De-Provincializing Development

By Myles Lennon (Yale University) and Douglas Rogers (Yale University)

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #7: Affordable and Clean Energy.

To evaluate the United States’ progress toward United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7—to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”—is to confront the political, cultural, and material histories of the most unsustainable energy-consumption practices in human history. Only in 2009 did China outpace the United States in global energy consumption, after more than a century of US “leadership.” The political and cultural aspects of this history are on full display at present, from the capture of US government agencies by energy-industry insiders to the coal-fired nostalgia of the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign-style rallies and rhetoric. President Trump’s claims that he will “bring back coal” despite the forecasts of even coal-friendly analysts, along with the insistence of some fossil-fuel executives that “coal is the way of the future,” are as diagnostic of the current moment as is the United States’ pledged withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.

And yet, the wholesale retreat of the US federal government from participation in efforts to foster a sustainable energy future should draw our attention to other, and perhaps ultimately more significant, dimensions of the current energy landscape. Paradoxically, given the state-centered framework of the United Nations, progress toward SDG #7 in the United States now depends significantly on the role of nonfederal actors.


The wholesale retreat of the US federal government from participation in efforts to foster a sustainable energy future should draw our attention to other, and perhaps ultimately more significant, dimensions of the current energy landscape . . . [especially] the role of nonfederal actors.


Following the lead of Portland, Oregon, for instance, grassroots community-based organizations, state and municipal governments, universities, and renewable-energy companies have launched “Solarize” campaigns to install solar panels on homes and buildings in geographical clusters across the country. Solarize campaigns dramatically reduce the costs of “going solar” by aggregating building owners into purchasing pools. Although the details vary from place to place, these groups generally establish partnerships with local solar-installation contractors to develop tiered pricing that incentivizes economies of scale. Many community-based organizations also tie local hiring and community-benefit standards to their Solarize pricing schemes to ensure that investments in renewable energy spur economic development. This development, in turn, can enhance efforts to recruit more building owners into purchasing pools, further bringing down costs. At present, the US Department of Energy’s role in Solarize campaigns has largely been limited to making available a guidebook written by the architects of state and community efforts.

Similarly, local affordable-housing tax credits and financing increasingly incentivize developers to adhere to green building standards, creating markets for renewable energy in unlikely places. The poorest congressional district in the United States, the Bronx, is currently home to more solar-installation projects on sizable residential buildings than many of New York City’s wealthier communities—the direct result of tax credits and other incentives offered by the city and state to develop low-income housing.

Solar arrays in a low-income neighborhood in the Bronx. (Photograph by Myles Lennon)

Do these and other local energy initiatives really represent a promising path toward SDG #7 in light of the dearth of sustainability leadership at the federal level? Yes and no. On the one hand, these efforts demonstrate the capacity of a range of actors to work collaboratively toward sustainable futures on their own terms and to secure their own livelihoods in ways many development experts have long hoped for. On the other hand, these efforts can normalize and accelerate the retreat of the state from engagement in the crucial matter of clean energy, fraying the larger social contract and increasing the already sizable burden on marginalized communities to provide for themselves—while their federal government seems to work ever more explicitly, and ever less sustainably, in the interests of the rich and powerful. The emergence of community-scale distributed energy projects, in other words, have the potential simultaneously to challenge the entrenched power of unsustainable energy practices and to reinforce the power of actors who benefit from the retreat of the state. These crosscurrents suggest that the United States’ progress toward SDG #7 presents a promising case with which to critically explore the broader decentralization of energy governance in the twenty-first century.


The emergence of community-scale distributed energy projects . . . have the potential simultaneously to challenge the entrenched power of unsustainable energy practices and to reinforce the power of actors who benefit from the retreat of the state.


The kind of exploration we envision challenges us to see energy governance as a complex interplay of social and material forces. Indeed, the local clean-energy initiatives discussed above emerged not merely as a result of policymaking or market exchange but also because of the material properties of renewable-energy technologies. Whereas fossil fuels are generally extracted, processed, and distributed through centralized and tightly controlled infrastructures like oil rigs and refineries, renewable-energy resources like wind and solar radiation know far fewer spatial boundaries or material constraints. Their broad accessibility has helped to allow a range of actors who have until recently had little knowledge of the complex workings of industrial-scale electricity—such as social justice organizations, houses of worship, small businesses, and housing cooperatives—to involve themselves in the financing, policy, planning, installation, and ownership of energy-generation systems, including but not limited to Solarize campaigns.

Decentralization, then, is not simply the product of the Trump administration’s retreat from multilateral cooperation or federal participation in advancing renewable-energy use. It is also linked to nonhuman material factors that were part of the gradual reconfiguration of energy governance long before the 2016 election. We emphasize, however, that the less-centralized characteristics of solar or wind energy are far from determinative: the social and political orders in which they are (and will be) implicated are not by their very nature more democratic or participatory than those of the fossil-fuel era. (Indeed, there have already been controversial proposals for a highly centralized renewable-energy future focused on maximizing production that is not at all responsive to local communities.) We understand the decentralized material properties of renewable energy to work in conjunction with policy, investment capital, technology, infrastructure, and much more to configure multiple forms of energy governance at different social scales.


Thoughtful decentralization presents a promising way to connect energy systems with the capacities of both humans and the biosphere. It can thus serve as a model for advancing the democratic and environmentalist ideals at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals . . .


Cognizant of these social and material contingencies—and the political spaces they open up—we can work deliberately and consciously for a renewable and sustainable energy future that empowers more social groups than our current energy regime. New ethnographic work on community solar, for instance, is beginning to show that some renewable-energy projects that focus on people’s physical experiences with the sun, air quality, and rising sea levels also aim to avoid the ever-present risk of passing the burdens of governance onto the most marginalized. Such thoughtful decentralization presents a promising way to connect energy systems with the capacities of both humans and the biosphere. It can thus serve as a model for advancing the democratic and environmentalist ideals at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals, even as it helps reformulate the state-centered assumptions of the United Nations and the global order as a whole.

Myles Lennon is a PhD candidate in the combined degree program in anthropology and forestry & environmental studies at Yale University. Douglas Rogers is professor of anthropology at Yale University.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *