When I was nine, living in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, snow days were just magical. For one to three days in a year, my brother and I would frolic in the inches of snow blanketing our home. We’d get time off school. We’d build comically small snow people. We’d tread patterns into the thin smattering of white falling from the sky.
Times change. This week, we’ve seen climate disaster in the form of winter storms devastate Texas, and for me, the snow has gone from a sweet memory to a terrifying signal of the impending storms, wildfires, and floods that will take a severe human toll in the twenty- first century.
What’s behind the climate crisis in Texas is what’s behind the crisis more globally: corporate management fixated on extracting short-term profits, resistance to shifting to renewable energy, and disregard for the communities along the fence lines in places like Port Arthur which have been calling for cleaner, healthier air for decades. Real solutions must be multi-pronged and ensure greater public and democratic control, honor the leadership of people who have been hardest hit by environmental injustice, and take bold action to transition to a renewable energy system. Hope lies in the communities already doing this.
The community of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, was at a climate crossroads in 2010, when residents of the mountainous town got notices that their land would be expropriated to make way for a natural gas pipeline. The pipeline would have stretched 90 miles across some of the most pristine ecosystems of the island, cost over one billion dollars, and submerged the island in deeper debt to private investors. “Culture + Science + Community” were pillars of the movement that not only stopped the pipeline but also built out alternatives that show another way is possible. The community now has an ecologically managed forest reserve and “forest school”, a community radio station, and a massive community-owned renewable energy project. In November, Casa Pueblo, a community organization in Adjuntas, installed another 1,000 solar panels across the area. The infrastructure provides resilience when disasters hit; during hurricane Maria the organization ran radio broadcasts to identify missing community members, distributed solar lamps and water filters, and became a makeshift hospital as elders crowded in to plug in lifesaving medical devices when solar was the only source of energy available.
Casa Pueblo sees its work as “local sustainable development with social and planetary responsibility to build self determination and decolonize”. The struggle continues though, as the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) is under a privatization process like the energy utility in Texas. In our ongoing collaboration with Casa Pueblo, we are engaged in Participatory Action Research (PAR) to build community governance towards Adjuntas becoming a solar powered town.
In the South Bronx, our partner, THE POINT Community Development Corporation, has had its own hurricanes to contend with. THE POINT has been interested in solar power since Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which demonstrated the cost and instability of relying on the city grid. By the time we teamed up with the group, they were conducting a feasibility study on setting up a community-owned solar project on public rooftops in the Bronx, building power in the remains of industries that had extracted from and polluted the community for decades. In our work together, THE POINT will expand its Be A Buddy program, through which a multigenerational network of residents carry out wellness checks to build climate resiliency. THE POINT will use an arts based advocacy approach to promote community-owned energy infrastructure.
Across the United States and the world, as climate change advances and environmental justice communities feel the impact, the stakes are high. In New York City, only 28 percent of power consumed comes from renewable sources. In Puerto Rico, it’s 2.5 percent. As we at the Othering & Belonging Institute think about just transitions from an extractive economy to a regenerative one, we know that power generated by fossil fuels also fuels pollution and health inequities. We are inspired by projects that create radical change in sustainable, rigorously local ways, and know that that is the way towards the bright, solar-powered future we want for our people.
To support these two organizations in their figuratively groundbreaking work, the institute will work with local artists to deeply understand what a community-owned solar power project would mean to folks, what it means to have access to energy that belongs to the people, weathers the weather, and draws on the rhythm of the earth. We aim to create stories, poems, radio segments, and shared metaphor, to ask: how do we build together to truly share power?
We’re just as excited as you are to find out.
Sagaree Jain (they/them) is a writer, researcher, poet, and graduate student in Public Health born in Austin, Texas currently working as a graduate student researcher with the Othering & Belonging Institute's California Community Partnership's program.
Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog post are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.