Lauren Richter: …assistant professor of environmental studies here at RISD in HPSS and NCSS, and I will introduce our dialogue session, Racial Capitalism, Designs for Energy Transition and the Green New Deal. We have three speakers. Myles Lennon is assistant professor of the environment and society and anthropology at Brown. Shalanda Baker is professor of public policy, law, and urban affairs at the School of Law at Northeastern University. And Jacqueline Patterson is director of the environmental and climate justice program at the NAACP. Please join me in welcoming our fantastic panel.
Myles Lennon: Hi everybody. So first a huge thank you to Damian and Tina and RISD for having us here. It’s such a pleasure to be back at this…maybe annual event. And it’s a special honor to share the stage with Jacqui and Shalanda. I’m sometimes prone to hyperbole but I’m inclined to think that Shalanda is probably the preeminent legal scholar of just transitions in the United States. [applause] Probably fair to say. And if anyone has been keeping half an eye open to the climate justice movement over the last few years you have certainly seen or encountered Jacqui in some capacity. She is ubiquitous. I have a feeling that she is also in Washington DC and Baltimore and Louisiana right now, as she sits here on the stage at the same time. Which is quite a feat. So, we should be really honored to hear from Jacqui, and to hear about all the great work at the NAACP with regard to environmental justice and just transitions.
I also want to note, last year I’m pretty sure I was the only black participation in the Climate Futures symposium. And this year as you could see on the stage we’ve at least triple that figure. Which is a real step in the right direction. And all jokes aside, while I don’t want to endorse a crude politics of representation I do think that it’s really important that we are foregrounding the issues that we’ll be talking about today in this broader discussion about the Green New Deal and just transitions, as racial capitalism is not simply incidental to or an important feature of the Green New Deal and our broader sustainability challenges. Instead it must be central to how we’re thinking about these challenges.
And so, specifically today we’re gonna have a dialogue on the Green New Deal, just transitions, and racial capitalism. Some of you might be very familiar with the term racial capitalism. Others of you, this might be the first time that you’ve heard it. So I want to do a quick moment to sort of demystify that term before actually getting into the dialogue. Do you guys want to set any intentions or anything for introductory sake or?
Shalanda Baker: Maybe once we do the…
Lennon: Once we open it up? Okay. Okay, so racial capitalism, very crudely and simplistically we can think of it as the extraction of surplus value from racially-marginalized bodies. But, I want to move outside of that sort of narrow definition and try to historicize the term to give some broader context. The term “racial capitalism” actually first emerged in Apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. And in that way, I think it’s instructive to…in that it emerged from anti-apartheid activists who were thinking about what a transition to a post-apartheid movement would look like and how capitalism would or hopefully wouldn’t figure into that post-apartheid movement and in that way it demonstrates how racial capitalism is really an adept term for thinking about broader societal transitions like the ones that we are trying to embark on with the Green New Deal.
But racial capitalism as a term has really gained prominence in the work of Cedric Robinson, who is a landmark black Marxist. Ostensibly coined the term as we presently understand it at least in scholarly and activist worlds in 1983. And although he was a black Marxist and also coined the term the “black radical tradition,” he actually conceptualized racial capitalism as a way of pushing back against, and offering a different frame for understanding how capitalism and anti-blackness go hand in hand, a different frame than how it was often traditionally conceptualized in leftist, Marxist spaces.
And the sort of traditional leftist, Marxist understanding of the integrations of capitalism and racism, or white supremacy, go something like this. The settler colonialists, the Western imperialists, needed a broad rationale for their extractive and exploitative practices and so, they created race. So they created indigenous people. So they created the black race. And that social construction in the time of colonialism was the basis of a broader racial apparatus that worked to legitimize the inequality of capitalism. That’s the sort of traditional leftist understanding.
Cedric Robinson took it a lot deeper. He said no no no no. We need to look not at industrial capitalism, not at settler colonialism, not at the transatlantic slave trade as the genesis of racial capitalism. We need to look before modern capitalism as we understand it. We need to look to Western European feudalism. And the way he saw European feudalism operating was through the racialization of Slavs, of gypsies, of Roma, of Jews, of the Irish. And the ways in which those marginalized groups were racialized, were marked as an other, was central to the accumulation and extraction executed by feudal lords, such that the whole basis of feudal lords’ capacity to accumulate capital and wealth was the racialization of these otherized groups. And in that way, the extractive, exploitative logic that we see is foundational to contemporary capitalism that was obviously informed as settler colonialism, Western imperialism, and industrial neoliberal post-industrial capitalism as we understand it today. That extractive logic necessitated…necessitated a logical of racialization, necessitated racialized others, such that racialization and capitalism, or extraction, went hand in hand. There was not a capitalism and then a racism. White supremacy necessitated capitalism and vice versa.
