Discussion: Waiting For Superman: The Environmental Movement We Need

Nederland Wildfire 2018, California

Introduction: Red on Green is publishing this article in an effort to encourage discussion on the socialist left of the challenges presented by Climate Change and the various measures proposed to address the crisis we face. We want to invite readers to comment here or on our Facebook page. We also encourage you to write an article yourself. Let us know what you think!

Waiting For Superman: The Environmental Movement We Need

Written by Aldous Reno     source:
La Voz de los Trabajadores / Workers’ Voice

“This is the new normal.” said the chief of Cal Fires as he described the mass devastation of two of the largest and deadliest wildfires in California’s history, the Camp and Carr Fires of late 2018, which killed 86 people and displaced 50,000 from their homes.[1] For the last three years, the wildfire season has been the worst ever. [2] Over on the East Coast, the most damaging hurricane season in US history was just wrapping up, with $33.3 billion in damages, nearly $30 billion from Florence and Michael alone. [3] At the southern border, thousands of families who made a treacherous journey on foot to reach sanctuary in the US were met with tear gas, their children torn out of their arms and placed into private prisons or concentration camps such as the famed desert compound, Tornillo. In France, 300,000 members of the French working class took to the streets in Act I of the Yellow Vest demonstrations to protest a diesel fuel tax. Each of these mass upheavals reflects a different aspect of the environmental crisis, a crisis whose outcome is understood: without stopping emissions within the next 12 years, the planet will warm by 1.5-2°C at least. 90-100% of the coral reefs will continue to disappear, disease and famine will be even more widespread, and nearly a third of the planet will become entirely uninhabitable for humans.[4] Will humans survive this crisis? And what kind of lives would we lead when a vast majority of the planet would be contaminated with toxic waste, desertified, or under water? While massive misinformation campaigns staged by right-wing governments and orchestrated by fossil fuel industries have kept many working class people in doubt, 70% of people in the US now agree that climate change is caused by human activity. [5] Though some people are still in denial or misinformed, the environmental crisis is ever present, and we must take bold action immediately.

Media outlets and academic papers will cite burning fossil fuels, industrial cultivation, and manufacturing as the main causes of climate change, but they are looking at the shadow of the monster. Of course emissions cause climate change, but these symptoms are largely caused by corporations who exploit natural resources, in particular fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, and BHP Biliton, who are among 100 companies that cause 71% of emissions [6]. The monster that is gobbling up our earth’s resources and leaving a trail of poison in its wake is the economic system that allows people to get rich off the gobbling, while the vast majority of us toil and suffer from the poison. The communists understood more than a century ago that because of its exploitative logic, a capitalist economy will inevitably destroy whatever environment it inhabits. [7] How we save our people and heal our planet should be the foremost task of our society, and yet weak, false solutions are presented left and right. If we intend to survive, we must fight to end capitalism now through a people-powered movement.

What Do the Rulers Propose?

Regarding solutions like the Paris Agreement, even the most ambitious targets set by its participant countries are not enough to curb predicted climate change below 3° C, a catastrophic amount [8]. After pressuring other countries to water down the Agreement’s provisions, the better to promote the interests of its extractive capitalists, the United States, one of the top 4 polluters in the world, dropped out of the Agreement in June of 2017. During the Obama years, reforms were made under the Clean Power Plan to reduce coal power plant emissions 32% by 2030, a modest goal considering that the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report states that emissions need to drop to near 0% by 2040 to avoid catastrophic warming [8]. The plan is already in the process of being appealed by the Trump government. Not only are these proposals  flimsier than the paper they’re written on, they are less enduring too.

The small progressive wing of the Democratic Party has begun to seriously promote the idea of an economic stimulus plan that attempts to regulate capitalism’s unsustainability: the New Green Deal. Progressives leaning towards a bid for the 2020 presidential election, such as Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, have already embraced the idea, a telltale sign of the deal’s popularity in the voting base of the Democratic Party. It’s ideal form would tax oil corporations, re-regulate banks, fund renewable energy infrastructure, and provide financial incentives for “green investment.” In other words, it seeks to slowly transition the US capitalist economy to a version that is more sustainable. If the deal succeeded and was not repealed in the following election cycles, the US might look slightly similar to the more ecologically sustainable welfare states of Sweden and Denmark (though not too similar, since the US is currently responsible for 15% of global emissions while both Sweden and Denmark emit less than 0.1% [10]). These reforms would be good at improving the living conditions of most working class people in the US, and over the long term would reduce emissions some. However, expecting that electing any president or politician of the two major political parties, even relatively progressive ones, could significantly challenge the extractive industries’ grip on the energy sector, is a deeply flawed strategy to solving the climate crisis (see Brenner’s classic article debunking myths of electorism in this issue).

