Democracy, Power, and Integrity: the Energy Justice Network as a Model of Citizen Participation


The ability to model a process--for example, transforming from carbon-based to other energy sources as prime movers in a society--is arguably one key to success in developing that process. Roman Frigg and Steven Hartmann point this out, in their Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article, "Models in Science",

"Models are of central importance in many scientific contexts. ...In short, models are one of the principal instruments of modern science. Philosophers are acknowledging the importance of models with increasing attention and are probing the assorted roles that models play...result(ing in) an incredible proliferation of model-types... . Probing models, phenomenological models, computational models, developmental models, explanatory models, impoverished models, testing models, idealized models, theoretical models, scale models, heuristic models, caricature models, didactic models, fantasy models, toy models, imaginary models, mathematical models, substitute models, iconic models, formal models, analogue models and instrumental models are but some of the notions that are used to categorize models."

Not all readers will find this as uber-cool as I do. Nevertheless, when we think about the seemingly endless array of issues, conflicts, and options in regard to the energy future of the United States, thinking about models--whether they come from the past, from other countries, or from differing approaches within the U.S., can certainly help us to consider choices more intelligently. This is especially true in regard to aspects of energy policy for which little or no precedent is obvious.

I have repeatedly remonstrated that the involvement of community is critical both in policy-making and social choices about technology. Until now, I have noted a few common sense ideas that might stand in for something like a template to copy. In today's post, readers will meet people and learn about an organizational form which represents a living, powerful model for involving folks at the grassroots in matters of energy and technology.

This model need not be exclusive, but the success of the organization that it reflects ought to cause us to consider it as a pathway, generally, to manifesting community participation. The form that this all took in practice--a case of which appeared in the previous article in this series--in the case of the Energy Justice Network, itself grew out of a perceived need for more effective and efficient means of insuring justice in matters of science, technology, and, especially, energy.


Mike Ewall's recognition of this need for new methods and approaches began in High School. What he described as "a pretty ineffective 1990 recycling effort" caused him to reexamine what environmental stewardship meant. The management of the erstwhile 'green' removal service was arguably corrupt and, at best, highly inefficient.

He looked for something that put control into people's hands, that was more direct in its impact, and ended up working with a grassroots fight to stop a trash incinerator and generator from operating close to a poor community. Thus began a career that has revolved around building networks and finding ways to get results that favor people of color and the poor instead of dumping whatever nastiness society has on their doorsteps.

In all of this churning movement for social justice, the notion of strategic linkage, of a built-in cohesiveness that crosses all sorts of borders, has been a key piece of the EJN puzzle. Thus, the investigator will find all manner of well-thought-out and carefully planned connections that EJN maintains, as with the Action Center and other organizations and movements that this article describes.

These networks "around energy and toxic emissions and wastes" grew stronger over time, so that

"when the deregulation of electricity kicked-in the the mid-90's--California was first, but Pennsylvania (where he is from) came next, (he and his cohorts were prepared) for industries that promoted themselves as' green'--promising generation from landfill gas, trees, and waste, especially chicken litter--but weren't really environmentally friendly at all."

A successful campaign in 1997 alerted Ewall to the elasticity of business forms in situations such as this, so he saw to it that the names of the executives in charge became a part of the permanent record available to communities. As in the case of the anti-Fibrowatt work in Georgia, a lot of the originators of the technology and marketing of these plants were British, which early on alerted Ewall to the need for an international presence.

Since 1999, the Energy Justice Network (EJN) has reflected that first decade of activism and political education. This article seeks to address several points.

  • First, it looks at the decade since EJN's formation and recounts some of the group's accomplishments.
  • Second, it looks at key components underpinning EJN's efforts, the concepts of environmental justice and environmental racism.
  • Third, it explains why a focus on energy and community is so critical at the present moment.
  • Finally, it examines the intersection most important in bringing successful outcomes to such work as this, the nexus with community, especially in terms of active participation and ongoing capacitation.

Were cloning standard operating procedure, in any event, cloning the likes of Mike Ewall and copying the labors of EJN would be an excellent idea. Both are outstanding models of democratic science in action.


To say the least, EJN 'hit the ground running.' Ewall and cohorts inaugurated EJN in 1999 at the same time that they were building coalitions to oppose over fifty natural gas electric facilities in Pennsylvania. On Christmas day, he realized that some of the same organizations behind such facilities in his home State were in the process of advocating "literally hundreds" of other similar power stations across the U.S.

Upon discovering that colleagues in the African American Environmental Justice Action Network (EJAN) were organizing around the same inequities--that these plants located overwhelmingly in or near towns full of minorities or that were in dire economic straits, "the need for a national network just became obvious."