And so, that is I think a really important way… The historical understanding that there was no capital before racialization is really important for tending to the extractive fossil fuel legacies that we’re trying to unearth today with the Green New Deal and just transition work in so many ways. And I will just do a teeny tiny summary. I think most people in this room are aware of how the fossil fuel and extractive industries have historically been based on and continue to perpetuate white supremacy and the denigration of marginalized communities. We can look to the Chevron refinery plant in Richmond, California. We can look to the petrochemical industry across the Gulf. We could look to the Keystone and proposed Keystone XL pipelines in the Dakotas. We can to, in my community in Queens, the largest fossil fuel power station in the largest city of the United States being right across the street from the largest housing projects.
And in all of these sites, the denigration of people of color, of black and indigenous people, was foundational to the extractive legacies that we see. And that’s just in the United States, right. When we take a broader lens and look globally, we see the same facets of racial capitalism operative in the workings of fossil fuel industry.
And so, if we want to enact a just transition and move toward another moment, dealing with racial capitalism cannot be a side game. It cannot be an important part of the agenda. It needs to be the agenda. And at least that I hope is sort of the basis of our discussion today.
And so with that sort of historical backdrop, by way of introduction I’m hoping that Shalanda and Jacqui, if you can tell us a little bit about your work and also, though, how this idea of racial capitalism is either salient to or relevant to the work that you do or the communities that you work with.
Shalanda H. Baker: Good morning everybody. We’re still awake. We’re still alive and well. I see a colleague, a couple colleagues here. Welcome.
So, just to back up a little bit. So I’m a legal scholar. I have a joint appointment, so I do work in the School of Public Policy at Northeastern as well. And my work is broadly situated within an emerging area of scholarship called energy justice. And so energy justice is transdisciplinary. It’s proliferated mainly in the UK, which is fascinating, in terms of the scholars who’ve generated the most knowledge around that and the most sort of articles around that.
Here in the US we’re…just now starting to wrap our arms around this term called energy justice. It’s rooted in and builds upon environmental justice, which was a movement that started in the 1990s…there’s an area of scholarship as well that’s sort of running in tandem with environmental justice. And environmental justice was very much in response to the environmental movement of the 1970s, right, which took sort of a race-blind, class-blind approach to protecting the environment. And there were communities of color, mainly in the south, who were sort of saying ‚“This environmental movement doesn’t speak to us. It doesn’t speak to our unique experiences.” And there were some landmark reports in the late 80s that sort of illustrated the ways that communities of color were uniquely burdened—particularly black communities were uniquely burdened by development. So not just the energy system but broad development in certain pockets of the country and even within certain cities, where as Myles described, there were concentrations of harms.
And so, the environmental justice movement really did take root in the 1990s. We had sort of a high water mark in 1994 with President Clinton signing Executive Order 12898, which really said that look, in every government that decision that’s made we have to take into account considerations of environmental justice, which were really looking at the substantive or distributed impacts of rules and laws, as well as the procedural justice aspects of how that law was made. And so that meant that everyone had to have a seat at the table.
Climate justice came along in the early 2000s, which was very much a recognition that communities of color, island nations, mainly folks in the Global South would be disproportionately harmed by climate change when they did very little to contribute to the problem.
So energy justice emerges from that rich history. I wanted to give that little context. Because energy justice is very concerned that our transition away from fossil fuels will actually replicate the injustices and inequalities of the fossil fuel system. And so I sort of accidentally found myself writing in this space when I found myself in Oaxaca, Mexico—that’s a long story. But— And I’m happy to answer questions about it. But essentially, I lived in Oaxaca during a time that—after leaving legal practice, and while I was there I met indigenous peoples, farmers, who were fighting against large-scale wind energy development. And so at that time there wasn’t really a discourse around how climate change-based development could actually replicate inequality, and I got really interested in how indigenous peoples were similarly dispossessed, and displaced, and marginalized through so-called clean energy development. And so that began my journey, which was about ten years ago. I’ve been writing about that since then. And that work led me to Hawaii, where I realized that we were actually replicating much of that injustice in the US. And now I’m fully steeped in it. So, that’s just by way of introduction background on the principles that guide my work.
Jacqui Patterson: So my name is Jacqui Patterson, I’m the senior director of the Environmental and Climate Justice Program at the NAACP. Our program started ten years ago in October of 2009. And when it first started it was started out of this commission to engage African Americans on climate change that was facilitated by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. And because the NAACP was the only group in that commission that had a base, in terms of our twelve hundred branches and chapters and half a million members, they decided that they want to give a differential grant to the NAACP to be kind of the boots on the ground in terms of engaging African Americans on climate change.
And so I was brought in as the founding director of the program, and very early on was educating myself, because I came from a background of doing work around international HIV and AIDS, and public health, and human rights, and economic justice, but not necessarily from a background of doing environmental and climate justice. And so, some of the first things that struck me as I came on board was a report that I read in 2009 that was put out by the American Association of Blacks in Energy. And the statistic has stuck with me that African Americans spend $41 billion on energy per year. That we have 1.1% of the jobs in the energy sector. And that we gaine less than 0.1% of the revenue from the energy sector. And that really just told the story of what we talked about in terms of racialized capitalism for sure.
