It’s not too late, it’s not too early: Conversations with Paul Fenn


Techne – craftsmanship, craft or art.

Poesis – poetry.

Below are fragments from a series of conversations with Paul Fenn, inventor of community choice aggregation and author of Assembly Bill 117, which enabled Marin Clean Energy, Sonoma Clean Power and CleanPowerSF. They tell the story of an individual having an idea, turning that idea into law and following the evolution of that law. But there is another story: that of the separation of science and philosophy, or, as Paul puts it, “immanence and transcendence.” These forces can also be described as techne, or know-how, and poesis, or rhetoric and art. Brought together, they can create positive change, yet modern life has separated them. Our world produces technology that is amoral at best, and philosophers who are disconnected from reality, from the immanent, from techne. — Charles Schultz


Epiphany of history

Charles Schultz: Community choice aggregation starts with a funny story, almost as a prank. You were at the University of Chicago as a graduate student, and you got the idea to call up Ronald Coase, one of the fathers of neoliberalism and the philosopher of cap and trade and expanding property rights into the atmosphere.

Paul Fenn: I didn’t think it would lead to anything; I thought he would hang up on me. I heard about him from one of his students who gave me one of his major papers. It was like reading someone’s fantasy of my nightmare. It was exactly what I perceived in politics, but in this other container—economics. 

My nightmare was that the territorial imperative of humanity is so powerful that it overpowers the social impulse and causes self-annihilation. We are simply going to destroy ourselves. We’re going to destroy everything. So we’re trying to prevent that, but the likelihood of preventing it is obviously low. 

The concept is that the reason we are in this position is separate from how difficult the position is. Even though it looks like we are about to kill ourselves, we are actually just in a rare moment in which we can recognize how much power we have and how dangerous that power is. To have that power is extraordinary—and we should act upon it. 

So these two things happen at the same time: the crisis and the epiphany of the past. When we see climate change, for example, we are not just seeing climate change as an unfolding catastrophe, we are seeing our knowledge of climate change. It isn’t just this disaster: it is also that we behold it. There is a rising awareness that is a phenomenon in itself. 

Charles: So there is a false assumption in late-20th century philosophy that we are victims. In an infantilized world, we all love to play the victim. You’re saying the irony is that, given this looming apocalypse, there is a unique opportunity. 

Paul: Well, first that [apocalypse] doesn’t happen, and second that our sense of it is truly greater than it ever has been in the past. The epiphany of the apocalypse is so much more palpable because we have realized the power of the Enlightenment. We actually did it. We have so much penetration into nature that we’re destroying it. I would say it is the awakening to a long Dark Age; what a disaster all of our actual democracy is, compared to how we imagined democracy.



Charles: Talk about the problem of specialization—among academics who treat texts as whole worlds, among professional activists who need quick victories to match short fundraising cycles. The narrowness of specialization is everywhere.

Paul: Throughout the humanities there is a need to specialize, to imitate the scientist, to be a technician, to turn humanities into social science. Most of the work of deconstructionism is full of this over-specialized stuff, these very isolated categories of phenomena within isolated times, and putting them under the light as epiphanies into something supposedly intensely meaningful. But there is nothing in between to connect times and events; you are just seeing this bright light from some old theater—torture in the 1500s. 

Charles: You call it fetishistic.

Paul: Foucault looking at torture in the Middle Ages and finding all this meaningfulness in it. The techne of his approach is ultimately incredibly superficial. What Foucault called archeology was hardly archeology, just strange stories about torture. He wants the mantle of the scientist; he doesn’t want to be a philosopher. So he is saying, “These are like objects,” just like a rock. He was doing that to be subversive, but he was actually creating, I think, a kind of propaganda. He was propagandizing within the sciences. What it led to is these little vignettes, to “vignettism.”

Charles: It seems to have led us into a world, as you would say, with false sciences and false meaningfulness. 

Paul: No one knows what to do. That is what it really comes down to. What do you want to do? How should we handle the penal code? How should we punish crime? How should we deal with crime? It becomes a much more pedestrian conversation at that point. It is no longer all this fetishistic abstraction about different kinds of torture and whether it is worse to psychoanalyze or cut someone’s thumb off. 

Charles: Whether the violence in the language is worse than, you know, violence! 

