Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Year of Learning and Writing about Energy Democracy in the United States

This year, I plan to focus my life on producing a Master’s thesis that helps advance Energy Democracy within the United States. My larger goal of this thesis is to create something useful to at least one national organization, so that the piece serves as the basis for a campaign to be executed in next year (and ideally beyond). I also want to use this thesis to catapult myself into the next phase of my life after grad school at MIT, which I hope will be to help run a campaign within the 2018 election cycle to win tangible political victories for energy democracy.

Over the last several years of working fairly independently on various projects, I have learned the value of consistently putting in small amounts of work each day towards a long-term goal. This approach helped me to succeed in creating a SustainUS strategic plan, winning grants, and designing and implementing a #StopTPP campaign plan. Outside of SustainUS, the approach of consistent small amounts of effort over a long period of time has allowed me to run marathons, become a better meditator, and be a strong student. I believe that taking a similar approach with my thesis on Energy Democracy will yield similar results. Over the course of the year, small daily contributions of writing will add up to form the core of a valuable final master's thesis.

Structured effort is not something I do naturally. I am easily distracted, and generally I like to chase the exciting ideas of the moment. And having a wide variety of intellectual stimuli is very important for me to maintain enough enthusiasm to move projects forward. But as I have grown older, I now recognize that my work can only create something meaningful if it adds up towards a long-term goal. Consistent working towards something keeps me grounded and helps keep me happy. While I still have a lot of fun imagining the big amazing possibilities of potential new life projects, I only feel self-actualization when I can see my labors bearing fruit and creating something real. And that requires making choosing to focus my energy on the things that matter most.

With these thoughts in mind, I am setting a personal goal to write 500 words on Energy Democracy in the United States five times per week for the full year. That comes to 2500 words per week, or 125,000 words over the course of the full year (assuming that I take off two weeks). Hopefully, there will be enough good content from this consistent practice of writing on energy democracy to form the basis for my master's thesis. And if produce this writing in the form of blogposts and other shared content, I'm hopeful that my writing and my ideas can also continuously improve over the course of the year through the feedback of friends and colleagues.

A quick final thought for this first reflection: I believe that a structure of a daily practice of writing on energy democracy will be especially helpful for me in the coming turbulent age of Trump. I expect this year to be filled with political chaos and incredibly exciting resistance organizing. Without having a solid anchor, I could easily be distracted by short-term responses to Trump and not put the time I desire into learning about the long-game of transitioning to a renewable and democratic energy system. By making a commitment to a consistent daily practice of writing, I hope to stay focused on my big goal of producing an effective and helpful master’s thesis. And by sharing this plan, I'm making a public commitment to keep writing. Please hold me to it.

Here’s to a great year of learning, writing, and organizing for Energy Democracy in the US!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Futility of the "Right to the City" in the face of Neoliberal Globalization

The Futility of enforcing the "Right to the City" in the face of Neoliberal Globalization
HCED Reading response for Tuesday September 20, 2016

Last week diplomats representing almost every world government agreed to the “New Urban Agenda” a document that aims to set global priorities for global urban policy for next 20 years. While the document will not formally be adopted until the Habitat-III conference in late October, the negotiated text is not expected to change. The final consensus document is the result of thousands of hours of deliberation, advocacy, negotiation, and word-smithing. And the language in the document is quite strong; my advocacy colleagues who poured in the negotiations through the Major Group for Children and Youth are very proud of the result.

Paragraph 11 of the New Urban Agenda contains the first-ever mention of “the right to the city” in international law:
11. We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient, and sustainable cities and human settlements, to foster prosperity and quality of life for all. We note the efforts of some national and local governments to enshrine this vision, referred to as right to the city, in their legislations, political declarations and charters.