And so, going from that to seeing all of my colleagues talked about in terms of the fact that we are on the frontlines of energy and justice in terms of the disproportionate exposure to pollution? and yet seeing how in this kind of market-based economy that we are completely left out of that market, just really says everything. We’re left out of that market except for being commodities in that market. And so that really fueled a lot of the passion that I have around focusing around energy justice and why so much of our program has been focused on energy justice.
From there I started to see also even that governments— We worked a lot in the in the south in Mississippi and Alabama and so forth. And when we talk about kind of taxation without representation, we worked with the rural electric coops there, and were just struck by the fact that we have kind of a modern day Apartheid when it comes to rural electricity coops, which is how a lot of folks in those areas get their electricity, where for the most part these rural electric coops are in primarily African American jurisdictions where the entire boards of directors for the rural electric coops are white American.
So that just struck me in terms of who’s making—you know, not only are we not gaining revenue, that we’re being disproportionately impacted by how we’re creating energy. But then we’re also paying out—and in places like Mississippi and Alabama, out of the whole nation, people pay the highest proportion of their income towards energy. So they have the highest level of energy burden proportionate to the rest of the country, and yet they’re in a place where—by definition rural electric coops are owned by those members. But yet they don’t even know that they have ownership and don’t know that they have rights. And don’t know that the profits, if there’s any excesses that are in the budget of a rural electric coop at the end of the year they should be going back to the community members. Don’t know that the folks are actually amassing that money and putting it towards other things instead of returning it to these often very impoverished community members.
And so those kind of dynamics, and there’s so many other examples of similar, that really points to the very points that you were talking about and both of you were talking about in the beginning, and why it drives us in seeing this as very squarely a civil and human rights issue. So, thank you.
Lennon: Thank you, thank. So, I do want to dig deep into some of the conundrums and problematics presented by racial capitalism as it relates to our work. But I thought it’d be helpful to just start off on a little more of an optimistic note or on a high note. I’m wondering, in very broad brushstrokes, what would comprise your visions for a Green New Deal that tends to racial capitalism? What are the building blocks, what are the key framework pieces that we should be thinking about or moving towards with a Green New Deal that attenuates or addresses racial capitalism?
Patterson: So one thing I would definitely say is, with the Green New Deal being centered around a lot of the kind of power and governance being in the state basically? that I think one of the first things that we need to do is to actually restore democracy so that we are the state [someone in audience yells, “Woo!”] in a way that— Yeah, thank you. And so— [brief applause] So I think in order for us to even have any hope of it being what it should be that we need to you know, reverse Citizens United, we need to get money out of politics in general, we need to really have a true democracy, a true representational democracy, so that I think has to be a prerequisite for any notion of moving successfully forward. So that’s the first thing I would say.
Baker: I love your optimistic tone. I’m actually really grateful for the premise of this conference. You know, I think when the Green New Deal dropped, there was a lot of optimism around it, and then a lot of skepticism, right. And so, I’m grateful that we’re still having this conversation, that it has become something that’s realistic for the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, at least on the Democratic side.
You know, I think the first and foremost thing that I would promote in a Green New Deal approach is that people of color, women, indigenous people, should be at the front in leading the design of whatever energy system looks like, and the distributive consequences of that, right. So you know, one of the controversial aspects of the Green New Deal actually originated from the movement itself. And I think it sort of speaks to some of these ideas of ownership and who would own this transition, who would own the ideas in it. I mean, communities of color have been talking about the ideas that are embedded in the Green New Deal for—since the environment justice movement, right, and since the very beginning of this discussion around the distributive consequences of our capitalist system. And so I think making sure that their voices are at the table is key. And not only making sure that they’re at the table but that they’re leading. I think that’s really essential to this.
I want to pick up on something that also was mentioned in the first panel around the obfuscation of the social justice issues within a technical and financial frame. You know, Jacqui you mentioned that when you came into energy you were sort of…you didn’t fully—you weren’t fully versed. And I think there are a lot of technical terms, there are a lot of sort of—there’s a lot of masking that happens. But at the end of the day, energy is very much about distributing and ordering our society, distributing benefits and goods and bads, and ordering our society in so many ways. And so I think once we sort of unmask that and move beyond the technical and financial, we’ll really get into I think a good conversation.
Lennon: Yeah, love that. Thank you. Well I want to start digging into some of the more complicated stuff. Because there’s a lot of complicated stuff when we think about the Green New Deal, period, let alone when we try to foreground questions of racial capitalism. And specifically I want to focus for second on the interconnections between bottom-up, grassroots activism, and a state-led or state-centered vision for widespread extensive change. And as we know, the Green New Deal as a concept and as a political icon is very much a product of political organizing on the ground. While it’s difficult and controversial to try to do a comprehensive genealogy of the term, it really as far as I can tell after the Friedman piece really took form in the 2010 gubernatorial election in New York state, [something yelled from the audience] where the Green—that’s right, yeah, where the Green Party, on a grassroots level championed the idea of a Green New Deal subsequently in the 2014 election. And the environmental justice movement and the nascent climate justice movement, pockets of it, took up the term Green New Deal. And obviously it was tremendously popularized over the last year with the advent of the Sunrise movement. And so, movement-building, people on the ground organizing, have been central to the rise of this concept.
