People’s Power: Reclaiming the Energy Commons
New York: OR Books, 2020.
274 pages • $20
Urban planning has traditionally focused on land, particularly its use and development. Questions about how energy is generated and used usually get left to the engineers and the energy providers. At the community level, planners usually rely on and fail to question the systems of energy generation and distribution. Often these utility systems are metropolitan, regional and national in scale and deemed beyond the scope of local planning.
This book should help correct this enormous blind spot in community-based planning. Ashley Dawson argues that flawed planning and design of the systems of power generation and distribution throughout the urban world are major contributors to climate change and environmental injustice. He points local planners and activists towards alternatives that promote energy independence, community-controlled renewable energy and reductions in wasteful consumption.
People’s Power promotes development and preservation of an energy commons as an alternative to the private ownership and control of energy. Public/private partnerships now predominate in North America. The public sector is the junior partner and is contractually required to protect private profits. This produces what Dawson calls the tragedy of the (capitalist) fossil commons. The tragedy comes about because the private energy market results in overproduction and waste, leading to unstable and chronic declines in prices. We only need to look at today’s headlines to see how the glut in the oil and gas markets is pushing governments to increase subsidies to regulated energy providers, perpetuating the chronically wasteful consumption levels. On the other hand, there are many examples in which privately-run utilities, in order to save their bottom line, cut critical services to people who need them most. Dawson gives the example of Highland Park, Michigan where the privately-run utility disconnected all the street lights in this working class community of color.
People’s Power lays out alternatives to fossil capitalism. Dawson calls for a reversal of the neoliberal credo that led to virtually universal deregulation. He points to alternatives such as the aggressive support by the federal government in the US for rural electrification during the Great Depression and examples of municipal control and operation of the power sector.
Beyond government intervention at multiple scales, however, deeply imbedded systems of racial, environmental and climate injustice persist. It is time to not only resurrect the energy commons but to decolonize it. The key concept here to socialize energy production and distribution at multiple scales, local, national and global.
Urban planners working at the local level need to first of all understand and engage with frontline communities that are already pursuing just energy alternatives. Working class communities of color that are fighting polluting power plants, lead contamination and high rates of respiratory disease are in the forefront of struggles for just alternatives. Beyond North America, there have been dramatic examples of struggles against the privatization of urban infrastructure, such as the years-long and successful effort in Cochabamba, Bolivia to stop the privatization of the water supply. These examples point us to the need for a return of the energy commons to our communities. They can lead to systems of energy generation and distribution that will reduce overall energy consumption and pollution as they reassert democratic control of the commons. This kind of global change must challenge the long history of plunder of natural resources leading to “the resource curse” that feeds economic and political dependency in the global periphery.
Dawson proposes locally and democratically controlled energy that is distributed to meet community needs and not to protect private investors. He says we need to “decentralize, decarbonize and digitize” and we need energy democracy. This kind of transformation is aimed not at increasing energy consumption but meeting peoples’ needs. He gives examples, some quite successful and others not, from Germany’s energy transition. Germany is moving towards meeting its climate goals while the US is a colossal laggard. The US is withdrawing from the Paris accords even as its abandoned fracking sites continue to emit more greenhouse gases. Dawson also points us to Denmark’s growth in locally-generated wind energy as a dramatic contrast to the US embrace of fossil fuels.
No less important is the need to reduce overall consumption levels, especially in the wealthier nations but also across the world where imperial plunder continues to guarantee cheap raw materials and energy generation that feed the capitalist growth machine. They are two sides of the same unequal coin.
As I was reading People’s Power I was reminded of one of the most egregious ways that urban planners narrow their vision and practice. Their main concern is usually with land and they invent and protect local systems for the “use” of land by the private sector. Beyond designated public spaces they rarely consider land as part of the global commons. It is geared towards increasing the monetary value of land in the marketplace and not its usefulness for communities, global resilience or sustainability. Planners often talk about “vacant” land, a concept rooted in the colonial appropriation of the commons and the expulsion of indigenous people who were custodians of the land and other natural resources. They treat energy in the same way, as something to be “used” by individuals and corporations, not as a human right or part of the commons.
Tom Angotti is Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy & Planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and an editor at progressivecity.net.