As energy prices skyrocket, there’s some good news for Massachusetts residents. The state department of public utilities ordered providers like Eversource to reduce the price of natural gas for customers. This is a major win considering 28 percent of U.S. households experience some form of energy poverty and struggle to pay their utility bills. Energy justice — the ability to achieve equity in both the social and economic participation in the energy system — is key to liberation on all fronts.
In this edition of the WIRE, writer and Ujima community member, Charles Wallace-Thomas IV, explores the role of energy justice in a just transition.
On Environmental Racism and Energy Inequity
The effects of climate change make clear, as James Baldwin says, that “everything now, we must assume, is in our hands”. It has become increasingly clear, too, that the detriments of our reliance on fossil fuels have been borne disproportionately by poor people, low to moderate-income people, and people of color. Black communities, specifically, are exposed to 38 percent more polluted air than white communities, for example. When we observe that disparities in exposure to pollution lead to adverse health effects in Black communities, a clear line is drawn between them and the practices of large energy corporations. Large corporations like ExxonMobil, which control vast swaths of energy systems even predicted these effects, yet are publicly fighting legal accountability, and continue to harm communities directly and with their corporate investments in projects diametrically opposed to a liveable world.
On Consequences of the Problem
That these events and happenings are materially detrimental is self-evident, but it is perhaps the psychological effects stemming from how they are happening that is most difficult to counteract. The combination of eco-anxiety (which the philosopher Glen Albrecht proposes is the “generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse”) and the lack of control over the direction of global systems produces a sense of cognitive dissonance. Normally, the contradiction born of a lived experience or action doesn’t match our worldview, our sense of how the world or our lives should be is a generative one. We are presented with a few viable options to resolve the harmony: change our actions, change our worldview, justify our actions to avoid changing our worldview, or simply ignore the contradiction altogether.
Problems arise when the dissonance induced by eco-anxiety — or even solastalgia (a form of emotional or existential distress caused by environmental change) — cannot be resolved by changing our actions. To do so is too expensive, for example. But we cannot ignore the contradictions and expect to live. What does it mean for our collective sense of self when we are effectively burdened with the consequences of those in power choosing to ignore or worsen the problem? When the force of globalized capital has entrenched its power to the highest degree, it is inevitable that we should, as Jayne Cortez warns in her seminal poem There It Is, dissolve:
And you will disappear into your own rage
into your own insanity
into your own poverty
into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
and then ashes
The history of the variegated Black Radical Tradition is filled with tales of individuals and communities who resisted and rose against omni-dominant forces of racism, capitalism, and patriarchy. This tradition strongly suggests that a worldview where these paradigms are our only options would be wrong. Cortez affirms not only that the imperative to struggle towards freedom stands, but that to dissolve willfully into oblivion is patently not an option worth considering. Instead, she counsels,
And if we don’t fight
if we don’t resist
if we don’t organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is
So, where do we go from here?
Transitioning communities away from carbon-intensive sources of energy towards renewable energy like wind and solar is crucial. But we need to make this transition in a community-led fashion that respects the needs of workers, community members, businesses, and local governments.
A popular liberatory aim fashioned in response to this crisis is environmental justice. But, as we have seen, the locus of so much environmental injustice is situated within the ways that we produce, distribute, and consume energy. Our energy systems impact every aspect of our life such that energy justice is just as potent a liberatory aim as environmental justice.
The Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as:
the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. This includes equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.
The struggle for energy justice is well historied, but fundamentally, the movement towards energy justice is predicated upon the Just Transition Framework of moving from an extractive economy to a liveable one.
Transitioning communities away from carbon-intensive sources of energy, like coal, natural gas, and crude oil towards renewable energy like wind and solar is crucial. But we need to make this transition in a community-led fashion that respects the needs of workers, community members, businesses, and local governments.
Here are some potential pathways:
- Tame (Symbiotic)
This strategy can be thought of as a reform-based approach to social transformation. With this approach, state power is redirected and built through representation in government and coalition building through collaboration with existing concentrations of social power. While reform can be a powerful tool to accomplish change and avoid rupture, it requires collaboration with capitalists and does not inherently transform the nature of the economy itself, but allows for the adaptation of relationships between capitalists and labor, for instance. The Biden administration and the U.S. Congress has imbued a new sense of viability into symbiotic strategies for making energy justice real. By incentivizing the development of new technologies, markets, and the creation of policy specifically targeting disadvantaged communities, federal agencies like the EPA and the Department of Energy are poised to invest billions of dollars not only into the development of clean energy technology, but also into the communities which stand to benefit the most.