And yet, the vision put forth often when we think about a Green New Deal, certainly in the congressional resolution, is very much state-centric. It’s very much focused on an expansive welfare state, and the ability of government to transform society. And I want to suggest that that relation between grassroots, bottom-up change and the vision of an expansive state becomes somewhat problematic when we start to look at things with regard to racial capitalism. And specifically I want to linger for a second on the important work of environmental justice scholar Laura Pulido. If you don’t know her work, you should check it out. And you know, a couple years ago, Laura Pulido did a really quite critical autopsy, in so many words, of the environmental justice movement. Obviously, she’s a supporter of the environmental justice movement and calls attention to the successes. But she also suggested that the movement has failed in many respects, precisely because it has failed to recognize that environmental racism goes hand in hand with racial capitalism. And she suggested that failure to make that linkage lent itself to a politics that put a lot of faith in the state. That said the state can ameliorate a lot of the injustices that we see in our community. The state is a really important ally in the fight for justice.
And part of why that’s problematic the way she sort of sees these connections is, the state has traditionally facilitated, or at least been complacent with, or complicit with, tides of racial capitalism. And obviously we can look to the present administration if we’re looking on the federal level for no shortage of instances of the ways in which government can perpetuate racial capitalism.
But look to the Obama administration as well. Obviously we can celebrate the Clean Power Plan and the Paris climate agreement. But just to take one example that comes to the top of my head, the Trans-Pacific partnership, TPP, which the Obama administration championed virulently, would do all sorts of harm to communities of color, environmental harm, and was a paradigmatic example of what racial capitalism looks like in a neoliberal era. Thankfully, the TPP has not been enacted. But I just say that to point to the sort of difficulties with even if you have a liberal democratic state in power, the state is not necessarily your friend, which is the point that Laura Pulido makes. And she suggests that an environmental justice movement needs to not only fight corporate power, it needs to also take an adversarial orientation to the state.
And that adversarial orientation is obviously somewhat at odds with the vision for a Green New Deal, championed by the Sunrise movement, championed by many of us in this room. And so, I don’t think we need to think so black and white terms of is the state good or is the state bad, right. The state clearly is very important to bringing about widespread change. So the question that I have is not should we reject the state, should we get married to the state, but rather how do we tend to this conundrum? What role should an expansive state have in our vision for the future and in our work for bringing about comprehensive change? And in what ways should we continue to be skeptical of the state and continue to push back against the state as part of our movement politics?
Baker: Anyone in the audience? [laughter] I’m kidding, I’m kidding. That’s such a huge question—
Lennon: Huge. I know. It’s not fair. Well I started with the vision.
Lennon: I know, it’s not fair.
Lennon: Well I started with the vision.
Baker: You did. That was a softball. Um. So…I mean I think it was interesting that in your set-up you made a distinction between the state and corporate interests, right. I mean, I don’t know that there is a distinction, at least in this day, and Jacqui you alluded to that as well.
I mean I think…frontline communities, communities of color, island nations, are getting it from all sides. And so, the question is you know, short of a revolution…um, which I’m not opposed to, by the way…you know, there has to be some relationship. And so I think we have to engage the state. I’m not sure… I mean, in an ideal world this all works, right. Our Constitution theoretically works. I mean, the things that are unfolding today and over the last few weeks illustrate that there are some flaws. You know, I think the original sin of slavery in this country, and the dispossession and genocide of indigenous peoples in this country sort of has marred us. And as a lawyer, I am constantly fighting against how much to change and up in the system versus how much to work within the margins. I sort of resolved myse—or resigned myself to continue to work in the margins because it is the system we have, but not hold out hope for this deeper transformation.
And you know, Jacqui you and I meant six, seven years ago. I think we were both starting this journey to understand what energy justice was. I mean I think at that time energy justice as a frame, as a theoretical frame, as an activist practice, wasn’t yet fully formed. Now we see things like energy democracy taking hold, which is essentially the idea that folks should own their own power, right. And so I think in some ways, the constructs that I’m working within are kind of trying to work with the state, but also making more space for public ownership of assets, you know, cooperative ownership of assets, which in many ways are old ideas. But I think if we had the type of state that we wanted, we would say that there is a role to play. But I think we have to be vigilant and keep our eyes on the opportunity for revolution as we continue to work within the margins of the system that is already defined. So that’s kind of a lawyerly answer, I think.
