A while back a gentleman named Harvey Winston sent me an email, trying to explain why it is that the peak oil and climate change movements are as lily white as they are. I had asked in another post what we had to do to engage poor people, particularly poor non-white people, who are, after all, already the biggest victims of rising energy prices and climate change. Winston sent me some answers that are right on the money. And he kindly gave me permission to quote him and discuss this publicly.
Because this is a really important issue – the people who are currently suffering from energy depletion and climate change are overwhelmingly not white, both in this country and around the world. Whether we intend it or not, climate change and peak oil are operating to make non white people poorer, more vulnerable, sicker and less safe. And the people who are preparing most, and getting their communities organized are mostly white and comfortable. That disparity is bad for all of us for many reasons, and its wrong.
But the only way to change that disparity is to engage African-American, Native American, Asian and Latino people in finding real, local, community solutions for themselves – that’s not up for debate. We need engaged activists to help devise the right strategies for a voluntary, sustainable energy descent for their communities. There are plenty of activists out there – they mostly, however, have not been drawn into the peak oil movement. Externally imposed solutions are likely to be both inappropriate and smack of condescension. But even more importantly, we need this engaged body of non-white environmentalists because they have a great deal to teach us. Many poor, non-white communities have been using less energy than we have all along. They’ve been making do and adapting to things like food availability challenges, budget cuts and loss of utilities for a long, long time. Non-white people in the US and the rest of the world have created lifestyles that use less energy and fewer resources, and we need to learn from them.
For example, without meaning any disrespect to Colin Beavan, aka NoImpactMan, tens of thousands of people read his blog and watch him on television describing how he lives without electricity in New York city. They are fascinated by this project. But thousands of poor people, many of them not white, live in housing projects and poor neighborhoods of New York city without power or with only intermittent utilities. They already know how to do their laundry, deal with electricity loss do to inability to pay, how to live cheaply and on what is available in your neighborhood. We have glamorized the choice of wealthy, white people to live much like poor people in our own country do now. And I’m delighted Colin is doing this – anything that awakens people to energy depletion is good. But we need to hold up as role models the people who have already pioneered this life and reality. Frankly, the fact that we are looking on this as a novelty doesn’t say anything very good about us – it says that we mostly admire this stuff when it is done by people like us.
During and after Hurricane Katrina, we learned the reality – if you don’t own a car, you don’t count. You’ll be left to die. This outrage ought to have been a rallying cry for environmentalists everywhere. The victims of hurricane Katrina, mostly poor and black, were also models of community centered, low impact living in many cases. But while the hurricanes themselves inspired climate change activists, few people recognized the victims as potential role models, or the community they’d created as something to be emulated. I find it unlikely that the same would be true if any of the fancy new urbanist communities built in Florida had been so devastated.
Winston gave me a list of 5 reasons why non-white people who encounter the peak oil or climate change movements have been turned off. Here they are, paraphrased by me.
1. The public bigotry of some of our spokes people is a turnoff .
2. Doomerism is a turnoff because it makes the disaster for poor and non-white people seem inevitable, and thus not worth resisting.
3. The war of all against all destroys trust – that is, poor people know that they are the evil marauding hordes everyone is talking about shooting.
4. A lot of prominent peak oil figures don’t believe in collective action
5. Poor people are priced out of most of the solutions available.
I think he’s on the money with all five, and I’d like to discuss why, and what we can do about that. There is no question that onus is largely upon the environmental and peak oil movement to be inclusive – period. There’s no excuse otherwise.
In regards to #1, Mr. Winston used James Kunstler as an example of someone who alienates non-white people with bigotry. And while I admire Kunslter’s writing and think he’s really smart, I have to say, this is almost certainly true. Kunstler comes very close to being a simply misanthropist – but it is hard not to notice that he’s surprisingly more tolerant of people who are a lot like him. My friends and I laugh about his nasty stereotyping of southern white people, and his claims that Asian pirates and Mexican nationalists are going to overrun the country, but what you get, in the end, is a sense that Kunstler thinks that any place that isn’t mostly white northeasterners is doomed, mostly because it has a lot of non-white people in it. This is bigotry, and we need to point that out.
Winston mentioned only Kunstler, but I’m going to also suggest that there’s a good deal of very subtle racism and classism (in the US it is almost always difficult to separate these two) among peak oil writers, who tend to pitch their discussions to their fellow rich white liberals. I’m guilty of this as well, and it alienates. Because of where I live and who the largest part of my audience is, I tend to justify this by saying that it is we rich, fortunate people who most need to cut our energy usage. But that in no way justifies speaking in a way that closes off discussion, or narrows my audience. It is easy to call people bigots and hard to put the hat on your own head, but in the interest of justice, it is worth taking a clear eyed look at what we’ve personally done to make the movement unfriendly to non-white people.