In January of 2021, President Biden issued Executive Order 14008 which, most notably, established the Justice 40 Initiative directing, “40% of the overall benefits of certain Federal investments — including investments in clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transit; affordable and sustainable housing; training and workforce development; the remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; and the development of clean water infrastructure — to flow to disadvantaged communities (DACs).”
This priority is reflected strongly within many federal agencies, especially the Environmental Protection Agency, which established the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, and the Department of Energy which has developed a strong framework for implementing Justice 40. There’s also the Coalition for Green Capital, which incubates and supports green banks, raises and deploys capital to finance clean energy projects, and grows the capacity of green banks to meet the need for climate related investments.
2. Smash (Rupture)
This ruptural strategy approaches the project of transforming society by actively dismantling existing power structures. The metaphor here is war and the goal is to destroy the social, political, and economic institutions responsible for it, and in turn seize their power. This is the strategy most readily identified with revolutionary politics and movements.
Pipeline disruption movements, like those seen at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline, are becoming more commonplace. Groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil made waves for defacing works of art and commercial property to draw attention to the climate crisis. Radical tactics like these and others succeed in creating pressure on power structures, like institutions and governments, to take action. To make the problem too big to ignore. Civil disobedience has a long history in the civil rights movement, and it’s a tactic that has a place in our energy transition.
3. Escape (Interstitial)
The strategy of escape, the interstitial strategy for transforming society, involves identifying gaps in the existing social, economic, and political structure as opportunities to build alternative existences, mostly free of the influence of the state. The metaphor here is ecological competition, where justice is evolved through the abandonment of the conditions which uphold injustice, either physically or socially, and create communities upholding self-determined values. While possibly initially risky, operating outside of the context of injustice removes the burden of working through or dismantling existing power structures. But escape alone may not be enough to ensure the longevity of the newly created society.
Within the paradigm of a fossil fuel economy, movements towards energy democracy constitute an interstitial strategy; their strength being the organization of energy production, use, and consumption outside of current harmful/exploitative models. Energy Democracy represents a shift from the corporate, centralized fossil fuel economy to one that is governed by communities, designed on the principle of no harm to the environment, supports local economies, and contributes to the health and well-being for all peoples.
Community-owned solar programs and other energy cooperatives are one example. Normally, projects employed as a part of interstitial strategies are weakened by their lack of formal legal definition, which makes access to public subsidy difficult, and therefore more difficult to start and maintain. But advances in federal policy have somewhat reduced this burden.
On Ujima and Beyond
Ujima is well positioned to take advantage of each of these strategies, via both the Ujima Fund and its ecosystem of influence. Already, the Ujima Fund investors voted to support CERO Coop, a composting business that diverts valuable food waste to the farms that need it — advancing Boston’s zero-waste goals. Several businesses in the Ujima Good Business Alliance, are committed to reducing their environmental footprint. Cupcake Therapy, for instance, refuses to invest in plastic packaging for its products, and new Alliance member, Eastie Farm, employs regenerative practices on their farm. In Ujima’s grand tradition of “Dreaming Wild,” one might imagine future fund investments in the community-owned energy or other low-carbon solutions.
As energy justice advocate, Shalanda Baker, says,
“The modern energy system is destiny. It defines communities quite literally, with fence lines demarcating livable space and the refinery, and structurally, with economic opportunities that come at great environmental costs and health risks. The energy transition provides an opening to change destiny. Given the profound ways the system interacts with poor people, low- to moderate-income people, and people of color, this imperative to remake the energy system in the image of equity and justice-is no different than the freedom struggles of the mid-twentieth century. The struggle for energy justice, for revolutionary power, is about nothing less than freedom.”
- Strategies for revolutionary social change, Erik Olin Wright
- Energy Democracy: Redistributing Power to the People Through Renewable Transformation, Jennie C. Stephens
- Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice within the Energy System, Shalanda Baker
- Black environmentalists concerned they were ‘not at the table,’ WBUR
Charles Wallace-Thomas IV is originally from Ohio, but relocated to Boston and graduated from Northeastern University with a B.S. in Economics. Currently, he’s an Energy and Economic Justice Policy Fellow in the U.S. Department of Energy. In 2020, Charles became a co-founder and Editor of The Second and Fourth Review, a publication confronting questions concerning the state and future of the racialized and class-stratified human condition.