A number of big-picture things are not going to well recently. The Gulf Oil spill shows no signs of ceasing, and now the Atlantic hurricane season threatens to halt control efforts and spread petroleum around the American South (perhaps even through rain!?). Despite massive youth electoral efforts in 2008 to place climate champions in political leadership, policy efforts towards climate and energy solutions have been lethargic at best. And despite over a trillion dollars in economic stimulus spending, recent data shows that the national economy is still slipping steadily deeper into decline.
These three cases display a common pattern – failure (of energy companies, the political process, and our national economy) is being treated like an accident from which we need to recover to normal working order.
The accident-recovery story is holding us back in three very important ways:
1. It helps erase our memory of the ways that business as usual hasn’t been working for a great many people for a very long time.
2. It disguises the fundamental and systemic nature of the challenges we face and legitimizes management of the problem using the ways of thinking that created them, even when this way of thinking proves ineffective repeatedly.
3. Because it normalizes business as usual, it mystifies reimaginative approaches that shift power and agency, making them seem unrealistic or irrelevant.
In this blog post, I’ll demonstrate how this happens in the context of my current work in the Twin Cities Summer of Solutions in Minnesota, and how we’re trying to overcome accident-recovery stupor.
ERASING THE PRESENCE OF SYSTEMIC PROBLEMS
The Gulf oil spill has temporarily riveted America’s attention on oil, yet the focus of the dialogue is whether BP was negligent, and when the spill will be cleaned up. The fact that hundreds of spills happen annually, or that fossil fuel pollution is responsible for thousands of deaths across the country in inner city areas like South Minneapolis (and hundreds of thousands in places like China), isn’t mentioned. Our energy infrastructure delivers reliable, cheap power with few visible impacts to wealthier, primarily white Americans, but for low-income and minority communities, energy often means threats to personal health, spotty and unreliable power access, and expenses in the range of 15% of annual income. Our energy system has “accidents” all the time, and has been leaving out millions of Americans (never mind most of the rest of the world) for decades. This is part of how it operates.
Similarly, environmental policy and politics as a whole has left communities like Phillips behind for decades. While the 1960s and 70s helped clean up industrial pollution in many areas, these victories often failed to improve conditions in marginalized communities which tend to be out-of-sight, out-of-mind for mainstream environmental communities. Furthermore, environmental regulation has been complicit in, if not responsible for, the slow erosion of working class jobs that have gradually decreased access to employment for low-income communities over the past several decades. Treating our lack of bold national climate and energy policy as a temporary lapse in the democratic process helps erase the long history of government side-stepping the needs of low-income communities. When local and national government currently tacitly permits labor exploitation of undocumented workers that is unsafe, unfair, and illegal, and passes policies that promote corporate welfare while eroding the social safety net for America’s others, can we be sure that our political narratives around energy are any more aware?
The recent economic recession has shocked and awed millions of Americans who suddenly find themselves out of work. Headlines roar with tales of unemployment near 10%, and talk of valiant and desperate efforts to get contractors off the bench and job seekers onto the payroll. The federal government even just spent a trillion dollars trying to recover the economy. Yet baseline unemployment in low-income and minority communities has been in this range or much higher for decades – its even worth among young people. Why was no one talking about this before the recession? Why wasn’t the government prioritizing stimulus funds to those with these needs? The history of economic exclusion has been erased by the framing of economic recovery.
OBSCURING THE FUNDAMENTALS BY ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM THE SAME WAY WE CREATED IT
The BP oil spill is frequently blamed on the failure of a relief valve. Missing from this diagnosis is the reason we are drilling beneath a mile of water and two miles of rock in the first place, or that the technical and economic feasibility to do this did not exist until recently. Only when oil depletion and soaring demand send prices through the roof did deep-sea drilling even start to be considered. The BP oil spill is an unsurprising result of a society trying to sustain its oil consumption in the face of a global energy peak. Yet the suggested solution – BP is taken to task to find the technical solution to fix an engineering problem. I am by no means sad that BP is being held responsible, but we’re circumventing the real question – how is the world going to power itself in the 21st century, and how will that change everything about our economy, our politics, and our daily lives? If the BP oil spill is an accident, we can recover to the normal functional condition without answering this question.