Patterson: I would also agree and…well, although maybe I would say that I’m not only not opposed to revolution I’m in favor of revolution. Very much so, although NAACP might not really…cosign with that. And I do believe in order for us to truly have liberation or for us to truly have human rights and so forth that we can’t…the system isn’t going to allow for it, fully. We’re only going to be able to tweak it, to make it you know, somewhat survivable? but even surviving for some folks isn’t possible in this system. And so I do think that we absolutely have to change the system altogether.
But, as we say there’s also the meantime. That’s the work that we’re doing. We’re working towards that larger systems change but also recognizing that we have to work with what we’ve got now to make it as survivable as possible. But to truly have what we need, particularly if we’re advancing models that are so state-administered and state-controlled and state-government as the Green New Deal is, that we have to have a different state. A very different state.
Baker: I completely agree. And I actually just wanted to lift up one of the tensions that’s in this work, right. Right now we have world leaders descending on Marid to sort of continue to hammer out a plan to combat global climate change. And one of the tensions in this move away from fossil fuels, and this rush to avert catastrophic climate crisis is that equity often gets left out of the discussion. And, you know when I first read the Green New Deal, I…I wondered if it went far enough? Because equity is not about equality, as many of you know. It’s not about making sure that we all start off on the same page. It’s looking back, and ensuring that those who have been harmed…and, I mean you could go back 200 years, right, 400 years, to think about some of the legacies of harm in this country. They should be placed at the front, right. To receive the benefits of the new system. So, you know, that would be my only critique of the Green New Deal, that I’m not sure it goes far enough in sort of that equity piece.
And we have this tension, right. The people I talk to in the mainstream environmental movement say, “We’ve got to fix this like, yesterday. We had to fix it twenty, thirty, forty years ago.” Equity? You know…caring about people of color, communities of color? You know, we’ll deal with that after the fact. We’ll make sure that it’s all nice and tied up in a bow after the fact. And the truth is, we won’t be able to avert catastrophic climate change, unless we make sure that everyone comes with us. And so that’s the…we have the sort of setup in terms of tension, but the fallacy of it is that we can’t do this unless everybody moves forward, and certain people are actually at the front of the line.
Lennon: Absolutely. And I can’t help but think that part of that process in centering people who’ve traditionally not been at the front of the line has to entail a more nuanced and broader understanding of the role of the state. We cannot simply look to a single piece of federal legislation or to the federal government to be our savior, but that doesn’t mean that the state can’t play a salient role in making sure that people who’ve traditionally not had a seat at the table are at the table and leading the discussion.
And I think that one way in which we go about sort of nuancing the discussion is recognizing that the state is not just the federal government. We have local government. We have county boards of elections. We have state utility commissions. We have obviously state government. There’s governance on a regional level. There are so many different facets of governance. And when we look broader, I think that that— When we look broader we also recognize that many of us actually are leading the fight. I mean, I think it’s problematic to try to think of the state as a monolith. You talk to local legislators in municipalities all over the country, and you find a lot of really progressive people, with activist backgrounds, who get it. Who understand the limitations of their position. And who are doing everything they can to navigate that position. And we need to lift those people up because often those people are the people that come from our communities, and often when we are thinking on a scale beyond just how are we going to capture the Senate and the presidency, right. When we recognize that democracy is uneven and it happens in multiple ways, and that the stakes of what we’re trying to address are so high, I think that that necessitates a sort of broader vision for the state, which in no way precludes broad-based action on a federal.
And Jacqui, I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about sort of your… Because with the NAACP you’re working with communities all over the country. And so you might be able to sort of offer some perspective of what the sort of broad fight looks like, but very localized and very particular to the circumstances that our communities are dealing with.
Patterson: Yeah, no definitely. So, I mean we are seeing as you say points of light in different places, whether it’s in Portland and their passing of the clean energy ordinance or their even recent looking to move forward on a ban on facial recognition for this for the city, which is unique. Or we see places like from Stockton, California to Jackson, Mississippi where people are looking at different types of governance. Right here in Rhode Island, where they actually did a report last year called “Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as if Human Rights Matter.” And right here in Rhode Island they’re actually looking at doing a moratorium—I know they if they have—on utility shutoffs. And so we’re seeing where people are really having inclusive governance and advancing progressive policymaking around energy and otherwise. So definitely there are— And our work with the NAACP is doing various toolkits and model policies and so forth that are lifting up the places where this great work is happening and then working with other governments where there’s interest but maybe not even knowledge or templates of how to advance progressive policies and practices, and helping them to know here here’s how these folks did. How can we customize this in your municipality or otherwise.
Lennon: So I want to sort of build on this questioning of how the state figures into our broad visions. And I will bring it back to earth for a second, but I do want to think a little conceptually. You know, the vision for a Green New Deal that we see, and the resolution that many of us have called for in our soundbites and in our broad actions is very much focused on a traditional Keynesian welfare state. A vision of the state that is focused on jobs guarantees, on distribution of wealth, on regulation. And on those as being tools of economic growth. Keynesianism obviously, it grew to prominence in the 1930s as a way of offering an alternative to communism, and a way of fighting communism. The thinking behind the broad, big state that the old New Deal brought us was how do we stabilize capitalist markets to make communism an unviable alternative? And that legacy, vestiges of that legacy, are a part of any broad vision for how the state should operate, including the vision that we see in the Green New Deal. And we see in the Green New Deal there is the—in the resolution, there’s a focus on growth very explicitly.
