Earth Day – Its Legacy and Our Future

[This article was written by Paul Prescod for the Solidarity Political Committee. For information on the April 20 Ecosocialist Conference in New York City, please see their "call to conference" here. A statement by Solidarity’s Ecosocialism Working Group on the Superstorm Sandy disaster is online at the Webzine, as well as an announcement by Nick Davenport of the “Ecosocialist Contingent” here.]

EARTH DAY BEGAN on April 22, 1970 as an environmental teach-in modeled after those on the Vietnam War, initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. It had resonance because there was a vibrant environmental movement that had been developing. The date was deliberately chosen because it was not during students’ exams or spring break, and 20 million activists participated. Streets, parks, auditoriums, and college campuses were the sites of protests against environmental degradation.

Another important figure related to this was Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader who took the lead in building strong ties between the union movement, including his own Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, and the environmental movement. Mazzocchi was heavily influenced by Rachel Carson, whose famous book Silent Spring brought to light the dangers of pesticides and chemicals in our lives.

The modern environmental movement came out of the activism of the 1960s, a product of the politicization and activity that was taking place on a mass scale in the United States globally. Most environmental regulations and legislation that are worth anything today are a result of this movement. It also gave rise to the environmental justice movement, which focuses on environmental issues in communities of color.

For many activists, the awareness of the effects industrial capitalism was having on the environment was integrated with the consciousness that had developed on a number of issues. Struggles of African Americans, feminism, gay liberation, and resistance against imperialist wars were all part of the atmosphere.

This environmental consciousness must be developed again, for today we face a truly planetary crisis. In many different areas of ecology we are fast approaching several tipping points that are unalterable on a human timescale. Ultimately it is up to the populations affected to make Earth Day resonate beyond April 22nd and to build a society that respects ecological limits and addresses real human needs.

With Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather incidents there is a growing awareness that climate change is already here, and it’s real. The movement against the Keystone pipeline showed its force on February 17th with the largest demonstration against climate change this country has ever seen, although the result still hangs in the balance.

As the fracking industry in the country develops, so does the resistance of the communities whose land and water are being destroyed. Globally there are even more inspiring examples of resistance on these fronts.

Melting, Drying Up and Drowning

Climate change is perhaps the most urgent crisis, whose effects are clearly already being felt around the world. The record-breaking U.S. Midwest and plains drought last summer, and the “super storm” Hurricane Sandy, have demonstrated the seriousness of this issue. Extreme weather of all kinds has made its mark across the world. Arctic sea ice had a record melt in the summer of 2012 and scientists are seriously contemplating whether an Arctic without ice in the summer will be a reality within as few as 5-10 years.

Scientists have generally considered an increase in global temperature of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the point where control of climate change will be out of human hands. (So far, the temperature increase is already 0.8 degrees C.)

This temperature increase would correspond to cumulative carbon emissions of about one trillion metric tons. If business as usual continues we are set to hit that mark in 2043, just 30 years from now. The real goal should be to stay well below this mark, at around 750 billion cumulative metric tons of carbon. In order to avoid this mark we have to decrease our rate of emissions by 5.7 % per year. To put it another way, the International Energy Agency recommends that 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves stay put in the ground.

Contrary to many predictions, the financial crisis has not led to a decline in carbon emissions. Emissions did drop by 1.4% in 2009, but only to spike up by 5.9% in 2010. The widely predicted onset of “peak oil” production also will not come to the rescue: Increased global coal production, tar sands and fracking are being enthusiastically pursued by governments and energy corporations. These sources contain enough carbon to push the planet far over the temperature tipping point if they were to be burned.

The effects of climate change go beyond rising sea levels and more unpredictable weather. Extreme weather, floods, and droughts will change the way farming is done around the world and could set off catastrophic food security crises in Africa and Asia. Staple foods could double in price by 2050 as a result of all this.

Many regions around the world can expect to experience declines in crop and livestock production. Agriculture is simply not flexible enough to adjust to such massive climate swings occurring within a few decades.

As disastrous as it is, climate change represents just one of many ecological crises currently underway. The acidification of the oceans is a direct result of climate change, and even small changes in acidity can cause a huge change in sea ecology. Species extinctions now taking place are on par with other periods of mass extinctions in geological history. Dead zones in oceans are being caused by nitrogen pollution, fueled by its use in chemical fertilizers.

A dramatic loss in freshwater supplies is also occurring, leading to a push for the global privatization of water. Dams, irrigation, destruction of forests, and artificial tree plantations all play a role in disrupting natural water cycles. The depletion of the ozone continues, as well as the destruction of the rainforest. Of course all of these ecological factors interact with and influence each other, making precise predictions about their future development difficult.

Economy and Environment

All this is taking place amidst a global economic crisis that does not show many signs of letting up. The usual rhetoric by world leaders of encouraging economic growth raises serious problems when considering the ecological devastation this “growth” has caused, and the limits that we are pushing up against.

