Energy Choices: What Should We Do About America’s Energy Future? (NIFI Issue Guide)

The issue guide placemat, What Should We Do About America’s Energy Future?, was published on National Issues Forums Institute site in Summer 2017. This issue guide gives three options for participants to deliberate around the issue of how America’s energy consumption is sustainable.

In addition to the issue guide placemat, there is also a post-forum questionnaire available to download on NIFI’s site here.

From the guide…

Meeting the United States’ substantial appetite for energy raises a complex network of economic, environmental, and political issues. There are national-security and economic concerns, environmental problems like air and water pollution, and potential climate-change effects from fossil fuels, such as extreme weather, sea- level rise, and changing growing seasons.

Americans have long been aware of the wide- ranging impacts of fueling our energy needs, along with ever-increasing global demands. This awareness is reflected in growing support for clean energy, development of new ways to extract oil and natural gas, efforts to do more with less power, and so on.

Concerns over foreign entanglements, terrorism, and carbon pollution from fossil fuels have grown. At the same time, new domestic production from oil, natural gas, and renewable sources has helped America move closer to energy independence. New technologies for power production, storage, vehicle fuels, and energy efficiency are proliferating. The question is how to navigate this changing landscape and arrive at an energy future that supports a thriving economy.

This guide presents three options based on views and concerns of people from across the country. Any path we choose will put some of these concerns into tension with some others. Our task is to deliberate, or weigh options for action against the things that people hold valuable. What should America do to ensure a continuing supply of energy to meet our needs as well as those of our children and grandchildren?

This issue guide placemat presents three options for deliberation:

Option 1: Keep America Self-Reliant and Stable
We should use our own abundant natural resources to produce all the energy we need to fuel our economy and avoid entanglements in unstable and unfriendly regions. Relying on the market and technological advancements will continue to lead us to a cleaner energy future, BUT large-scale energy production, even solar and wind power, has major environmental impacts, and unfairly affects communities near facilities like mines, refineries, and transmission lines. Furthermore, the transition to cleaner energy may not occur quickly enough to stave off the threat of climate change.

Option 2: Take Local Responsibility for Clean Energy
If we want our country to transition to clean, low-carbon power, everyone needs to participate, as not only a consumer but also a producer. Currently, most of the electricity in our system flows one way, from large power plants through transmission and distribution lines to end users. We need to decentralize that system to enable more clean, locally produced energy to ow where it is needed, BUT retooling our power grid and fueling infrastructure could be costly, take a long time, and cause economic disruptions. This would change how our communities look and how we live, and add a responsibility for producing power, which people may not want or be able to afford.

Option 3: Find Ways to Use Less Energy
We should aggressively reduce energy use and boost efficiency. Energy consumption in the United States has leveled off recently, but to tackle climate change, we must rapidly reduce carbon emissions. Using less energy could also lead to greater security, BUT requiring energy conservation could restrict personal choices and limit economic growth. And tackling climate change could depend more on replacing fossil fuels with cleaner fuels than on how much energy we use.

About NIFI Issue Guides
NIFI’s Issue Guides introduce participants to several choices or approaches to consider. Rather than conforming to any single public proposal, each choice reflects widely held concerns and principles. Panels of experts review manuscripts to make sure the choices are presented accurately and fairly. By intention, Issue Guides do not identify individuals or organizations with partisan labels, such as Democratic, Republican, conservative, or liberal. The goal is to present ideas in a fresh way that encourages readers to judge them on their merit.

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Lightning Talk

I’m just returning from three back to back conferences: PolNet, hosted by Ohio State University; NetSci, hosted by Indiana University, and Frontiers of Democracy hosted by Tisch College at Tufts University. All three conferences were great, and they all brought together people from various slices of my work at the intersection of political science, network science, and civic studies.

