Power to the People: Right On!

“I opened my eyes and saw the dark in all its original color.”

― James Dickey, Deliverance (1970)

A few weeks ago I reviewed the recently released Michael Moore production, Planet of the Humans. Directed by Moore’s long-time collaborator, Jeff Gibbs, the controversial film, ten years in the making, argued forcefully that the Green movement to save the planet from Climate Change catastrophe has stalled — indeed, even more, has gone backwards, with leaders of the movement, such as Bill McKibben and Al Gore, having been co-opted by Big Capital, willing to lend a hand to the Cause, if there’s a buck in it for them.

McKibben was irate and got a platform in Rolling Stone to disabuse Moore of his notions of righteousness and factuality; Gore just smirked like an asshole, like he did after he lost his home state in the 2000 presidential election. Perhaps the main criticism of the film was that the data used for its propositions was out-of-date; things Green had moved forward since Gibbs began his project and, they argue, he hadn’t properly factored that in. There was still time to effect change; it was too early to bury our heads in the sand like some kaput Madeleine Kahn version of Lady Liberty. Our Lady’s got plenty left. Fuck off, Moore and Gibbs, their critics, who still held a torch, seemed to say.

The stoush within and amongst the Greens and so-called progressive bodes ill for the rest of us, as we expect leadership to rise up out of their ranks to posit the impetus for radical transformation from our current American middle class lifestyles to something decidedly more spartan and less attached to materialism. We think we understand what the McKibbenses and Greens are about, but sometimes they’re caught with their good intentions down and their hypocritical butts hanging out. You wouldn’t want to be a jury on this one, and yet, duty calls. A Boston Legal episode from Season 4, “Green Christmas,” brought home the dilemmas associated with solving our global crisis. Here’s a cross exam of a McKibben-like character from the episode.

In People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons, Ashley Dawson covers a lot of the same ground that Gibbs and Moore do in their later film, but avoids the fray with Greens and the caterwauling over End Days. He, too, sees us all on the brink of terrible things to come as a result of our willful ignorance and inability to confront the reality that our lifestyles will have to dramatically — almost immediately — simplify if the human race is to survive the almost unavoidable climate cataclysm ahead. As his title suggests, the way forward is to dump capitalism, and move to a democratic socialist model. Not like Bernie, but way to the left of Bernie, who is not a real Socialist but a tweaker of the status quo. What Dawson proposes is far more radical.

People’s Power is a brief book and has chapters on Fossil Capitalism, A Brief History of Power, The Energy Commons, and People Power. And thus we learn what the problem is (fossil fuels), what to do about it (nationalize), and we are directed towards films and literature that will help us visualize the situation we’re in. Dawson, a CUNY professor of English, has previously written along similar topical lines, such as in his recent delineation of the “co-evolution” of capitalism and the climate crisis in Extinction: A Radical History (OR Books, 2016). Like Gibbs and Moore, Dawson emphasizes that human ecological misbehavior has brought us to the point of ecocide.

In Extinction, Dawson noted, “Some thousands of years ago, the world was home to an immense variety of large mammals …[including]mammoths, saber-toothed tigers … and armadillos the size of automobiles…” Wouldn’t it be ironic, he seems to say, if we went the way of armadillos because of our mammoth automobile’s reliance on fossil fuels. In the introduction to People’s Power, Dawson writes, “the cities and nations of the world must cease burning fossil fuels if we are to avert looming planetary ecocide.”

Of all the forces in nature we can be said to be most intimate with, even if we aren’t aware of it, or still lack full understanding when we are, it is electricity. Who hasn’t looked up at a sheet lightning storm and not exclaimed, “Look, mommy, it’s like the brain’s activity.” And she responds, “Pass the bong and roll down the window.” And, of course, we are all familiar (in the West) with the story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein monster, an amalgam of body parts, finally re-animated with the good doctor’s juice. “Fuck me,” said the monster, “I was having such a tender sleep, after that ordeal on the electric chair. Damned if I’m dead, damned if I’m not.” Hmph. That’s the way we’ll all be one day, when we join the hivemind.

But seriously, we only began to understand and harness electricity about 250 years ago beginning with Ben Franklin’s key-kite experiment, then on to Luigi Galvani’s discoveries about bioelectromagnetics, and then, not long after, English scientist Michael Faraday invented the electric motor in 1821. According to Dawson, these activities with electricity had led to three massive economic and social upheavals:

The world has undergone two major transformations in energy regimes since the onset of the Industrial Revolution: the rise of coal in the nineteenth century, replacing a capitalist system fueled by wind and water power, followed by the rise and global diffusion of oil in the twentieth century.

The third transformation, hopes Dawson, is underway with the Green energy revolution. But will it be in time?