This negotiation result is particularly relevant for my Housing, Community, Economic Development class readings this week, which included an article called Taking the Right to the City Forward. Miloon Kothari and Shivani Chaudhry, the authors of that piece, urged civil society to  consolidate many disparate demands of urban justice around the central concept of the “right to the city.” Civil society did just that, creating a global platform and campaigning vigorously for the New Urban Agenda to include “the right to the city.” And while the final negotiated language was watered down, the advocates achieved their goal.

Here’s the problem: while the “right to the city” will be formally included in international law, it will change almost nothing for poor and oppressed communities living within real cities. All of the violations of human rights highlighted in Taking the Right to the City Forward will continue. While the language of the New Urban Agenda (and other international agreements) is stirring, that language is not tied to any decisions regarding the allocation of real urban resources. While the “right to the city” will receive international lip-service, the underlying neoliberal economic logic that perpetuates the urban violation of human rights remains the same

I found Neil Smith’s article New Globalism, New Urbanism: Gentrification as Global Urban Strategy a sobering contrast to the optimism of the Taking the Right to the City Forward. The demands of global capital, which sets the terms within the current neoliberal economic model, means that city governments have little choice but to structure their operations in a way to attract international investment. If the nation-state no longer provides funding for essential social services and cities need to compete with each other for scarce funding city, then the demands of the market will trump obligations of human rights. As the New Globalism article explains, this has led to absurdly unjust situations. Among other things, this includes large-scale spatial segregation of rich and poor and state-subsidized gentrification of poor neighborhoods at the city center, under the guise of the euphemism “urban regeneration.”

One particular example of current urban injustice is the 4-hour travel required by the lowest-paid workers in rapidly developing cities like São Paulo and Harare. While workers and citizens in older western cities are able to organize enough resistance to prevent such spatial segregation, workers in these new mega-cities have not. And amazingly, this arrangement appears to be economically sustainable. As Neil Smith notes the “rigors of almost unbearable commuting… have elicited a ‘desperate resilience’ and been absorbed amidst the wider social breakdown.”

The authors of Taking the Right to the City Forward would agree with Smith’s identification of specific social harms. But I find their proposed solution of creating and enforcing international soft law extremely unsatisfying. To create the framework for local enforcement of human rights, we need new incentive structures for cities. And that cannot happen without a dramatic reorientation of the global economic model, which will likely need to happen through the institutional form of existing national governments. Calling for enforcement of existing laws and for local governments to implement needed policies is easy. Organizing and building enough political power to make such policies real is not. And that is what is needed if we are to change the underlying logic presented in New Globalism and actually take the right of the city forward.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Thomas Piketty and the Evolution of the Racial Wealth Gap

This week, my Housing, Community, and Economic Development (HCED) course focuses on urban inequality of wealth and income. I recently wrapped up Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century, so I have been thinking about the role of wealth in social inequalities for the last few months. I’m excited to briefly survey Piketty and how his work connects with the racial wealth gap.

My HCED class readings included an overview of Piketty’s book (with six key charts!) and a much more dense academic article summarizing “The Top 1 Percent in International and Historical Perspective.” But the readings also dive into a topic not covered by Piketty’s charts: the racial wealth gap. The titles of the readings, which include “Black Wealth / White Wealth” and “Being Black, Living in the Red”, reveal a fairly straightforward answer to the source of racial inequality in the United States: an unequal distribution of wealth.

Piketty’s chart on income inequality in the United States provides a useful overview of US class dynamics over the last century. What is fascinating is the steep drop of inequality that happening in the 1940s during World War II. This new more-equitable distribution of American income continued until 1980, before shooting upward to levels greater than even the 1920s.
Pikkety US income - Edited.pngWhat isn’t obvious from this chart, but is covered in Piketty’s book, is that the decline of income concentration of the top 10% of Americans was redistributed to create a new Middle Class. This redistribution occurred for many reasons: the significant leverage of Labor Unions during World War II, the imposition of confiscatory tax rates of 90% for the highest US incomes, and social policies like the Federal Housing Authority and the GI bill which provided mortgages and housing to previously working class families. Taken together, this created a much more equitable society in terms of income from 1940 through 1980. The wistfulness for this era shows up in our politics when leaders warn of the decline of the middle class.

