photo Peg Hunter
“There is a right way to do ‘just transition.’”
The statement echoes through the humid halls of the historic Stringer Grand Lodge Masonic Temple in Jackson, Mississippi, on an unseasonably scorching day in late February, 2018. Mingling with the ghosts of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 150 labor leaders, environmental justice activists, philanthropists, and national environmental organization staffers move from one side of the room to the other – far right for “strongly agree,” and far left for “strongly disagree.”
The group has come together to find alignment around the concept of just transition, so laughter erupts at the almost 50-50 split. But the mood soon settles. With the backdrop of a president who has filled his cabinet with oil executives, brutishly dismissed climate change, and denounced the Paris Accord, it’s hard to shake off what’s happening outside for too long: Puerto Ricans are fleeing the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria with no end in sight, #MeToo is a household term, and activists are railing against the assault on unions in the historic Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME. Those in the temple are steeped in these threats and more. But they also understand that while climate change, racism, patriarchy, and plutocracy are terrifying, they are not impenetrable, and dismantling one may lead to the unraveling of others.
Global activists share this systemic view, and around the world, locally based, integrated models are being built to support people working and living together in community. This decarbonized vision connects jobs and environment rather than pitting them against one another; breaks down patriarchy and systems of oppression; honors caring, culture, and community leadership; and reshuffles the paradigm that hails profit as the sole pinnacle of goodness. They call it “buen vivir” (good living) in South America, “commons” and “degrowth” in Europe, “agroecology,” “ecofeminisms,” and “rights of Mother Earth” in Indigenous communities, and in the United States, incorporating principles of all these concepts, “just transition.”
After much debate across the temple, a woman raises her hand from a spot dead center between the two poles. “Just transition will look different in different places, because it’s place-based,” she says. “But the principles behind it have to be the same. So there is a right way, but the right way is many ways.” She doesn’t mention that some “right ways” are more “right” than others. All seem to agree just transition fundamentally requires a shift off of fossil fuels, and in a radically climate-changing world, nothing could be more urgent. But grassroots movements also demand economic, racial, and gender justice underpin that shift. In fact, they assert decarbonizing simply cannot happen exclusive of justice.
This approach has been threatened since “just transition” hit the big time, so to speak: when it appeared in the preamble of the Paris Accord in late 2015. Movement leaders fear its public adoption on a global platform threatens to dilute the concept, undermine it, co-opt it. They believe policymakers and large philanthropies are too wedded to the capitalist economy to be able to imagine anything outside of it, and the consolidation of wealth, spurred by white supremacy and patriarchy, is the foundation of a capitalist system whose growth-at-all-costs philosophy is killing the planet. To these leaders, tackling climate change without justice is a zero-sum game, a way for the wealthy to delay the catastrophic effects of fossil fuel use on themselves, perhaps, but certainly not a way to dig out the roots of the underlying systems that created resource grabs and climate change in the first place.
And so it is that José Bravo, executive director and founder of the Just Transition Alliance, finds himself in Jackson, doing his best to protect the roots of this radical alternative framework. He is inside the temple’s main room as much as he is out in the hall in off-the-cuff meetings, throwing an avuncular arm around the shoulders of passersby, and then patiently building the case for solidarity with workers and communities. He is as comfortable cracking jokes as he is debating high-level policy, a disarming quality that has served him well through decades of movement building.
Bravo was there at the beginning of the just transition movement, a participant in the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, and five years later, a co-writer of the seminal “Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing.” The Jemez principles would later ground principles of the Just Transition Alliance, the Indigenous Environmental Network, and the Climate Justice Alliance. In today’s parlance, Bravo qualifies as a movement O.G., so in the current rush to define “just transition,” he gets asked a lot why the Just Transition Alliance never copyrighted the term.
“Because we don’t believe in that,” he says. “We believe just transition is as open-source now as it’s ever been. But we do want people to know it didn’t start today.”
The origins of this movement trace back to the early ‘90s, when Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader and top official of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers International Union (OCAW), saw the inevitability of a labor transition away from toxic fuels and chemicals.
