Pembroke Pines, FL to San Antonio, TX– 2,423 km (Total Mileage: 17,591/40,075 km)
The last time I was in America, not a single vote had been cast–primary or general.
No matter how much you may feel you’ve aged, that was just over a year ago. And after a year of questions from non-Americans about Trump and the state of American democracy, the most common question here has been the reverse: What do people think of us? There may be a time and a place for writing on Trump, but this is not it. Everyone writing is answering those questions, and all of the questions seem to be, WHAT IS HAPPENING?
So, instead here’s this: A lickety-split bicycle tour through the oil-rich American Southeast.
My route heading north through Florida and then west through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. Timing and funding mean that I’ll need to catch a train next, bound for California.An estimated 10,000 people attended the Miami Women’s March on January 21, crowding into the Bayfront Amphitheater and blocking traffic on the street outside. Joining speakers that advocated racial, economic, ability and gender equality were those pushing for climate action and resilience. The streets of Miami are regularly flooded during king tides, and the city has already begun construction to raise streets by several feet and return traffic flow to normal (at least temporarily).Within miles of a trailer park where I got the stink eye for suggesting that communities might want to put money together and share ownership of renewable energy installations, Glades Electric Cooperative is going strong after 73 years. It was one of the many rural electric cooperatives that were established around the country in connection with FDR’s Rural Electrification Administration, and today counts itself among the Touchstone Energy Cooperatives.Rails to Trails has been taking unused short- and medium-distance rail lines and turning them into paved recreation paths. I spent the better part of two days on this one, called Withlacoochee State Trail, protected from the stress and danger of traffic.For some reason, all of the images of live oaks that I’d seen were of the big, old, solitary ones. Turns out they come in the spectral forest variety as well.Pelicans on a calm bay, with the Panhandle’s barrier islands in the distance.I never realized how many different kinds of swamps there were until I traveled through the Southeast. It seemed like every day would greet me with a new configuration of mud, trees, undergrowth and creeping vines, all the way up through East Texas.
From Mobile to San Antonio, pump jacks like this one dotted the landscape, visual reminders of oil’s place in the economy and identity of the region.These derricks pump oil and gas out of the floor of Mobile Bay. In his last month in office, President Obama bowed to coastal communities and made large sections of the Atlantic coastal waters off-limits to oil and gas drilling. Opposition to new oil and gas drilling was less vocal in Gulf Coast states like Alabama, where oil and gas provide $500 million in annual state revenue.This Exxon refinery in western Baton Rouge, one of the largest in the country, is surrounded by residential neighborhoods. It was the subject of an extended NPR piece in 2013, which highlighted the possible health impacts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used in oil refining, and also exposed the persistent underreporting of VOC emissions by oil refiners.
As is often the case with heavily polluting industries, the communities surrounding the Baton Rouge refinery are disproportionately made up of low-income communities and communities of color, highlighting the need for community self-determination on environmental issues. The Movement for Black Lives calls this ongoing inequity “environmental racism”, and argues that it “is largely a result of our dispossession and lack of control over land, resources, and decision making abilities in our communities.” (Also see: Energy Democracy)My great grandma Phoebe would always say that she grew up on the banks of the Sabine River. Well, here it is at last, the border of Texas with Louisiana.Near my aunt and uncle’s house in central Texas, lie the remnants of a bridge that was swept away in the May 2015 flooding that submerged downtown Austin and other parts of central Texas, and resulted in multiple fatalities. That month set the record for the wettest month in Texas history, in part due to intense rain patterns that have been strongly linked to climate change.Besides a single rooftop solar array in Florida, this is the only evidence of renewable energy that I’ve seen on my ride through the US.
Now, I’ve only seen a narrow corridor of this region, that which happens to lie on either side of the highway, and it’s also true that Texas is far and away the US leader in installed wind energy. But while oil-built cities like Houston are increasingly running on clean energy*, you wouldn’t know it. Refineries and oil and natural gas wells dominate the landscape, not only asserting themselves as the source of energy for the area, but of wealth.
A study in the Journal of Economic Geography showed that solar panels in a neighborhood act like a contagion. That is, independently of income level, someone is more likely to own a solar panel if their neighbor buys one first.
Brad Plumer speculates in Vox that this may be due to neighborly competition and the dissemination of knowledge required to negotiate subsidy, rebate and financing programs, but I think there’s something else there. Simpler than envy or competition, I think there’s a familiarity that is necessary for rapid adoption.
In many ways, what makes us human is our tendency to modify of our lived environment to suit our needs. We’re often highly sensitive to changes to our environment and practices, conservative in our approach to additions or subtractions.
It seems likely to me that our views of renewable energy and fossil fuels are shaped by our lived environment, and in ways beyond our exposure to pollution and our reliance on automobiles. For renewables to become widespread at an individual and community level, it seems to me, we need to see renewable energy as not just exciting, but familiar. Renewables have to be omnipresent, everyday. An assumed future.
But it’s harder to introduce renewables into everyday life than it would be to introduce an appliance, like a dishwasher or a refrigerator. Renewables can’t go just anywhere, and consumers will have to adapt their engagement with their energy network to suit their own locales.
And not to contribute to an already overinflated personality cult, but I think this is in this direction that Tesla is heading when it combines sales of renewables with energy storage and electric cars. By lumping them in together, solar energy piggy-backs on technologies that seem likely to pervade consumer markets in coming years.
In many areas of the Southeast, renewables still feel far away, like something that happens elsewhere, with other people. I want to know how that can change, and I wonder if the solution is already out there.
*unless you count the absurd sprawl: Karachi fits 8.7 million more people into an area only 5 per cent larger than Houston, showing just how much more efficient a city can be
Thanks to the Hernandezes, Rudy and Tyler in Inglis, College Station family, and Tanner in San Antonio, for hosting me.