Piketty’s chart also misses a key factor: race. Federal policies that enabled the creation of the (white) middle class of the United States deliberately excluded blacks. Some of the specific harms include the redlining of investment in black neighborhoods neighborhoods, exclusion of blacks from mortgages, and overall ambivalence from the government toward white racial violence in the American South. These racist policies compounded the racial inequalities of wealth left over from slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Even with these racists policies, data shows that blacks have largely caught up to whites in terms of wages. However, data on wealth tells a different story. The “Roots of the Widening Racial Wealth Gap” study from the Brandeis Institute on Assets and Social Policy graphs the evolution of the median net-worth for black families and white families from 1983 to 2010. According to the data, the gap between the wealth of a median black family and the wealth of the median white family was $85,000. By 2010, that gap had risen to $236,500.
There are many complex reasons for why the wealth gap got worse for whites and blacks over the last 30 years. But one relatively simple reason is that wealth gains compound over time, especially during periods of slow economic growth. Piketty defines this as a scenario when “r is > g”, or when the average rate of return on capital is greater than the average rate of economic growth (which roughly equals the average rate of wage growth). According to Piketty, this has been the case for most of human history. The one, notable exception was the massive shock posed by World War II and the ensuing forty years of high economic growth and low capital returns. Piketty’s chart showing the rate of return (r) vs the growth rate (g) is below.
r greater than g Pikketty - Edited.png
For racial income inequalities, the basic logics of r vs g is even greater because blacks tend to see less income growth due to economic growth than whites. So when you take compounded wealth effects for whites and lower overall wealth and income for blacks, you get concentrated wealth inequality by race. A new report called The Ever Growing Gap extrapolates this logic by extrapolating the past thirty years of growth rates for white and black wealth an additional thirty years into the future. The result is black wealth of only 9% of white wealth, with an average gap of over $1 million (the difference in starting values in 1983 from the Brandeis study is due to the use of the average wealth in this calculation, while the Brandeis study used median values).

Ever growing gap - Edited.png
Here’s the takeaway from all of this: a snowballing positive-feedback effect is widening the racial wealth gap. And without a dramatic policy intervention (ideally involving reparations), the wealth divide between blacks and whites will only get worse and worse.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Reflections and Intentions for Cities in the 21st Century, on Day 1 at MIT

We face some daunting challenges over the next few decades. Growing inequality in wealth threatens to undermine much of the social gains of the last century, while climate change literally threatens the sustainability of civilization. At the center of these two crises are cities, which play defining roles in the global economy and the broader evolution of society. It is my (perhaps optimistic) hope that through deeply intentional planning, cities can play a positive role in moving towards a more just and sustainable world. A much better future is possible, but to reach it, cities broadly need to change.

This belief in cities being a major leverage point led me to apply for the Master of City Planning program at MIT. Today, on the first day of classes, I’m writing a quick reflection on my current thinking about the big trends facing cities in the coming decades and my personal intentions for my time in the program. To help keep me focused over the course of the two year program and track the evolution of my thinking, I plan to blog at least once per month throughout the duration of the program. Hopefully it will be useful both in refining my writing skills and in preserving my experiences throughout the next two years.

With that, here are the statistics that provide much of my motivation to work on cities:
a) By 2050 the UN expects about 6.5 billion people to live in cities, or more than 66% of the human population. This is up from the current percentage of 54%. The vast majority of expected urban population growth will come from the developing world.
Population - Edited.png

b) 75% of the infrastructure that will exist in 2050 has yet to be built, according to the Global Infrastructure Basel Foundation. This will require massive amounts of capital; the New Climate Economy project estimates that $90 trillion in new investments is needed to meet projected infrastructure demands by 2030 alone; most of this new infrastructure will be built within urban areas.

