by Dan Fischer
This past week, Connecticut residents and students traveled as far as Washington DC and as close as New Britain to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would carry leak-prone tar sands oil from Canada into the US. Both demonstrations targeted President Obama, who has the legal authority to block the pipeline. Although Obama campaigned on promises of climate protection, his repeated embrace of fossil fuel infrastructure recently led Business Week to deem him president of “The Petro States of America.”
On Sunday March 2, students from over 80 colleges met in Washington DC and marched to the White House in a demonstration called “XL Dissent”. At the White House, many took part in a “human oil spill” and locked themselves to the gates. Police arrested some 398 people. Democracy Now! reporter Amy Goodman commented the protest “could be the largest youth sit-in on the environment in a generation.” Several Connecticut students and residents participated.
Cesar A. Chavez, a junior at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, told The Struggle, “I am here protesting the Keystone XL pipeline mainly because over the past few summers in Peru they’ve gotten really warm, and they’ve become unbearable. Some places in the country have become pretty much unlivable because there isn’t any water.”
Capitalism vs. the Climate, a Connecticut-based group of which I’m a member, endorsed and joined the demonstration’s Ecosocialist Contingent. The contingent received some frantically negative coverage in Forbes, a business news magazine that has famously called itself a “capitalist tool.” Forbes columnist David Blackmon wrote:
Good to see the EcoSocialist contingent proudly displaying its signage at the rally, given that ‘ecosocialism’ has long been the real goal behind the anti-energy movement all over the world. At long last, someone with a little intellectual honesty here.
Despite the condescending tone, he is correct to observe that a growing number of young people observe that adequately addressing climate change will require systemic social change.
Obama Comes to Connecticut
On Wednesday March 5, President Obama spoke at New Britain’s Central Connecticut State University about the minimum wage. Despite closed roads and traffic jams, a group of anti-Keystone XL protesters greeted him on the campus. “A rupture in the Keystone XL pipeline could cause a BP style oil spill in America¹s heartland, over the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million people,” wrote protester Charles Button in an email. Button is a geography professor at the university. CCSU Global Environmental Sustainability Action Coalition hosted the demonstration.
Although D.C. protests are very flashy and draw in new people, organizers have long said the heart of the campaign happens locally. The Ruckus Society’s Joshua Kahn Russell explained in 2012, “the strategic arc of the campaign was actually decentralized actions all over the country. Everywhere that Obama went, there were grassroots people bird-dogging him, people going to his evens, storming Obama for America offices”. In Connecticut, Capitalism vs. the Climate has organized several actions against the Keystone XL, including a die-in with other groups outside a tar sands investment conference in Hartford, a series of pickets at pipeline-financier TD Bank, and a banner drop in solidarity with Tar Sands Blockade.
The campaign against the Keystone pipeline promises to escalate in the coming months. Over 86,000 people have signed a “pledge of resistance” indicating they will risk arrest if necessary to stop the pipeline’s completion. An alliance of indigenous groups has released a statement entitled “No Keystone XL Pipeline Will Cross Lakota Lands”. It says, “We stand with the Lakota Nation, we stand on the side of protecting sacred water, we stand for Indigenous land-based lifeways which will NOT be corrupted by a hazardous, toxic pipeline.”
Recently, activists have written a number of thoughtful critiques of the anti-Keystone movement, calling for groups to stand behind directly-impacted communities, and to not let the semi-apocalyptic “game over” language get out of hand. Below are a couple articles worth reflecting on.
Capitalism vs. the Climate decided to endorse the Ecosocialist Contingent at the upcoming XL Dissent action in Washington D.C. against the proposed Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline.
Some of our members will attend XL Dissent, which will involve acts of civil disobedience at the White House on March 2nd. Specifically, demonstrators plan on performing a “human oil spill.” Organizers specify that the demonstration is a youth-led act in solidarity with communities most impacted by tar sands, including Alberta’s First Nations living near extraction, people living along the spill-prone pipeline’s route, and communities in Texas near major refineries.