As Bravo remembers it, “Here you had workers who depended on 100 percent of the most vile things on the planet. The chemicals, the fuels, the artillery, the weapons … And they said, You know what? The stuff we produce, and many of the things we put together in these plants, probably shouldn’t be put together on the face of this planet.” But stopping production would mean job losses.
In 1993, writing for the EcoSocialist Review – in a piece shortly thereafter excerpted by Earth Island Journal – Mazzocchi proposed a “superfund for workers” to assist those working in an era of environmental cleanup to transition to new, cleaner jobs, replete with training programs, full wages, and benefits for those who found themselves unemployed.
“We are not asking that environmentalists change their agenda,” he wrote. “However, we urge consideration of the economic impact upon workers.”
Mazzocchi started collaborating with national environmental organizations, but their prime motivation at the time was shutting down the plants, not necessarily assisting workers facing unemployment. “They kept doing actions, rappelling off smokestacks, pissing off workers,” Bravo remembers of the NGO activists. So the OCAW instead approached the environmental justice (EJ) movement, brand new at the time.The working class and communities of color represented by the movement lived in toxic neighborhoods on the fencelines of the plants, and were uniquely able to connect their own struggles to those of the workers.
The new OCAW-EJ partnership identified five sites throughout the country. From Richmond, California to Ponka City, Oklahoma, the sites shared two qualities: labor disputes requiring resolution, and strong relationships between EJ leadership and vulnerable fenceline communities. Bravo’s job was to talk to both residents and workers at these sites, connect them through shared challenges and needs, and train the now mixed groups on this developing concept of just transition – a move away from toxic production that also valued justice, transparency, and protection for both workers and communities.
For a while they were off and running, but outside those five communities were about 90,000 workers in the OCAW, which in 2005 merged with the United Steelworkers Union. With a newly ballooned, conservative-leaning membership of 800,000, what began as a groundbreaking partnership became a David and Goliath proposition.
Joe Uehlein, former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and founding president of the Labor Network for Sustainability, has some insight on what went wrong. “American labor is a microcosm of America,” Uehlein says, “and America has a conservative streak. Here, we not only allow, but we engineer fear into the workers’ kitchen tables. Fear for how they’re going to provide for healthcare, pension, benefits, education, vacation … and that’s a big part of why we’re so resistant to change and to the just transition framework.”
Organized labor saw any shift from business-as-usual as a threat, and backed away, but the concept of systemic change beyond green jobs continued to develop over the decades within EJ and movement support groups throughout the US. At the same time, in the global policy realm, the International Labour Organization built its own platform around just transition, and in November 2015 released guidelines for transitioning to a low-carbon economy while simultaneously protecting workers.
For movement leaders, tackling climate change without justice is a zero-sum game.
Then on December 11, 2015, flanked by a floor-to-ceiling mural of nineteenth-century Frenchmen harpooning a dolphin, a group of the world’s most influential philanthropic presidents and program officers gathered at the Institut Océanographique de Paris to celebrate the signing of the Paris Climate Accord. Filing out of the drafty lecture hall, they “high-fived” to mark not only the landmark accord to stem global warming, but also the inclusion of “just transition” in its preamble. But even as they clinked glasses, some funders surreptitiously Googled this new phrase and wondered how they would write it into foundation programs back home.
Eight metro stops away at the Zone d’Action Climat, global activists were sewing the final threads into a banner that read “COP 21 = +3°c,” which they would set ablaze at a mass mobilization the following day on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower. They saw the recognition of “just transition” on the mainstream policy stage as oxymoronic. They worried that once taken over by philanthropies and governments entrenched in a corporate model, the principles that birthed the term – principles of bottom-up community leadership, cultural inclusion, food sovereignty, and localized economies – would be lost forever.
Kandi Mosset, lead organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network’s (IEN) Extreme Energy and Just Transition Campaign, traveled to Bonn in November 2017 for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s COP 23, even though she saw little utility.
“This is the 23rd one,” she says. “If they haven’t figured it out by now, are they ever going to?”
Mosset hails from Fort Berthold, North Dakota, near the “head of the snake,” the now infamous Dakota Access Pipeline, which in 2016 inspired the largest convening of Native peoples in generations at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. She certainly has enough to occupy her at home. But there were two solid reasons to represent in Bonn – first, she says, to call out leaders for promoting greenwashed tactics that hurt communities.