c) Global net-zero carbon emissions are needed by 2050 to have a shot at staying below 1.5 degrees C of warming (the goal world leaders set at COP21 in Paris). Achieving this goal will require a revolutionary shift in how we use and consume energy. And since cities are responsible for 70% of current CO2 emissions, achieving the Paris Agreement will require huge changes in how cities function.


d) 62 people currently own as much wealth as the poorest 50% of people (3.5 billion) on the planet. This stat is indicative of a hyper-concentration of wealth skews political priorities at all levels of government, from the international to the local. In terms of cities, this concentration of wealth shows up as multi-national corporations buying up huge amounts of urban real estate.


To me, these stats point to two big overarching question for the 21st century:
  1. When new infrastructure is built, will it be well-planned to equitably meet people’s real needs and help achieve climate stability?
  2. Who will own the new infrastructure and benefit from the massive amount of new wealth created from the construction?

Reflecting on my classes and the orientation experience thus far after my first day at MIT, it is interesting that we talked very little about these big picture ideas and the magnitude of rapid changes needed to reach a more just and sustainable world. It is also interesting that the major international accomplishments of the last year (particularly the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement) have not yet been mentioned. Is this a disconnect between academia and the realm of politics? I’m looking forward to discussing these ideas in the coming months with my new classmates and professors.

Finally, I’ll make a quick note on my personal intentions for my time at MIT: I want to dive deep into Energy Democracy. Community-owned renewable energy seems to get at the sweet spot of the questions of clean energy infrastructure and social equity. During the next two years, I hope to explore this idea from the technical, social, financial, and political angles. And if all goes well, I’ll emerge with a set of new skills to help make Energy Democracy real.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Victory At Last! #NoKXL, the first big win of the Climate Movement.

How the Keystone Fight Was Won
We just made history. Together, we have shown what it takes to win: a determined, principled, unrelenting grassroots movement that takes to the streets whenever necessary, and isn't afraid to put our bodies on the line.Powered by our organizing, the tide is turning against the fossil fuel industry. Today we can approach all of our work with new eyes. We know that we can fight, and we can win. We share this video with joy and immense gratitude.
Posted by on Friday, November 6, 2015

Four years ago, I spent an intense two weeks rounding up Missouri students to make the trek to DC to oppose the KeystoneXL pipeline. We bused across the country to circle the White House to demand that Obama reject the pipeline. Today, the journey is finally complete. We WON!

KXL was the first climate campaign I joined that felt like a real movement. The pipeline was virtually unknown in the spring of 2011. Then, 1253 people joined a mass wave of civil disobedience at the White House in August. The actions didn't get much media attention at first, but they fired up the movement base. Soon people were bird-dogging Obama everywhere, from the liberal activists in San Francisco to our band of students in St. Louis. The movement grew rapidly, leading to the November 2011 "ring around the White House" action. Just three days after our action, Obama announced he would delay approving pipeline.

I was a bit naive back then, so I figured the delay would turn into full victory within a few months. Instead, KXL morphed from a niche issue into the defining symbol of the climate fight. Big Oil and their paid representatives in Congress fought back ferociously. The movement regrouped and went into marathon mode, staging intervention after intervention for the past four years. Slowly the tide turned. And today, we have a definitive victory.

During his announcement rejecting the pipeline earlier today, Obama declared that "If we want to prevent the worst effects of climate change before it's too late, the time to act is -- is now. Not later, not someday. Right here, right now." He specifically referenced the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. These remarks didn't happen because of Obama's change of heart. Obama changed his stance and has become vocal about climate change because of the movement.

Organizing works. People-power works. It's always a struggle, and most victories are incomplete, incremental wins in the long journey towards a just world.

Thank you to everyone who is part of this movement. In the fight for climate justice, victories are pretty rare. So let's CELEBRATE! And then, let's keep building the clean energy revolution.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Marathons and the Climate Movement

Tomorrow I run my second marathon. On the eve of the race, I spent some time reflecting on the similarities of running and the journey of the climate movement. I see deep connections between the perseverance needed to run marathons and the hard work needed for climate justice.