While this overview presents highlights and key junctures in EJN's evolution, readers should examine the EJN website for a sense of the scope and extent of Ewall's efforts. Throughout this period, he has also spoken extensively around the world, organized and participated in grassroots and scientific conferences, written innumerable papers and action-plans, and spent the better part of his many, many waking hours talking to people as diverse as this correspondent and victims of cancer and other environmental diseases from the corners of the earth.

One might posit that the years 1999-2002 primarily solidified home statewide networks and established the connections nationwide to make EJN knowledge, expertise, and data available to other groups, both virtually and actually. 'The miracle of e-mail' is only one aspect of this period that has continued to connect these far flung local efforts that build on their successes regionally, nationally, and globally.

At the end of 2002, Mike participated in a seminal event, available for extensive perusal here. The Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit {PCELS-2} (Mike was only a teenager when the First Summit occurred, in 1991), and out of the second meeting came key tactical and strategic thinking that has informed EJN's growth and action over the years.

Three of EJN's seven stated goals precisely parallel the founding principles of PCELS-2.

  • Principle one, "To enable community activists to defeat polluting industries,"
  • principle two, "To create participant-led grassroots support networks around technologies that community groups are fighting,"
  • and the fourth goal, "To bring NIMBY (not in my back yard) groups to a NIABY analysis (not in anyone's back yard),"

simply are not the sorts of organizing precepts that one will find in Sierra Club or old-line environmental groups.

The remaining EJN Goals deal more with networking, outreach, activated-coalition-building and Mike's own background as a campus activist in the Student Environmental Action Coalition, at a workshop of which he first articulated the basic outlines of what was to become EJN.

2003 and 2004 initiated EJN forays outside Pennsylvania, to neighboring Maryland and Virginia. EJN also "(p)articipated in the 2nd international meeting of the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance (GAIA), held in Malaysia," which has subsequently become the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives/ Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance, a name expansion that reflect the group's commitment to truly renewable and sustainable energy alternatives that have zero disparate impact on the poor and people of color and a goal of zero waste emissions.

2005 through the present has witnessed the extension of EJN to work in 36 states and on three continents. The group has retained leadership in opposing Fibrowatt and related chicken-litter electricity projects, their Fibrowatch website a powerful tool for communities to use in establishing motivated local action against this dirtier-than-coal technique that masquerades as clean and green.

In addition to helping to stop a Fibrowatt implementation in Georgia, during the same period, EJN provided data and network and advisory support to folks in Page County, Virginia and Surrey County, N.C., among others. As ever, Homeland Renewable Energy sought to plant its legacy of toxic emissions and noxious gasses among poor and Black workers of the South, where all of the company website's planned developments are also to take place.

In this sense, the defeated initiative in Georgia was exceptional. Lavonia had fewer poor folk and people of color, compared to other HRE/Fibrowatt schemes.

The No-New-Coal-Plants coalition also dates from this more recent period. A multi-national and cross-country U.S. alliance, it has helped citizens to forestall or eliminate sought-after expansion of coal by utilities in North Carolina, Colorado, and elsewhere.

This commitment to honestly sustainable and environmentally sound energy is thorough-going. As Mike Ewall has written,

"Energy Justice is the first national organization to advocate a complete phase-out of nuclear power, fossil fuels, large hydroelectric dams and "biomass"/ incineration within the next 20 years. We believe that this is possible, affordable and absolutely necessary. What is holding us back is only a lack of political will."

While the website hasn't yet updated some of these EJN accomplishments, this is understandable. Mike and his colleagues are already performing Herculean labors in helping to keep the down-home stables of this country, and other nations, capable of keeping out the crappy energy that corporate power companies want to deliver.

The networking legerdemain of this organization truly makes it a rubric for others. These efforts have involved strategic linkages; recognition of the need to permit communities to lead; guerrilla marketing, though not for profit but for popular empowerment, that would make most 'social entrepreneurs' envious. Altogether, EJN's work represents state-of-the-art best practices in helping communities gain voice, insight, and dispositive power over their own futures.

As impressive as all of this is, however, the vision underlying the organization is arguably equally potent and central to its success.


To an extent the constructs of Environmental Justice and Environmental Racism tell a tale of astounding political and social impact. Many PCELS-2 documents noted this.