For starters, the Democratic and Republican parties do not answer to the voters’ interests nor the mass social movements of our society. They answer to the lobbying groups of corporations, with both parties receiving between $1.5-2.5 billion/year [9] along with the implied promise that they will create policies in favor of these same industries. Any reforms, which have been won by the working class that damage corporations’ profits – such as the original New Deal – have been the result of mass mobilizations and the threat of insurrection. If Congress were to pass a New Green Deal, or any reform that would cause oil companies and other beneficiaries to payback billions to our society, this would not happen because of the righteousness of a few radical legislators, but because of massive organized mobilizations that come with specific, strong demands. The history of US progressive victories, from slavery abolition to labor rights and civil rights, is characterized by hard-won, militant mass mobilizations from below.

Electoral campaigns alone won’t build the working class power that’s needed to end the climate crisis, let alone capitalism. While it’s true that the vast majority of working class people see voting as the primary way to exercise their politics, that does not mean that voting in elections builds working class power. When working class and emancipatory movements are co-opted and steered toward voting for progressives of the Democratic Party, power is forfeited, momentum wasted. A strategy of relying on those elected to positions of power, to do the work of challenging capital, results in most of the movement’s demands becoming filtered and watered-down through unavoidable compromise with the donor class which underpin the party apparatus. Only through the process of independent class struggle can we learn how to organize, fight, and make gains for ourselves. This could be in our unions or worker centers, in our neighborhood councils, or any other class organization that allows people to fight to make real wage and resource gains. The climate crisis is a crisis of capitalism, and the struggle to solve it will be waged by those who stand to suffer the most from the carnage. The fight will be waged through stopping production with strikes, blockades, and occupations, and demanding solutions in the interest of workers, families, and the environment. When the Green New Deal fails to pass or, like the Affordable Care Act, passes in a diluted form and is repealed several years later, where is the working class power? For the same reasons, the NGO/NPO model of environmentalism is insufficient. Organizations which rely on donations from major capitalists (thinly sheened as foundations), cannot stop emissions or make structural changes to the economy required to truly protect the environment.

The only lasting power of our class is through mass movement organizing that makes credible demands to the State and the capitalists who lose profits through our mobilizations. True power would be, for example, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from being built, and stopping the construction of new oil rigs in the Arctic. Power is forcing Macron to find another way to pay for climate change than on the backs of the French working class. Power is more than 50,000 teachers on wildcat strikes in states with conservative legislators being forced to give raises, school funding, and healthcare. Power would be all of California’s 250,000 teachers in the streets demanding a reform to California’s Proposition 13 to fund public schools. Until we have a movement that forces corporations and the state, the owning class, to return the wealth to us that we generate as workers, we will never be able to permanently restructure the society we live in so that resources are used sustainably. Why haven’t we achieved this kind of power yet? Why did the battle at Standing Rock result in such defeat? The answer reveals itself when looking at the larger scope of history. We are on a path towards victory, and each apparent loss is really a step in the learning and building process to the ultimate transformation our species requires to survive.

The Environmental Movement We Need

PG&E, the largest energy corporation in California with $68 billion in assets, recently filed for bankruptcy. It cited financial liabilities of $30 billion, yet offered its just-resigned CEO a severance package of $2.5 million. Those liabilities come from the massive damage caused by the deadly Thomas Fire of 2017, as well as the Campfire that razed the town of Paradise, killed 86 people, displaced 50,000 people, and left the Bay Area in a weeklong air-quality emergency that sent dozens of people to the hospital. Equipment owned and operated by PG&E was found to be responsible for starting both firestorms. By filing for bankruptcy, the PG&E is allowed to shrug off the responsibility for causing these fires, can remain a profit-making company, and will not pay one cent of its $3 billion dollars in annual profits to the people of California. Though despicable, this story is nothing new in environmental history. Massive oil spills in the oceans like Exxon Valdez, explosions of oil and gas rigs such as Deepwater Horizon, collapsed mountains from coal mines, and the opening of tar sands have scarred the earth since fossil fuels came into use as a fuel source in the late 19th century.

