Crossing Energy's Social Divide (PART ONE): Class and Power and Justice in Contemporary America

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Prior to the past couple of years, U.S. citizens have more often than not been skittish about appeals to social class, with the exception of a few rare moments of proto-revolutionary fervor, or in select locations--relevant to the energy sector in the Appalachian coal fields--that showed their social contrasts so glaringly that class conflict and class consciousness were inevitable byproducts. Despite this apparent 'unity,' many issues complicate the topic of class, which arguably bursts with paradox and contradiction.

I highly recommend, in considering today's essay, that readers consider a quick skim of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. The story under consideration here presents a 'case study' of the sort of obfuscated understanding that so often accompanies conflicts in the U.S. that have their roots in the relations between the privileged and laboring sectors of society.

Generally speaking, and especially for White Americans over the past half-century, 'middle class' has been the default descriptor despite its having practically no real content, and, one might add without stretching the realm of the plausible, without much grounding in reality. This lack of class analysis, this frequent rejection of the concept of 'class' as applicable to America, has had consistently anomalous and frequently unfortunate results.

The number one misfortune attendant on failing to see implications of class would be losing important struggles that should be winnable. Nowhere that I have seen recently is this more glaringly obvious than in the counties of Western Michigan, which present a very interesting contrast of high-end tourist trade, and its attendant Lexus allure, with 'rust-belt' industry, and its accompanying patina of underemployment and decline.

INTRODUCTION

The scenario is pretty simple. On one side sit passionate opponents of a huge wind-powered electricity development off the Eastern shores of Lake Michigan. On the other side, a coalition has formed to promote this project and, its members say, others that the region should develop with all deliberate speed.

And in the middle stand various agencies, institutions, and bureaucracies that grapple with policies and prospects regarding power. For example, the Great Lakes Wind Council came into existence because a conjunction of opportunity and crisis around energy made coherent policy development--around siting, technical standards, and development protocols--critical to effective and efficient engagement of the possibilities of wind.

In its 2009 Report of the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council (GLOW), the authors summarize the broadly positive view that wind power offers substantial environmental and social benefits to Michigan. They conclude,

"The USDOE estimates that Michigan has the potential to create over 30,000 jobs in wind turbine manufacturing (USDOE 2008). Due to transportation costs and other considerations, wind turbine manufacturers typically invest in manufacturing facilities in areas with local markets. Based on a recent survey, an overwhelming majority (96.8 percent) of Michigan residents believe renewable energy is important to Michigan’s economic recovery (Adelaja 2009)."

This apparent jobs cornucopia occurs in the midst of a long-lasting unemployment rate officially over ten per cent and actually approaching one quarter of the adult population.

Under these circumstance, one might expect that a large operation, orchestrated by an experienced company with an exemplary environmental and community record in Europe, would, in the vernacular, be a 'shoo-in' for a 'fast track' to testing, licensing, and construction. And one would be dead wrong.

As soon as 'wind' of the plans of Scandia Wind came to light, a local group, calling itself the Michigan Protect Our Water, Economy, And Resources (POWER) Coalition mushroomed into a potent fulcrum of opposition to the 1,000 Megawatt project that Scandia proposed. Already, the tale begs for explication. 'What the heck?'

But the real story lies deeper, as I discovered in a DailyKos diary, 'recommended' and highly attended, that updated folks on this story. The author of that diary --a freelance writer and journalist in his own right, amenable to an interview, took me on a subterranean tour of the politics of dollars and dispensation in a windy place full of desperate people. This is the first part of that story.

SOCIAL DIVISION AROUND ENERGY IN WESTERN MICHIGAN

"It sort of started out as a joke, kind of," says Eric Justian, the creator of the FaceBook page, "West Michigan Will Take the $3 Billion Wind Project!" He laughs frequently at some of the craziness in the tale he tells. "We'll take it off your hands, no questions asked."

This was his and some friends' response to the news that POWER wanted no part of Scandia's deal in the hostel haven of Pentwater fifty miles North of his native Muskegon. Readers may keep in mind that this has mostly happened like a fast-developing windstorm, mostly taking place during 2010, and everything unfolding over the past year or so.

But interest and support for the idea of Muskegon as a wind power mecca, "just sort of exploded." He continues, to put Muskegon in perspective, by referring to Michael Moore's "Roger and Me."

"Do you remember the scene where he was talking to the guy from Money Magazine? The headline was something like 'America's Worst Cities to Live In.' Well, right below Flint? Number two? There was Muskegon."

A bad place to live: but also a natural paradise next to a world-class resort town; again, what is going on?

This story about energy and conflict hinges on political economy and human geography, which have made the bedrock of Michigan History one of the biggest industrial economies ever, in the midst of wild and unique natural settings that are as charming as anywhere on earth (at least anywhere that gets a lot of snow and not daily sunshine). Eric offers guidance.

