Reclaiming Agency

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Reclaiming Agency

Below is a list of questions to serve as a starting framework for the discussion in this thread:

  • How can local communities reclaim capital and resources for the regeneration of the environment and sectors of the economy?
  • How can we center the ethics of social equality in narratives of sustainable futures?
  • How can we utilize indigenous traditional knowledge and other alternative knowledge frameworks to focus on local solutions which benefit local communities?
  • Share stories of success. 
Acknowledging Inequality to reclaim agency

A fundamental element in reclaiming agency in a world of climate change is addressing the present energy system. Although rarely talked about in the domestic energy agenda, the problem of inequality within the U.S. energy system is a critical issue. The role of the energy system in creating an uneven distribution of costs and benefits across communities, and the intersections of race and income in creating this unevenness, has not been considered, much less addressed.  Essentially, the social, political and economic processes which supported the development of the fossil-fuel energy system, and which produced and reproduce unequal racial and economic conditions are mostly excluded from the clean energy transition dialogue.

It is time to confront the inequality demon. While there is a certain proportion of the population in the United States, and among the global elite, that enjoy the fruits of highly resource-intensive energy and economic system, the fact is that these benefits were built on the backs of many. In nearly every sector, from housing and transportation to forestry and mining, the expansive growth in economic wealth has its dark underbelly -- the exploitation of people and nature.   As the politics of  a just transition and clean energy continues to unfold, it is as important not to mask the historical realities of unequal development that have led us to the present day, as it is to address the environmental consequences of this history. 

Yet, our current energy planning has become almost myopically focused on the problem of carbon reduction, which in turn reinforces an underlying tendency to avoid the social and economic problems associated with the fossil-fuel energy system.  The question is, how can we move forward on an energy transition that addresses inequality and environmental degradation?  The first step is in recognizing they are linked – and achieving one without the other is not desirable, nor will it be effective.  True sustainability requires the integration of justice and equity, and this can only be accomplished by reclaiming a democratic ethic.

Hi Cecilia, 

Hi Cecilia, 

I really appreciate your comment above. Regarding the pitfalls of compartmentalizing 'environmental issues' and 'social justice issues' as two separate topics, when indeed they are deeply interconnected, I wonder what the historical trajectory on this conversation has been in relating (or not) these two elements of the climate justice conversation. In your work, have you noticed a change in the way in which dialogues on environmental issues has related to people-oriented policies, in contrast to, for example, carbon reduction issues? How centered or marginalized have human-oriented, social justice-driven policies been in environmental policy circles, and how can we implement institutional change to integrate justice and equity as a directing force in these conversations? 

Yes great point Cecilia. The

Yes great point Cecilia. The commercialisation and monopolisation of energy is very much central to all forms of inquality - between countries as well as within countries and also gender inequality. Carbon neutral energies will be equally as unjust if they are operate within a neo-liberal, growth model. The global economic framework was essentially designed by the largest extractive and finance corporations when they controlled much of the world's capital. Now that the largest companies are tech companies we can expect that they will continue to work hard to ensure their technology captures wealth in much the same way.  A key question then has to be how to release energy from corporate control, regardless of the source. 

I think this is a bit muddled

I think this is a bit muddled to some degree, though there is an underlying truth here in regards to the origins of how our current economic thinking contributes to both environmental problems and social problems.

The muddled part for me is that while fetishizing economic growth as always being a good thing certainly is contributing to exacerbating eco-justice issues, saying that carbon neutral energy will be equally unjust as fossil fuels if done in a neoliberal framework is simply not true. If you've eliminated fossil fuel pollution you've solved a significant part, if not the only part, of our environmental problems. I'm sure anyone living near a coal power plant, or near an oil refinery or drilling site, would be much happier and healthier would those things not be there—even if the underlying economic model is still damaging. 

As for releasing energy from corporate control, this is certainly a good thing. How to do it is not unique to the energy industry, or the tech industry, or any other industry: It's accounting for negative environmental and social eternalities in the prices we pay for goods, plus a shift away from using GDP as a measure of economic health; making ecocide a crime against peace under international law, and enforcing this, will help; also legislation granting rights and legal standing to non-human beings is a useful tool and conceptual framework for reducing pollution and ecological degradation. Accompanying this, and this is admittedly a very long term shift, is cultivating a new educational model about humans and the rest of existence, a model rooted in interconnectedness and cooperation (both among humans and other species), rather than our current one which remains rooted in a 19th century red in tooth and claw perspective of competition and separateness. 

Wonderful conversation!

Wonderful conversation!

Quick reply

Thank you Gbrassil for your comment! Yes, from my perspective the environmental justice (EJ)movement has been the place where the intersection has evolved. But, EJ has been so marginalized within the environmental movement. The climate justice movement, from my perspective, has from the onset has integreated the two. But, the mainstream, again in my view, is very carbon centric - to the exclusion of social and economic justice.  The struggle it seems, is to address the problem from many different angles -organizing, activism, scholarship, advocacy, etc. What I see in the climate and energy work, is that justice concerns are strong in the organizing and activism world, but in the scholarship and policy world, they are marginalized.  We worked extensively on President Obama administration rules and policies, because while progressive in the climate and energy fields, were really leaving out the justice components.  In one rule (the Clean Power Plan) there was an explicit acknowledgement that some communities might experience more pollution, but that in aggreagate there would be a reduction. This, i think, is unacceptable. Would love to continue the conversation with you!

The Neoliberal Equity Problem

From reading your response, I essentially agree with all the points above. Perhaps is not so much muddled as points of disagreement on a minor item.  Transitioning to a non-fossil fuel based is critical, but the assumption that continuing within a neoliberal energy system is grounded in the notion that aggregate benefits and costs of such a system are distributed equally and the problems of race and class are not endemic to its structural operations. Unfortunately, that has also been the problem in the research. So, for the energy and climate realm, the distribution (equity) of costs and benefits of renewable and climate policy is relatively immature as a field. We do have some indications though, from the work of research investigating AB32 in California, that there has not been a just or equitable impact on vulnerable communites. A substantial level of activism and advocacy from environmental justice communities has attempted to address the inequity is ongoing. There are many other issues with renewable energy and energy efficiency development: 

1. Labor. Studies show that state labor laws have a substantial effect on wages, working conditions etc. What is the distribution of wealth from a renewable economy is essential to understanding the neoliberal paradigm and if it will address inequality.

2. Pollution pathway reduction. Is there an equitable pathway to the pollution reduction? Again, renewable energy is not pollution free. Rare earth minerals, are also a part of the lifecycle renewable technology. Who is producing? What protections? What are the wages? Who bears the brunt of the waste stream? These are all quesitons that are rooted in the type of economic system the energy sector operates within

3. Even within the seemingly equitable issue of energy efficiency there are problems. "Selling" efficiency has its implications. In the U.S. low income energy efficiency is 6% of total efficiency budgets. its also seen as a quantitative issues, that is either reducing energy consumption and/or greenhouse gases. But the quality of the consumption is never questioned. Is making swimming pools, hot tubs and McMansions more efficient the same ethically as increasing access of heating and cooling systems for low income and vulnerable families. Today, utility bills are a signficant issue for low income communities. Research indicates many go without food, prescriptions because of their energy burden. Energy has also been a trigger cost that contributes to foreclosures. 

All these are symptoms of a neoliberal economic and political system that doesn't have equity and justice as its core. I fundamentally agree this is not an energy or tech thing, which is why I wholeheartedly agree that "cultivating a new education model about humans and the rest of existence is necessary and critical."