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Distributed Leadership

McKibben thinks that the new fossil fuel resistance movement is beginning to win some victories, “not despite its lack of clearly identifiable leaders” but rather “because of it.” Like the “distributed generation” system that renewable energy technologies enable, human society needs to develop forms of distributed leadership. Along these lines, McKibben sees greater value in a more dispersed opposition network than a highly centralized one that relies critically on the vision and actions of a small handful of leaders. He observes,“often the best insights are going to come from below: from people… whose life experience means they understand how power works not because they exercise it but because they are subjected to it.”

Climate and other sustainability questions cannot be seen solely through the prism of environmentalism. The fight for sustainability needs to incorporate dimensions of social justice, equity, and human rights.

The far-reaching impacts that a transition to a more sustainable society holds for the lives of billions of people implies that governance needs to be as democratic, transparent, and accountable as possible, and this imperative extends to the workplace. Unions find themselves on the defensive in many countries, but the labor movement needs to be an active participant in the transition toward sustainability. Beyond the demand for a socially just transition that has become a rallying cry among union activists, Judith Gouverneur and Nina Netzer argue in Chapter 21 that a fundamental reorganization of work needs to be undertaken so that available work is better shared in a sustainable economy.

Sean Sweeney (Chapter 20) discusses the difficulty of transforming the energy system at a time when fossil fuel corporations push ahead with additional carbon-intensive projects. He argues in favor of greater “energy democracy” that gives workers, communities, and the public at large a more meaningful voice in decision making. Fossil fuel corporations are among the largest companies in the world. Like their counterparts in other sectors of the economy, they have acquired a “too big to fail” aura, yet they elude meaningful democratic accountability at a time when their decisions affect virtually everyone on the planet.

Beyond the energy sector, economic governance reforms could include accelerating the creation of so-called “benefit” corporations. Colleen Cordes (Chapter 19) examines this still-new phenomenon of companies that orient themselves toward a broader array of stakeholders, including their employees and the local communities within which they operate. Gar Alperovitz (Chapter 18) discusses the detrimental effects of large wealth and income gaps and notes that, because of the socialization of technological gains, those gaps are mostly undeserved by those at the top and the bottom—a point that even some mainstream economists concede. Community wealthbuilding strategies—including cooperatives, worker-owned firms, community development corporations, community development financial institutions, social enterprises, community land trusts, and employee-owned enterprises—can pool capital in ways that build wealth, create living wage jobs, and anchor those jobs in communities.

Finally, it seems clear that the antidote to the ills of concentrating wealth and power that are so instrumental in thwarting efforts to achieve sustainability is deconcentrating—devolving—wealth and power. Chapter 22, the concluding chapter, is a meditation on the material in this book and on the variety of political and economic means available to achieve that end. In particular, we argue that a more engaged citizenry is key, not only to the success of specific movements such as the resistance to the fossil fuel domination that drives climate change, but to all dimensions of sustainability. It is no longer enough for people everywhere to struggle for nominally democratic polities, and then to hand off power and responsibility for their ongoing operation and integrity to others. That seems inevitably to invite corruption and the appropriation of the machinery of governance for private ends.

People everywhere must strive to don the mantle of citizenship and commit to persistent engagement in the governing of their workplaces, communities, and nations. Concentrated power and wealth will forever seek to fulfill only its own narrow interests—even as the biosphere and civilization are corrupted and perhaps destroyed. Only a steady popular commitment to engaged governance can prevent this outcome. The quest for environmental sustainability, social equity, and a deep, deliberative culture of citizen engagement are thus closely intertwined goals.

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