"Environmental racism and environmental justice panels have become “hot” topics at national conferences and forums sponsored by law schools, bar associations, public health groups, scientific societies...In just a short time, environmental justice advocates have had a profound impact on public policy, industry practices, national conferences, private foundation funding, research, and curriculum development. Environmental justice courses and curricula can be found at nearly every university in the country. Groups have been successful in blocking numerous permits for new polluting facilities and forced government and private industry buyout and relocation of several communities impacted by Superfund sites and industrial pollution. Environmental justice has trickled up to the federal government and the White House. Environmental justice activists and academicians were key actors who convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (under the first Bush Administrations) to create an Office on Environmental Equity. ...Clearly, environmental justice is not a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s just about justice."

When I ask him to orient readers who are thus far innocent about the importance of 'Environmental Justice'(EJ), Mike Ewall, however, is very clear that 'equity' alone does not yield justice. "This is not merely an issue of fairness," he says, adding that, "for corporations, EJ often means moving nasty crap around, so that everybody gets a little bit. Environmental Justice is about stopping the poisoning of people, period, because safer alternatives exist."

Still, EJN and Mike acknowledge the significant disproportion in impact that has attended corporate energy and environmental decisions. Not one 'cancer alley' is on the map in a community like the 'Hamptons,' or in a city like Beverly Hills, California. In fact, according to Mike Ewall's research on the matter, which is venerable and authoritative, "Not just class, but also skin color, is really important. Even middle income Blacks face greater risk than do most Whites."

And these disparities have in many instances worsened, despite the veracity of PCELS-2's summation of many victories. Thus, a lasting taint of vicious disparity continues, in some cases growing more enervating and destructive. And this nation's minorities, along with many poor Whites, are on the receiving end of this putrid pipeline of poison.

To view a litany of such noisome data, one may look at any one of the 35,000 citations that result from a database search of the following term of art: "health disparities task force." These are ubiquitous anywhere in the U.S., because everywhere in the U.S., minorities and the poor suffer egregiously compared to their Anglo cousins. This reference, to Texas, recounts some of this dispiriting evidence of inequity. Indisputably, unnecessary inequity is a travesty of justice.

EJ itself emerged as a concept from the recognition of Environmental Racism. "Energy Justice Network... .recognizes that low-income communities and communities of color tend to be the most seriously impacted by polluting energy systems. We support a comprehensive, environmental justice approach" for this reason.

That systematic bigotry and discrimination by different, privileged troops of earth's cousins regularly take place against other benighted groups of cousins, whose only noticeable difference was skin color, would seem insane to a rational alien visitor. But the continuation of such patterns obviously stems from racialist thinking, which, in the present social context, must always be 'racist.'

Martin Luther King's 'long arc' of justice has brought transformative changes to the United States. Between the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and now, a clearer comprehension has emerged that "social determinants," such matters as what communities have access to good schools versus access to toxic waste dumps, in many cases predetermine outcomes, in one case highly competitive graduates and in another disproportionate rates of cancer and neurological disease.

In 1982, for example, PCELS-2 noted, in the Summit's timeline many instances of resistance to such negative social determinants, for example that

"Warren County residents protest(ed) the siting of a polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) landfill in Warren County, North Carolina. It is also noteworthy that it was in Warren County that Dr. Benjamin Chavis coined the term 'environmental racism.'"

Above all else, EJ emerged as a movement. It was not a 'paralysis of analysis.' Yet action merely for the sake of action was not the rule either, as has occasionally seemed an accurate way of looking at 'protest movements.' Rather, the EJ activists incorporated pensive assessments of the strategic landscape with deeply rooted locally based action to accomplish specific goals.

In their introduction to the comprehensive and powerful collection, Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: the Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement, Ronald Sandler and Phaedra Pezullo summarize this point incisively. AAEJAN's and other such groups' "proponents," they say,

"have organized the groups horizontally rather than reproduce the hierarchical structures of other types of environmental organizations. The movement continues to devote a good part of its efforts to developing local grassroots groups through community organizing and to developing networks among them through such events as summits. Because of its rootedness in community and everyday life, the movement has developed what one of our research participants, Conrad Ratcliffe, calls a 'homegrown flavor.' In his estimation, this local focus is necessary....(to) save us from the industries inside the communities."

From what an observer can see, the influence of such thoughtful strategizing on EJN is obvious; the positive results have also been easy to discern, even as the troubling persistence of both disparate health outcomes and corporate impunity in seeking to spew toxins have also continued.

EJ is a huge topic. One can find Principles of Environmental Justice here. These include such common sense radicalism as the following, numbers seven through nine:

  • 7) Environmental Justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making, including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
  • 8) Environmental Justice affirms the right of all workers to a safe and healthy work environment without being forced to choose between an unsafe livelihood and unemployment. It also affirms the right of those who work at home to be free from environmental hazards.
  • 9) Environmental Justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.

