Democracy Crisis: The Court, Renewable Energy and Well-Being

I heard Dahr Jamail on a podcast back in the summer saying he– a brilliant, award-winning journalist and author– can’t even write in the present moment. This is a guy who went independently to Iraq to cover war up close and in the streets. Now, instead of writing, he’s immersed in grassroots mutual support activities in his community to deal with today’s trauma. In other words, DOING. I think that’s the way most of us have felt too lately, but occasionally, I need to sort out the profound, disturbing and complex characters of ecological, social, political and economic turmoil that are difficult to wrap our heads around, so I decided to write some thoughts down. Democracy is one common thread that might help untangle the knot. We’ve had yet another reminder this week.


Democracy Crisis: The Court, Renewable Energy and Well-Being

Energy democracy or shareholder profits?
The supreme court crisis reached its climax with Amy Coney Barrett’s swearing in to fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat despite the “minority/majority” party’s 2016 “Garland hypocrisy”– “no new justices in an election year.” In this age of converging crises and crisis fatigue, why do I add the U.S. Supreme Court to that bucket of burden? Afterall, we’re interested in community-owned renewable energy. The answer is climate, public health and all the interrelated problems, which can’t be effectively addressed without democracy. It’s foundational to our vision of community-owned renewable energy, which is a component of better worlds. Also, some would ask, why even use the word “crisis” or harp on problems when fatigue is now so totalizing? The notion of crisis though, is departure– leaving a situation we don’t like, a place where the road forks. Choose the correct fork and better worlds may be possible.

Barrett’s evasive dodgy responses to basic questions in a choreographed judicial committee hearing that many called a sham, is now seated on the bench within whispering distance from election day when over 70 million (and counting) Americans have already voted early. This foreshadows a seismic fault line visible without any need for scientific detection. As systems break down, it’s not pollyannaish to say the judicial branch of government has been captured. It is pollyannaish to believe the court is impartial, and this is no accident. The public’s trust in the judicial branch hangs by a thread. I remember the “Kochtopus” some years ago. It’s a schematic mapping of a grand plan to capture and control all the levers of power. ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) got the lion’s share of attention, for among other things, its cookie-cutter bills and state-by-state campaign to bury solar net metering, but the judicial branch was another major arm of the Kochtopus.[1]

Now, it’s an avalanche of money. Dark money. Rhode Island senator Sheldon Whitehouse, laid out a powerful civics lesson on how this works in the Barrett judiciary committee hearing. His dark money typology consists of (1) judicial branch take over; (2) public relations & marketing the talking points; (3) actual flood of coordinated litigation. “There is a lot of hard-to-explain hypocrisy and rush taking place right now, and my experience around politics is that when you find hypocrisy in the daylight, look for power in the shadows…” Whitehouse said at the hearing. Then he raised the $250 million question:

Here’s how the Washington Post summed it up. This is “a conservative activist behind-the-scenes campaign to remake the nation’s courts,” and it’s a $250 million dark money operation. $250 million is a lot of money to spend if you’re not getting anything for it. So that raises the question, what are they getting for it?

In claiming that democracy is a common thread, we see it just like the kind of decentralized energy system we want to see, or like biodiversity itself, a highly diverse and distributed assortment of movements, projects, and counter-narratives where threads coalesce and connect variously. Environmental justice, health care, workers rights, Black Lives Matter and all the rest.

We’ve got our own big mountain of dark money to climb to break the monopoly power of big investor-owned utilities, fossil fuel interests, their massive trade and lobbying apparatus, and their political power. We’re at ecological tipping points, barriers to democratically owned renewable energy are fortified with political power, and a Supreme Court bought by dark money isn’t encouraging. Energy is a different mountain than the courts, but it’s in the same mountain range! Groups like Our Children’s Trust and many other climate and environment litigants that rely on impartial courts have an eye on this worrisome turn.

We’re at that fork in the road so we’ll keep building solar by any means possible. Just look at the results, from the amazing Burton Street Community Peace Gardens to multiple solar projects at the Center at Donaldson. Freda Berrigan’s pandemic lament describes a place where we need to get our hands in the dirt to ground ourselves, while at the same time being mindful that bigger, collective work will be necessary in the long haul. Like Berrigan, we know “we’re on our own” so we’ll keep cultivating solar “gardens” to maintain hope and sanity, and to sow seeds of solar awareness in those communities, knowing full well, like Berrigan, that our actions alone aren’t “a bulwark against national insanity and ineptitude.” We’ll keep a keen eye on the big picture too. Efforts to defend and practice democracy in one place are related to democracy in all places.


[1] See the International Forum on Globalization for a Prezi walk through of the entire Kochtopus components.

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