A Delicate Balance
Energy justice must be part of efforts to create a more sustainable world
In Chinese, 氣 (qì) means energy in the broadest sense. Qì is universal and is in a state of continuous flux. It embraces all manifestations of energy, from the material (the earth, flesh, blood), to the immaterial (light, thought, emotion). Everything and everyone is interconnected. These principles of qì can help us seek harmony between humans and ecosystems, and if each community, including those of marginalized groups, strove to cultivate and balance healthy energy systems, we might be able to approach a more equitable and sustainable world.
Energy controls our households, livelihoods, and communities. But it comes at a price. Currently, the wealthy enjoy the luxury of energy at the expense of marginalized, low-income communities. Impoverished people and people of color, for instance, are more likely to live near energy facilities that present severe health and environmental hazards, such as pollution from power plants. To address this disparity, the energy justice movement calls for public and democratic ownership of energy systems. For example, Community Choice Aggregation programs allow local governments to buy or generate energy on behalf of residents and businesses, giving communities more control over their energy sources. The movement also calls for recognition of all forms of ecological debt, which includes wealthier communities’ disproportionate levels of pollution, resource exploitation, and habitat degradation. A just transition to renewable energy prioritizes human well-being and diversity over profit. It also must be centered on communities, considering local knowledge and voices, particularly when developing energy policy.
In my spring 2022 Energy Justice course at Dartmouth College, we explored the inherent issues of culture, power, and inequality in transitioning to renewable energy. We also engaged in community-driven service learning through Dartmouth’s Energy Justice Clinic, which researches and aims to shape how energy is distributed in local communities. As part of the clinic’s Energy Audit group, I helped conduct an energy audit (which determines a building’s energy efficiency) at an off-campus apartment complex where tenants are struggling with electricity bills and poor heating. We also interviewed community organizers at the forefront of energy justice efforts in the Upper Valley, which includes municipalities in both New Hampshire and Vermont. We discovered that landlords are instrumental in achieving energy justice, as they possess the power and capital to enhance energy efficiency opportunities, such as insulating basements and sealing air leaks, on their properties.
Communities and governments, particularly in the United States, need to increase accessibility and awareness of energy efficiency programs that allow residents to receive an energy audit and that subsequently help with costs of needed repairs and improvements. This will require substantial public investment, cohesive legislative action, and individual behavioral change, and I hope to play a role in its realization.
In traditional Chinese medicine, many illnesses were believed to be the effect of disrupted, blocked, and unbalanced qì movement. The circulation of qì needed to be adjusted. Perhaps if we all took the premise of qì and applied it to our energy consumption and systems, we would recognize how we affect one another and, ultimately, the necessity of a balanced and sustainable system to maintain a healthy world.
Illustration by Paul Spella