Staff Writer Kate Mekechuk attended the Department of Anthropology’s Boas Talk by Dr. Myles Lennon who discussed “Affective Energy: The ‘Equicratic’ Politics of Solar Technology From Wall Street to West Harlem.”

Although I attend Barnard, I still got lost in Diana trying to find LL03. Granted, I’ve never explored Diana to her fullest potential. I started by walking down the stairs, going through the hall, and determining that the room, LL103, was not my room. So, I walked back up the stairs—all while wearing my black puffer jacket, of course—and asked the person at the Information Desk to help me. They told me to go back down the stairs, through the hall, and into LL103, as it was synonymous with LL03. I did as they instructed and entered LL103, breathing uncomfortably in my mask.

A few minutes later, Dr. Lennon, a current researcher at Brown University, began his lecture by discussing the importance of solar energy within energy production. Traditionally, energy production has occurred within plants, rigs, or other large facilities. Solar, however, allows individuals to produce their own energy, decentralizing energy production. Additionally, there exists a dichotomy of solar energy leaders. On the one hand, there are neoliberal energy experts, and on the other hand, there are anti-capitalist environmentalists. Dr. Lennon examined these leaders in three different case studies: an activist coalition, an anti-neoliberal executive, and community based solar campaigns. These cases focused on how leaders use the overlap of the contradicting ideologies to make solar energy an affective force––making them, what he called, “equicrats.”

First, the activist coalition, filled with eco-socialists, anti-racists, and anti-capitalists, was protesting Value of Distributed Energy Resources (VDER), a mechanism in New York that allows people to get compensated for the energy they produce. The coalition wanted VDER to also compensate for environmental injustices so that those who are more harmed by pollution get larger compensations. The ideological contradiction occurs when examining the political ideology of the coalition and VDER’s policy type. Since VDER focuses on individual choice rather than mandates, it’s based on the neoliberal principle of free market competition, aligning with the coalition’s leftist politics of community empowerment. Neoliberal policies like VDER enable poor communities, those primarily composed of people of color and who traditionally have been most burdened by climate change, the ability to directly address it in their own backyards. Racial justice activists and environmentalists have shifted their politics so that neoliberalism can be used in an activist platform, obscuring the otherwise clear divide between eco-socialism and neoliberalism.

Second, Dr. Lennon conversed with Sean, Vice President of Engineering at Sunlight Energy Management, a nationwide solar and sustainable energy technology and data firm. Sean began his career at Sunlight working on a solar installation crew, and as the years went on, he was able to move up in the company. Interestingly, Lennon noted, Sean disdains that Sunlight upholds a capitalist division of labor by priding itself on their employee credentials and technical expertise even though a majority of its profits came from their lower paying solar installation operations. This anti-capitalistic belief is unfamiliar in corporate settings but regular in solar technology companies as the physical infrastructure of solar requires blue collar labor and white collar expertise, cultivating a workplace where senior employees who counterintuitively wear anti-capitalistic views on their sleeves explicitly renounce neoliberalism while enthusiastically participating in it.

Finally, Lennon discussed how a community-based solar campaign, BK ROT, demonstrates what a new relationship with solar might look like. BK ROT is a food waste-hauling and compost non-profit in Bushwick run by young people of color. For a small fee, BK ROT hauls food waste from businesses and homes to a community garden using solar powered cargo trikes. There, they use solar powered sifters to convert the waste into compost and use it to generate life in the garden, eventually selling their produce. The money they gain from their fee and produce allows them to pay their workers living wages in an industry where workers are historically underpaid. BK ROT shows how solar technology acts as an electrical power and an affective power, allowing environmental justice to evolve from simply lowering carbon emissions to becoming a source of life in communities that are seen as lifeless.

Overall, the major points I gained from Dr. Lennon’s incredibly cerebral lecture were:

  1. By solar energy being on individuals’ private property, it allows everyday people to find prosperity in their rooftops and autonomy for major utilities.
  2. Solar technology obscures the defined separation between eco-socialism and neoliberalism.
  3. Solar technology acts as a major source of electrical power and affective power, allowing activists to change the conversation of energy production.
  4. By utilizing the affective power of solar technology, environmental justice evolves from simply lowering carbon emissions to becoming a source of life in communities that are seen as lifeless.

a cool looking building via Bwarchives