Marble Falls I’m always looking for signs of hope when people committed to change realize that it will never happen top down, but only will be real when it’s bottom up. Nowhere has this been truer than among environmentalists who have tended to come late to the game on many of these campaigns that are essential to all of us, but have been too often focused on elites, meaning degreed, bank balanced whites, and policy prescriptions tailored to politicians, corporates, and governmental bureaucrats, rather than the classes and masses at the bottom. Certainly, their work has been important, but their strategy and tactics have left so many out that it has delayed change at the grassroots and practical level too often, invariably starving these efforts of critical resources and finances, and in some cases creating unnecessary opposition when these well-meaning advocates have ignored the impact on communities and jobs. If there was a door marked lobbying or organizing, my pique has been that too often too many ran, not walked, to the easier door to open as advocates, rather than the harder, deeper door of building a base and organizing.
Maybe that’s changing? I hope so!
I grabbed a recent straw reading an op-ed in the New York Times by Justin Gillis, a former Times’ environmental reporter, and Hal Harvey, who I’ve known for years, and has been perhaps one of the most preeminent policy experts on the environmental side, as head of the Energy Foundation and now a group called Energy Innovation, which is also a policy shop with a global footprint. They came out foursquare for the importance of local action to create momentum for a just transition in energy policy. Simply put, they argue, “The public must make the transition from green consumers to green citizens and devote greater political energy to pushing America forward in its transition to a clean economy.”
They make the case that grassroots community organizations have argued and implemented in the vineyards for years. They argue now that the work has to be done at public service commissions that regulate utility construction and financing, and at state, city, and school board meetings where many of the purchasing decisions are made that could help drive energy transitions.
Public utility regulators are extremely difficult to move because in many states they are bought and sold by company lobbyists and fenced in by legislative requirements. Coal company manipulation of the PSC in West Virginia found them so much more sympathetic to impacts on jobs and communities that they have now made utility rates there the highest in the country, and are forcing consumers to subsidize neighboring states that refused to pay for upgrading coal-fired plants, but still buy the power produced. Where members are elected, there’s an opportunity. Gillis and Harvey’s exhortation that “Citizens need to get in the faces of these commission members with a simple demand: Do your jobs. Make the utilities study all options and go for clean power wherever possible” almost sounds naïve about how these things really work at the state level and how most of them have fenced off citizen input, at least other than the few states left with elected members or with state initiative procedures that can force the issue.
School, city, and county boards are a lot less David vs. Goliath. In most of these venues, the public still has the opportunity to speak and organized groups find accessible targets for actions and protests which are harder to ignore. Where school buses are owner-operated or subcontracted to big private companies with locked-contracts, it’s a harder climb and the “creative financing” they believe solve these issues, including front-end costs that are currently more expensive, are not likely for way too many public districts. Another local target that they don’t mention, but should be a major battleground, is membership-owned rural electric cooperatives where individual board elections can be a referendum on these issues of both production and purchasing. A sign of how far Harvey and Gillis argument has evolved from past ideology can be found in cooperatives. I can remember a conference call five years ago, where we were arguing for more attention to diversity and governance in those bodies to make climate change, but were being told to ignore the lack of diversity and governance problems, so we didn’t rock the board on lobbying efforts by environmentalists with some of the mossbacks on policy issues.
Nonetheless, they are right that this is where the fight needs to be made, and where change once won, will stick hardest. Whether the local organizations needed to affect this vital change of strategy around climate have the resources and support to take these next steps and compete with the popularity of policy over people solutions will still be a big obstacle to surmount.