A man in an environmental group I belong to recently told the group that he had driven to the group meeting in his Chevrolet Volt (a plug-in electric car). The trip was over 50 miles and the car had used only a fraction of a gallon of gas. (According to Consumer Reports the Volt gets 99 mpg equivalent on electric power.) Even more impressive, most of the electricity to run the car had come from the solar array on top of his house. I was curious just how much electricity was required, as according to calculations I’d made, the solar panels at Paula’s and my house could never come close to running a car. I asked how many solar panels they had. Over 50 panels operated his house and two electric cars, with a small percentage of his electricity still coming from the grid. I just had to ask how many watts the 50+ panels provided. The panels weren’t all identical, but were all over 200 watts each. So, over 10,000 watts worth of solar panels!
I guess there will be no Chevrolet Volts getting charged up here at Cedar Hill where our array of ten mostly antique solar panels range from 35 watts up to the two newish 100 watt panels we bought two summers ago. Our solar budget is around 600 watts (on a sunny day), a tiny fraction of what the 50+ panel guy has. Never mind. A Chevy Volt would not survive a minute on our rough road and our cherished, but elderly, Troopers are energy efficient in their own way – each one has already travelled 200,000 miles and that long life means that massive amounts of energy and materials have not been used to manufacture more new vehicles. We consider ourselves quite fortunate to be able to operate a refrigerator here. We lived without one for eight years when we first moved here and had far fewer solar panels. Most of the year Paula gets to piece her quilts using an electric-powered 1949 Featherweight sewing machine. But, today, right around summer solstice when the days are long and solar power is normally at a yearly high, she’s back on her human-powered 1921 vintage treadle sewing machine thanks to what seems like weeks of endless clouds and rain. (We’re grateful for all the rain, but come on sun goddess!)
We don’t get 90% of our electricity from solar here, but 100%. We’re off the grid and we live on an exact budget determined by the sunshine (though we have resorted to a gas generator on rare occasions, usually when a carpenter required more energy to operate her tools than we could provide). I have a stack of “to do” stuff piled up next to the computer because there is no way we have enough electricity to turn the darn thing on. This electricity shortage is kind of annoying, but I also love it. I get to skip doing all that computer work (for now) plus my life is keyed into the seasons, the weather, in one more way and I’m just a little more disconnected from the mainstream culture, a culture I find more than a little troubling. We’re obviously far from perfect at conserving energy and reducing consumption – just look at those two fossil fuel burners sitting in the driveway – but we are certainly trying.
But, moving on toward my point… The 50+ solar panel guy generated a kind of visceral excitement amongst many members of my environmental group when he talked about driving his hundred miles per gallon solar-powered Volt to the meeting. Here was someone in the flesh living the sustainability dream – he could drive where he wanted, live the “normal” American lifestyle, but with fossil-free solar energy. (We won’t think about what energy and materials it took to manufacture that Volt or all those solar panels.) I could almost hear (some) people’s inner thoughts – “Yes! This is what we want! We can still have it all!” This 50+ panel vision for a sustainable future reminds me of the high energy/high consumption renewable energy paradigm that Vandana Shiva talks about in her book, Soil, Not Oil. According to Shiva:
“Most of the discussions and negotiations on climate change have been restricted to the commercial, consumption-oriented energy paradigm rooted in a reductive, mechanistic worldview and consumerist culture. Within this paradigm there are two dominant approaches: the approach of global business, especially the corporations that have promoted the fossil fuel economy, and the approach of those seeking renewable alternatives to support an energy-intensive consumerist society.” (p. 4, Soil, Not Oil)
Shiva offers an alternative to the high energy, high consumption paradigm based on a “people’s perspective in the Global South”. She tells us we must “power down energy and resource consumption” and “power up creative, productive human energy and collective democratic energy to make the necessary transition.” (p.4) In other words, she calls for less energy use period, but more human work and creativity, all taking place through political structures based in decentralized, living democracies that spread social power to ordinary people.
When I talk about my own attempts to live a relatively low energy lifestyle people are often impressed that we have solar electricity and live entirely off the grid. But, when they realize the extent of so-called deprivation that Paula and I live with – no running water, no flush toilets, no rototiller, no lawn mower, no tractor, no air conditioning, and, when it gets too cloudy or the days too short, no computer, no DVDs and sometimes no electric lights – most people (in the U.S) assume that they could never live the way we do. They also typically dismiss our way of life as irrelevant, assuming that so few people would choose a low power way of life that it makes no political difference whatsoever that we choose this way of life. For example, one fellow who was convinced that society needs nuclear energy in order to preserve the lifestyle of people in developed nations told me, “I don’t really see a massive change in lifestyle; if you want to go live off the grid and grow all your own food, etc. good for you, but don’t expect the vast majority of Americans to join you.” Other people say what we are doing is just individual change and not very politically relevant – kind of like changing your lightbulbs from incandescent to compact fluorescent or LED. A good thing to do for the environment, but too small a change to matter. These critics are entirely missing the point; we are engaged in revolutionary change here at Cedar Hill, working to rebuild society from the bottom up.
If you want to create a non-hierarchical, bottom-up society your goal is to do away with the whole power over, top-down power structure and all forms of domination, replacing power over with power with.
As I recently discussed in my blog, “Stuck in the Mud”, many people think that social change can come only by influencing society’s decision-makers to make changes from the top down. People not at the top can influence what happens by applying various sorts of pressure on the top: lobbying, letter writing campaigns, protesting, boycotts, online petitions, civil disobedience and so on. But, if you want to create a non-hierarchical, bottom-up society your goal is to do away with the whole power over, top-down power structure and all forms of domination, replacing power over with power with. Power with is the concept commonly used by feminists (and now others) to denote social relationships where power is shared between equals and people cooperate to create outcomes that benefit everyone involved. Obviously, the top of a top-down structure is not going to be real keen on eliminating its own power altogether, so there isn’t a whole lot of point to pressuring the top.
Obviously, the top of a top-down structure is not going to be real keen on eliminating its own power altogether, so there isn’t a whole lot of point to pressuring the top.
Political work looks different when your goal is creating a power with, nonhierarchical society. You can work to abolish the top-down structures and/or work to build the society you want. Both strategies are essential. Since building a power with society from the bottom up requires that ordinary individuals (the “bottom”) do the building, the work we ordinary individuals do as individuals, as “families”, as communities to build power with, non-hierarchical households and community structures all counts as revolutionary action.
Since building a power with society from the bottom up requires that ordinary individuals (the “bottom”) do the building, the work we ordinary individuals do as individuals, as “families”, as communities to build power with, non-hierarchical households and community structures all counts as revolutionary action.
The revolutionary change called for by this time of environmental devastation includes not just a change in our social relationships, but also changing our relationship with nature from power over to power with. And as we will soon see (in Parts II, III and IV of this blog) a power with relationship to nature requires a low-energy, low consumption way of life. One way or another, by choice or by nature taking her turn at power over, “the vast majority of Americans” are most likely headed toward a low power future. The sooner we abandon the fantasy that we can use renewable energy to continue a high consumption lifestyle, the better off we will be on every dimension. Our attempts to dominate each other, constantly seeking status and material benefits, create great unhappiness. We cannot feel good about ourselves under a power over social system, as power over destroys feelings of genuine self worth for both the people “above” and the people “below”. A life of power with relationships to other people and to nature is the greatest hope for Americans and everyone else on this struggling planet and certainly for our relatives in the natural world.