Fossil-Capitalism: It’s the worst marriage of all time, as far as Dawson’s concerned; it’s even worse when democracy’s the mistress to Capital. Lots of hanky-panky and shifty bottom lines between the sheets with this ménage à trois. In the Fossil Capitalist Death Spiral chapter, Dawson says we reached the end of that spiral in 2008 when the TARP bailout money, following the collapse on Wall Street that almost brought down the global economy, was used for more evil, instead, “[T]he Great Recession of 2008 that ended up driving a fracking bonanza. This shift…constitutes the financialization of fossil capitalism.”

Dawson blames Obama and his swaggering tongue, in no small measure. He remembers a rousing speech Obama gave during his campaign to the Detroit Economic Club in 2007, during which the future president invoked the spirit of FDR, and the retooling of the auto industry during the war to fight fascism overseas. Obama called the shift a “miracle” and, writes Dawson, added that it was the kind of miracle required in America ASAP:

Obama declared, “the country that faced down the tyranny of fascism and communism is now called to challenge the tyranny of oil. For the very resource that has fueled our way of life over the last hundred years now threatens to destroy it if our generation does not act now and act boldly.”

It sure sounded hope and change.  But Dawson sees Obama’s public words as part of “a pattern” that featured lip-service but no real action. He proposed “a series of measures to cope with carbon emissions that fell far short of his stirring opening invocation of wartime mobilization to stave off the collapse of fossil-fueled civilization.” Obama had promised that a ‘contrite’ Wall Street would, in response to the TARP bailout, invest in job-creating projects that would get people back to work again. But writes Dawson, “the failure of Obama’s promise to establish a green economy left organized labor feeling bitter and betrayed. “Are we really in the midst of a massive transition in global energy systems?”

If Dawson was disappointed in Obama, Margaret Kimberley at Black Agenda Report spared no venom for the harm Obama had brought to Black America by way of his affiliations with Wall Street — even before his ascendancy to the presidency. Wall Street, Kimberley opines, “invested in Obama to protect them from harm, as a hedge against the risk of systemic disaster caused by their own predations. And, it was a good bet, a good deal. It paid out in the tens of trillions of dollars.” A lot of people regard Obama as our last best hope for getting our shit together and tackling Big Oil and Wall Street, Now, it’s looking like revolution is in the air again.

Dawson goes on — “[E]even if the great task of our times is to stop all new fossil fuel infrastructures, winning a transition to renewable energy will not be sufficient to avert climate chaos.” We need a global revolution, he argues. “Unfortunately,” he adds, “many advocates of renewable energy are fervent believers in a market-led shift toward clean power.” Here, Dawson begins to iterate the concerns later developed in Planet of the Humans, the controversial Gibbs-Moore film that came a year or so later. Some of the Green leadership believe that such a partnership is the only way to get action on renewable energy started immediately. Dawson, like some Greens interviewed by Gibbs, see that as a disastrous tack to take, as it is such captains of capital that got us into the Mess, and who only want to help so as to make a buck, which requires the kind of growth that will make matters worse.

Dawson examines the electrical grid structure of America, a hodge-podge of publicly-owned utilities and Investor Operated Utilities (IOUs) that form a really bad structure, the complexity of which not many people really understand. Dawson notes,

…this hybrid system of private and public power companies, the US electric system is made up of more than 7,300 power plants that distribute power through a network of nearly 160,000 miles of high-voltage power lines, linked to millions of low-voltage power lines and distribution transformers that connect hundreds of millions of consumers

Such a system is prone to potential blackouts, but more importantly, from Dawson’s POV, it isn’t built to integrate with green energy.

Dawson cites the good intentions of Hawaiians, who have the highest energy bills in the nation, and who went on a crusade to save energy costs by installing solar panels everywhere. Sounded good, Hawaii high-fives were had, but there was one problem. Solar installations become economical, in principle, because the energy produced is sold back to the electric company — in this case, Hawaii Electric Company. But, writes Dawson, “the rapid increase of privately installed solar panels overloaded the state’s power grid, leading the Hawaiian Electric Company, the state’s investor-owned power utility (IOU), to freeze all new connections.” Shocking news. What good are the panels then? many Hawaiians asked.

Another problem with the solar solution that Dawson cites is the current common reality of the technology. “As customers with solar panels diminish their demand for power provided by the utility by generating their own power,: he writes, “they also cut their electric bills; the utilities then have to charge higher rates to nonsolar customers in order to cover their costs-plus returns.” This creates unnecessary friction between those with solar who appear to be lowering their bills at the expense of non-solar residents — but not because of the technology, but because, Dawson says, utilities make money, like any other capitalist venture, by demand for product. Solar reduces demand. Salvation can get ugly.