Paul: The removal of madness from society and therefore the removal of its soul—all this sort of stuff, which is really poesis. It is poetry. Foucault really is poetry. He is saying that it’s archeology, but all that can be created are subversive vignettes. This ethos of resistance becomes the only path. It is essentially a kind of surrealism, an artistic defiance. 


Community choice aggregation

Paul: The subject of my work in energy localization was reintegrating the technical with meaningful thought. Because that was the original trespass, that was knowledge. Starting from a philosophical position—who should govern—I wanted to find a technical context in which that question is being played out historically— in this case, the wave of market deregulation that swept the U.S. in the 1990s. 

My trespass between disciplines, between types of knowledge, was the desire to move from a philosophical intention to the actual creation of an alternative to market deregulation. This required an immersion in technical discussions outside of what I had studied. That would be energy policy going back to the 1970s, in this case federal laws requiring utilities to take power from unregulated power-plant developers, greenhouse gas policy, various proposed solutions, all of them adapted to the “marketplace.” 

Electric industry restructuring involved this premise about using markets to cause social benefits, like lowering rates or reducing pollution or stopping climate change. They were claiming that deregulation would deliver this change.

Once I developed the concept of what an alternative could be based upon policy, then it was a matter of putting that concept into a statutory form. It required extensive legal research, going back to the original statutes of the state I was in and digging around in an abstract way to find parts of the old law upon which one could build the new law. 

So it wasn’t just a matter of forming a concept of what should be done, but digging through the law and finding what to change in different parts of the very different sections of the law—the utilities code, the government code, for example. That was the second phase, getting from concept to the legal side. 

After that it involved leaving that world and becoming a journalist writing articles criticizing deregulation, about the failure to include this new [community choice aggregation] statute in the deregulation laws of various states, about the failures of the marketplace. I gave speeches on the problems that were emerging because of deregulation, the scandals that it was causing, which were followed by state bailouts of corporations. Becoming a critic put me back into a traditional negative intellectual position. 

So you come in and out of this trespass when you go from the poesis into techne and then return with all this technical material. The poesis becomes increasingly technical and the criticism of what is going on becomes increasingly informed. And the conflict between what is going on and the statute, the new law, becomes more fertile. This thing that didn’t exist becomes sophisticated; it becomes more powerful, more relevant. There is less of the usual complaining about the world that you would see from a humanist, the liberal, and more of something that is being proposed specifically as an action, not just as a policy, not just as a goal. 

When it came to the regulations for community choice aggregation, I raised the issue with the regulator that utilities might try to subvert cities and counties attempting to implement a C.C.A. I raised it in a very exhaustive way, as though they were already committing the crime and I was making them admit it. That anticipation, that ability to build positive regulation, came from the prior crossing I had made into journalism.

Charles: All this discussion of law and regulation is the point of departure for most people. We still have the idea that democracy is an ideal, that you should vote, you should participate. But we live in such a technologically complex world that when it comes to that intersection of politics, policy and how change is going to occur, it is very intimidating for people to participate intelligently.

Paul: Incredibly difficult. The technological and legal side is filled with what I’ll call “guild nomenclature,” all these new, deliberately cryptic technical grammars packed with jargon. So these technical discussions are difficult and even perilous to penetrate as a non-expert. But at the same time, the attorneys and experts are so narrow-minded that they’re not difficult to beat. I think that is very true. In the most difficult technical environments, the experts are in what they believe to be their strong point, yet ultimately the humanist has a broader scheme of resources or variables. The philosopher can imagine changing things; the bureaucrat cannot. 

Charles: So you don’t fear conflict, which is mostly absent in a consensual process that sees conflict as failure rather than as something that contributes to this process of refinement. 

Paul: It is a kind of ritual in democracy: having these conflicts, having the ability to make decisions in a population that really doesn’t know what it’s doing but is able to decide because a theater of ideas occurs. Without that theater, the spectacle of that conflict between a philosopher and a technician, decisions cannot be made. The technicians simply rule, reproducing what they know, over and over and over. And we have the drift we see today in government. 

Charles: You need the politician and activist to exert pressure on the bureaucrat in that theater. To respond to what is being represented. 

