By Rabbi Arthur Waskow *
For the past seven years, The Shalom Center — a prophetic voice in Jewish, multireligious, and American life – has been working to heal our wounded Mother Earth from the global scorching that has brought on a climate crisis.
We have sought to work in two modes: directly challenging the Corporate Carbon Pharaohs that for the sake of enormous profits are willing to burn the Earth, our common home; and working to create a livable alternative based on renewable energy.
For the past year, The Shalom Center has been working with other groups in Northwest Philadelphia to create the alternative — to embody the future of renewable energy in the actual present. And we welcome you into that work as well – both by assisting our efforts and by undertaking your own, in your own communities.
We are pursuing the creation of neighborhood solar-energy co-ops.
We decided to pursue this work for several reasons:
- Long ago, through my own work in the civil-rights movement and in a book about the history of US race relations that I wrote, I suggested that what made the sit-in and Freedom Ride movements such a powerful form of social action is that they did not begin with seeking new laws or by attacking desegregated businesses. They began by direct nonviolent action:
“We want public places to be racially integrated. So here we are, integrating these places. You will have to decide what to do with us: arrest us, beat us and kill us, or change your ways.”
That way of embodying the future in the present created great waves of social change.
What, we asked, would it mean to do that in the face of the climate crisis? If we want a world of renewable energy, then we must actually create the pieces of that world. As the sit-ins began with specific places, and with clusters of people, not only lonely individuals, so must we.
- That meant neighborhoods. Neighbors could work together to create new islands of renewable energy use, could face opposition together when it came, could become centers of broader social change — and even shape resilient networks of caring that could if necessary cope with the floods and droughts and superstorms and new diseases brought on by global scorching.
- Solar co-ops could both actually lessen the destructive CO2 let loose upon the planet by burning fossil fuels, and lessen the asthma epidemics caused by coal-burning power plants and oil refineries.
- The cost of household electricity could be reducd by installing solar collectors could be greatly reduced by buying wholesale, through co-ops. Then solarization would pay back its own cost and save households money over a five-to-seven-year period after installation.
As we explored this approach, we discovered that in Washington DC and its suburbs, there had emerged a growing number of effective neighborhood solar co-ops.
So last fall, to begin this work we brought together for a day-long consultation the director of the Community Power Network and DC Solar United Neighborhoods (DC SUN); the director of the NAACP’s Environmental Justice program; several members of The Shalom Center’s Board; and several climate activists in Philadelphia.
Their advice, after a full-day exploration, was that The Shalom Center begin working with progressive synagogues, churches, and mosques in a progressive neighborhood, and involve both middle-class and working-class neighbors, Black, white, and Hispanic, in a multiracial alliance. They recommended that we treat this as a model, drawing on its experience to multiply the effort.
We decided to begin with Northwest Philadelphia, exactly the kind of neighborhood our gathering had recommended. It had the additional value that Philadelphia is now poised at choosing between becoming a fossil-fuel energy hub for refining and exporting gas and oil from destructive fracking, and becoming a green-jobs-and-energy hub. If Northwest Philadelphia could make a go of neighborhood solar co-ops, that could help the whole city choose a healing path, rather than a destructive one.
And we found Northwest Philadelphia full of people excited about the possibility of solarizing the neighborhood. We soon realized there could be three legs to such an effort: the Philadelphia chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, bringing together a number of synagogues, churches, and mosques already working to heal our planet from global scorching; a large and strong neighborhood grocery co-op committed to broadening the co-op movement; and local suppliers of solar collectors who would cut prices a great deal for wholesale installations.
We began with a planning committee of five. One member offered ten hours a week of volunteer organizing work. The planning committee called a broad meeting of neighborhood organizations, and 26 people showed up, from every sector and constituency of the neighborhood.
The meeting was filled with so much energy and enthusiasm that after it had been formally adjourned, 15 of the participants stuck around for another 45 minutes in animated conversation.
Out of that meeting, the planning committee grew. Interfaith Power and Light / Philadelphia and the Weavers Way food co-op took an active role in turning desire into action. Now there is a formally registered co-op – Northwest Philadelphia Solar Co-op — with its own board, bylaws, checking account, and website — and with the beginnings of a membership.
The pregnancy took almost a year. But now the birth has happened and flourishing is about to begin.
* Rabbi Arthur Waskow is the founder (183) and director of The Shalom Center.