I expect that in the coming week I’ll post more reflecting on each of these conferences, but for now I wanted to share a brief lightning talk I gave to introduce myself at the NetSci satellite session hosted by the Society for Young Network Scientists. We were each restricted to 3 minutes – which isn’t very much time when speaking to a cross-disciplinary group with divergent areas of focus.

But here’s what I came up with, as I tried to explain the motivation behind my (nascent) research:

Good morning everyone. My name is Sarah Shugars and I’m a doctoral student at Northeastern’s Network Science program where I just completed my 2nd year.

My work is driven by the central question: What should we do?

 Every word in this sentence is important:

  • What: What are the specific actions to be taken?
  • Should: What are the right actions and what are the right criteria for making that decision?
  • We: Literally you and I. Humans in this room. As citizens, we are each agents with a role to play in shaping the world around us. We may choose actions aimed at influencing others, but fundamentally we must decide how we will act – individually and together.
  • And of course Do: Once we figure out what actions should be done – we must actually do those actions.

What should we do?

This framework comes from civic studies, specifically Peter Levine at Tufts University.

The question is intended to give agency to individuals, but also to the communities they belong to. As members of a society we should neither act with blind individualism – doing whatever we want whenever we want it – nor should we completely withdraw from political life, abdicating our responsibility to add our unique ideas and perspectives to the collective challenge of tackling complicated problems.

We each have a responsibility to share our own voices – and to ensure that the voices of those around us are heard. We have a responsibility to build spaces were everyone can participate in addressing the fundamental challenge we face: 

What should we do?

You may be wondering what this question has to do with Network Science. Like all of you, my work is also driven by another question:

What are the nodes and what are the links?

On one level we could think of this as a social network problem: Who comes into contact with whom and how are ideas propagated and created throughout the network?

These are important questions, but the core of my work focuses on a different level of analysis: How do we collectively reason about our shared problems?

Under this conception, I take nodes to be ideas, beliefs or concepts. The edges between them represent the logical or conceptual connections between these ideas. I believe A, which is related to my belief B.

Importantly these networks may have seeming inconsistencies – ideas may be in tension with each other and may struggle to co-exist. When coming to a decision about an issue then, I weigh the different factors at stake – these are the nodes in my network – and I come to a conclusion appropriate to the context.

These individual networks of ideas then connect as we reason together. We each shape the networked thinking of those around us while simultaneously shifting our own beliefs. We may discard nodes or edges, or even collectively discover new nodes and edges we hadn’t considered before.

In reasoning together – in collectively searching the solution space – we can find and evaluate solutions, we can work together to answer the question:

What should we do?

Thank you.


how to get a deliberative democracy

The annual Frontiers of Democracy conference ended on Saturday–and my thanks to the 150 dedicated and skillful participants. It’s billed as a gathering of people committed to various forms of democratic reform, but it tends to draw colleagues from one of the fields in which I also proudly work: deliberative democracy. Two thirds of the 100 people who completed a pre-conference survey said they work on dialogue and deliberation. Of those (about one third) who said that they are active in social movements, more than 60 percent also said that they specialize in dialogue and deliberation. That means that many participants organize and/or study events and processes that aim to be representative, balanced, transpartisan, inclusive, equitable, “civil” (in some version of that word), and discursive. Openly contentious forms of politics are not widely represented at the conference. Just over one quarter of attendees are interested in government reform, but since the vast majority of those also said they work on deliberation, I think the reforms they support tend to be public deliberations–rather than, say, voting rights.

I believe in deliberative values, although I don’t think they are the only values we need in a complex modern democracy. For me, the question is whether to pursue values such as deliberation directly–by organizing deliberative spaces and projects–or to promote changes in the political economy that might generate better deliberation as a byproduct.

For instance, I asked participants to consider eight possible responses to the current political crisis, of which two involved “winning the next election.” Half a dozen participants have told me they object to this option. For some, the framing is too partisan, implying that Donald Trump is the problem and that a Democratic victory in 2018 would be a solution. For others, the framing is too conservative, in the sense that it reflects support for our basic process of adversarial, representative democracy. Can’t we move beyond elections to become a deliberating (if not a beloved) community?