And so that presents a conundrum for those of us who’re concerned about racial capitalism, in that capitalism is racial capitalism, right. Those are synonymous. This is a point that many have brought to the fore. And so when we name racial capitalism, we are not trying to theorize something separate from capitalism, we’re trying to foreground the role of race and white supremacy in the workings of capitalism. And as such, if a Keynesian model is necessarily about shoring up capitalism, and if we are championing a Keynesian model as part of a broad Green New Deal vision, how do we deal with the fact that then necessarily is reproducing racial capitalism? And that is a really really tough questions, so I don’t expect you guys to give the answer, but I think what would be helpful is hearing from a legal policy perspective and from an organizing perspective, in what ways do we try to tend to the contradictions of capitalism, in what ways do we try to push back against capitalism while still relying upon these tools of a vision that are based on a vision of the state that necessarily is invested in reproducing capitalism, even if it’s a kinder capitalism if you will.
Baker: Again, audience? No, kidding. We have one taker! No. So, I’m not doing domestic energy policy stuff I also teach international environmental law. And we start that class by problematizing this idea of sustainable development, right. Because it always requires growth, right. And it’s premised on this idea that we can continue to grow as long as it’s sustainable. And so…I mean, I find the idea of endless economic growth pretty problematic as well. I think in the domain of energy policy, and particularly energy justice, I’m more concerned with wealth transfers. And ensuring that utilities…actually go away. And we have public power, we have, again, cooperatives, even though in some ways they’re problematic as well and have some vestiges of sort of…racism within their structure. But we need to be looking at wealth. And we need to be looking at how it’s moved through the energy system. Communities should be owning their own power. If there are opportunities for wealth creation, those should belong to communities themselves.
And for some of you, you may be saying, “Okay well how do you do that? I mean, is that even possible in this current economy?” The answer is absolutely. You know, we are now within this really unprecedented moment in our history where by necessity we’re redesigning our entire energy system. That necessity is climate change, and when we see the wildfires in California, you know, with every major weather event that happens, climate related event that happens, utilities buckle, right. And they enter into the secrecy of a bankruptcy proceeding, where those with capital and power then talk about how to fight over the scraps. And then they emerge as if new…sparkling, and shiny, from this bankruptcy proceeding and then continue to go about the business of generating wealth for shareholders.
Which by the way is a legal construct. This is a regulatory compact where we have guaranteed that utilities received a reasonable return on investment. And we did that in order to electrify the rural parts of this country, right. We did that out of the 1930s and 40s to make sure that people had access to power. We’re now entering a new paradigm where that’s no longer required. Where communities are saying, “Look. The next Hurricane Sandy or Maria that comes through, I wanna make sure I still have my lights on. I don’t want PG&E for example to do a public safety power shutoff because they own all the infrastructure. I want to be able to control what happens on my block, in my city, in my little region.” And we’re starting to rethink the infrastructure, out of necessity, because of climate change. And in my world we’re starting to grapple over what that legal framework that holds up that physical infrastructure should be.
And so this is absolutely an opportunity for redistribution of wealth, even as we sort of debate the realism of being able to grow indefinitely.
Lennon: Definitely. Shalanda can I ask— I’m curious, you know, it’s always good to know your enemy. And the idea of an investor-owned utility, as you brought up, is both antiquated and asinine—it’s crazy. Why should our basic livelihood be the basis of improving shareholder value? That makes…no sense. And so, what is the rationale for investor-owned utilities. What do they say?
Baker: Yeah. Well I mean, again this is a regulatory compact. We needed to incentivize actors to go into the highly risky business of building infrastructure, electric infrastructure in this country. So in many ways my hats are off to those you know, early risk-takers who went and did that. I mean there were a lot of rural electric coops as well that received federal funding and did that. I mean there were a lot of rural electric coops that received federal funding to do that work.
But my argument is basically that today we don’t need that. I mean, we’re moving away from that business model. Now, much of the expertise, though, has been captured by utilities. You started to talk about public utilities, commissions, and regulation, which is…my wheelhouse and like, fun. But you go to a proceeding, right, on let’s say the siting of major wind farm. So, you have a group of regulators, typically white folks, typically white men, right. Who may have some industry contacts, may have been in industry. And that proceeding, the board, the commissioners are relying on the data from the utility to determine what decisions they’re making. You have communities who due to the advocacy and activism of communities for the last thirty, forty years have said, “We’re at the table,” they often don’t have access to the same types of experts. Often the information’s proprietary. Often they can’t run the same models. And so you know, this is all a part of the system that we have designed. And I think we’re at this really interesting inflection point, where if only people knew just how much energy structures and organizes their lives, they would be you know… I was gonna say lighting fires but that’s a bad thing to say these days. They would be raising hell, right. And so my work is really to translate as well, to sort of indicate and highlight the ways that energy does organize our lives. And, the outrage that people should feel if they just knew what was going on.