"You've got to understand that the four counties in this part of the State, Ottawa in the South, then Muskegon, then Oceana, then Mason on the North are like two totally different environments." On the Southern end, even with the 'pretty white collar' base in Grand Haven, in Ottawa County, "you've got a lot of blue collar people, just like in 'Roger and Me.'"

Just as Flint suffered decimating losses when General Motors closed factory after factory in the city, so too Muskegon almost came to pieces when auto parts and engine-block companies closed or moved offshore. "A lot of the people who work with us," and he names Amanda Shunta and Dustin, her husband and many others such Mike and Beth Counsel, Mike and Leslie Narramore, Barry and Angie Klegka as "just a few of the people who've mounted just a huge collective effort here, a lot of us are really struggling."

And many more of their friends and family "are just about at the end of their rope, barely making ends meet, getting off their second job, if they're lucky enough to be working, at three in the morning," and just about "desperate here." "And up in Oceana County, it's actually a little worse," where he tells me that, except for the coastal communities, "One third of the county is on state assistance and unemployment is almost twenty per cent, and that's what they admit to."

That 'except for the coastal communities' is the geohistorical hub of this tale. Mason and Oceana Counties are more rural than their Southern cohorts, but plenty of industries have also closed up there, Eric assures me. "The big difference is the lake front places." One can see that in relation to Pentwater, the first jurisdiction to invite Scandia to exit.

On a non-profit site that promotes the area, the lead story tells of the local NPR outlet's featuring the region.

"We recorded on location this month – Pentwater Yacht Club. Interviews Featured: Our Village, Yacht Club, Wooden Boat Show, Fishing Charters, Marina, Art & Wine at the Harbor, Shopping, Dining, and, activities, events, and more."

Unemployed yacht owners are not oxymoronic, but they don't need to work for the most part.

At a close-to-the-water rental agency, these are the amenities of a middle-to-upper-cost spot:

"Separate main floor master suite with deck access, lake and channel view, vaulted ceiling with fan, king bed, cable TV, master bath with large custom two head shower is available for an extra $250.00 per week if rented with main house. With the added master suite, the entire house accommodates 10. July-August Up to 8 people max.: $2,750/week , ...Linens Needed...; (or) Up to 10 people max.: $3000/week, opening the 4th Master bedroom and bath... .AUGUST 20, 2010 THROUGH FALL RATES HAVE BEEN REDUCED TO: $1,750 for main house/ week, $2,000 main house with MR Bedroom Suite/week."

Anybody with the good fortune to have stayed in a really nice house in a truly gorgeous place on our planet would agree, "Now that sounds nice!" And the point of this article is not to degrade the pleasures of the leisure class. But can we ignore the context that this establishes for the rest of this story?

  • Leave aside the disparities between unemployed workers by the tens of thousands in the immediate vicinity who make less than half per month what well-heeled renters pay for a week's vacation.
  • Pay no attention to the mother who can't get her eight year old a backpack because she has no extra cash and no credit, while folks party on their yachts.
  • Don't even worry that people kill themselves, or exist in a state of semi-permanent depression next door to some of the wealthiest real estate on our fair orb.

Perhaps juxtapositions such as these, from a 'biblical' perspective or otherwise, just go to show that "the poor are always with us." I don't buy this line of reasoning, but that's a matter of morality, arguably not of equitable social relations, and not obviously of intelligent energy choices.

So the problem is not how sad the contrast is, how tragic the socioeconomic conditions, or anything like that, although sadness and tragedy do lurk within the heart of this situation. One aspect of the true issue of Western Michigan's quandary's over wind is that the defense of property rights receive such automatic precedence over the expression of social rights, or put another way, that the elevation of the perquisites of wealth above the unrelenting majority's desire for surcease from want occurs so naturally and commonly.

Eric provides an example "from about 15 years ago," when "Wal-Mart wanted to come to a small Muskegon community; they bought up just about every house in this one neighborhood, but a few people held out. They didn't want to leave or they felt they deserved a better price. Eventually, the city council condemned every unsold house and bought it for a fraction of its value."

This is the contrast that's important here. Eric summed it up:

"It's the difference between condemnation of poor people's homes, to build a Walmart, and another community's rights, on other hand, of people lots of times who don't even live here and who are fabulously rich, to protest wind turbines six miles out in Lake Michigan."

We did not speak for at least thirty seconds. We both had to process it.


"This speaks volumes about our values as a society--the poor get condemned and plowed under for development; if they're wealthy, disturbing them even slightly is cause for federally funded studies."

Moreover, as Eric makes clear, "Politicians are in the thick of this." An honest-to-God desecration of democracy, in favor of dollars, has occurred and continues to occur. Perhaps Pentwater itself, despite the fact that the folks of Michigan dearly longed for 'this big old wind farm, might conceivably have mustered a majority against Scandia and its project.
But everywhere else the story was lopsided in favor of this renewable energy source of power and jobs.

"Hell, even at Geoff Hansen's straight-out GOP town meeting, the vote was 62-38 in favor of Scandia." Down at the lake front corner of Muskegon and Ottawa Counties, "Representative Mary Valentine found at least two-to-one supporting the wind farm." Yet, Eric continues, "they're voting as if the majority were precisely the opposite."