Clark Atlanta University has a huge trove of research materials about this topic at its Environmental Justice Resource Center. Googling "environmental justice" yields 1.4 million pertinent leads. As is the tendency with any complex and powerful intellectual innovation, many fissures and variations have come to pass, so that the original focus on communities and justice may not always be present.

But a decades-long participant in EJ struggles has finessed the potential for co-optation by noting that, "In any utilization of environmental justice that retains the integrity of its original vision, obtaining justice is more than the foremost consideration. It is a sine qua non for evaluating whether EJ is present at all."

Mike Ewall would probably agree. In any event, he states this: "Taking direction from our grassroots base and the Principles of Environmental Justice, we advocate a clean energy, zero-emission, zero-waste future for all."


"The entire energy sector--nukes, coal, oil, etc.--has a huge impact on people, and this impact isn't 'spread around;' companies often don't do what they can or what they promise"

to reduce harms, so substantial issues of justice are always present in energy matters.

Mike is more specific at times.

"Industry has realized that branding itself 'green and clean' can get people to accept all sorts of toxins. Nuclear power, for example, is the most filthy and racist of industries. All over the Southeast especially, the location of reactors tends toward low income and Black communities (an upcoming report on Georgia Power's Plant Vogtle confirms this conception of insidious harm visited on small Black communities) Uranium mining and waste disposal are especially racist, impacting Native American, indigenous"

and minority peoples all over the place.

As Mike shows his readers and listeners alike, EJN

"goes beyond the demands of the traditional state and national environmental groups. We understand that energy issues have profound impacts on many other environmental issues from agriculture to waste,"

and that society must address these matters from both inside the energy forum--hence the nitty-gritty struggles of the far-flung communities within EJN's networks--and from an independent base of empowered and capacitated communities, linked together--hence the networking process itself.

Neither Mike, nor even the website, makes much mention of the standard tropes regarding energy. Neither 'climate change' nor 'peak oil,' for example, are anything like central to EJN projects and prospects. This is not a matter of inattention or ignorance. Mike Ewall is brilliantly aware of how the world fits together, in a phrase, 'what's going on.'

Rather, EJN forcefully chooses to start with justice and work from that juncture. Now, solving the problems of global warming and diminishing resources almost certainly depends on, or will be substantially influenced by, making sure that justice has a front row center seat in any effort to address these more technical issues.

Of the more than half a million Google citations that appear from the search, "global warming" + "social justice," most at least bow to the notion expressed by the group Global Issues. It argued as follows.

"This notion of 'climate justice' is typically ignored by many rich nations and their mainstream media, making it easy to blame China, India and other developing countries, or gain credence in the 'false balancing' argument that if they must be subject to emission reductions then so must China and India. There may be a case for emerging nations to be subject to some reduction targets, but the burden of reductions must lie with industrialized countries".

But again, Mike Ewall and EJN, though aware of such 'memes', do not highlight such utilitarian reasoning. Instead, they remain adamant that justice is the only rational choice because it is good, honorable, and just, in a word virtuous. Moreover, EJN's and Mike's concentration on science and community--not nation, not tribe, not creed, but community and social roots--never wavers.

The technologies extant today allow us to create power without poisoning people of color and the poor. These technologies allow a massive reduction in, or even complete elimination of, toxic energy effluents. Technology permits us to create community-centered, decent paying, and sustainably 'green' employment.

All that is missing, as Mike never tires of pointing out, is the political power--that and the democracy to go with it. His focus, and the focus of EJN, now includes this fight for democracy. And the natural locus of that focus is energy, the linchpin of modern socio-political development.

A specific proposal for gaining that political momentum is currently part of EJN's mission as well. Entitled "How to Overthrow Corporate Rule in 5, Not-So-Easty Steps," the online face of the proposition states, "This page is devoted to those who are interested in getting to the root of society's problems. How nice would it be if our government wasn't answering to their corporate masters, but to community concerns? How much easier would our efforts be if people weren't so overworked and had more time to volunteer? Wouldn't it be great to have the media reporting critically on serious community issues rather than pandering to the the interests of their wealthy owners and advertisers?" Certainly, this is not standard fare on JustMeans. But perhaps this is one way of envisioning a 'Corporate Social Responsibility' that actually achieves its purposes.


I ask Mike directly if EJN adheres to such approaches as Community Based Participatory Research, about which we will be hearing more in coming weeks.

"We draw a lot on that from that model; our 'expertise' is in the community. Big groups are more conservative, promoting old news, and they need 'grassroots wisdom' that EJN networks are constantly uncovering. Building a critique comes from this."