This situation brings many challenges for environmental activists. The economic crisis has brought alarming rates of unemployment, declining wages, erosion of the social safety net, and a more precarious mode of living for many people. Faced with these very real and overwhelming problems, long-term environmental crises will be hard to bring to the forefront of peoples’ concerns. The old ” jobs vs. the environment” card will undoubtedly be played by the energy industry against any threat to its profits.

Socialist activists should be sensitive to this issue and be able to offer up solutions and alternatives. Clearly, the massive infrastructure changes that would be needed to create a truly sustainable society would require equally massive numbers of new jobs. New industries could be accompanied by trainings and employment for workers previously employed in carbon-based energy industries. The various alternative energy sources that do exist, and how they could be utilized, needs to be pointed out. The system of capitalist production is based on limitless growth, continuous consumption, planned technological/psychological obsolescence, and constant expansion. A high level of planning and cooperation would be needed to seriously address the ecological crisis. This planning simply cannot be dictated by the laws of private profit if it is to be meaningful or effective. The political leaders of all the worst polluting nations have utterly failed to come up with any type of plan to limit climate change or avoid any of the other crises.

It is revealing that in the last presidential election neither Mitt Romney nor Barrack Obama mentioned climate change even once in their debates (in fact, none of the journalists even asked!). Instead they fought over who was more supportive of the coal industry. Obama did begin talking about climate change after the election, but this is primarily to satisfy the Democrats’ voting base and because the movement around the Keystone XL Pipeline made it an issue he could no longer ignore. Except when there’s some current disaster, the mainstream news networks are still largely silent on the issue.

It goes without saying that the Left needs to be heavily involved around these issues. On April 20th an Ecosocialism conference will be held in New York City at Barnard College, involving the collaboration of several socialist organizations. This is a step in the right direction going forward and hopefully will help in refining our analysis of the crisis and what we can do about it. Surely this should be an issue at the center of attention of all generations fighting for a real chance at a future.

History of Earth Day

Thanks, Paul, for stating the case for socialist activity on ecology clearly and succinctly. I agree with this article that it's not a coincidence that environmental movement originated at the same time as Civil Rights and Black Power, and the other liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s. Certainly the fact that the movement was able to achieve some degree of environmental reforms, which we haven't really seen any of since, depended on the atmosphere of political upheaval.

However, I think there's another side to the story. A comrade who had been around at the time told me that the first Earth Day occurred in context of liberation movements becoming more militant and state violence escalating. According to her, the first Earth Day had relatively vague, peaceable politics, and it felt marked by something of a retreat from militancy by people who were tired of it. Corporations jumped on it immediately, and the very next year saw widespread corporate sponsorship and the greenwashing we're all too familiar with today. If this is accurate, I think it goes a long way towards explaining why the environmental movement since the 1970s has failed to challenge capitalism, and indeed has been largely integrated into the political system rather than forming a challenge to it (like the other major movements of the 60s and 70s).

It seems like the lesson here is that we need an ecological movement that's intransigent, that confronts the institutions of power in society, and that builds allegiances from below with the struggles of working-class people and oppressed nationalities here and around the globe. To me, the role of socialists in the movement is to promote that kind of strategy. I know that's a pretty broad comment—I'm going to try to develop what that means in a contribution to Solidarity's pre-convention discussion that I'm writing with another comrade, which will be published on this website later this spring.
-Nick D. (Baltimore)

I've heard the same as Nick

I've heard the same as Nick about the conservative origins of Earth Day.

I also want to add that I'm not sure that it's sufficient to say that the emergence of the modern environmental movement was due to the advanced political activity of the working class and oppressed peoples in the 60s and 70s. I've been (slowly) developing the hypothesis that the modern environmental movement is a response to what the particular features of the neoliberal era. This is premised on the idea that neoliberalism is a crisis of capitalist reproduction in which capital seeks to solve the crisis of profitability by basically looting free inputs into the system. We can see this in the attacks on public education, which is part of the refusal of capital to reproduce the working class at all in the face of declining profits, the disinvestment in infrastructure, and, of course, in the looting of natural resources which results in the destruction of 'nature.' Without the ability to valorize itself through expanded reproduction, capital, instead, cannibalizes what it has already created.

This is why I think the modern environmental movement is a particular response to a uniquely, contemporary problem; i.e., the contemporary era and composition of capital. It get at what Marx meant when he wrote in the "Preface..."

"Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."

I've been using this as a point of departure to think about other aspects of the movement, such as dissecting the different ideological forms that have animated environmental thought. For example, the ideas of conservation and preservation seem to be the product of the late 19th and early 20th century, while the modern environmental movement doesn't emerge until the second half of the 20th century, and yet those other modes of thought are pretty popular. But not only do I think these modes of thought are insufficient and need to be dialecticly critiqued, but I also want to understand objectively why they still have popular currency.

This, of course, is only one of the many ways that we need to try to understand our struggles through the objective and contemporary movement of capital.

P.S. Sorry I never responded to your last comment on the other post, Nick. Things also got pretty busy for me at that time. You asked if I'm with a group or have a website; I'm in Unity & Struggle and gatheringforces.org is our blog.