A corruption of politics in favor of the rich has taken place and continues to take place. In Mason County, the commissioners rejected a proposal by Scandia that Eric Justian labeled "naive," inasmuch as it believed that majorities would rule in the U.S. if the wealthy opposed them. Then, just two weeks ago, Oceana also "handed them their a***s and said good bye."

Now he worries that Scandia will just pack up and quit the scene, though he is hopeful that Blue Water Wind will take a different political approach and prevail: all of this in the midst of 97% of the people of Michigan strongly in favor of renewable energy. They think it critical to economic survival, while absentee owners want to preserve views, possibly impacted birds and bats, and hope not to face the prospect of any of the lubricants that wind platforms' might leak into the lake.

Part Two of this story will consider such matters, and several others, more carefully.

However, a final point is important, to me anyway, about the sociopolitical aspects of this incredible little tale. Eric describes a 'wild scene' at a recent public meeting about the Wind Farm. In actuality, as he makes clear, derision and arrogance have characterized the attitudes of the well-to-do, and they continue to characterize that attitude.

The "homeowner segment" at the meeting "used vicious 'shout-down' tactics against Deborah Chase" who when she stood to speak and said her residence was the working class village of Walkerville, "they were intimidating jerks," mean and aggressive, "clearly ma(king) fun of where she lived," as if she came from a zoo or a sty. "One very outspoken opponent, one of the organizers I think, even apologized for this" brutal rudeness.

"They were like a bunch of T-baggers at a Sarah Palin rally tearing down Obama," only the objects of their scorn were the human beings who actually resided in the communities adjacent to the lake, who lived their day in and day out. I'm not sure what this disrespect means. I'm not certain how to take such cavalier disregard. But I'm pretty sure that, in the final analysis, 'what goes around comes around.'

CONCLUSIONS

Eric takes a long view about this whole situation. When I ask him, "Why aren't people more pissed off?" after a time, I ask. "Can you hear me?" And he sighs. "We're going to win eventually," he guarantees it. "They can't stand against progress. Nothing that they say against it really adds up." And he laughs at how late the hour has gotten. "But I promise you; they cannot stop this thing forever."

This sort of idea is also part of the technical investigation that will continue in the next installment. But today's story, though it is about a potential energy victory, a beneficial development in all manner of ways for the people and the planet we all inhabit together, has to have as a central message what is obvious in almost every aspect of what went down in Western Michigan over the past ten months or so.

The United States of America is riven by class privilege and class brutality. Again and again and again, the wealthy have their way--they have their way with the politicians, they have their way (one way or another) with the policies, and they have their way with the poor. Somehow or other, this unconscionable lopsidedness, this destruction of the reality of majority rule with the forms of democracy, has to shift.

This seemingly, in the grand scheme of things, small story has an outside resonance, a bellwether's ring of accurate depiction of the central tendency. A balancing must come to pass, or inefficient energy, and climate change, will be the least of our difficulties.

AFTERWORD

Only once during out interview, which covered a lot of controversy and tension in some detail, does the affable reporter use a bad word. I ask him, "Eric, where have the Unions been in all of this?" and, without a second's hesitation, he just blurts out, "F*** if I know."

The leadership of the working class is failing. As Eric Justian put the matter, "We've got to find a way to make our majority count," or to make them count our majority. Howard Zinn would agree. The next article about this situation, after I've heard back, hopefully, from the call that I put in to the POWER Coalition, will delve other central elements of this yarn:

  • an examination of the role of social media in a troubled skein of conflict;
  • a deep look at how environmental and technical and business questions play out in chaotic maelstroms of this sort;
  • a dissection of the way that money and public relations distort the sense of size and majority without having to buy a single vote;
  • an exploration of the possibilities for a 'people's media' to have an important part to play in making energy democracy and majority rule generally more likely, compared to how corporate coverage impacts things;
  • and, finally, looking at the loss of leadership as aging activists fade or turn to the rich, and young people are stretched to their utter limit.

And what would Howard Zinn say to all of this?

Perhaps something like this quotation from Nate Shaw would come to mind, from All God's Dangers. This passage was during the depression, another time of cataclysm and transitions in science, technology, and society, a time in which established patterns and business-as-usual leadership failed.

"O, it's plain as your hand. The poor white man and the poor black man is sittin in the same saddle today-big dudes done branched em off that way. The control of a man, the controllin power, is in the hands of the rich man, . .. That class is standin together, and the poor white man is out there (against) the colored list-I've caught that: ways and actions a heap of times speaks louder than words."

A big class of people have to stand up. A lot more than wind energy depends on it.

Photo Credits::
Zinn: Jeffrey Montes
Wind: Luis Alvez
Muskegon Heights: Brandon Bartoszek
Marina: Rona Proudfoot
Tea Party: Erica Hager
Great Depression image: Don Hankins