by Jan C. and Dianne F.
Posted June 9, 2013
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The ecological crisis we face today is not limited to climate change. Toxic waste and fertilizers have turned rivers, lakes and oceans into gigantic sewers, heralding the death of coral beds and extinction of other aquatic life. Scientists have concluded Lake Erie, one of the Great Lakes, is dying from the proliferation of algae. Soil erosion has been intensified by corporate agricultural practices, including the misuse of fertilizers and pesticides, monoculture crops and large-scale confinement of animals who are force-fed chemicals to quicken their maturity. This intensification results in massive soil erosion, desertification, and loss of forests, forcing farmers from their lands, and threatening the water supply of many communities. New forms of extracting fossil fuels, particularly through the destruction of Alberta’s ancient boreal forest in order to strip mine the tar sands, will only speed up the process of released CO2 levels hastening climate change. In an incredible disregard of climate change, countries are already jockeying around the exploitation of fossil fuel resources exposed by the melting of the Arctic ice—it is estimated 13% of the world’s oil and 30% of its natural gas lies below the area’s waters–and are excited by the prospects of locating and extracting even more fossil fuel resources!
The range of diseases from industrial pollution kills and maims workers on the job and nearby communities, whether in accidents or through everyday operations. Corporate agriculture routinely poisons consumers and puts food safety and security at risk.
A recent NYT article, “As OSHA Emphasized Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester,” reported on the use of nPB glue fumes that leads to workers suffering neurological damage but that the company, which pays its work force $9 an hour, didn’t switch to another glue because “alternatives didn’t work well, were sometimes more dangerous and were almost always more expensive.” (3/31/13) In addition, disability benefits, the safety net for these injured workers, are under attack (see April 4 Labor Notes article “NPR Attacks Disability, Bolsters ‘New Consensus’ against Welfare” exposing National Public Radio’s recent series on disability).
Researchers have shown that African Americans suffer the worst from industrial chemicals and particulates, with asthma rates for Black children rising 50% between 2001-09. In fact, a recent NAACP study revealed that of the four million people living within three miles of the 75 worst coal-burning plants—that release into the air sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides at higher levels–the majority are people of color. As NAACP president Benjamin Jealous pointed out, “Coal pollution is literally killing low-income communities and communities of color.”
Nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons add to the destructive ecological crisis. There is no “safe” solution to storing nuclear waste.
The war industry itself, whether we speak of its production or its use against people, compounds devastation worldwide and drains civil society of the funds necessary to secure the health and welfare of its people.
Because the problems are so immense, this quick summary has primarily focused on the United States. But in a world of global production chains and U.S. dominance, the crisis is even more advanced in developing countries in the South where climate change is more pronounced.
An Ecosocialist Perspective
Solidarity’s approach to these issues is based on our understanding that in its drive for profit, capitalism exploits nature as well as human labor. Both are finite resources, but not to capital. To capital, nature and labor are just means to greater profits.
As ecosocialists, we understand that a profit-driven society puts climate, environment and people at risk. Capitalism is an economic system that is destroying the planet and the quality of people’s lives:
- It is a system based on continual expansion in order to maximize profit. This productivism creates false needs through massive advertising while vast portions of humanity suffer from hunger, malnutrition and oppression.
- Capitalism’s model of agriculture and manufacturing is destructive because it does not and cannot consider the consequences of its model to society. Thus, social and environmental costs are transferred to society as a whole.
- In their quest for profitability, capitalist enterprises seek to control resources and extract them at the least possible cost and with minimal regard to safety of workers or the larger community. This method of production leads to massive waste, pollution and exhaustion of the earth. Much modern production and technology is dependent on fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources. The fossil fuel energy industry is powerful and views a possible failure to develop, extract, transport, refine and market these fuels as a ruinous lost investment.
- Individual capitalists and politicians must downplay the ecological crisis we face because developing any response to the crisis outside the capitalist framework has the potential to unleash questions about private property and the market which pose the necessity for building an alternative economy built on sustainability, social needs and cooperation.
