Building infrastructure from the bottom up to meet community needs

Andrew White
Andrew White

A prizewinning energy justice researcher had his assumptions turned upside down and his career transformed when he joined the first cohort of students on Lancaster’s Political Ecology master's.

In 2019, Andrew White was working as a research engineer in water and energy resilience at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – his first job after studying engineering at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

He liked his colleagues and was fascinated by the area of work, but felt something was missing.

“I was longing for a more critical, more human-centred, community-based focus on these very technical things,” said Andrew.

He applied for a Fulbright grant to study in the UK, looking for the opportunity to mix social and natural sciences to broaden his perspective.

“I wanted a very interdisciplinary educational experience and Lancaster University seemed to be the best place to do that because of the structure, background and reputation of the Lancaster Environment Centre. I was being offered a lot of power as a student to shape what my course would look like.”

He chose “a real gem of a course” – a new master’s degree in Political Ecology, exploring how climate, energy and other environmental issues are linked to political and social systems.

But Andrew wasn’t quite prepared for the revolution the course would make in his thinking. His first day started with the lecturer, Dr Giovanni Bettini, challenging the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

“In civil engineering, I was taught that the UN SDGs are the frontier of doing civil and environmental engineering that is good for the world. Giovanni turned that on its head asking whether they are as good as they appear, exploring how they sit in the political economy of capitalism. This completely challenged the foundation of how I had been working in the past.

“As engineers we are taught that there is a way to use science or technology to overcome all the world’s problems. But if we look at the empirical evidence, there are so many things we can’t science our way out of because of power imbalances and social injustices.”

For the first term, Andrew struggled with this change in mindset, having to unlearn a lot of what he had been taught. He was constantly checking with the lecturers that he had grasped the concepts right. But slowly he grew more confident, particularly enjoying the modules in ‘approaches to political ecology’ and ‘perspectives on environment and development’.

“Political Ecology scratched an itch in my brain I didn’t even know was there, to explain things that had been puzzling me. I started to make sense of so many things not only in my lived experiences but also wider issues of environmental injustices, why certain environmental problems are so pervasive in spite of there being a collective understanding that this is an issue.”

When it came to doing his final dissertation, Andrew decided to study a major road infrastructure project in Jamaica, the country from which his parents emigrated to America before he was born.

The Jamaica North South Highway, costing over 730 million USD, is a development project financed by the Chinese government through a public private partnership and tolls on drivers. The Highway opened in 2016, linking the tourist beaches in the north of the island to the capital, Kingston, on the south coast.

“I’ve been visiting Jamaica since I was three years old and the Highway felt very un-Jamaican, sterile and modern. The Jamaica I had come to know, going from one place to another, you are always driving through a community, you are almost made to stop and interact with people. Getting from point A to point B is not the number one criteria of travelling, you are enjoying the process of getting there. This new Highway completely missed the social cultural aspect of travelling across Jamaica.”

Andrew had already done desk research on the Highway for a blog assignment he had written earlier in the course. He now went to interview 13 people living in Kingston and in a community by-passed by the Highway near the north coast. He found that the Highway brought little benefit to them.

Most locals were too poor to use the road, because the tolls were too expensive: a full journey costing two thirds of the minimum wage for a week. There are only three exits over the 40 miles, so it is not easily accessible for lots of communities. And parts of the journey were too steep for the older, less powerful vehicles most locals owned. The Highway was meant to stimulate economic and tourist development, but was underused.

“It taught me that a lot of infrastructure development happens in a very top down way so there is a huge disconnect between mega infrastructure projects and meeting the specific needs of communities.”

“Development is supposed to be inherently good, but through this very small slice of reality, through two communities, through these 13 people I interviewed, I discovered that this is so far from the case.”

Having started his degree lacking confidence in his ability to look at issues from a different perspective, Andrew finished up winning the Lancaster Environment Centre prize for his cohort’s best performance in a taught postgraduate MA degree.

He is now putting his learning to good use. He’s back working for his old employer - the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory - but in a very different role as an energy justice researcher supporting community-based energy infrastructure development.

“I am actually working directly with communities on infrastructure projects that hope to achieve specific social benefits and outcomes. We are trying to build more bottom-up approaches to technical infrastructure development, working with communities to identify their critical needs and designing the infrastructure to meet them.”

Andrew is currently working on solar energy generation and battery storage projects with 7 communities across America.

“One community that I am working with provides housing to homeless people. It’s in a part of the US which is prone to winter storms, with grid infrastructure that is very degraded and unreliable.

“I have come full circle. I feel very blessed to have landed the role and that I am back at a place where I have worked and which I liked before. But my work now is much more in alignment with my values, and with what makes me excited and come alive.”

Learn more about the Political Ecology MA at Lancaster Environment Centre.

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