Dawson, along with many other Greens, envisions

a grid made up of small, less polluting, relatively self-contained systems. In a world full of nasty surprises, such systems can be hived off and continue to operate when other portions of the grid go down, preventing a total and catastrophic collapse.

Dawson doesn’t fully explore how such smaller grids would work in a world of 7 billion people needing electricity. One imagines Venus Project communities, or futuristic model cities, or other bracketed social spheres. Dawson reports that way back when the national grid was building its connective tissue, rural communities, especially farmers, had to come up with their own solutions, and developed community-owned grids separate from the IOUs and other public utilities. Scale is an issue though.

He also indicates that there are projects on local scale that are in keeping with modern lifestyles. He writes that

new digital technologies are knitting small-scale producers and consumers together into what are sometimes called virtual power plants, allowing households to trade energy with one another when and as they need it, without the involvement of any central clearinghouse along the lines of the traditional utility.

Dawson’s ideas are pretty good, but it’s hard to see the impetus for getting there any time soon.

In the final end, as the Bard from Duluth would say, dramatic and almost-immediate political action is required to buy time to nut out a blueprint that 7 billion people plus can live by. Dawson recognizes this, and sees no way around the nationalization of electricity and building an Energy Commons — indeed, the need to end greed and adopt democratic socialism as a global panacea. Voluntarily converting to this new system in America might be a problem. During the presidential ‘debate’ that many of us witnessed with unbelieving ears and eyes, it was astonishing to hear Trump refer to Joe Biden as being in league with Lefties. Lots of people see it that way. Nationalization of anything, let alone the juice, seems far-fetched.

Dawson seems to understand this hurdle. He brings to the fore as a model of possibility what the Germans are up to. This is a very delicate proposition in one way. While any number of elite Americans have expressed admiration for German ‘know-how’ when it comes to solutions (check out the Netflix series, Hunters, starring Al Pacino), Euro visions aren’t necessarily going to be available to us, due to our difference in values and lifestyles.

Nevertheless, Dawson builds a case that is at least worth considering for inspiration from the Europeans, if nothing else. In his chapter on Public Power, Dawson suggests that “Germany provides a particularly inspiring example of successful efforts to gain popular control over the energy commons, whether through small energy collectives or through re-municipalization of energy provision in cities like Hamburg and Berlin.” Dawson looks at how Germans wrested control of energy from utilities beginning with the public’s demand that the nation move away from nuclear power after what happened at Fukushima.

Dawson claims that spearheading this movement were hyper-activist feminists known as Autonomen who would not take No for an answer. Dawson reports,

The centralized, technocratic, and potentially deadly character of nuclear power represented the absolute antithesis of the antiauthoritarian, anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist values that were central to the various groups that came to form the movement.

Autonomen working together with Berlin’s Energietisch “demonstrates that an alliance of social movements can prevail against a politically connected and deep-pocketed transnational corporate behemoth,” writes Dawson. This stuff works in Germany, home of the emotionally unstable (but worshipped) limp-fish Fuhrer, and Reichstag fires, but it seems a stretch for America — although we seem ever-increasingly ready for a good old American national bar fight for the ages.

But, we have to begin with taking out Trump by any legal means necessary. One might want to read Bill McKibben’s recent piece in Rolling Stone, “Vote Like the Future of Humanity Depends on It— Because It Does.”

Other delights included in Dawson’s book are his inclusion of films the reader might consider watching — old ones, like Giant, and newer ones like, There Will Be Blood, both films animating concepts in fossil fuel fascism. Some people are visual learners, in case grim reality wasn’t enough of an impetus to action. Also, apparently to provide even more inspiration at this critical hour, he introduces the reader to a new genre of literature that’s developed out of the Climate crisis — solarpunk and eco-speculation. It’s meant to be a tonic for all the apocalyptic literature out there. Dawson suggests reading Sunvault, a collection of such stories of take-back-the-light politics. He cites, especially, “The Boston Hearth Project,” included in the Sunvault collection.

Meanwhile, you might want to get you some old time religion again. Stay away from the Three Abes, who provided so much of the moral justification for the millennial self-destructive path we’ve followed. A better model might be the Iroquois, who worshipped the Sun, or, more recently, a Canadian tribe, the Kanai, who even made a film of their rites. We should all be getting in a big sad circle about now and dancing like fools under the Sun — begging, praying, imploring Helios to favor us with an enormous solar flare that will knock us off our grids for at least a couple of years.

Then we can begin to fantasize about closing down Climate Change. If you live in cloudy climes, or just want to stay in ‘lockdown’ mode now that Trump has proven that Covid-19’s not a hoax, you can just meditate on the gif below (the Sun, the ultimate gif that keeps on giffing!). Chant hard. Every voice counts in this scenario.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.