P.P.S. I hope there's a report back on the conference coming soon.

neoliberalism and ecology

Thanks for getting in touch, Mazin! It's good to hear from you again.

What you write about neoliberalism "looting free inputs into the system" is consistent with what I've been thinking. As capital's rate of profit stagnates and opportunities for new investment dry up, capital responds by increasing the rate of exploitation, by pushing costs of social reproduction which had been socialized back onto the working class (e.g. schooling), and by increased extraction of natural resources (which produce rent as well as surplus value). Hence, it seems to me that there is a connection between austerity and the drive for increased fossil fuel production, and that as revolutionaries we should be building links between the struggles against them. But other comrades have argued that austerity and fossil fuels are distinct phenomena with their own rhythms, so I don't know if I'm committed to that position yet.

I hadn't thought of the environmental movement as arising from this conjuncture. That's an intriguing idea which I'd like you to elaborate on. In particular, how do you see the environmental movement as arising in response to neoliberalism when the first Earth Day and the movement's major gains occurred before the austerity drive really began? Also, although the ecological destruction of the past few decades has certainly gotten worse and worse, capitalism has always been ecologically destructive. So why would this only be a task we can solve now?

About a critique of conservation ideology, I've been reading this essay by the historian William Cronon which traces the origin of modern ideas about "nature" and "wilderness" to romanticism and to the "frontier ideology" which was a response to a particular political point in US history. I think he goes on to critique the idea of nature as something separate from humans which is at the heart of much environmental activism today (I haven't finished reading it yet). I'm not sure if this is relevant to what you're thinking about, but I'm finding it pretty interesting.

Gathering Forces seems like a good site—I remember really liking some of the stuff I read there a few years ago, but I haven't been back since then. I wish I had time to follow it more regularly. There's all sorts of great left stuff being published online these days, and it's hard to keep up with all of it!

my haphazard guesses

This is my haphazard response to the problem you raised with the timeline of the environmental movement and the beginning of the era of austerity. Again, I'm still trying to figure this out myself.

First, In U.S. Labor in Trouble & Transition, Kim Moody sites the beginnings of the problems in production and profitability in the mid to late 1960s, which is earlier than the beginning of the era of neoliberalism that most claim began around 1972/73. Although, Bretton Woods was annulled even earlier than that in 1971.

Second, I've found that the mass revolts of the class often anticipate the follow up offensives by capital. I might even argue that the failure of these revolts, and the terms of freedom that they strive for produce their dialectical opposite as the terms of the capitalist counter-offensive. Again, this is another hypothesis that I am only slowly working through, but the Autonomous tradition has argued something similar that the activity of the working class becomes captured by capital and is channeled into the new round of expanded production. I've generally been dissatisfied with how I've heard the Autonomous argument explained, but I'll be honest and say that I haven't read all that I need to read to understand their argument as best I could. The basics of their argument, however, are plausible because of the basic premise that Marx argued which is that the object of labor express the character of the labor that produced that object. It's not just that labor produces capital, but, further, labor produces capital precisely because labor exists as a commodity. Of course there's more to it, but I don't want to walk through the entire universe of Marx's thought.

The Marxist-feminist wages for housework program (WFH) is a good example of this phenomenon. It's advocates argued against its interlocutors on the Left who thought that women should fight to enter the workplace. Not only did the advocates of WFH not want to expand the process commodity production, but they argued that this would still leave the gendered division of labor intact. In fact, what has accompanied the increased proletarianization of women as they now make up a much larger part of the workforce is that the patriarchal relation has developed and expanded inside the formal economy with not only the continued stratification of wages, but even further with many of the reproductive functions that women performed in the home have become now even more commodities in the market, such as the expansion of the fast food industry, the sex industry, and the psychological/self-help industry. These were all types of work that "wives" do and did perform, and the WFH program understood that the relation itself needed to fought rather than allowed to take a new form.

It might also be argued that similar arguments could be made about the Black Panther Party anticipating the profound increase of the militarization of the police.

Last, Marx's argument that the logical explanation of the movement of capital runs in the opposite direction of the appearance of its historical development may shed some light on the development of the eco-crisis. For example, Marx says that "surplus-value is made through capital" but "accumulation of capital presupposes surplus-value... The whole movement, therefore, seems to turn around in a never-ending circle,"

All guesses and hypotheses, though... still a lot more research is needed.

On the relationship between neoliberalism and fossil fuel production, I'm inclined to think there is a relationship. There was a good article some time ago at the Socialist Worker that provided some numbers on the amount of money tied up in the infrastructure of oil production. Part of the crisis of reproduction is that the capitalists want to get every last cent out of their investments. They mean to run those things into the ground. Not only does this help us understand the major crisis of infrastructure and regulation, but it also means that there is no way capitalists will abandon capital that is still able to valorize itself.

Again, this is only a guess. I would need to compare these numbers with the what is being invested in renewables, what could be invested, and what the rate of return would be. If you have a lead on where to get those numbers let me know. David Roberts over at grist.org has written a number of good articles on the political economy on coal, but I'm still trying to put stress pieces together.

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