The Intent of Powershift

I took an excruciatingly long bus ride to a conference in Washington DC, to Powershiftm 2011. While there in DC I got hustled in China town, learned my way around the Metro, managed to both impress and annoy/scare a representative from the National Wildlife Federation, compulsively grabbed a folder full of promotional pamphlets, took audio recordings of some famous people, reaffirmed my distaste for Macalester College alumni with the help of a jerk working with Friends of the Earth, bought some good beer at a Walgreens and learned a bit about the institutional youth climate movement. To my knowledge, this bi-annual event is the biggest of its kind in the US. Down one or two adaptive cylces/scales are the two Neighborhood Sustainability Conferences I attended in the last six months. Like Powershift, these micro-conferences had speakers, info sessions and time to share cards.
Since both of these events are part of the same social movement, Meadows and systems thinking immediately come to mind and will be the central focus on the analysis, supplemented by comments on the relation on notions of the Commons, resilience and transition.

For the last five years, Powershift has been organized by a consortium of large and medium sized environmental organizations. Looking through the list of attendees gives you an idea: WWF, NWF, EDF, NRDC, Common Cause. All of the PIRG’s represented (WISPIRG, WashPIRG, CalPIRG, NJPIRG, MassPIRG) are regional chapters of USPIRG, which by way of the Fund for the Public Interest is connected to the various Sierra Club chapters. The state breakouts split the attendees into the South East, Mid-Atlantic, North East, Mid-West, South West, West, North West. Powershift was very much about broader communities; the scales discusses were global or national.

I few months ago I made a comparison between Thomas Friedman and Bill McKibben. While the later was a keynote speaker, the narrative of the conference struck me as very Hot-Flat-Crowded/Friedman; the talking points for speakers like Van Jones and Al Gore have “green is the new red, white and blue” quality. While Friedman is very much about Green Jobs, he never explicitly addresses is environmental racism/justice. That’s where Van Jones comes in—still an institutional figure—but “radical” enough to get cut from the Obama administration. I believe it was before his speech that the formerly unemployed carpenter from DC got up to plug the Weatherize DC program. I should mention that I think Lisa Jackson is an interesting midway between Gore and Jones: she’s currently in office (as opposed to retired or snubbed from office), is from the South and is an African-American environmentalist. Her biggest battle right now involves EPA regulation of carbon and consumer/residential protection protocols against toxic substances which disproportionately affect minorities/working class communities. The message of these three, with a bit of an exception with Al Gore, was “help those on the top help you at the bottom.”

Inversely, McKibben and DeChristopher seemed to say “help those at the bottom to push those at the top.” McKibben’s speech seemed to focus on institutional reform like exposing climate saboteurs at the Chamber of Commerce; this mindset was the basis of the “lobby day” and “march around the national mall” events the following day. A couple inches to the left was DeChristopher’s direct action message, which to some extent was demonstrated by his group Peaceful Uprising. Both openly expressed disappointment in the President for not yet initiating a significant effort on climate change. The type of advocacy these two promoted strikes me as among the lower leverage points; the responsibility to act ultimately comes down to you—the individual—rather than a cabinet agency beholden to bureaucrats or capital investors.

I was recently assigned some course material that had to do with the concept of connectivity in communication and how electronic communication has changed the concept of neighborhood. According to Al Gore, the internet “is the greatest source of hope for reestablishing an open communications environment in which the conversation of democracy can flourish.” That quote was from a HECUA reading, the Late Night Thoughts About Democracy article that goes on to talk about how Jefferson and Madison became disillusioned with our capacity for democratic decision making, although Jefferson maintained that if the town-hall discussion model was organized and comprehensive, some semblance of the constitutional vision could survive. There’s an organization out in San Francisco, the Institute of the Commons, which almost exclusively focuses on community gatherings, much like a town hall. Their goal is to reestablish an open communications environment through these gatherings that will help communities manage their local commons democratically. Just like Jay Walljasper—who I believe is a proponent of Jane Jacobs/William Whyte/New Urbanism—the Institute of the Commons would probably agree that electronic connectivity provided by internet is not a productive way to foster community or the democratic process.

The regional emphasis is clearly what the Neighborhood Sustainability Conference is about. Unlike Powershift, there was a great deal of emphasis on peak oil at the events in April and December; the conferences themselves could have probably been confused for a “Transition Handbook” reading club potluck. The breakaway sessions were about community projects, local resiliency. While I’ve opined before some on some of the shortcomings of the conference (which are mostly due to material constraints), the micro-setting certainly does provide for a greater sense of empowerment. It’s probably true—we will probably sooner see results from talking with a city councilman than with one of Al Franken’s 17 staffers. Another benefit of the neighborhood conference is the underlying cultural consensus—embedded socio-economic values unique to Minneosta/Metro.

One problem with Powershift was the way the community breakouts were conducted. They would silo everyone according to their state, have us read off the same template, give a big talk about national action and then send everyone back on their way home where we’ll keep unified via internet and bi-annual conferences.

I’m pressed for time, so I guess I’m going to finish by saying that the top down method of organizing doesn’t seem conducive to the national cooperation which I believe is the ultimate intent of Powershift.