In 1992, environmental groups invested massively in electing Bill Clinton, and celebrated the pending success of a whole suite of important regulations once he was in office. What followed was 8 years of gridlock, followed by another 8 years of sweeping backsliding. Each election, and especially in 1996, 2000, 2004, and 2006, massive amounts of resources were focused on who is sitting at the decision-making table. All to no avail. In 2008, it happened again – massive waves of voter engagement helped bring about the historic election of Barack Obama, who among other things was going to build the climate and energy policy we so desperately need. Gridlock has continued. In 2010, climate and energy organizations are gearing up for the same electoral battle. Yet the political debate continues to avoid the elephant in the room – why is sustainability consistently framed across party lines and in the public eye as counter to economic goals, and how do we change that? Instead climate organizations keep trying to change who is sitting at the table while the ideological, cultural, and political rules of the table remain steadfastly entrenched against action. An assumption that policy linearly shapes incentives and actions on the ground got us into this mess by blinding us to the way our structural dependency on energy shapes the boundaries of political reality. Should we expect a mix-up of who is playing in those boundaries to change that? There’s a saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. What would it look like if we took time to change our structural dependency on dirty energy and re-define the political boundaries?
The economic recession has been framed as one of a long series of temporary slumps that are part of normal economic function. Give it a little boost [in the form of a trillion dollar stimulus package], conventional thinking says, and we will be back on track. Yet even with the temporary gains of stimulus jobs (which were not investing in new industries, but were instead simply creating temporary project employment so that spending could start to rise again), market sector employment keeps slipping. The accident-recovery narrative tells us that we have to keep big government out of the economy except when things go wrong, and them provide short-term expenditures to get consumer spending and job creation up. Yet nothing is really changing in terms of employment availability, the stability of housing markets, or financial sector unrest. We rescue auto companies, banks, housing lenders, and unemployed individuals with short term loans of capital and work, but the fundamentals of the economy don’t change – while we sink deeper into national debt. We’re trying to re-rev the engines of the housing market, financial markets, and energy-dependent consumer economies (dependent on even more energy intensive developing world industrial economies) which got us into this mess in the first place. And its not budging.
MYSTIFYING THE SOLUTIONS
At the Summer of Solutions, we are making the bold and unreasonable claim that the solution to the BP oil spill, the absence of meaningful political action, and a faltering economy is a resurgent, community-based green economy built by people like us. Yes, we need to plug the oil leak, and get the right people in office, and have job creation programs supported by the government, but these are just band-aids or stop gaps that give us time, space, and capacity to do what really needs to be done. They do not fix a society founded on environmental sacrifice zones to fuel our economy, a political climate gridlocked between sustainability and economic development, or an economy whose basic drivers are crumbling. Recovery doesn’t cut it.
The problem is that the accident-recovery narrative doesn’t see urban farms that create jobs for disadvantaged youth, energy efficiency cooperatives that make everyone’s residence into a business opportunity, bike access as a commuter alternative that saves costs and stress while improving health, and green industrial centers that make the goods and jobs we need as very relevant to the problem at hand. They are different topics; sometimes seen as cool community projects, sometimes as progressive shenanigans, on the margins of normal operation. The accident-recovery narrative sees a normal state where these new food, transport, production, and energy systems are not prevalent. These solutions are seen as hobby activities that are not effective or competitive as opposed to the foundations of our energy system, our politics, and our economy, and therefore, since the goal is recovery, not related to the point at hand. How many people are furious with BP, but don’t see or act on the connection to their own oil reliance? How often do climate and energy activists tell politicians what they need to do without offering new pathways that get us out of our very real current economic dependency on fossil fuel. When a trillion dollar stimulus package is being negotiated, why are the funding parameters explicitly constructed to fund on shovel-ready projects that will by definition have little effect on growing new green industries?
In the Summer of Solutions, scaling adoption of energy efficiency is central to getting us out of a future of BP oil spills and a depressed economy, but we will not get there by handing out light-bulbs, since that only plays into the frame of efficiency as side-show. We like the projects biking fresh produce from community-gardens to food-shelves, but I’m more excited about growing urban farmers with viable businesses of their own. Approaching our work this way says that we’re not a side-show, and we’re not recovery – we’re re-imagining our society to make it work better. Sometimes it creates some cognitive dissonance with the accident-recovery frame, and during the early stages, while the solutions are growing slowly, they are often ignored by the mainstream trying to fix the energy, political, and economic challenges of our day. But as the solutions grow to scale, and the recovery continues to falter, more and more people will start hopping from an accident-recovery frame to a re-imaginative approach. We will be ready.
The accident-recovery narrative is false. The challenges we are facing are predictable results of the way our society has been working for centuries. The solutions are not back to business as usual, they are forward to something different and better. We have the new narrative.
Our solutions don’t recover a just, prosperous, and sustainable society. They re-imagine a society that has failed to embody those core values so that it becomes one that does so.