Lennon: And Jacqui before we get to you I just wanna plug an endorsement. New York is—there’s actually a piece of legislation circulating to publicize the investor-owned utilities. So really exciting work, and that is all I due to the incredible work of energy democracy activists on the ground, so you should check out that work.
Patterson: Yeah so on that, I mean utility companies’ CEOs on average make $9.8 million a year while the average worker makes $33,840 a year. And we have a situation where I mean, as we talked about in the Lights Out in the Cold report, where just last summer a woman had her electricity shut off for non-payment. She was a grandmother depending on oxygen on her respirator. And when her son found out she was in arrears he paid the bills—this was in New Jersey, right, quite nearby. And he paid the bill, but three days later that hadn’t caught up in the system so they shut off her electricity and she died as a result.
So people while people are making $9.8 million a year and flying around in private jets you have people being shut off and paying the price of poverty with their lives for not paying a $60 bill. And this is an African American grandmother of course. So this is the very epitome of racial capitalism. And this is in a community where of course they’re in the shadows of the coal-fired power plants and paying the price of who knows what—her COPD may have been tied to the very toxins that are in her air. And so these are the conundrums that we’re facing.
We’re putting out another tool called Resourcing Revolutionary Resistance and Resilience, and it is based on this notion—
Lennon: Four Rs?
Patterson: Exactly. Four Rs, we love that. Alliteration. But it’s based on stories like when Shalanda and I, we first did— We’ve been doing this series, we’ve done maybe fifteen energy justice trainings. And now as the NAACP we have an energy justice certification program. And we were pleased to have Shalanda for the inaugural training that we did in San Francisco in 2016 in June.
And at that training a woman stood up named Amy Mays who lived in Phoenix, Arizona, and she talked about how her electricity had been shut off for non-payment. And she was able to pay it, it was shut off again. And then they started putting on not only the fees for reconnection, but then she had to pay a deposit. And so, you’re already having enough problem paying your bill but then someone actually adds on a deposit to make it impossible for you to be able to get electricity. And so she decided that she was just going to use that money that— She bought a cooler. She bought ice every day, put her cold goods in this cooler. And she used that money that she would’ve put towards our electricity bill and saved up month by month. And every time she had enough she bought another solar panel from online. Till she had a whole array. And then she used her journeyman’s electrician license, got up on her own roof, and installed her solar panels. And now she is off the grid and independently creating our own energy.
And so for us I mean, she is the epitome of where we want to move towards. Because as Shalanda says, we don’t need the utilities, we can do this ourselves in order to actually have a human rights and liberatory system, we really do need to be in control of our system. And so whether we’re talking about energy, we’re talking about food, we have communities that are more likely to get Doritos or Cheetos or taquitos than kale or quinoa or anything that’s approaching anything nutritious. So people are existing on diets that are not only not good for you in terms of vitamins, antioxidants, and so forth, but foods that are actively bad for you in terms of being high in sodium and preservatives and sugars and so forth.
So I could name system after system and how deeply-flawed our existing systems are. And so for Resourcing Revolutionary Resistance and Resilience, the first four modules talk about how do we survive our existing systems and how do we make our current kind of financing structures and so forth more equitable. But the fifth module lifts up how do we actually own our own systems. How do we actually have systems of sovereignty, ownership, control, wealth resting on our hands as communities. And so it’s really talking about cooperative models, ways that we own our own water systems, ways that we own our own food systems, ways that we eliminate landfills and incinerators and have complete recovery, reuse, recycling and so forth, and less consumerism and less production in the first place. And so in each and every system how do we move towards sovereignty. And that’s the push that we’re making in terms of revolution while still kind of tweaking and making the existing system better.
Baker: So, I remember that person. And she was phenomenal. But I don’t know if everybody heard where she was from. Arizona. One of the sunniest place in the country, right. And you mentioned the utility industry, but there’s a more insidious force kind of operating in the background, finance by the Koch brothers: ALEC. I mean, they are trying to dismantle access to rooftop solar, all over the country, even in places where it has yet to take hold, like Louisiana and Kentucky. And they are using a playbook that basically says solar hurts poor people, and solar hurts black people. And so rather than creating opportunities for ownership or access to finance, they’re just shutting it down altogether. Which means that all of the wealth stays in the hands of the utilities. Which can be…you know, you could trace that back to again, all of the forces that sort of help too shape our system.
So again, that’s a fight that ordinary citizens should be engaged in. But often the data and the marshalling of the information isn’t available, right. Like it’s just not there for folks to engage. But I just wanted to highlight that. Because in places like Arizona, and Hawaii where I used to live, that fight also went on. Our utility was saying, “You know, the more solar we have on the grid, the more it’s going to hurt poor people.”