When I’ve attended or spoken at peak oil events, most of the faces in the audience are white, and the faces on the stage are *ALWAYS* pretty much all white (and usually pale males at that). ASPO is trying to get Bill Clinton, Willie Nelson and has managed to get T. Boone Pickens. Not to pick on them (I do, a little, and this isn’t entirely fair – they at least had a Brazilian ethanol farmer, which is more than Community Solutions can say), but I wonder if it occurred to them to try and get Wilma Mankiller, who has been talking about the impact of nuclear power on Native communities, or Michael Franti, whose songs about oil depletion have a vast following among people who are not over 50, male and former energy executives. Do they even know who Michael Franti is? He’s got a biodiesel vehicle as well, I hear. We could get Harry Belafonte instead of Willie Nelson (no offense to Willie, who I worship) – he’s been involved with the Venezuelan oil program to bring poverty relief to people in the US, and that’s certainly relevant. The thing is, when pale males start looking for public speakers, they often come up with, shall way, a disparate number of fellow PMs.
I had occasion, recently, to discuss the Oil Depletion Protocol with Richard Heinberg in email, and one of the things I asked him is what I should tell a poor, black, urban woman who wants to join the project but whose energy usage is already dramatically lower than the general populace. Heinberg, who I think is actually one of the peak oil figures most conscious of racial issues, pointed out that the ODP wasn’t really for her – that is, there’s no incentive for her to sign on. And while I understand his reasoning, it struck me as troubling that a major public initiative to reduce our energy usage has little to say to poor people who are already priced out of energy markets, and offers no particular means to engage them. Now I don’t say this to pick on Heinberg, who I admire a great deal, and who I am not, in any way, accusing of bigotry – but I think it does go to show how entirely we are excluding non-white populations from the policy discussions that must go forward.
What do we do about this one? We cut the crap. I have no doubt that some people are going to claim that this is an issue of “pcism” – and that’s just silly. The simple fact is that all of us can achieve giant-assholedom if we really try. But the challenge is not to try – to try to be better than the biggest assholes in the room. Implicit or explicit racism and exclusion are, besides being ethically wrong, asshole behavior. Any one of us can be better than that. Heck, all of us can be better than that.
I’ve written before about the ways that peak oil and climate change can justify our worst impulses, but I think this is particularly alienating for non-white people who encounter a vision in which the worst excesses of racism are naturalized as inevitable because we can no longer do anything about them. Given that we have managed some pretty hideous excesses, this is scary stuff. This was Winston’s second point, and a particularly well taken one.
Die-off, for example, envisions a living hell a la Mad Max in the cities, where, coincidentally, a lot of non-white people live. It envisions this as inevitable, irrevocable, and irresolvable. Thus, there’s no point in talking about things reducing infant mortality, health insurance for the poor, better democracy, sustainable urban food systems – the end of the world is already inevitable, and because it is inevitable, we white folks can just sit around and lament, without actually feeling responsible for any of it.
Well, that’s nonsense, and we all know it. Will the energy transition be difficult? No doubt. Is it hopeless – absolutely not. If we use peak oil and climate change as an excuse for doing harm to others, or not mending that harm, we’re being assholes, we’re not bowing to inevitability. For example, we have models – Cuba, for one, of societies that give priority in energy descent to things like health and social welfare, food and poverty abatement. Our society could choose those things as well. We could choose them right now – and use our resources to create infrastructure that would equalize inequities today, and would make the descent much less painful for tens of millions of people. We have not – but mostly because we have a long tradition of choosing policies that can best be summed up as “fuck the poor, benefit the rich.” This is not inevitable. It is s choice, and every single participant in our democracy is morally responsible for it. We cannot vacate that responsibility by moaning that it is hopeless.
We have a lot of choices, and we need to call our choices by the correct name. If we pick high gas prices instead of rationing, let’s be explicit about what we’ve chosen – we’ve decided to ration by price, and screw the poor again. If we end up not doing anything about food systems in urban centers because we’re unwilling to demand that commercial buildings grow food on their roofs or because we care more about parking than the fact that many kids don’t get dinner, we need to call the proverbial spade a spade and admit that we chose to fuck over poor hungry kids, so that we’d have parking. Making all the bad stuff seem inevitable is lying.