I sincerely welcome this feedback, which prompts a valuable discussion. Speaking just for myself, I would raise doubts about the strategy of promoting deliberation by being explicitly and directly deliberative. It’s plausible that Donald Trump represents a clear and present threat to deliberative democracy, not because he’s identified with the right and the GOP, but because he is opposed to truth, civility, inclusion, equity, and constitutional limitations. (I have argued that he is anti-conservative in fundamental ways). Further, it may be that when deliberative values are threatened by very powerful politicians, the pressing need is to defeat them decisively at the next election. Finally, it may be the case that the only plausible agents capable of defeating Donald Trump are Democratic candidates and never-Trump Republican candidates (including true conservatives). In that case, “winning the next election” is an essential and urgent step to defend deliberative democracy.

Likewise, it may be that the best way to revivify a moribund public sphere is to support contentious social movements that resist the two powerful “systems” of state and market and thus compel discussion of overlooked issues. These movements will not be deliberative. In fact, they may gravitate to occupations, boycotts, and other adversarial modes. But their byproduct is a more deliberative democracy.

My main point is that we must consider the choice between direct and indirect paths to deliberative democracy, taking due account of the institutions, incentives, power structures, and social divisions that actually exist in our society.

For what it’s worth, my own view would be that it’s important to build and sustain a movement devoted to explicit work on dialogue and deliberation. Deliberative experiments yield knowledge of group processes, generate models that can be inspiring, and produce a cadre of professionals whose well-deserved reputations for skillful neutrality make them useful at opportune moments.

But I don’t see a political strategy for taking such work to scale. I don’t see who would pay for it or what would motivate most Americans to participate in it. (And I think the disproportionately white, middle-class makeup of the Frontiers participants reflects the limited appeal of this approach). Professional proponents of dialogue and deliberation will succeed when–and only when–powerful grassroots political movements, including parties, force changes in our basic political systems. It’s their work that increasingly draws my attention.

See also: three views of the Democratic Party when democracy is at risk; saving Habermas from the deliberative democratssaving relational politics.

The Frustration of Dialogue and Deliberation

It’s the third day of the Frontiers of Democracy conference, and the mood is different than I can recall. Last year during the conference we received news that Great Britain had voted to leave the European Union: this year the conference began with a preconference on authoritarianism. Many attendees answered an ice-breaking prompt from Caesar McDowell about what they don’t want to talk about here with some variation of “the election” or “Trump” or even “the party system.” Yet we also had a plenary session on US democracy’s vulnerabilities led by the Democracy Fund, where they delved into the crosstabs of their latest voter study group report.

Later today we’ll discuss Peter Levine’s framework for responding to the election of Donald Trump, which one plenary speaker described as reminiscent of “the John Birch Society” for its resolutely anti-administration approach. And I’ve also heard devoted deliberative democrats talking about refusing to “trust the system” and even “blowing up the system.” One panel was titled “How to start a revolution,”  though I had to miss it because it conflicted with the panel I ran on Civic Games. (An attendee of the revolutionary conference reported to me that she walked out a lot less optimistic than she began.)

Yet my colleagues here are certainly not contemplating the violent overthrow of the current order: one of the most popular plenary speakers was the President of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict. He presented on the work of Chenoweth and Stephan, who used a century of data to show that nonviolent resistance movements are twice as likely to succeed as violent ones–and that the results of such civil resistance are nine and a half times more likely to be democratic when they do succeed than violent movements.

I rather suspect that this is a minor aberration, but for a conference that began in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama titled, “No Better Time,” and spent many years afterwards bemoaning the lost civic engagement of that campaign season, it has been interesting to watch how attitudes change and methods evolve. Many many of the civic professionals I know are embracing Black Lives Matter and the implicit rejection of deliberative methods therein. Professional mediators and dialogue facilitators are talking about the importance of action, symbolic speech and protest, and resistance. They are–we are–frustrated. I can’t wait to see what we do together next.

