From Solar Neighborhood Coops to a Sustainable Planet

Why was the movement of Sit-ins and Freedom Rides half a century ago so effective as a spark for great social change?  What would it mean to do this today, in facing the climate crisis and its threat to the web of life on Planet Earth?

Those challenges to hardened racism  took imagined futures and embodied them in the present. The activists imagined a future of racially integrated restaurants and buses. So they simply integrated the businesses –-- appearing in them despite the rules of the owners or the laws passed by those in power. They said, “Here we are.  You will have to decide what to do with us. You can kill us, you can jail us, you can integrate your businesses.”

Those activists did not begin by asking those in power to pass new laws. They did not throw rocks at the glass windows of segregated businesses.  They simply showed up, bearing the future on their shoulders, walking the future in their legs.

And they set off a great wave of social change that did in fact get new laws passed, and not only in the arena of  the struggle to end American racism. The movements for women’s liberation, for gay rights, for ending the Vietnam War all sprouted from the seeds of those actions.

Even efforts to transform education into full engagement of body and heart along with mind began with similar efforts to embody the future in the present ----  with “freedom schools” and “teach-ins.” Even efforts to renew religious life began that way – the Freedom Seder and the Aquarian Minyan as the seeds of Jewish renewal, the Sojourner living-collective-with-a-magazine as the seed of a broader Christian renewal.

Notice that all these “alternatives” took shape not as utopian communities isolated from the old social system – but as direct challenges to it.

What would it mean to do this today in the urgent struggle to heal Mother Earth from the arson campaign of the Carbon Pharaohs that burn her for their profit: Big Coal, Big Oil, Big Unnatural Gas?

The future we imagine is a world economy rooted in renewable energy, in wind and solar power. How do we embody that imagined future in the actual present?

I suggest that we do this by organizing neighborhood-based solar –energy coops that would bring households and organizations out of using and supporting fossil-fuel suppliers of electricity,  into neighborhood and community–generated solar energy.

 Such a campaign could involve local coops,   progressive churches, synagogues, and mosques, local economic-development groups, and such community-based organizations as the NAACP.

 These are the reasons to undertake such a campaign:

  • ·     For neighborhood families, it would save substantial money in electric bills over time.
  • ·     By reducing coal-burning plants as households withdrew from coal-based electric generation, it could reduce the asthma epidemics that coal dust often causes  -- especially in the low-income neighborhoods, often Black or Hispanic, where those coal-burners are most often emplaced. Imposed.
  • ·     It would actually reduce the emission of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere as a burn-the-planet gas, and thereby help reduce the climate crisis.
  • ·     It would meet the ethical, moral, and religious standards that are celebrated by most of our religious, civic, and community organizations.
  • ·     It would reduce the market and the political power of the coal industry, while increasing the market  and political power of the solar-tech industry.
  •     It would help bring about a face-to-face communally rooted political base for support of policy changes in local, state, and national energy policy.
  •  ·     It works toward eco-social justice. The climate crisis is both the result and the cause of worsening social injustice: At the “top” of power configurations, the climate crisis is worsened by the unaccountable, irresponsible power of Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Unnatural Gas. They often protect their profits by pouring a small portion of their immense profits into buying elections, buying politicians, and buying fake science to confuse the public  as to whether they are bringing on disaster. At the “bottom,” disempowered communities of color and poverty are already suffering first and worst from climate disruption. Creating strong neighborhood-based solar coops would  help renew democracy.

For all these reasons, The Shalom Center convened a conversation with three organizations:

  • The Community Power Network  is a national-outreach effort rooted in DC SUN, a Washington outfit that has successfully organized a number of solarizing neighborhoods  -- both middle-class and poor -- in Washington DC. 
  • The NAACP Climate Justice project has worked with African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Native communities across the US  that are  especially impacted by the Carbon economy and by the damage of extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy.
  • The National Coalition Building Institute is an international, nonprofit leadership training organization based in Washington, DC. NCBI programs enable leaders to take principled and courageous stands, enter the heat of emotionally-charged conflict to build bridges, and act as stalwart allies for all groups.

The conversation with these organizations grew into a strong recommendation:  that in order to build widespread support for creating neighborhood solar coops, it would make sense to start with neighborhoods with a generally progressive politics and tone, with social-activist religious congregations and other community groups.

That was especially the experience of DC SUN in Washington, and the result has been that from a beginning in one neighborhood, there are now a number of such coops across the city, in a variety of kinds of neighborhoods, and in the nearby suburbs.

And these coops were not innocuous. They frightened the local electric suppliers and the national Carbon Pharaohs so much that utility commissions and electric-power companies are starting to fight back. That is the proof that this effort does in fact make a difference.

At The Shalom Center’s request, DC SUN created an Action Guide to organizing neighborhood solar coops.

In the next few days, we will share that Action Guide with you.

I hope we will all explore what this might mean. Could Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, the Islamic Declaration on Climate Change, become the intellectual and spiritual frameworks for grass-roots action? Could our churches, synagogues, mosques, become the seed-sowers for neighborhood solar coops  -- the present-tense embodiments of a healing, healthy future for the Earth?

With this letter to you, The Shalom Center is beginning an effort to sow the seeds of grass-roots change. To do this work, we need your help – in ideas, time and money. We ask you to share your own thoughts by commenting below.

 And we ask you to donate the money this effort will require by clicking on the “Donate” button in the left-hand margin.



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