We have a very challenging training regiment ahead of us. In the decades to come, we need to overhaul the entire economies of developed countries to run on renewable power. In developing countries, we must construct new energy systems that are more efficient, resilient, and clean than those we’ve used for centuries. And in order for this transition to be a just one, communities must be granted control over their energy resources, making this challenge even more difficult — but also even more of an opportunity to build the world we want. Climate change is a present reality and urgent threat, but our transition to a transformed energy system and society will take a long time.

I used to think that all we needed was one key policy — and then everything else would just fall into place. All we need is a price on carbon! Just a global climate treaty! But I’ve come to understand the climate challenge is far more complex, involving decades-long delays and complex intersections with geopolitics and the structure of the global economy. I’ve also realized my goal isn’t simply a stable climate — it’s a thriving, just, and sustainable world. This vision requires much more than only a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The truth is, this work will take decades, if not centuries. I’ve “known” this intellectually for several years, but marathon training has made it more visceral and less abstract as a concept. Training gives me a taste of what’s required to commit to this work for the long term.

There are two main practices I’ve observed in marathon training that can be applied to this period of societal transition. First — set a specific goal. Pick a time for the marathon, or a set a specific and limited social outcome. Second — consistently and diligently work to reach that goal. Consistency is key. If you miss one workout in marathon training, you likely won’t be hampered too much. But if you miss a week, or even a few days, you will quickly fall behind. Marathon training requires endurance, but physical endurance comes second to mental endurance. Over time, sustained focus and consistent work allow you to keep running for 26.2 miles. The climate crisis requires the same sustained focus to make concrete progress on massive challenges like reducing poverty, eradicating disease, and building a renewable energy-powered world.

There’s another piece of marathon running that’s just as critical as training for a specific race — what happens after race day. Muscles quickly deteriorate without exercise. And without having a clear next goal, mind and spirit can quickly deteriorate as well. After finishing my first marathon, I felt on top of the world, empowered, and ready to take on any challenge. But I didn’t have a defined focus for my next big life goal outside of my work with SustainUS. I found myself falling into a malaise, still working hard but feeling unfulfilled in the rest of my life. Without the physical demands of running my life became less structured, with more late nights and a fluctuating sleep schedule. Eventually, I realized I needed another goal to focus my energy and keep me in good physical and mental shape. Thus, I find myself once more on the eve of a marathon.

Our work of movement building faces a similar challenge to my post-marathon experience. It’s not just about running one good race or winning a single campaign — we must refocus, consolidate our gains, and continue moving forward after a campaign is complete.

Progress is not inevitable. Without continued organizing, it’s easy to lose gains made by past campaigns. But we have no time left to go backwards. If we’re going to build a just and sustainable world, we need a winning-streak that spans decades. In short, we must run a lot of marathons.

The climate movement is about to conclude one major marathon. Since the collapse of the Copenhagen climate talks in late 2009, world governments have been working toward a new climate framework. This December, that effort will culminate in Paris with the first truly global agreement. Policy contributions are expected from nearly every country on Earth. It won’t be nearly enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate disruption. But it will be a milestone, and this particular global marathon will be complete. And maybe — just maybe — Paris will mark the “end of the beginning” of the climate fight.

What’s the next big moment that focuses our movement after Paris? Will it be the next round of major global negotiations in 2020? The implementation of domestic climate policies like the Clean Power Plan in the U.S.? Reaching some renewable energy benchmark? There are many possibilities for the movement’s next marathon. But we need something more immediate than 2050. A long term vision is necessary, but real progress comes with shorter incremental goals. We must continue to train and build our power, through a series of marathons, to achieve the fossil free world we so desperately need.