“If we’re not there they’ll just make a bunch of decisions about false solutions,” Mosset says, referring to schemes like cap and trade, carbon capture and sequestration, and geoengineering, all viewed by environmental justice advocates as ways for corporations to rationalize polluting in low income communities, Indigenous communities, and communities of color. Or, in the case of geoengineering, to create untested and potentially destructive “fixes” so they can continue business as usual.
The second reason Mosset gave for traveling to Bonn was community. “When I was in Bonn,” she says, “we were talking about just transition from an Indigenous perspective, but we were also there with La Via Campesina, the peasant farmworkers. We were there with people from African communities who were talking about agroecology, people from Puerto Rico, and so what I saw were a lot of similarities, actually, which was encouraging.”
This centering of community shows up in IEN’s Just Transition Principles, which assert, “We will … address the root causes of climate change by changing the system, first within ourselves, our families, our clans, our community, our Native Nations and then radiate this power out to the world.”
But if carbon taxes and geoengineering are false solutions, what are the true ones? In addition to strong community, what does a just transition look like in practice?
For activists like Mosset, just transition could take any number of forms. As one example, she mentions Lakota Solar Enterprises, a local business in South Dakota that’s part solar equipment manufacturer and part skills school. It’s also part of the burgeoning new economy, through which proprietor Henry Red Cloud hopes his tribe, the Oglala Sioux, can break free from fossil fuels and develop a sustainable, community-focused future.
“The grid system in the US is aging; it’s a Goliath,” Mosset says. “To make changes to that takes a really long time. Whereas at a local scale, things can change more quickly and more efficiently.” That’s exactly what Red Cloud is doing. Acting at the local level, Lakota Solar has produced thousands of solar units and graduated hundreds of students from its training program. Red Cloud has also sold solar products to other tribes, assisting them in their own transition towards energy independence.
photo Mohamed Ali
Another example emerging some 1,500 miles away is Cooperation Jackson, host of the just transition meeting in Mississippi and a groundbreaking worker cooperative with an expansive mission to build what they call a solidarity economy. Cooperation Jackson connects civic education with People’s Assemblies, the construction of eco villages, and food sovereignty by way of urban farms. Members insist on incorporating everything from visual and performing arts to a cooperative financial institution into the community’s work.
brandon king, who says with the hint of a smile that he spells his name in lowercase because he doesn’t believe in capitalism, is an anchor of Freedom Farms, the co-op’s agricultural arm. He also works to ensure Cooperation Jackson’s vision pervades all the work they do. “To be completely 100, all this stuff we’re doing? We’re learning while doing … It’s being the example and showing the alternative – I think when people see it, and they see how much fun we’re having, that draws folks to it.”
king adds that a vast economic and environmental transition requires cultural transformation. “It takes us taking steps away from the TV screen and actually seeing each other, being with each other, being in community with each other,” he says. “And this is something we have to relearn.”
But he’s confident people in Jackson are primed for change. Jackson’s population is more than 80 percent African-American, and king explains the appetite for radical politics in a Republican Southern state like so: “The Black people in Mississippi are the Black people who stayed during Jim Crow,” he says, “so there’s a level of resilience and there’s a level of understanding around communities that stick together and help each other.”
There’s likely also a level of resolve that comes from simply unplugging from a historically oppressive system.
king also stresses the enduring power of small-scale farmers, who, with access to just a quarter of the world’s farmlands, manage to feed more than 70 percent of the population. Putting food back into the hands of communities fosters cultural shifts and freedom from the global industrial agriculture system, which by some estimates spews more than half the world’s greenhouse gas emissions via the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers, processing, packaging, transport and more. So, in his work with Freedom Farms, king seeks to learn from the success of small farmers, and to make food more accessible to those with limited resources.
“In the current economic system we live under … it’s highly improbable for farmers, especially small-scale farmers, to make a living,” he explains. “And that’s by design. So, when we’re thinking about growing food and growing food locally, we’re thinking about exchange value and trying to shift that exchange value from the monetary system we’re currently under. And we’re using time banking, using sweat equity, as ways for people to have access to the food, and for there not to be a barrier based on whether you’ve got a dollar bill or not.”