The Ecosocialist Contingent, organized by the System Change Not Climate Change Coalition (SCNCC) “believes that the ecological crisis results from the capitalist system, which values profits for a global ruling elite over people and the planet.” They support “ecosocialism: a democratic society that’s based on fulfilling human needs and preserving earth’s ecology.” You can read more at their website.
To endorse the Ecosocialist Contingent, as either an individual or a group, email firstname.lastname@example.org .
by Dan Fischer
It’s old news that humans can power society with 100% renewable energy. Back in 1964, the anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote a prescient essay on global warming and other ecological issues. “Solar devices, wind turbines, and hydroelectric resources taken singly do not provide a solution…Pieced together as a mosaic…they could amply meet the needs of a decentralized society,” he wrote (Ecology and Revolutionary Thought).
This transition can only take place when we start confronting the system that caused climate change: capitalism. Capitalism is a system based on private property and wage labor, where a ruling class of people own and manage most of the economy. It is inherently anti-ecological.
What’s Wrong with Capitalism
Capitalism presents each business with a stark choice to either “grow or die”. If businesses don’t keep producing more stuff, they lose out in a game of cutthroat competition. And because renewable energy tends to cost more than fossil fuels, a company that truly goes green will usually lose market share to its competitors very quickly. So, the vast majority of businesses have no choice but to keep on using fossil fuels. In practice, when large corporations dominate governments and gut agencies like the EPA, capitalism gets even more destructive than it does in theory!
To appear sustainable, they sell the public false “solutions” like natural gas, mega-hydro, nuclear power, and cap-and-trade. We call these false solutions, because they rely on the very same oppressive, capitalistic structures that caused climate change. In some cases, these false solutions increase greenhouse gas emissions. “Clean” natural gas pollution, for example, is many times more potent than carbon dioxide, leading Cornell scientists to conclude natural gas is worse than coal for the climate.
Even when capitalists switch to renewable energy, they build it in a very socially and ecologically destructive manner. Google’s large solar thermal project in California desecrates Chemehuevi burial grounds and devastates local birds and endangered tortoises. HydroQuebec’s hydroelectric dams violate Innu sovereignty and flood large areas of borreal forests. Even if a fully renewable energy-powered capitalism were possible, it would be inherently unsustainable. We need a democratic system capable of putting people and the earth above private profit.
Under socialism, by contrast, ordinary people control and manage the economy. There is no private property, only personal possessions. There is no grow-or-die imperative. There is a possibility for building an ecological society that also meets people’s needs and desires.
State and Hierarchy
However, we need to distinguish between two very different strands of socialism: authoritarian socialism which advocates the taking of state power and libertarian socialism which tries to remove all coercive hierarchies. Libertarian socialism is the green choice.
Authoritarian socialism–which should technically be called “state capitalism” since it creates a class of political and economic decision-makers–contains anti-ecological tendencies, and can be as destructive as capitalism. It fails to recognize that social hierarchy is at the root of ecological crisis. Hierarchy contributes to environmental destruction in several ways.
- By definition, authoritarian societies put a class of decision-makers at the top of society and the rest of the people below them. History has shown that the people at the bottom of a society, because they have very little power to influence environmental decisions, get stuck with the most pollution. Conversely, in a non-hierarchical society it would be very difficult to build a hazardous facility anywhere!
- Domination of humans reinforces the idea that humans should dominate nature. For example, Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann called Palestinians “the rocks of Judea…obstacles that had to be cleared”. Aristotle, in Politics, justified the subjugation of women and slaves by likening them to nonhuman nature. As we can see, the denigration of humans and the denigration of nature go hand in hand. Conversely, an egalitarian, libertarian culture reinforces the notion that humans should not rule over other people or over nature.
Authoritarian societies are best suited to repress and marginalize environmental protest movements. As Tadzio Meuller writes, “[T]he extraction of fossil fuels, really of most mineral resources, tends to generate strong local resistance, whether or not the community gets to share in the spoils of the extraction. In turn, this resistance has to be managed/repressed” (Greece under SYRIZA?).