#3, the notion that we’re all going to be at war with one another is a really destructive ideology for everyone, and most of all for the urban poor. We’ve all seen the end of the world scenarios, and they all somehow look a lot like the movies, with individual (white) people holed up in their survivalist camps shooting the purple haired mutants, who happen to come from the cities. This is hardly helped by books like _Lucifer’s Hammer_ and Heinlein’s _Farnham’s Freehold_, in which the cannibals just coincidentally are black ;-P – often read by such people and cited as evidence of something or other.
Even if you aren’t a whack-job survivalist, there’s definitely an “us vs. them” theme to peak oil planning. Winston notes that Jan Lundberg writes about the town of Willits, CA and whether they might blow up the bridges leading into the town to keep the starving urban hordes. He wrote that he wondered if it was him who would be left to starve on the other side of that bridge.
I think some of us don’t really grasp that not everyone identifies with those blowing up the bridges. I see a lot of rhetoric attacking potential “refugees” – a term that often operates as a code word for non-white people. After all, most of our images of refugees are non white – both Katrina victims (who loathed the word “refugees” because it implied that they were not citizens) and foreign victims of disruption. Refugees are victims, but we turn them into something to be feared and hated. It is worth noting that the people who are potential refugees, many of whom have compelling reasons to stay where they are – lack of money, lack of resources, community, the ability to live a low money life – see themselves being described as “them” and understand exactly what that means, even if we deny publicly that we mean anything by it.
Frankly, I hadn’t seen this comment by Lundberg, but I think it is horrifying if Winston is correct. Willits is often proposed as a model community for people preparing for sustainability. But if our only solutions to dealing with our neighbors are to watch them die, how sustainable is it? Again, we need to watch what we say, and think hard about why we say it. We need a little more compassion and a lot fewer bridges blown.
Winston’s fourth point was that there’s a lot of dismissal of the possibility of change in the peak oil movement, particularly collective action. He points out that there’s a great deal of shooting down ideas, particularly ideas about radically changing the economic or political system, or making cities sustainable. And there is also a great deal of resistance to the notion of real redistribution of wealth.
Frankly, I think most of us are afraid of this stuff. For example, I think that my readers tend to be a pretty radical bunch – but my peasant comments really got a strong negative reaction. But realistically, a society where everyone uses no more than 4 acres for their ecological footprint probably is a peasant society, for most people. But even among my readers there’s a lot of instinctive fear of living like poor people. Some of that is justified – but how do you tell real poor people who are living like this now (for example, Keralans, for example, in most health and welfare measure live about as well or a little better than poor people in urban Cleveland), “Yeah, we’re just not prepared to redistribute the goods that far – sorry, too hard – we don’t want to be like you.” There is no question that if rich people give up some privelege, they are going to be giving up some things they might not be happy about losing. The only possible argument here is that there’s a greater good involved.
A lot of what the negativity I think comes from fear – real and legitimate fear, but that’s still a bad place. We are still willing to justify what we do for personal reasons – :”well, I *have* to use more than my share because of (insert job reason/family reason/personal problem/medical problem.) I think we need to be absolutely clear what those kinds of rationalizations sound like to people who are already experiencing real rationing of things like medical care, good food, safe housing, transportation – people who are already priced out of those things that we say we desperately need because of our personal reasons. It isn’t like none of them have long trips to their jobs, or health problems, personal justifications or family issues. What they don’t usually have is luxury of using that justification.
Realistically, if we’re talking about something more than the survival of the richest, we’re talking about equitable redistribution, and that means finding a way to live on only your share – period. It doesn’t mean saying “oh, well, I’ll just take a little more – the poor people won’t mind.” They mind. Is it scary? Absolutely. But places like Cuba and Kerala show that it doesn’t have to be hell, or even that bad. And the fact is, we have no choice but to do the right thing – and the right thing means living not with a little less, but a lot. Again, call a spade a spade. If you think that poor people in Cleveland and Mexico should have less food or electricity because your very important job as a lawyer makes it too hard for you to do the dishes by hand, say so. Own to it – after all, Mexican peasants and poor urban janitors donâ€˜t work hard at all ;-P. But don’t cover it up with icing and call it cake. None of us is perfect, and in many ways it is as hard to get down as it is get poor people raised up. But we need to shake off the garbage and the lies we tell ourselves.
Again, it would be helpful if we privileged and well educated white people would turn to the poor native American, black, Asian and Latino people and ask, “how do you do it? Can you teach me?” instead of assuming that they won’t mind if we just use a little more than our share, because after, all, we’re very busy and very important, and our reasons count more than theirs. Without some kind of recognition that we are being led by our own poor communities, our relationship with them will always be one of dismissal.
