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May 14, 2010

How Does Black Power Fit into Green Power?

Money, power, race & the commons

I am a peripatetic economist, scholar and teacher whose career has included long stretches at Wellesley, Barnard and the City University of New York. Somewhere along the way, I became a bit green in my views on economic life and policy, although my “greenness” has a distinctly black undertone.

I have become fascinated by the economics of sustainability by way of my concerns with economic justice ?” first by reading Amartya Sen, Partha Dasgupta and many other brilliant theorists whose work is inspired by the drama of economic change in India. And then by the sheer complexity and scale of the issues involved in valuing natural capital and using it in ways that provide an ethical as well as efficient balance between current and future generations.

Opportunity and Danger in a Racially Divided Society

Economics is, among other things, the study of the distribution of well-being. Market systems work by restricting access to commodities, resources and power to those who can pay. The idea of “the commons” is, I think, full of opportunity and danger, especially in a racially divided society with a fraying consensus on how to distribute access to opportunity and safety across color lines.
Hurricane Katrina showed the world what black Americans learn at our parents’ knee: there is no “commons” in society because the fact of common resources or shared space is nothing compared to the structure of social power. The common risks of climate change driven by the disequilibrium between our economic system and Nature’s rhythm are all too likely to become the profoundly unequal risks to life and livelihood between those who count in markets and politics, and those who don’t. New Orleans was expendable because it was poor, powerless and carried the dark stain of its African heritage.

Likewise, my view of so many other proposals for managing our planet’s resources in efficient and sensible ways, is haunted by a deep sense that outcast peoples ?” vulnerable, marginal, disposable ?” have no bargaining power in negotiations over the pricing and management of collective environmental risks. In theory, everyone benefits from reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. But the vulnerable forever stand apart and below the powerful ?” even progressive Green power. They remain objects of charity or even redistributive justice, but objects nonetheless. Charity becomes thin, stingy, evincing slight degrees of sadism when, when the vulnerable are the wrong color.

The Greening of American Power

Green power, like all power in divided societies, will balance the needs of rulers and ruled. But Green power ?” the use of public and private power informed by scientific, particularly ecological, and economic reason ?” is far more likely to be humane than other forms of power precisely because it is imbued with a sense of limits and balance. Indeed, Green power, at its best, constructs better ways of pricing and managing collective risks, thereby mitigating the destruction of natural capital.

But our individual, family and communal access to resources and the resulting unequal control of development are shaped by the political facts of society: we are born into families and communities of color, class, region, religion and language, inheriting access to resources and levers of power or to the abyss of powerlessness.

As you can see, I am struggling with the uneasy relationship between sustainability and equality in a market- and technology- driven global economy, where economic and social innovation must now redesign capitalism to make it cleaner and ecologically viable, yet where the mechanisms of social/racial inheritance threaten to reinforce political and social power in unacceptable ways. Hardened as I am by my American blackness, I think about the economics of the commons in light of the fact that green power is unlikely to be shared fairly across American color lines.