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Neighborhood environmentalism: toward Democratic energy

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 11:02 a.m. CDT

As a boy in the southeast African nation of Malawi, William Kamkwamba harnessed the wind.  In 2002, drought and famine — common problems in one of the world’s least-developed countries — forced the boy and his family to forage for food and water as thousands starved.

Kamkwamba, however, knew if he could build a windmill he would bring water and electricity to his family. So he pulled together scrap metal, tractor parts and bicycles, constructing a peculiar, but functioning, windmill. The contraption was viewed as a miracle — it powered four lights and turned a water pump that ameliorated the crisis. News of his “electric wind” spread quickly and was emulated.

Kamkwamba’s story is one of democratic energy and neighborhood environmentalism. Access to information left the boy free to replicate the science of windmills. After construction, his work spread throughout the region. This is a prime example of social power. The boy who harnessed the wind is testament to the power of two ideas: Open source content and co-operative labor.

It is this kind of market approach, not sweeping policy from a centralized authority, that will meet the demands of the 21st century.

Take the newly proposed United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation that aims to reduce carbon emissions. Hailed as a historic action, its mechanisms leave much to be desired.

Target emission reductions will be set for individual states. To meet these targets, states could renovate existing coal-fired power plants with “clean burning” technology — but clean coal is a dirty lie. States could switch to natural gas which produces less carbon — but natural gas emits methane at 21 times the greenhouse impact of carbon dioxide. State incentives to residents to be more energy-efficient are low hanging fruit that can do much, but alone cannot likely get the job done. Or states can work under a cap-and-trade program through which offsets undercut reductions, allowing big polluters to continue business as usual.

Furthermore, there still remain state enforced laws such as compulsory pooling and eminent domain which allow big polluters to disregard property rights and wreck natural habitats that naturally offer the ecosystem service of carbon sequestration. There still remain intellectual property laws that permit patent monopoly, producing a barrier to competition in the market that could drive polluters under the regulation standard.

Conflict currently exists between the regulatory state and the energy elite, but it is latent. Utility monopolies such as Duke-Progress Energy and the Tennessee Valley Authority (among others), coupled with industry giants King Coal, Big Oil and Fracked Gas have a lock on the energy market. Because of the state-capitalist system other market players (and people like you and I) remain economically dependent on these elite. The state knows this and is loyal to them. Its economic strength is fueled by the energy industry.

The very institution of the state encourages environmental degradation and closed markets. It’s time to dismantle such an illegitimate authority.

Taking democratic control of these institutions may be difficult, but for what it’s worth, I remain an optimist. We continue to strive for the beautiful ethic of liberty. Until actualized, may we begin to disassociate as much as possible and take a lesson from the boy who harnessed the wind. In the open source technological age, with the resources and infrastructure available to us, we can labor for neighborhood solutions and begin the magnificent struggle for democratic energy. In fact we already have.

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