If we’re going to solve the environmental crisis, we can start by taking those responsible straight to the chopping block. PG&E’s profits should be taken from them and used to rebuild the lives of those who are victims of these wildfires, to clean the local environment of pollutants released from the fires, and most importantly to replace PG&E’s infrastructure with more intelligent, efficient, renewable infrastructure and sources. The process of liquidating a company’s assets for use by the people is called expropriation, and it’s the same process by which we will begin to solve the environmental crisis. Expropriation is different from a progressive tax or incentive program, like the Green New Deal. Expropriation is carried out by a powerful, highly organized people’s movement, and it results in the total wealth of the company or corporation being transferred to the control of the people’s government. Generally, we do this by stopping the productive economy, forcing the capitalists to lose money, until the demand is conceded.

In the case of PG&E, it could mean hundreds of thousands of Californians from the public and private sector who were organized and ready to go on strike, take to the streets, and demand that PG&E come under the ownership and control of the State of California, or nationalized (full expropriation can only happen when we have a people’s government). The former assets of PG&E would be transferred to programs that served the victims of the fires and environmental remediation, while the company would be restructured as a public, non-for-profit service entity. Its operations would be directly overseen by an open committee of elected representatives from the worker’s movement, and the former leaders of PG&E would be stripped of all power, if not faced with criminal proceedings for their gross negligence. Of course, we’ll also need to liquidate the petroleum companies, who are the most responsible for the climate crisis. These, or course, would be monumental endeavors requiring the utmost sacrifice, but we have everything to lose in not embarking on them with the utmost urgency and intensity.

Can We Solve this Crisis Without the Democratic Party?

The progressive movement is still operating under the illusion that the environmental crisis can be resolved through electoral channels. Not only is this strategy flawed, it paternalistically assumes that working class people are not capable of solving our own problems without the rulership of a bourgeois government. But throughout history and still today, working class people in the gravest situations have found ways to struggle and win better material conditions, showing that in fact we are capable of independent class struggle and we are inclined to struggle to better our situations. The 1956 Hungarian Revolution happened under a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, and in a short period of time the factory workers and students had formed a people’s government with 2,100 local workers councils that carried out the daily operations of production and governance. In the Seattle and Minneapolis General Strikes (1919, 1934), hundreds of thousands of mostly immigrant workers in the coal and auto industries not only shut down their cities, but reopened them under workers rule, and carried out every task needed to maintain a functioning city. Two months ago, the 8,000 strong Marriott Hotel Workers Strike, led by the poorest working people of the country, many immigrants speaking many different languages, pulled off one of the longest and most successful strikes in the private sector in many years. The 2018 Nicaraguan insurrection (an ongoing situation), which was sparked by environmentalists and indigenous people protesting the failure of Daniel Ortega’s government to respond to the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve wildfires but quickly grew to a mass movement against the government [11], shows us that even a people who have been betrayed by their “revolutionary socialist” government, who are experiencing profound economic crisis under the fist of imperialism, can and will organize to take power.

The first step to solving the environmental crisis is becoming active in the struggle. We must follow a strategy that does not rely on building the power of the Democratic Party, that instead builds working class power through mass mobilizations and militant, democratic campaigns for material reforms. Some formations like this are already active and  growing, such as the People’s Climate Movement, which organized “Rise for Climate, Jobs, and Justice” worldwide actions in the summer of 2018 that in San Francisco alone brought 30,000 people into the streets to demand a just transition to an ecologically sustainable economy rooted in racial and economic justice. While this kind of movement could fuel a New Green Deal in the US, only an international movement that seeks to build working class power to expropriate the capitalists will solve the climate crisis for good, so it’s important to continue building these movements with an anti-capitalist program at the forefront. Not only can we win, we must win if we are to survive. We need a clear plan to confront the crisis, to adapt, and to build a new society that is strong enough to heal from the wounds capitalism has created, on the planet and among ourselves.

[1] http://www.fire.ca.gov/communications/downloads/fact_sheets/Top20_Destruction.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2018_Atlantic_hurricane_season

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/23/us/tent-city-closing-texas-migrant-children.html

[4] http://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/index.html



[7] https://isreview.org/issue/72/marxism-and-environment


[9] https://www.opensecrets.org/parties/index.php?cmte=&cycle=2016

[10] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions

[11] https://lavozlit.com/nicaragua-encachimbada-a-popular-uprising/

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