The problem of being priced out of solutions is one I’m really passionate about. My assumption has always been that most people won’t have big fancy solar systems, they won’t be able to buy a lot of land, and they won’t be able to have every tool they want. When we focus our solutions on expensive renewable energies, as though those are feasible for most poor people in America, we are in danger of increasing an already extant energy-inequity, in which electricity or heat are the privilege of the wealthy and comfortable. Those of us with our private solar systems have visible reminders to those who can’t afford them that electricity is not to be theirs.
Most intentional communities and other group alternatives preparing for a post-peak future are very expensive to buy into – they are oriented towards people who already have houses and money and jobs, not to people who don’t have those things. They are simply out of the question for most ordinary lower income people – and thus, they end up mostly white.
Winston points out that things like intentional communities seem oriented to people who are using them as a substitute for family and community – but that many non-white people already have strong communities and family ties, and are alienated by the assumption that they should make their connections based on preparedness, rather than the important relationships they already have.
He notes that he knows some people who have become peak oil deniers because they are so alienated by the seemingly anti-progressive message of the peak oil movement, which at times denies that we’ll have time or energy for the elderly, the disabled, the vulnerable. Speaking as the mother of a disabled child, this is something I’ve seen too, that I find deeply disturbing – we have the resources to become a better society, not a smaller, more selfish one. I don’t blame people for getting the sense that preparedness is for rich, healthy white people. It is worth noting that many poor societies and poor communities do a much better job of caring for vulnerable people than the richest of us – that is, they tend to do so as family and community, rather than as a job you pay someone for.
At Community Solutions, a woman told me about a friend’s daughter who is wheelchair bound. She said that the daughter thinks that peak oil activists are looking for a world cleansed of inconvenient and energy intensive people like her. She noted that walkable communities where no vehicles are allowed are tough on the elderly and disabled, and that almost all discussions of medical care end with a shrug. Well that’s not a good enough answer, and people with disabilities and non-white people cannot be blamed for suspecting that in our heart of hearts, the post peak future is one that is sanitized of inconvenient people. None of us think that consciously, but it is worth noting that our rhetoric does this on its own. Can you imagine how terrible, and frightening that is?
There are a lot of non-white people who need jobs, and many, many who have skill sets that would be extremely useful and valuable to us – but these people are not being welcomed or encouraged – how many of us are seeking to bring Latino farmers into our neighborhoods and preparedness communities, or to provide jobs for Hmong immigrants with agricultural skills? We could and should be welcoming whole communities of poor people who already know the things we need to know. I am reminded of a story I read once, in which a group of recent Hmong immigrants went to visit Plymouth Plantation, a historical reenactment museum. When they saw the huts made of wood and thatch, and the chickens and gardens, the head of the community asked if, instead of being relocated to their apartments in Providence, they could simply live there. They noted that this was all they wanted – a simple place to live and land to farm. Instead, we have overwhelmingly displaced poor, non white people into cities, where they compete for jobs with people who have urban skills and fail. They then end up on welfare (the same thing happened to southern black farmers over the course of the last century) and over time loose their agricultural skills. We simply can’t afford to have that happen again to this generation’s agrarian population.
How many of us with businesses are employing non-white people? How many of us are seeking out community activists in non-white communities and asking them to teach us about energy descent? How many of us are seeking ways to get immigrants into our communities, rather than keep them out? How many of us are actively looking for non-white voices to speak on these subjects? How many of us are devoting our time to improving poor schools and bringing things like food and gardening projects to them?
We need to make sure that when we’re talking about broad, national solutions, we aren’t just talking about the middle class, the healthy and the fortunate. We can’t just talk tax cuts – poor people often don’t benefit from them. We need to talk subsidies, redistribution, justice. We need to grasp right now that peak oil and climate change are justice issues – as much as civil rights were. In fact, they are civil rights. If we price people out of things that they should have a basic human right to – food, shelter, basic medical care – and those people just happen not to be white, we’re no better than those guys with the fire hoses shooting at black kids during the civil rights movement. We’re just better at hiding our responsibility.
Honestly, my message to activists and engaged people from non-white communities is this. There is little doubt that you stand potentially, to be royally screwed again. There are some out and out bigots in these movements, and a lot of people whose awareness levels are lower than they should be, almost certainly not excluding me. But you should come out anyway and get involved, because the doomers are wrong, and the one bright spot in this future is that peak oil and climate change represent the greatest hope for reallocation of wealth and justice in the world. But I don’t think we’ll do it without someone to keep us honest. I can’t promise it will be the most rewarding work in the world. But it may be the most necessary.