The Micro-Commons of Amherst

When I walk my dog Jackson along a burbling brook, I always smile when I pass the Bunny House.  It’s like greeting a familiar leprechaun in the forest.  The “house” is a small wooden box with a shingled roof, sitting atop a four-foot pole.  One side of it is open to passing hikers.

Peer in and you can see two tiny stuffed rabbit-dolls sitting on chairs in a living room enjoying a cup of tea. There is a table in the house, with a thick book on it, and a tiny mirror on the back wall bearing the inscription, “Home, the spot of earth supremely blest / A dearer, sweeter spot than all the rest….”

It’s a mystery who had the whimsy to build this fairy-tale jewel in the forest. I’ve always appreciated it as a puckish gift to pleasantly startled strangers. In the years I’ve been walking there, no one has ever vandalized the Bunny Room. It has become a kind of folk-art fixture and landmark.

I have come to realize that the Bunny Room is no aberration in and around my town of Amherst, Massachusetts. There are other monuments of homespun generosity and expressive beauty that some anonymous souls simply decided would enliven the community. I call them micro-commons because they slyly build a shared community of appreciation that is rooted in a particular, meaningful spot.

Stone pile, Buffam Brook Community Forest

Another micro-commons that I love is an impressive pile of stones on a hiking trail in nearby Pelham. The four-foot work sits like a prehistoric alter in the dark, quiet woods known as Buffam Brook Community Forest.  There is a verdant forest canopy some 30 or 40 feet overhead and the happy sounds of a cascading stream off to one side.  The stone pile – a four-foot high cylinder that tapers to smaller circumferences at the top and bottom – is made from hundreds of stones, each carefully fit together.

I realized how much the landmark meant to me when, after several days of fierce storms, I was walking by and noticed that a tree branch had fallen on the structure, destroying much of it.  Tragic!  I was so dismayed.  The mess made me realize how much I had come to love this living piece of folk art and the thoughtfulness behind it.  The next spring, lo and behold, the same anonymous stone-worker had quietly re-built the pile of stones. It lives!

I call these anonymous gifts to the world micro-commons because countless people have come to depend on them as welcoming landmarks and symbols of this place. They subtly convey a sense of care and appreciation for our favorite spots, and their own spirit. The anonymity of their creation makes them radiate a special feeling, as if to say, “Here is my expression of gratitude for this wonderful place.”

The micro-commons remind me of the cover image on the original edition of Lewis Hyde’s classic book The Gift, which featured a painting, “Basket of Apples,” by unknown members of the 19th Century Shaker Community in Hancock, Massachusetts. “The Shakers believed that they received their arts as gifts from the spiritual world,” writes Hyde. “Persons who strove to become receptive of songs, dances, paintings, and so forth were said to be ‘laboring for a gift,’ and that the works that they created circulated as gifts within the community.”

Perhaps I’m making too much of some simple folk art, but these micro-commons always make me feel good about the world. Since encountering the first two, I have run across others. In a nearby neighborhood, someone erected a “little library” – a weather-sheltered box with a window in front, which contains a few dozen books. Anyone can contribute to the collection, or borrow and share books:  a lovely gesture of neighborliness.

A few weeks ago, I took Jackson to a forested trail in the town of Leverett. At a certain point in the hike, we encountered a bench looking out on a gorgeous meadow. Next to the bench was a wooden box containing a notebook, carefully wrapped in plastic to protect it from the rain. The notebook was filled with homegrown poetry!  Hikers pausing for a rest were invited to contribute their own spontaneous poems in response to the beauty all around them.

The notebook didn’t contain great poetry, as I recall.  But the sublime landscape was surely the kind of scenery that had once inspired Emily Dickinson – a local icon – to contribute her own unabashed “letters to the world.” That may be all that it takes to create an invisible community of affection – an open notebook or a pile of stones, and an attitude of gratitude.

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