And it’s not just small farmers who have a role in the just transition movement. Ed Whitfield is co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, a private foundation whose leadership is spending down capital faster than it can be replenished – essentially putting themselves out of business over time – as a way of democratizing finance, putting financial resources directly back into communities.
“The assets of foundations have ultimately come from working class people and working class communities around the world,” Whitfield says, “and they belong back there, not in the control of people who are able to control money, but with people who are within communities working to meet community needs and elevate quality of life.”
For grassroots activists struggling to transform environment, culture, and economy, there is no room for compromise. And because of that, the adoption of “just transition” in the international policy realm feels more like co-option than progress. They fear its propagation in bureaucratic policy-making circles will not only dilute the vision, but undermine it. They worry frontline communities and local labor will lose their voice in a movement meant to be driven from the ground up. And perhaps most of all, they believe a just transition requires an overhaul of business-as-usual policies – it should not be perceived or embraced as an add-on to an extractive, growth-at-all-costs economic model.
“The capitalist system makes this assumption that there’s never-ending, continual growth for ever and ever and ever,” Mosset says. “That never was and never will be sustainable. They create this false sense of, well, that’s just the way it is. Just transition would be teaching people that that’s just not the case.”
But not everyone agrees a hard, anti-capitalist line is realistic. Indeed, Samantha (Sam) Smith, director of the Just Transition Centre at the International Trade Union Confederation, believes popularization on a global scale leaves more room for a diversity of approaches.
“We’ve gone from the COP in Paris where just transition was in there, and many big governments were thinking, What is this? And now we have three governments right around the time of the COP [in Bonn] saying We’re going to have a just transition commission. And they have climate targets that back it up,” she says. Smith is referencing New Zealand, Canada, and Scotland, which each announced task forces pledging to reduce emissions without harming their economies.
As part of her work, Smith gathers concrete examples of labor-friendly shifts toward a low carbon economy and shares them widely, through convenings, videos, case studies, reports, and more. The idea is to take a concept that’s previously been aspirational and experimental, and disseminate it as a reality that trade unions worldwide can get behind.
In some cases, the dissonance between just transition at an international policy level and in grassroots movements lies not within what is said, but what is not said. While the Indigenous Environmental Network and its ally the Climate Justice Alliance directly call out nuclear energy as a “false solution,” and while they clearly name capitalism as a system that must be dismantled as part of a decarbonized economy, the International Labour Organization and International Trade Union Confederation do no such thing.
“I would never try to tell people what these words should mean, what kind of work you should do,” says Smith. Some union members do in fact support a system change away from capitalism, while others just want a capitalist system that’s less exploitative and extractive.
“We all want to fight corporate power and inequality and extractive systems,” Smith adds. “But at some point, the 183 million people in the International Trade Union Confederation would not all have that interest. They would still like to have companies and employers.”
In other instances, the critique of grassroots just transition principles focuses on issues of practicality. Can small-scale, local enterprises truly power, feed, and shelter the world? While local examples are still emerging across the globe, communities like Mosset’s and king’s are writing a new narrative, asserting that just transition is possible when matched with a culture shift around consumption and community power.
As Ed Whitfield says, “We will have to basically conceive of and engage in business in a different kind of way, with a different purpose. Because right now the purpose of it does tend to be growth, as opposed to the purpose of it being meeting people’s needs and elevating the quality of life.”
At the UN level, with endless cycles of receptions, meetings, and maxed-out hotels, unplugging from global systems as an answer to global problems may seem absurd. But it’s possible the new world just can’t be conceived using the same terms as the old. It’s possible our collective vision in the dawn of the twenty-first century isn’t quite making it, and the full flourishing of a justly transitioned system will look unlike anything we’ve ever imagined. It is also possible the full manifestation of this new world is a process rather than a product, that it’s steadfastly building all around us, but we just can’t quite see it. Perhaps we’ll all wake up one day and realize we’ve reached a tipping point, and the world has changed for the better.
We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.Donate
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