A Community-Led Clean Energy Revolution Is Taking Hold. Why Aren’t We Hearing About It?

Walk through the mountain town of Adjuntas, Puerto Rico, and you’ll find arrays of solar panels atop most homes and commercial businesses. These affordable, reliable, and resilient systems have spearheaded a grassroots, decentralized clean energy boom throughout a region that has been pummeled by extreme weather events that have repeatedly collapsed Puerto Rico’s centralized natural gas electric grid. This community-led effort was borne out of necessity: The government continues to invest billions propping up its failed fossil-fueled system rather than meet its legal mandate to rapidly decarbonize by next year. In the absence of political leadership, Puerto Rico’s civil society groups have stepped up to make rooftop solar and battery storage systems accessible to everyone—empowering low-to-moderate income residents and local business owners to achieve energy security, independence, and peace of mind in the wake of the next storm. I, Laura, advocate for community groups in court, and I’m amazed by what I’m seeing: communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis are embracing clean energy to reclaim their power, both literally and figuratively, from the shackles of fossil fuel dependency.

Solar panels supply energy to the community
Solar panels supply energy to the community center and school of the Mariana neighborhood in the city of Humacao, west of Puerto Rico, on Sept. 12, 2018.


So why hasn’t this translated into mass adoption of clean energy technology nationwide? Well despite all the buzz surrounding historic climate legislation, American pop culture still overwhelmingly reinforces messaging put out by the fossil fuel industry that tells us that society “just isn’t ready” to say goodbye to oil and gas. Culture change always precedes policy change, and for decades industry has successfully framed zero-emission technology as unrealistic and elitist, compared to the “working man’s” old faithful: oil and gas. This narrative has become increasingly difficult to maintain as global price shocks and extreme weather events shut down fossil fuel-dependent systems, saddle customers with enormous utility bills, and send food and fuel prices soaring. Despite this, industry continues to be effective at prolonging its chokehold over our energy system because of its multi-million dollar greenwashing ad campaigns and enormous financial influence over elected officials and news media.

Fortunately, the millions of us whose health, homes, and safety have been upended by the fossil fuel industry have a powerful, cost-effective tool to push back: our lived experiences. That’s why to win the clean energy economy we deserve, we need to lean into storytelling as a vehicle for systems change. Favianna’s home state of California is perfectly suited to make this happen: among the hardest hit by the climate crisis, the Golden State is a global epicenter for both the entertainment industry and clean energy innovation.

Integrating climate narratives into pop culture has immense power to change hearts and minds—there’s data to back this. According to the Good Energy Climate Playbook, the belief that others are already engaging in climate action is the greatest predictor of what will inspire individual action—far more than political affiliation or concern about climate change. It’s cliche to say, but representation matters: TV shows, movies, music, and cultural events that normalize working-class communities adopting affordable zero-emission technology will empower audiences to make these changes in their own lives.

On April 11, San Juan, Puerto Rico, hosted the Concert for Energy Independence, a celebration that brought together artists from all over the world united in the fight to demand a clean energy system that is accessible to all. Cultural moments like this, which champion the perspectives of working-class people, are how we take back the narrative around the clean energy transition away from industry-engineered false solutions.

Solving the climate crisis using artistry and storytelling might seem like a strange approach to a scientist or political staffer, but pop culture has always been fundamental to realizing transformative change. As an artist who grew up in Oakland in the ’80s and ’90s, I, Favianna, witnessed my community be torn apart by the catastrophic “war on drugs” that unjustly vilified and incarcerated people of color. Never mind that this scheme did nothing to address the real drivers of drug abuse: It was simply a cover for politicians to justify the intensified criminalization of Black people, whose imprint over American pop culture posed an existential threat to the political status quo. In much the same way, a grassroots clean energy transition that prioritizes the working class threatens the oil and gas industry’s entire business model—that’s why it has spent decades trying to convince us that such a transition is nothing more than a fever dream.

Our best defense against propaganda is our lived experience. It’s time that we reflect that experience through the stories that we tell.

Laura Arroyo is a senior attorney at Earthjustice and the former executive advisor to Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Natural and Environmental Resources.

Favianna Rodriguez is a cultural strategist, artist, climate justice activist, and founder and CEO of The Center for Cultural Power based in Oakland, Calif.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.