- A State simply cannot manage an ecosystem as well as local communities. The political scientist James Scott shows that States try to homogenize the environment in order to make it “legible” from above. They tend to adopt monocultural approaches that have repeatedly proven disastrous in forestry, energy and agriculture. After Germany’s late-18th century invention of state-managed forestry, forests became so unhealthy that “[a] new term, Waldsterben (forest death), entered the German vocabulary.” (James Scott, Seeing Like a State).
Moving from theory to practice, State-managed economies and authoritarian socialists who’ve taken power, have a terrible environmental track record. Consider the following examples:
- The Chernobyl disaster, history’s worst nuclear disaster, happened under the Soviet Union’s watch.
- To stop Greenpeace from interfering with destructive nuclear tests, France’s “Socialist” government sunk Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in 1985, murdering the photographer Fernando Pereira.
- Under socialist president Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s exploitation of oilfield communities led the documentary filmmaker Gabriel Muzo to observe in 2005: “When I took my first journey through the petroleum-producing zone in the state of Zulia, on the eastern side of Lake Maracaibo, I was absolutely astonished by what I saw, by the misery, the resignation of the public, the public health problems, the environmental degradation” (Rafael Uzcategui, Revolution as Spectacle).
- Leon Trotsky held an attitude of “worship toward technology” and “allowed himself to fantasize about a future of rearranged rivers and mountains” according to eco-marxist Joel Kovel in The Enemy of Nature.
Libertarian socialism, by contrast, recognizes that ecological crises ultimately have their roots in social hierarchies. It is a philosophy advocating a society where communities are free to govern themselves and individuals are free to do as they wish, short of coercing others. There are many ecological or green varieties of libertarian socialism. Some important thinkers include the social ecologist Murray Bookchin, the revolutionary ecologist Judi Bari, and the eco-marxist Joel Kovel. All would agree with Kovel that States inherently “implement the domination of nature” (Enemy of Nature).
Energy is an example of a sector best managed in a decentralized manner. Bill McKibben explains in Eaarth, “it makes more sense to think about energy locally and regionally. (The very physics of electricity, the juice lost in transmission, works against long-range strategies.)” Agriculture is another example. In Seeing Like a State, James Scott documents how state-planned farming in West Africa failed to match up to indigenous farming techniques which make use of local knowledge.
So far, we’ve established that capitalist privatization is a clear dead end, and the statist nationalization favored by authoritarian socialists and some liberals won’t save us either. The alternative is municipalization, or community control of the economy.
This is not to say that local communities will become isolated enclaves. Communities will still confederate together to share resources and coordinate regulations. The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, for example, confederate hundreds of thousands of people into autonomous zones. These zones have banned pesticides, stood up to oil companies, and they practice decentralized, ecological agriculture. In 1996, two years into their revolt, the Zapatistas reached an agreement with the Mexican government called the the San Andrés Accords, which gave local communities the power to veto all oil drilling.
In Denmark, in the 1980s and 1990s wind power grew dramatically, due to a movement of community-owned wind cooperatives. In the town of Sydthy, a 1996 poll found some 80% of residents supported the wind turbines, and the people living the closest were the most supportive! However, after neoliberal reforms in the late 90s and early 2000s privatized much of the sector, public participation dropped and the industry’s growth rate fell. Nonetheless, areas of Denmark still get 100% of their electricity from wind power, and on a good day wind can meet half of the country’s electric needs (Chapters 21 and 43 of Sparking a Worldwide Energy Revolution).
There are thousands of examples of direct democratic societies that we can study, from ancient Athens to 1936 Catalonia to the current-day Zapatistas and the alternative spaces established by Occupy Wall Street, just to name a few. If we build a large-scale direct democratic society, it is hard to see who would allow an incinerator or a dirty power plant to be built in their neighborhood!
Climate change and other ecological crises threaten human existence. However, when communities municipalize their economy, democratize their politics, and confederate with other communities to share resources, then humans will have a decent chance at surviving…and living quite well too!
- 100% renewable energy
- Algonquin gas pipeline
- carbon trading
- Comprehensive Energy Strategy
- False Solutions
- fossil fuels
- green scare
- Hydro Quebec
- just transition
- Keystone XL
- mountaintop removal
- natural gas
- tar sands
- Wells Fargo