And the public utilities commission bought it. And they ended one of the most successful rooftop solar programs in the country. Not before one of the commissioners made sure that she was grandfathered in under the old system. I mean this is like, craziness. It’s absolute madness.
Patterson: Yeah and the very profits that are being amassed by these utility companies are as we say going in to fund groups like ALEC, and ALEC is not only pushing back against clean air, clean energy and all of those policies, but they’re also pushing forward on voter suppression, on school privatization, prison privatization, water privatization. They even managed to get through in the NAACP system a proposed resolution on water privatization where it was proposed—and it was sent to me too because we all the subject matter experts get to review in advance. And I read it and—
Lennon: Do you know if they’re a local chapter?
Patterson: It came through a local chapter. I will not name which one. And I read it and it was like “safe and affordable drinking water for all!” you know. That was literally the name of the resolution.
So I’m reading it and you know, yeah okay, Flint, uh huh. It was making all the references to the different things. And then there was like, “you know to really have a system we need a combination of private and public,” and then I started to— Yeah, and I’m like wait what.
But this is how they do, they they sneak it in. And then I went and actually looked back at the ALEC playbook and saw that it literally was word for word from the ALEC playbook. And they had just done the same thing with a resolution around net metering, around kind of distributed generation of solar, where another one of those policies came straight out of the ALEC playbook and into the NAACP’s resolution process. And fortunately we were able to stop both of them before they advanced. But this is the insidious way—and we talked about this in our Fossil Fueled Foolery report that we put out on April 1st.
Lennon: More alliteration.
Patterson: Yeah exactly. We love it.
Lennon: So Damian’s doing all kinds of hand motions trying to suggest that we need to end. Can we get one more question? Okay. So, we had to— Oh, there’s a question, there’s also a Q— Okay. Should I shut up and open it up? Okay, people are like yeah, shut up. Okay. Should we take a question back there some?
Audience 1: I just had a question about the sovereignty that you’re talking about in terms of energy resources, and the possibility of enacting that. Because like, you give the example from Arizona where there’s a lot of sun. But there’ll be places which don’t have enough sun. We need a combination of sun, wind, in order to supply energy and also need storage because of the peak times and other times, and how possible is energy sovereignty in that situation? As well as is it sustainable? Because if we’re putting panels on each roof, would it not be better to like, a centralized location from which it’s being transferred, and how does that work? Thank you so much.
Baker: Great question. And I love it because the storage question and the peak times issue comes up a lot. I’ll start with the idea of whether it’s possible to have community ownership of those types of assets. Yes. I mean, we’ve seen Germany, we’ve seen it in Denmark. I mean, Scandinavia, and European countries.
But the issue is really whether the law will permit it. And how the law can facilitate that type of ownership structure. The question between centralized versus local…so centralized generation versus local distributed energy generation, I think it is a complex one. What I would argue is that communities should be at the table of the design of the system. Because they have preferences. I mean yes there’s an engineering question. NREL, National Renewable Energy Lab, released a study years ago saying that it’s possible—I mean, we are well under and it’s possible to have solar power, most of this country. And so yes there are some issues with implementation, but I think at the design stage we just have to have folks at the table to map out where they would want those types of resources.
And we do have community energy legislation in I think thirty-six of the fifty states. But the devil’s in the details there. And determining who’s actually benefiting from these different models that supposedly allow for community engagement, much of that legislation was passed to allow for low-income communities, low-to-moderate income communities, to participate in the solar revolution. But what’s really happening is that they’re creating premium products that aren’t accessed, or the solar industry’s skimming so heavily off of the top that people aren’t realizing the same benefits on their bills that someone with rooftop solar would gain.
Lennon: And utilities also have a role in watering down and making very problematic these community-shared solar pieces of legislation. In New York, the utilities have really driven the effort to redefine how electricity is priced through community-shared solar. And as a result they use an algorithm based on locational marginal pricing that works to the benefit of the utilities, such that electricity prices are better in areas where the utility needs to shore up their own transmission capacity. And that algorithm has destroyed community-shared solar projects in communities of color that rely upon a reliable market price for electricity. Any sort of variability really hurts the capacity of communities to own. And so that that’s one way in which utilities are at the table, they’re saying, “Yeah! More renewable energy, more distributed resources, we’re all about it. As long as it’s working toward our bottom line,” and in the process shutting out communities.
Okay. So we’re being— Damian has all kinds of hands. So I’m being told it’s the end. But it is really just the beginning because this conversation of racial capitalism needs to be a part of hopefully our proceedings today, but moving forward. We need to foreground these questions and ideas and we’ve only just begun to skim the surface in this discussion. So I hope continue this dialogue. I hope we dig a lot deeper. Because there’s a lot more time packed with regard to how racial capitalism needs to factor into our proceedings for a Green New Deal. Thank you so much.
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