appalachian son

Visions of a Free Society

Month: June, 2014

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Toward Democratic Energy

Phto Credit: TheNews.Coop - Democratic Energy Transition

Phto Credit: TheNews.Coop – Democratic Energy Transition

As a boy in the southeast African nation of Malawi, William Kamkwamba harnessed the wind.  In 2002, drought and famine — common problems in one of the world’s least-developed countries — forced the boy and his family to forage for food and water as thousands starved.

Kamkwamba, however, knew if he could build a windmill he would bring water and electricity to his family. So he pulled together scrap metal, tractor parts and bicycles, constructing a peculiar, but functioning, windmill. The contraption was viewed as a miracle — it powered four lights and turned a water pump that ameliorated the crisis. News of his “electric wind” spread quickly and was emulated.

Kamkwamba’s story is one of democratic energy and neighborhood environmentalism. Access to information left the boy free to replicate the science of windmills. After construction, his work spread throughout the region. This is a prime example of social power. The boy who harnessed the wind is testament to the power of two ideas: Open source content and co-operative labor.

It is this kind of market approach, not sweeping policy from a centralized authority, that will meet the demands of the 21st century .

Take the newly proposed United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that aims to reduce carbon emissions. Hailed as a historic action, its mechanisms leave much to be desired.

Target emission reductions will be set for individual states. To meet these targets, states could renovate existing coal-fired power plants with “clean burning” technology — but clean coal is a dirty lie. States could switch to natural gas which produces less carbon — but natural gas emits methane at 21 times the greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide. State incentives to residents to be more energy-efficient are low hanging fruit that can do much, but alone cannot likely get the job done. Or states can work under a cap-and-trade program through which offsets undercut reductions, allowing big polluters to continue business as usual.

Furthermore, there still remain state enforced laws such as compulsory pooling and eminent domain which allow big polluters to disregard property rights and wreck natural habitats that naturally offer the ecosystem service of carbon sequestration. There still remain intellectual property laws that permit patent monopoly, producing a barrier to competition in the market that could drive polluters under the regulation standard.

Conflict currently exists between the regulatory state and the energy elite, but it is latent. Utility monopolies such as Duke-Progress Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority (among others), coupled with industry giants King Coal, Big Oil and Fracked Gas have a lock on the energy market. Because of the state-capitalist system other market players (and people like you and I) remain economically dependent on these elite. The state knows this and is loyal to them. Its economic strength is fueled by the energy industry.

The very institution of the state encourages environmental degradation and closed markets. It’s time to dismantle such an illegitimate authority.

Taking democratic control of these institutions may be difficult, but for what it’s worth, I remain an optimist. We continue to strive for the beautiful ethic of liberty. Until actualized, may we begin to disassociate as much as possible and take a lesson from the boy who harnessed the wind. In the open source technological age, with the resources and infrastructure available to us, we can labor for neighborhood solutions and begin the magnificent struggle for democratic energy. In fact we already have.

Neighborhood Environmentalism: Protecting Biodiversity

South Loop Trail - Knoxville Urban Wilderness

South Loop Trail – Knoxville Urban Wilderness

The environment, specifically climate change, is recieving some much deserved attention as of late. Discussion of climate change is healthy and necessary, but it seems the politico-media complex exclusively discusses climate, leaving other urgent crises to fall under the radar.

One such crisis is Earth’s impending sixth mass extinction. We live in a time of precipitous biodiversity loss — on par with the extinction rate that ended the age of the dinosaurs. A complete tally of recent extinctions and imperiled species (along with causes) can be found at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) website – IUCNRedList.org.

Stuart Pimm of Duke University, a recognized expert in the field of conservation biology, has published a landmark study in the peer-reviewed journal Science. Pimm’s publication describes the current plight of flora and fauna around the planet. Pimm notes that species are disappearing at least 1,000 times faster than the natural background rate – ten times faster than ecologists previously believed. “We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” Pimm said in a statement about his research. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”

There are a number of factors causing species decline. The major culprit, however, is not climate change — it’s habitat loss.

Over 50% of the human population now lives in cities, as populations expand, so too does urbanization. This creates an incredible challenge to species conservation as the total size of urban spaces in the United States now exceeds the total size of areas protected for conservation. It is important, then, for markets to develop that encourage biodiversity conservation.

Pimm is right: Whether or not we avoid a biodiversity crisis depends on our actions. It is time to embrace neighborhood environmentalism and reclaim the commons.

“Growth at any cost” economics, the dogma of neo-liberalism and government institutions, utilizes precious landscapes and resources needed for ecological subsistence. Even programs that seek mechanisms for conservation, such as the United Nation’s REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), inadvertently promote the total exploitation of natural areas, simply because regulation diverts resource extraction to unprotected land/seascapes.

Enclosure movements (acquisition of territories for the state or private capital) more often than not exploit natural landscapes. To the contrary, democratic management of natural areas has resulted in best sustainability practices.

The work of Nobel Prize recipient Elinor Ostrom demonstrates environmental protection increases with Common Pool Resource InstitutionsArun Agrawal, in his work Environmentality, notes sustainable forest policy emerged in the Kumoan region of the Himalayas as a result of decentralized, democratically controlled resource management. In our cities, the establishment of urban wilderness areas popping up around the globe, from the labor of civic sector institutions and private citizens, are protecting large expanses of forest and crucial habitat from economic exploitation – my favorite example hails from the Scruffy City of Knoxville, Tennessee, where over 1,000 acres of forested habitat has been preserved.

There are many more examples of freed markets protecting wilderness and ecosystem services. This protection simultaneously provides ancillary benefits to all flora and fauna — including humans. Government institutions and concentrations of private capital are all too often hurdles to the implementation of policies that can ease the current biodiversity crisis.Neighborhood Power is the way of the future — conservation depends on it.

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