental, economic, and equity outcomes.