Puerto Rico, Elon Musk, and the Difference Between Environmentalism and Environmental Justice
One more time for those in the back…but perhaps especially for those on the frontlines…there is a difference between environmentalism and environmental justice.
‘Environmentalism’ is a crucial ethos that has enjoyed a vital quickening in mainstream consciousness over the past decade or so, worldwide.
‘Environmental justice’ is an important layer to this burgeoning mass consciousness; and without it, environmentalism alone can harbor some latent flaws.
A crucial example of how environmentalism can be co-opted to promote certain causes or activities, at the expense of environmental justice, is uranium mining on Navajo land.
There are hosts of credible, well-meaning, scientifically minded people who support nuclear energy as a ‘clean energy alternative’ to coal and fossil fuels.
Yet, the uranium needed for that ‘alternative’ has to come from somewhere—and, the mining of it is anything but ‘clean’.
In the case of this radioactive ore, what is ‘clean energy’ for some, is unpotable water for others—namely, in the example cited above, the Dine.
Elon Musk’s recent grandiose offer to save Puerto Rico by rebuilding their power grid through solar energy has been generating a lot of chatter, mostly positive.
The celebrations and accolades, however, may be a tad premature.
For those familiar with the writing of Naomi Klein and the concept of ‘disaster capitalism’, such a resplendent move from a famous global capitalist (some would say infamous crony capitalist) to come in and privatize a social service for a country recovering from disaster could easily generate concern. Suffice it to say, the issue has already raised some eyebrows.
Elon Musk is somewhat of a cultish figure to begin with, so it’s even more difficult to unpack what is really happening here, devoid of emotion while grounded in recognition of the genuine need to seek both immediate and long-term solutions to the crisis in Puerto Rico.
Musk’s plan is not a short-term solution, but a long-term commitment – one that would not easily be undone.
This presents an ideal, even crucial, time to engage in a conversation about global and national environmental movements, in contrast to environmental justice movements.
We are living in a disaster-prone era, which makes us both extra motivated to find, but also extra vulnerable in seeking, solutions to the crises that are continuously presented to us in real time.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, there are actual dangers embodied in the unchecked or unexamined ethos of ‘environmentalism’ when not tempered with concerns for ‘environmental justice’.
In a worst case – though not implausible – scenario, neglecting the latter could ultimately create two distinctly separate global classes: those with access to clean resources; and, those living in the wastelands created by the excesses of the former group.
This has been happening at various scales for quite some time now, but as the global consumer economy continues to grow in pace with the growing awareness of, and demands for, environmental health...things could get really dystopian, really quick, for those who are already marginalized.
And really, no community is truly safe from the potential of becoming a future ‘sacrifice zone’, no matter how insular their world might seem at present.
In the case of Puerto Rico, Musk’s offer to rebirth the island as a template for scalable solar energy systems sounds like it should garner an automatic ‘yes vote’ – and in conversations across the world, this is what it has been getting.
There are a couple of things to pause on, however. Musk has made millions of dollars from government contracts in the past, generating accusations of crony capitalism (a system of privatized profits and socialized losses, which is generally not great for the general public).
One subsidy of Tesla, SolarCity, has been criticized for using solar panels produced through prison labor—the laborers were paid less than one dollar per hour. The intersections with the privatization of the prison system in the U.S. obviously deserve a nod of concern in regards to Musk’s business models as well.
Though the details have not been officially released – provided the assumption that more detailed discussions have been happening off Twitter – Musk’s ‘hand-up’ extended to Puerto Rico could be seen, through a certain lens, as a ‘Green Trojan Horse’ to privatize the power grid in a time of crisis.
Many people automatically equate solar energy with increased individual sovereignty; while home installations can provide this, we are talking about something else. Musk's model will not include a solar roof for every house where everyone lives clean and green ever after.
And let's not forget that privatizing social services can lead to decreased wages for workers in the industry; and, the real potential for ‘high class’ and ‘low class’ options to emerge (the same arguments for net neutrality would apply here) which could further entrench class divisions, disparities in opportunity, and inequalities already present – such as with the already largely invisible Taino Indigenous population in Puerto Rico.
And perhaps worst of all, Puerto Rico residents could conceivably end up paying more for services in the long term. Even if power is cheaper to produce, the ethos of capitalism is always reducing the bottom line and increasing profit.
Since, ostensibly, at least some of the negotiations for this project are happening above the table (i.e. Twitter), this is a perfect time for the public to express concerns before the details are finalized – details that might seem small but could produce drastically different outcomes for the citizens of Puerto Rico and anywhere else this model can be applied.
So, if Musk wants to offer to save Puerto Rico on social media, may discussions ensue on social media (and hopefully elsewhere) that hold his feet to the fire.
Additionally, the government of Puerto Rico has gained a lot of sympathy, duly, because of the massive toll Hurricane Maria took on the island and the general confusion (and obtuseness) from the U.S. government in waging a proper response.
However, the government of Puerto Rico is just as capable of making poor decisions, or decisions that benefit the upper classes over the more marginalized; and, their decision-making process here should be examined with a keen eye for corruption and/or naivety born of desperation as well.
So, yes, switching to alternative energy could be a huge step forward in solving one set of problems, but the means adopted to achieving this end could produce new, severe, and long-term problems as well.
And as the old adage goes, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.