Power to the people

by Aaren Madden, November 2010

For “economic artist” Donna Morton, sharing power in its many forms is essential to a healthy community.

Donna Morton imagines a scene taking place in the near future in the Hesquiaht community on Vancouver Island’s west coast. A wind tower, adorned by local carvers, stands tall behind the beautiful new school in Hot Springs Cove. Its turbine churns slowly and silently. On the shore in the tower’s shadow, the entire community watches a barge retreat, slowly and silently, to the horizon. It carries the community’s odious diesel-powered generator into the mist.

Working with the Hesquiaht since November 2009 to make that scene a reality is First Power, a company that joins solar water heating leaders Taylor Munro Energy Systems and Morton’s own Centre for Integral Economics. The latter is a nonprofit organization that applies a multidisciplinary lens to what she calls the art of economics. Through international speaking engagements and working with governments and other agencies, she cracks the inaccessible shells of economics and policy, helping them become the tools for real change they can be.

More on how that works later. But first, power. As in, energy. Says Morton, “There are communities in every corner of the planet right now which have a complete contempt for their source of power. Think about what that means: that you hate the source that is energizing, powering, lighting, heating your place. How that affects your experience of living.” One quarter of the entire Hesquiaht budget—roads, housing, health, everything—is devoured by diesel, she says, and they hate their dependence on it. 

They prefer to generate energy that is of their place, through sources that speak to historical ways of life. Sun and wind, for instance, which in the past were used to dry salmon and berries, are part of a continuum; their appeal runs deeper than the obvious life-changing benefits of power autonomy. Another major source of power will be waste wood from logging operations. “One elder, Moses Lucas, talked about the power and magic and energy in the woods. That’s his source of energy. That soulful experience of the magic of the woods, turned into a way of heating and powering his community, just made perfect sense to him. And the waste lying there, it offends him. The idea of making use of that waste and harnessing the energy of the forest aligns with everything he knows to be true.” 

That the project, one of a few First Power is working on, be replicable and scaleable to remote communities not just in BC or Canada, but around the world, is one of their goals. BC Hydro has been invited to the table, and Morton predicts the ensuing pilot may well reinvent the way they work with First Nations. “People look at that as a technological problem, but the sense of the communities we are working with is that it’s not about the technology available as much as it is about the social technology. It’s about aligning energy with the core values of ancestors and elders and young people in a community.” 

Nowhere else has Morton witnessed such a profound, deeply-held sense of place than from people in First Nations communities, and from them, she says, we have much to learn about what is truly authentic in this place we all call home. Derived from her experience is a concept of power, one that is both practical and spiritual, coming from that which reveals and generates the values and therefore the essential truth of a place. 

And here, believe it or not, is where economics comes in. Specifically, municipal tax structure that has the potential to shift power and reflect values. Morton is one of many people world-wide who share philosopher Henry George’s late-19th century hypothesis that land value taxes would be of greater benefit than our current approach that taxes improvements on property. 

A carefully developed land value tax pilot like those happening in places like Pennsylvania should be created in parts of Victoria, she urges, explaining, “If you took a boarded-up building in downtown Victoria [think Janion], or a single-level parking lot [think Wharf Street], and applied this tax designation to those two spaces, they would transform overnight. All of a sudden, your boarded-up building, which is under-utilized, or single level parking lot, again, highly under-utilized, would end up paying taxes similar to, say, the View Street Building, which is somewhere near a quarter of a million plus. A conventional parking lot on the same footprint would pay about $15,000 dollars. Right now, use gets you a free ride on taxation. But it’s a perverse subsidization, because what we actually want are people doing dynamic, creative, entrepreneurial, charitable things in the centre of our city. We don’t want boarded-up buildings and we don’t want single-level parking lots. Victoria is suffering dramatically because of this particular tax structure. The space available for social housing would increase exponentially. It’s the number-one thing the city could do to build social housing.” Her various conversations with city officials on the subject have been met with a mixture of interest and trepidation.

Entrepreneurs play a major role in creating generative cities, she assures, but governments have a responsibility to level the playing field. Complaints from those holding the cards will be loud and long, but status quo is costing us. “You have to look at what could be, not just what is,” she argues. 

Porto Alegre, Brazil, the birthplace of the participatory budget process (which has spread to more than 1200 municipalities around the world) is another example. A cross section of citizens numbering in tens of thousands are involved in how the city’s money is allocated. “Do we think the only people capable of making decisions are technical experts and elected officials, or do we think cab drivers, hair dressers, single moms, students, and retirees should have space to explore that dialogue? If the citizenry touches economics and legal structure and zoning, it will look fundamentally different. Democratizing structures like taxation or zoning is foundational to good governance,” Morton says, as I mentally add Wisdom of the Crowds by James Surowiecki to my reading list. “Good governance also teaches people how to live together, how to decide together. How to hear each other,” she says. 

Another idea, courtesy of one of Morton’s idols, Jane Jacobs, is the radical experimentation zone. Things like (gasp) buildings with no parking. Places where codes are creative and lawyers will leave you alone, where within basic standards, the city says, “let’s see what you can do.” “If you get there with composting toilets or solar hot water in a 500-square-foot space that everyone loves because they were part of designing it, it’s up to you,” says Morton. It works and is meaningful because it’s done in context, something Morton says only citizens can provide. “Governments have to share power, and citizens have to take it,” she urges.

Interesting word, power. In all its interpretations, in its best and most equitable applications, it can open people and place to their fullest, truest potentials.

 

Aaren Madden has also added the recently-released "Moonrise: The Power of Women Leading from the Heart," edited by Nina Simons and containing an essay by Donna Morton, to her reading list.