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Social Justice

Future Shock and the Just Transition

Creating equity in the Hudson Valley.

Hudson Valley Just Transition, future summit, Hudson Valley equity
The Hudson Valley Future Summit at SUNY New Paltz discussed ways to transition to a more equitable future.
Photo: Robin Weinstein
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On November 18, about 125 scientists, artists, educators, activists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and developers convened at SUNY New Paltz for the fourth Hudson Valley Future Summit organized by the university. The theme of this year’s invite-only forum was “Creating Equity in the Hudson Valley,” a thorny topic tackled along seven different vectors: the arts, climate change, criminal justice, education, food insecurity, housing, and innovation/entrepreneurship.

“Why do we care about equity?” economist Evelyn Wright, of Commonwealth Hudson Valley, asked rhetorically during her keynote address. Because we have compassion, personal ethics, a sense of justice, Wright said, but there are reasons that go beyond us as individuals: public health and social problems like teen pregnancy, incarceration rates, and climate change are connected to equity. “What if we treated the causes rather than the effects?”

After the introductory keynotes, the gathered attendees broke out into conversation groups with headers like “Preparing the Hudson Valley and Protecting Our Environmental Resources”; “How Do We Combat Local Food Access Issues and Reduce Hunger in the Hudson Valley?”; and “Rebuilding from Urban Renewal: Reinvesting to Avoid Displacement and Create Equity.”

The summit was explicitly network-y, with the goal of fostering connections among changemakers so as to make the sweeping systemic changes that require intersectional cooperation. And, indeed, the room was a veritable Who’s Who of people working on these issues locally; I encountered folks who served as sources on articles I have written about equitable economic development and environmental activism in the Hudson Valley, among others. I found the summit to be a well-intentioned if ultimately unfocused set of colloquies—conversations that began, say, as cogent discussions of rural housing issues would metastasize into sprawling airings of grievances, frustrations, and fatalisms, which perhaps says more about the scale of the problem(s) than anything else.

But there is a lot to say about the scale of the problems. If we can agree that reckonings (of the climate, of capitalism, of social relations) are coming, then the question becomes: What do we do about it? How can we ensure that the society we build in response to the climate crisis, economic inequality, and discrimination won’t lead to the same traumas and violence—that all of what has happened before won’t happen again?

The Just Transition

Two-and-a-half weeks before the Hudson Valley Future Summit, a couple hundred people gathered at George Washington Elementary School in midtown Kingston for a series of public talks and workshops collectively titled “Surviving the Future: Connection and Community in Unstable Times.” The event adhered to a loosely organized “unconference” structure, designed to democratize conversation and elicit collective wisdom.

Like the Future Summit at SUNY New Paltz, discussions at “Surviving the Future” spun wildly from hyper-specific proposals to abstract theorizing, and attendees skewed whiter and wealthier than the surrounding community’s demographics. As Commonwealth Hudson Valley’s Wright noted in her recap, much of the conversation “was pitched to folks already steeped in a particular way of thinking.”

For many people—especially those whose lives haven’t already been altered by inequity or disaster—there’s an irrepressible sense of threat looming over tomorrow’s horizon. This gnawing, abstract panic is met with the need to do something specific right away to forestall the coming catastrophes. But what to do? These conferences are designed to address that question, to provide a means for the frisson of one-time participation to be channeled into active, ongoing engagement in these issues. And the interventions they espouse are collectively known as the Just Transition framework.

The Just Transition was developed originally by labor and environmental movements to address workers’ rights in a sustainable, eco-supportive way. It has since expanded into an all-encompassing grassroots social movement that describes actions, policies, and goals to transition our housing, food, energy, and transportation networks to low-carbon, climate-resilient alternatives. Crucially, communities of color and low-income communities should be the ones leading the change.

Movement Generation, an Oakland-based justice and ecology group, describes five core values that define the Just Transition:

  • Democratizing communities, wealth, and the workplace
  • Advancing ecological restoration
  • Driving racial justice and social equity
  • Relocalizing most production and consumption
  • Retaining and restoring cultures and traditions

At the moment, the Just Transition is merely a theoretical framework; the main criticism of it from the left is that it’s impractically abstract and disengaged with realities on the ground. “There are no examples of rapid, sector-level Just Transitions,” writes Tadzio Müller, senior advisor for Climate Justice and Energy Democracy, in a piece headlined “‘As time goes by…’: The hidden pitfalls of the ‘Just Transition’ narrative.”

[A]bsent such an example, we have to assume that the rapid Just Transition is not a set of policy proposals at all—it is an empty set. Which means that, in policy terms, when discussing Just Transition we are speaking about something that is more aspirational than actual; something that arguably is barely there at all. My fear is that we might be trying to answer an unanswerable question, while the clock continues to “tck, tck, tck.”

As a global society, we do need to speed up. According to a new UN report, emissions must decline by 7.6 percent every year between 2020 and 2030 to stay within the limits established by the 2015 Paris agreement.

But history has shown that governments and corporations respond best to war and disaster, and second-best to sustained pressure from grassroots, collectivist action. If we don’t want to wait for the former, then more of the latter will be required, and the Just Transition at least provides a framework for individuals to funnel their social agita and activist energies.

In the Hudson Valley, and particularly in Kingston, there are several organizations working on these issues. The Good Work Institute, as part of its transition to a worker self-directed nonprofit, is focusing its work on the Just Transition. Commonwealth Hudson Valley amplifies ideas for a new, more just, more sustainable local economy. Kingston Transition looks at grassroots solutions to advance the Just Transition. Rise Up Kingston and Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson do organizing and lobbying work to challenge housing, criminal justice, and other systems that have had a racist effect. O+ Festival spreads health care through non-financial exchange, wellness seminars, and CPR and Narcan training. Hudson Valley Current developed a new non-cash currency that allows people to swap skills and resources among their community. wip-projects works to advance equity and inclusion in the arts. Land banks like the Newburgh Community Land Bank are providing fair housing opportunities in blighted neighborhoods. Radio Kingston is a rare noncommercial, community-driven platform in a time of media consolidation. Legacy environmental organizations like Riverkeeper, Scenic Hudson, Clearwater, the Open Space Institute, and the Hudson River Environmental Society are continuing to do work that, while not explicitly defined by the Just Transition framework, nevertheless advance similar ideas. And here at The River, our solutions reporting spotlights ways that our communities are responding to societal and environmental needs.

By 2060, the climate in the Hudson Valley will resemble Maryland and Virginia’s today, and there will be more extreme weather patterns: more days above 90 degrees, more rain-on-snow events, more intense storms, creating more flooding, more algal blooms, and lower water quality. That will begin to have a more profound impact not just on the environment, but on public health, infrastructure, recreation, and tourism. “There will be radiating effects,” David Richardson, a biology professor at SUNY New Paltz, said at the Future Summit.

“Radiating effects.” That’s a good image for the promise of local activism, too. The lesson? What starts small spreads over time, creating a larger impact.

Phillip Pantuso is the editor of The River, and has contributed to the Guardian, the New York Times, and Yes! Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @phillippantuso.