Paul: If you had a bunch of intellectuals pushing their way around on all kinds of different issues, in local government and state government, it really would change things. There is this kind of seriousness that’s lacking in politics because of the absence of the intellectual. 


Time as ideology

Charles: Two nights ago, we were talking about a short description by Walter Benjamin of a painting by Paul Klee—a very interesting insight about time. The point you made was that time itself is ideology. The cyclical nature of life is self-evident, but we have this other idea of time as a progression, from some source to some end. You relate this to the reaction to climate change. Could you elaborate on that?

Paul: Well, it is always too soon and it’s always too late: that is the relationship of time to climate change. There are those who deny that it is happening, deny it is catastrophic, and once they admit that it is happening, they say, “Well, it is too late to do anything about it.” 

There is something intuitive about that; it makes sense. As Benjamin says in “Essays in the Philosophy of History,” our relationship to time is essentially backward, or inverted. So our idea of progress is like sitting in the back of a pickup truck—this is my metaphor, not his—watching the world go by backwards. What we see is the detritus of catastrophes piling up in front of our faces; we can’t see where we are going. All we can see are the consequences of whatever it is we’re doing. He calls that “progress,” this mounting pile in front of us, which is really behind us. 

Charles: This relates to what you were saying earlier, that there were two elements of the way we receive climate change. One is just destruction itself. The other is the awareness that destruction, which you call the epiphany of the past. You think there is an opportunity in this awareness of what we see looking back from the bed of the truck.

Paul: It seems to me that it is an emerging consciousness. What Benjamin describes is an idea of the future. What is this accumulation becoming? This recognition based upon the rearview mirror showing the consequences of the past might allow us to form an idea of where we are going. That is an act of imagination, of predictive power. 

The catastrophes, whether species extinction or climate change, are scientifically derived phenomena that we recognize based on statistical methods—people taking measurements from ice-core samples over years. One could say it is all theoretical. Species extinction; really? It isn’t that it is obvious. Can you tell the ocean is dying? Looks the same as the ocean when I was a kid. It just happens to have half the species it had living in it. By the time it becomes observable and obvious, you’re dying, right? And it is too late. 

The ability to see what is happening is the power of not just science, but of imagination and theory. It is not merely the sentient recognition of catastrophe, but also the anticipation of catastrophe. That is powerful wisdom that is novel for humans. 

Charles: I use the example of the Black Death, an event that predated communication as we understand it today. The disease is recorded first in the Black Sea, then Sicily, but before any knowledge of it can be transmitted, it is in every Italian city. Death arrives without warning. Boccacio’s “Decameron” is the story of attractive young people going up into the hills and telling each other stories. They didn’t do that in years-long anticipation of something, but while fleeing from death. By comparison, the “it’s too late” crowd flees in anticipation of something that has not happened, as though it had.

Paul: A denial of science is translated into, “It’s too early.” Acknowledgment of science causes a shift to complacency. It is either, “We don’t believe it,” or, “We’re not going to do anything about it.” These are reactions to science that are pretending to be descriptions of where we are in time. It is not early; it is not late. Those are false constructions that are meant to mask denial and complacency, but we have fixed them into a temporal sequence as if they were a function of time. 

Paul Elmore: You kept saying “lack of ability.” I kept thinking, “lack of will.”

Charles: That is my version of Antonio Gramsci’s famous quote: one must have “the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will.” You know things are bad but you are going to do it anyway, because it is worthy, because there is a chance. On the coast, we have the optimism of the intellect and the pessimism of the will. There is endless fantasizing and nobody does very much except tread water, which may become a useful skill. So everything unknown is mystifying, and we want to deliberately re-mystify the world. It isn’t the absence of the sacred we should fear; it is the presence of this new sacred, the worship of empty symbols—nature, community—what I call “articulate unmeaning.” I can’t even describe this madness without sounding like I’m reciting “The Hollow Men.”

Paul: In the ancient world, it was held that sailors were insane. They were denied the right to vote, they couldn’t act as a witness in a court or serve on a jury. Sailors were considered criminalized because anyone who would get on a ship and go off on the sea was obviously an unreliable person, rationally unreliable. And primarily it was the shipping ports that brought the plague into Europe. What caused the plague was global trade. There was a pre-sentiment that there was something threatening about trade. And there was. It has, maybe, a similar relationship to knowledge.