He might have suggested that I examine the precepts of Participatory Action Research for gaining knowledge and power. Such theories, while both interesting and important, do not supersede the necessity for networked action, nor do they surpass the fact that true science is impossible outside of this community-engaged context.

A lot of community expertise, according to Ewall, goes to waste or is ignored, not only by large, 'big-box' environmental organizations, but also by companies and governments, and the scientists that they hire. In contrast, "Our expertise is squarely in the community," he says.

The primary goals of the Energy Justice Network, after all, uniformly mandate community power and leadership. Numbers one through four state explicitly the objectives:

  1. To enable community activists to defeat polluting industries.
  2. To create participant-led grassroots support networks around technologies that community groups are fighting..
  3. To bridge the campus-community divide.
  4. To bring NIMBY (not in my backyard) groups to a NIABY analysis (not in anyone's backyard).

Democracy is absurd without powerful grassroots capacity. This empowerment of community, in turn, is the most likely link to democratic power. Our survival as a species may in fact depend on getting these connections straight and then taking action about our new found understanding. This may be why the likes of Mike Ewall are willing to work so hard, in addition to his soulful commitment to justice, whatever the price.


If 'answers' were as easy as reliable effort, articles such as this would serve no more purpose than simple documentation. However, despite the impressive record of representing minority and poor communities and attaining consistent results that approximate greater justice, the work of EJN remains decidedly outside of both the main streams of social dialogue and the primary currents of political decision-making.

Thus, this text invokes a purpose well beyond documentation, serving as well to suggest a pattern for communities--and those who would serve communities in regard to technical and energy-related struggles--to follow in achieving greater justice--again, not just equity, or spreading the pain fairly, but energy justice, assuring that environmentally friendly and scientifically sound development is the standard measure of social economic engagement with energy issues.

In such a context, the primary question for communities now--in some ways, a key question in regard to the future potential of democracy generally--is how the networking and knowledge mirrored in EJN's contributions can regularly and rigorously become a part of communities operating in concert to manifest bottom-up leadership. Plausibly, only in such a fashion, will a society like the United States be able to avoid a future dominated by radioactive and other highly toxic, centralized, and expensive--economically and socially--forms of power.


Inasmuch as models are always useful, and that in times of transition they may be essential, a clear priority of this present pass of energy transition that we face is the modeling of different approaches to achieving the ends that we say we want. The Energy Justice Network, and the labors of Mike Ewall and the many community and organizational leaders with whom he has collaborated, represent an important model for citizens seeking energy that not only works but also is virtuous.

But before closing, a simple inquiry is apt. "What exactly does EJN's efforts proffer to us in the way of a template?" Clearly, ways of activating ourselves, ways of organizing ourselves, and ways of learning are on display for observers to contemplate and follow.

Equally pertinent, however--and some, such as this humble correspondent, might say even more to the point, we have the opportunity, in investigating and pondering the ongoing projects and plans of EJN, to try on for size powerful ways of learning to be citizens. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy again offers us some insight about this matter.

Jack Crittendon, in his essay there entitled "Civic Education", writes that "Civic education, whenever and however undertaken, prepares people of a country, especially the young, to carry out their roles as citizens. Civic education is, therefore, political education..., 'the cultivation of the virtues, knowledge, and skills necessary for political participation.'” Without exploring this idea in any great depth, we might assert that in many ways the United States not only is lacking in Civic Education but also practices many forms of misleadership in this realm.

Crittendon cautions citizens to be aware of this. "Those in charge of (civic education)," he notes, "may wish to indoctrinate students rather than educate them, thereby abandoning the very mission that they initially undertook. As Sheldon Wolin phrased it: '…he inherent danger…is that the identity given to the collectivity by those who exercise power will reflect the needs of power rather than the political possibilities of a complex collectivity.'”

I implore readers to savor Professor Crittendon's words. Especially, the next time that an 'expert' says, in effect, to citizens, 'You are too ignorant to understand; you should silence yourselves and do as we who know better tell you,' I ask that folks recall the necessity, in a democracy, that the rulers should often follow and the ruled often lead, and not vice versa. That is a model from which life for our progeny might spring in abundance.

Next time, we will encounter a more individualistic, though equally iconoclastic, model of social transformation, in the form of a profile for the redoubtable and estimable Don Harris, 'Father' of modern Microhydro power technology.

Photo Credits

Math Model: Ryan Somma
Natural Gas Co: Woolie Monster
Malcolm X: Luxerta
No nukes sign: James Stencilowsky
Benjamin Chavis: CPX Interactive
Miners: Janet
Homeless Man: Thomas Euler
Democracy: NIOSH
Street: Tavis Ford
Nuclear Cooling Tower: John