Renewable Energy and Systemic Racism

People cheering and waving up on roof with solar panels

To celebrate Earth Day on April 20 (about a month after much of the world began quarantining due to COVID-19), filmmaker Michael Moore invited viewers to stream his 2019 documentary Planet of the Humans on YouTube at no cost. The film takes aim at alternative energy strategies and posits that the only way to save the planet is to stop the growth of the human population. But as environmental anthropologist Myles Lennon points out, the film’s “race-blind interrogation of humanity” ignores the sociological inequities of climate change and the fact that such global problems are inextricably linked to systemic racism.

Environmental anthropologist Myles Lennon
Brown University faculty member and former sustainable energy policy practitioner Myles Lennon

Climate activists would be better served, Lennon suggests, by building on longstanding campaigns that challenge white supremacy, such as the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, which gained unprecedented momentum when the pandemic struck. “The COVID crisis generated a sense of urgency that sparked mass action around the world,” he notes.

Lennon points out that Planet and BLM have similar goals—exposing Americans to harsh realities—and that they both employ devastating videos to make their points. One difference, he says, is that BLM contextualized its video footage—the appalling moments when police murdered George Floyd—by linking it to the broader structure of systemic racism.

People working on solar panels
Grass-roots activists are focused on creating high-quality jobs in the renewable energy sector.

A Brown University faculty member and former sustainable energy policy practitioner, Lennon shared his perspective in the October 6 talk Antiracist Praxis for Post-Carbon Energy Transitions after COVID, organized by Dean of Liberal Arts Damian White as part of the graduate seminar Designing Post-Carbon Futures: Political Ecologies of Hope, Solidarity and Possibility. Offered through RISD’s Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies graduate program, the class will host a robust series of visiting speakers in the coming weeks, including ecologist/social theorist Gideon Kossoff (October 12), sustainable fashion expert Kate Fletcher (October 20), critical culture theorist Madina Tlostanova (October 27) and urban and environmental policy expert Julian Agyeman (October 30).

“We’re exploring and interrogating the many ways through which low-carbon futures are currently being envisaged, advocated, promoted or contested.”

Dean of Liberal Arts Damian White

“We’re exploring and interrogating the many ways through which low-carbon futures are currently being envisaged, advocated, promoted or contested,” White says. “We began the semester by focusing on debates about the low carbon status of renewables and nuclear and then turned to consider broader social and political questions surrounding environmental justice and energy democracy. These latter fields are the mainstays of Myles’ research.”

Person at a rally holding a "You Can't Have Capitalism Without Racism" sign

While Lennon appreciates Moore’s attempt to challenge “techno-fixes” (the expectation that scientists will magically solve our environmental problems via new technology), he’s much more interested in laying out a framework for confronting the racial inequalities linked to the first wave of alternative energy solutions and mapping a more ethical path forward. “Suggesting as Planet does that solar energy is no different from fossil fuels is bat-shit crazy,” he asserts with a laugh.

“Suggesting as Planet does that solar energy is no different from fossil fuels is bat-shit crazy.”

Environmental anthropologist Myles Lennon

“A just transition from an extractive energy economy to a regenerative one would shift economic control to communities, democratize wealth and the workplace, advance ecological restoration, drive racial justice and social equity, re-localize most production and consumption, reduce co-pollutants in all communities and restore cultures and traditions,” Lennon explains.

Nuclear power plant, from an aerial view
Students in the graduate seminar Designing Post-Carbon Futures are also considering low-carbon alternative energy sources like nuclear.

The first steps in any such transition would necessarily focus on a community-shared solar array and a movement to democratize the Public Utility Commission, rather than a blindered attempt to lower prices in what Lennon describes as “a race to the bottom. The pragmatism of the solarization model narrowly focused the movement on price reductions and ignored the broader racial and economic justice agenda,” he explains. “We need to shift the focus to means of production rather than means of re-duction.”

Simone Solondz

See a complete list of Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies events.

October 8, 2020

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