I live in a state that was recently ranked 44th in the nation for volunteerism. However, it's not necessarily the style of government here that dissuades people from getting involved. In fact, Rhode Island's government is very, very local. You could be at the grocery store and run into your mayor or even your governor. More often, you run into your town councilor or your state representative. So it's not like other states in which political leaders seem so far away and abstract that getting involved just seems like a lot of work for little impact.
I do think there is far less leisure time these days. People just have to work more now than they did fifty years ago. But our democracy is at stake here! What good is a democracy when the side who has the most money to spend on paid lobbyists has the biggest "voice"? What happened to citizen lobbyists and civic engagement, or just a well-informed public?
Saul Alinsky pointed out that there are two forms of power: people and money. Well, the Sierra Club is never going to have the treasury that ExxonMobil has. But we can have more people. And people equals votes.
Unfortunately, money also pays for message. So many of the people who are opposed to President Obama's Clean Energy Plan have been informed only by the sly Big Oil message machine - casting doubt where there is none, and misinforming people about the costs and benefits of the various energy sources America has.
This was evident during the recent town halls across the country. But since we, theoretically, have the people, we can really work to promote the correct message about our energy future. People have a tendency to digest the news with their friends and neighbors. What if Sierra Club members everywhere hosted a small meeting in their homes, to which they invite their friends and neighbors who aren't necessarily card-carrying environmentalists, to discuss our energy future within the proper framework - that is, energy independence, transportation choices, and a new prosperity.
Keep it simple, short and sweet, and rooted in your values - not wonky technical rhetoric or dry facts. People will only hear the truth that sets them free if that truth is framed in our shared values.
The classic house party is ideal for this: it's easy to organize, can be fun, it's social, and it's over in an hour and a half. You can make it a movie night with your favorite documentary and make it pot luck so there's less pressure for snacks.
Cesar Chavez got involved in the United Farmworkers by hosting a house meeting. Later, when asked what his secret was in growing such a large and effective movement, he replied, "The only way I know how to organize people is to talk to one person, then talk to another person, then talk to another person."
I'm not going to try to say that wind mills and streetcars are going to make Rhode Island the land of Oz. But if we do take a bite of reality and notice a few things, I think we can move toward an economy of prosperity rather than austerity, as Scott Wolf from Grow Smart RI puts it.
First, every single drop of energy used in Rhode Island, be it electricity, heat or motorization, is imported from other places. Now, there are a few solar roofs, and there are the two wind turbines in Portsmouth, but in the big picture 99.99% of the energy used in Rhode Island is imported. (Even food!) Most of that, by far, is either fossil fuels, like coal, oil and natural gas, or dangerous nuclear energy fueled by uranium, imported from Arizona and other regions of the world.
The wind project proposed by Governor Carcieri and supported by the General Assembly is a great step in reducing our dependence on imported electricity. But what about transportation?
What about transportation??? The transportation sector is Rhode Island's largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Passenger cars in Rhode Island account for as much global warming pollution as all the electricity used in the Ocean State. That dependence on cars is costing the Rhode Island economy between $500 million and $1.5 billion every year in gasoline imports.
While we need more fuel efficient cars, we also need LESS cars on the road. Think about it this way: if we double the fuel efficiency of our cars over the next forty years and also double the number of drivers or car-miles driven in Rhode Island, we will have done nothing for energy independence or global warming solutions.
Transportation choices, like bicycles and mass transit, represent a huge opportunity to empower Rhode Islanders to dictate our own energy future.
Rhode Island's prosperity will increasingly depend on our own energy independence. This doesn't mean that we'll all be millionaires. But by re-energizing our economy by building a world-class public transportation system, we will ensure that more hard-earned Rhode Island dollars stay at home, in our economy, broadening the prosperity of all Rhode Islanders. Expanding public transportation will require more jobs to build and operate the system. Further, by offering affordable and effective transportation choices, everyday hard-working people will be able to save more money in their daily commutes and afford more of the things they need to fulfill their lives.
So, what's coming down the pike... er, uh... the tracks? New transit modes in Providence, a new multimodal transportation plan on Aquidneck Island, a re-vamped South County transit system, more bicycle routes and lanes... the list goes on. Most importantly, the Obama administration will work with Congress to establish a new Federal Transportation Policy that could revolutionize America's transportation system with greater choices and less global warming. Let's make sure that happens.