Grasping Green Electrons: Power in Markets or the Structure of Power?

Katherine Ann Clark, University of Colorado Boulder


The U.S. environmental movement is caught within an ideological debate about its strategies as leaders publicly lament the movement's lack of recent success. Second Wave environmentalists continue working toward environmental policy intended to change the social structural context in which businesses and the public operate. But a newer form of environmentalism, the Third Wave, aims to harness the power of individuals to effect change through voluntary consumer choices in a self-regulating market populated by responsive, competitive firms. If the Second Wave represents a structurally-oriented environmentalism that calls for collective action to address major environmental problems, the Third Wave offers a neoliberal and individually-oriented approach that calls for market solutions. These two perspectives therefore have very different views on markets' ability to help solve environmental problems. Because neoliberals believe that consumer power and producer competitiveness are prevalent, they place their faith in markets. Because structuralists do not see widespread consumer power or producer competitiveness, they call for structural intervention to solve environmental problems. In this dissertation, I identify and elaborate the core tenets of these approaches (Chapter II) and then test those tenets in the case of electricity policy in Colorado (Chapters III & IV). In Chapter III, where I investigate a neoliberal program and structural policy, I find strong support for the structural claim that consumer power is limited. In Chapter IV, I investigate the independence of Colorado's largest electric utility and again find strong support for the structural claim that major economic actors are not independent. In Chapter V, I analyze interviews with Colorado advocates working on electricity to determine how and to what extent advocates adopt neoliberal and structural approaches.