I intend to keep running. I don’t yet know when my next race will be, but I have a goal to run fast enough next year to qualify for the Boston Marathon. And I intend to keep organizing for the long term. While the specific context of my work may change, my vision of a just and sustainable world will remain an inspiration. I look forward to the many individual races and movement marathons that lie ahead.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Koch Bros. and the Need to Reclaim Democracy

When I heard about the Koch Brothers' plans to spend close to a billion dollars in the 2016 elections, I was livid. The following facebook rant emerged, which I have slightly modified and reposted below.
I try not to rant much on facebook. I post political pieces, and definitely have a partisan outlook in what I contribute. But this moment deserves a rant.
On Monday Jan. 26, the Koch Brothers announced plans to spend $889 million to influence the 2016 elections. That is close to a BILLION dollars by two individuals and their allies to influence our shared political system for their personal financial gain.
Regardless of your political orientation or personal beliefs about governing philosophy, I do not see how you can believe this is just. This is a fundamental corruption of our democracy and our country. This amount of spending, which is at the SAME LEVEL as the Democrats and the Republicans, destroys any notion that we have a fair system. If you have the money, you can buy the message, control the narrative, control the politicians, and effectively force your agenda into the national debate, public will be damned.
The first act of the new Senate is to approve an oil pipeline that will create 35 permanent jobs. 35 jobs, for a metal pipe that transports some of the dirtiest oil in the world. Is this really the biggest priority facing our country? One might thinking that rising economic inequality, rapid climate disruption, or the stagnating education system might demand a bit more attention. But instead it's a pipeline, which happens to benefit two people in particular - the Kochs.
According to one measure of influence, the Koch's had the same political influence as 515,000 union members due to their spending of $400 million during the 2012 elections. But the Koch influence on our politics isn't immediately obvious because of the secret ways the Brothers spend their money. This ProPublica interactive graphic on Koch "Dark Money" shows the byzantine way that the Brothers spent $264 million through 30+ non-profit entities from mid-2011 to October 2012.

The Koch Brothers are not the only people corrupting our democracy. In many ways, the unfair influence of money in politics has already corrupted politicians so much that the line between "legal bribery" of campaign contributions and "illegal bribery" has blurred. Zephyr Teachout argues that campaign contributions are the "gateway drug to bribes... where candidates are trained to respond to campaign cash and serve donors' interests... the structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can't even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day."
This has to stop. If you believe in climate justice, if you believe that ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, if you believe that Wall Street is too powerful, if you believe in women's rights, or if you believe that government should actually serve the PEOPLE rather than rich campaign donors, then it's time to get money out of politics. A more progressive future is simply not possible without fundamental reforms in our democracy.
Last week, my friend Katherine and 6 others boldly spoke out at the Supreme Court during the 5th Anniversary of the Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that allows virtually unlimited spending by outside political groups (which led to the creation of SuperPACs). Katherine and the protesters were tackled, hauled off to jail, and kept without food for 36 hours. Their story has widely resonated, being published in the New York Times, The Economist, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can see video of their protest here.
I deeply believe in the potential of this country and of democracy. I deeply believe that people can come together and shape our future, that we can chart a course towards greater justice and peace. But this cannot happen without fair elections. Democracy ceases to exist when the wealthy control the levers of power.
It's time for this movement to get money out of politics.. It's time to reclaim democracy. This won't happen overnight, and it likely won't happen to stop the $889 million in Koch money from corrupting the 2016 election. But we can and must come together to separate wealth and state. With time, we can build the power needed to enact a new Constitutional Amendment, pass new legislation, and change the rules of our democracy. But it starts with us.
If you believe that we need to take back our democracy, sign the democracy pledge of resistance. Then, talk to your friends, your family, your church, your business, your school, and your community. Tell them why you care. Invite them to participate in this movement. 8 in 10 Americans believe we should limit campaign contributions by outside groups. Most likely your friends already agree that we need to get money out of politics. It's your job to get them to act.
Facebook rant complete. Now, back to organizing.