Building an Environmental Movement As Radical As Reality Itself
Many of those connecting the dots between climate change, extreme weather, and the fossil fuel industry miss one crucial dot — capitalism
A version of this report originally appeared in Waging Nonviolence
“System Shutdown,” read the screen above the Times Square subway entrance on Sunday afternoon. A gray sky had consumed the sun, and periodic gusts of wind rattled the traffic signs. Meanwhile, the supermarkets were jammed with shopping carts packed full of canned goods and toilet paper, in preparation for the impending “frankenstorm” as meteorologists had taken to calling it. The news ticker behind the TKTS stand on the corner of 47th Street and Broadway flashed with an alert that the New York Stock Exchange would be closed on Monday. The storm succeeded in doing what a year of the Occupy movement couldn’t: It shut down Wall Street.
Photo by Peter Rugh/WNV
By the TKTS bleachers I found Phil Aroneanu, a leading organizer with 350.org, together with familiar faces from Occupy Wall Street. Aroneanu reached into a dusty army surplus backpack and unfurled a vintage parachute, circa World War II, with the words “End Climate Silence” scrawled on it. Occupy and 350.org activists both grabbed hold of it, together with passersby who spontaneously joined them, and held the parachute up, while from a lounge several stories high in a nearby luxury hotel photographers snapped pictures of the display. “We’re performing this action not to say that this impending storm is happening because of climate change,” Aroneanu explained, “but to highlight that we can expect more extreme weather like Sandy in the future if we continue on our current course.”
On Democracy Now! the next day, 350.org founder Bill McKibben explained that the aim of the organization’s activism is “to connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change and the fossil fuel industry.” The parachute in Times Square was one such dot. But to many of those engaged in pushing for society to combat climate change, there is a crucial dot missing in the constellation McKibben presents. Perhaps it is not a dot at all but the horizon. That is, the global system under which the majority of the world’s population lives: capitalism.
In a widely circulated article published this summer in Rolling Stone, McKibben outlines how our future is being held hostage by Wall Street and energy corporations banking on burning deposits of fossil fuels. As for solutions, McKibben advocates for pension funds and college endowment portfolios to divest from fossil fuels, for fee-and-dividend charges to be levied on big polluters and for increased milage requirements on vehicles. Yet these reforms simply won’t be enough to address the depth and scope of the climate crisis. They seek to curb and negotiate the excesses of Wall Street, rather than get rid of Wall Street all together. The pledges to regulate Wall Street we hear from politicians are like Anheuser-Busch telling people to “drink responsibly” — they run counter to the compulsion to profit at all cost that is grafted into the basic framework of the system.
A market-based, fee-and-dividend program could have an impact by charging polluters for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, yet it seems unlikely that such measures will have the teeth they need. The rapidly spreading method of fossil fuel extraction known as fracking, for instance, is already exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory. Both fuel efficiency standards and fee-and-dividend measures would need to be implemented immediately and thoroughly to have even a limited effect on mitigating the effects of climate change. Yet, since their first priority is protecting the interests of the 1 percent, both the White House and Capitol Hill have expressed almost zero political will on the issue. While Obama advocates for gasoline milage requirements on automobiles to take effect by the quarter turn of the century, Peter Wadhams, a professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University estimated last month arctic sea ice could vanish as early as the summer of 2016.
350.org plans on launching its “Do the Math” tour on November 7, corresponding with a divestment campaign that organizers hope to launch on college campuses across the country. McKibben and others have often mentioned that their efforts are modeled on the divestment movement against the South African apartheid state during the 1980s. But with divestment efforts we again encounter the systemic confines in which we find ourselves; as the Canadian eco-socialist David Schwartzman put it to McKibben, “Will Exxon go green because of political pressure?” Schwartzman instead calls for a strategy of class struggle that “encompasses the creative activity of the 99 percent” with the aim of “expanding democracy to all spheres, political, economic and social.”
Unless the environmental movement makes such inroads, a rift will continue to exist between those blockading pipelines and those constructing them, which those who have accumulated billions on backs of their workers to the detriment of the air, soil and water make use of. This is best illustrated by the Jobs for the 99 website set up by the Oil and Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee in favor of the Keystone XL pipeline, which demands, “Hollywood’s elite 1%… stop flying to DC and speaking out against jobs that help the other 99% of America!”
Presenting lessons he sees in the civil rights movement to today’s environmental activists, Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey argued recently that presenting oneself as an anti-capitalist is too “ideological” a stance for the everyday people to identify with. Instead, he says, activists should seek to build movements that incorporate “people who are ambivalent in their analysis and vision but are daily becoming clearer about their interests.”
But in the wake of the civil rights movement, a national organization emerged that did take a more ideological stance; the Black Panther Party engaged in localized struggle, put forward immediate national demands that workers and the poor identified with and maintained a revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective. The Panthers saw a theoretical framework as an essential component of their activism. Number five in the Panthers’ Ten Point Plan calls for an education system “that teaches us our true history and our role in present day society,” stating, “If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.” If we are going to fight climate change, doesn’t it behoove us to do as the Panthers did, to locate our struggle amid the dynamics of the social, economic, historic and ideological situation we find ourselves in — i.e., capitalism?
The civil rights movement and many of its leaders emerged from earlier struggles against racism in which anti-capitalist analysis played an intimate role. Mark Naison, in his classic study Communists in Harlem During the Depression, documents how, though frequently hampered by policy directives from Moscow, the American Communist Party worked with black nationalists, liberals, middle-class churches and even, occasionally, with the NAACP on anti-lynching campaigns, housing rights issues and multi-racial unionism. These struggles laid the groundwork from which organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sprouted.
Despite the eventual gains of the civil rights movement, however, from 1949 to 1964 the annual income gap between whites and blacks nearly doubled. The economic framework that upheld the racist order was unaddressed. While civil rights was predominantly led by and composed of the black middle-class, the Panthers appealed to a poor and working class base, those with a set of economic and social needs that went beyond the compass of civil rights alone. Harry Haywood writes of the milieu in which the Panthers rose up: “Black revolt had crashed beyond the limited goals set by the old guard reformist assimilationist leadership of the NAACP and associates.”
On a national scale, the environmental movement in the United States today remains largely trapped within white, middle-class confines. As alarm bells grow louder over the threat climate change poses to humanity’s continued habitation of Earth, won’t the environmental movement reach such a threshold as well? Rather than solely seeking to assimilate green efficacy into capitalist modus operandi, as McKibben suggests, what would an environmental movement look like that challenges this modus operandi itself? Maybe it’s time for a Green Panther Party.
Since the global financial crisis broke out and the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street arose in its wake, amid the continuing revolts against austerity in Europe and the student victories in Chile and Quebec, it doesn’t feel so crazy to call oneself a revolutionary anymore, nor an anti-capitalist. Let’s be weary of only reaching for low-hanging fruit.
On Monday night, as auguries of climate change beat against my window in the form of Hurricane Sandy, I was reminded that 100 million people are expected to perish by 2030 as a result of the changes carbon emissions are causing to our earth’s climate. Fredric Jameson once wrote, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Given the escalating nature of climate change, I for one would rather imagine an end to capitalism. And for that we’ll need an environmental movement as radical as reality itself.