In order to stop capitalism’s destruction of nature—and humankind that is a part of nature—it is necessary to break with that model through a revolutionary transformation. Such a revolution would free people to organize a sustainable society. This would also mean prioritizing decisions on how to overcome the inequality that is at the heart of the market. We envision local self-activating communities linked to regional, national and international People’s Assemblies tasked with understanding the costs of production and with integrating productive and reproductive labor. Such assemblies would also exist at workplaces, where workers would not only manage the plant but plan how to operate with alternative agency, propose the production of alternative supplies, consider sending the operation to areas that are in need of the production, or shutting the plant down altogether..
That is, an ecosocialist vision prioritizes self-management, equality and production based on need. Since it is grounded in self-activity, an ecosocialist vision presumes a dramatic reduction in work time so that everyone has the time, energy and inclination to participate in governing, child reading and leisure. It prioritizes public spaces and services, from free public transportation to health care and education. Even during the period of transition to dramatically cut CO2 emissions, assemblies would devise ways to increase the quality of life.
While ecosocialists’ critique of capitalism provides an understanding of the crisis we now face, we do not view “state socialism” as the answer. We also note that Latin American countries that have elected left but still capitalist governments—such as Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia—continue to depend on extraction of their natural resources. Despite the powerful statements those leftist leaders have made, despite the reduction in poverty and other social gains, this disequilibrium will exist until there is a revolutionary transformation.
Ecosocialism, then, presents a dynamic alternative to capitalism. It is the socialism of the 21st century, capable of transitioning to a model of production that is in harmony with the earth on which we live. It is based on the belief that humanity is capable of self-emancipation and solidarity. Whatever problems encountered in reducing toxic waste from our world, a society not driven by competition and market forces can use scientific evidence as the basis for its planning.
Challenging the Fossil Fuel Industry
Several of the most important struggles around environmental issues in the United States today focus on challenging the oil, gas and coal industries. These include the fight against the Keystone XL Pipeline and other proposed pipelines. Enbridge, the Canadian oil transport company that was responsible for a tar sands oil spill on the Kalamazoo River in Western Michigan in 2011 and still remains an ecological disaster, has proposed transporting up to 13 million barrels of crude oil annually throughout the Great Lakes to Midwest refineries and markets beyond. This newly announced project would transport even more oil that the Keystone XL Pipeline and risk contaminating the world’s most vital freshwater source. Additionally there is the struggle against mountain top removal, opposition to fracking and the demand to transition from coal-fired and nuclear-powered plants to alternative energy.
The energy industry puts forward two reasons why it is necessary to develop new processes of extracting fossil fuels while maintaining what we already have: the first is so that America will no longer be “dependent” on foreign governments (read Venezuela, Russia and the Middle East) for oil or natural gas. In fact, over the next five years the United States will become the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. This will happen even without the importation of the Albert tar sands via the Keystone XL Pipeline, which is primarily intended for refining and export, not domestic consumption. Almost all of this new production is for export and profit. Even coal extraction is increasingly targeted for export.
The second reason is that the construction, extracting, transportation and refining of these fossil fuels creates jobs, and jobs that pay fairly well. Many unions and working people fall into this job creation trap. Here is an area in which Solidarity can make a contribution to educating working people and our unions. Above all we demand that workers should not have to choose between their jobs and their health and safety.
Currently the environmental movement has organized a variety of activities:
- There is agreement among environmental organizations that the Keystone XL Pipeline must be stopped. President Obama will make a decision this year about whether it can be constructed across the Canadian-U.S. border. The fact that he has put off making the decision is the result of the intense opposition to it expressed in blockades, demonstrations and grassroots lobbying efforts, but we know that powerful interests like the Canadian government, TransCanada and U.S. corporations are lobbying for it.
- Fracking is a growing and destructive industry, with 25,000 high-volume wells already in operation. Within the next two decades, hundreds of thousands more are planned. But environmental organizations do not have a unified strategy; some call for a moratorium while others call for an outright ban. We want to educate people about fracking’s destructiveness and stop it. This means if we are involved in moratorium campaigns, our purpose is not to fight for tighter regulation but to show people why a ban is absolutely necessary.
On another track, communities facing issues of environmental injustice continue their local campaigns, often against coal- or nuclear-powered plants, toxic waste dumps, and incinerators. These are also fights against the fossil fuel industry! It is important for ecosocialists to bring these two elements of the environmental movement together as possibilities suggest themselves. We take note of The 21 Principles of Environmental Justice, particularly its demand for the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
What Are Solidarity’s Tasks as These Struggles Develop?
We want to incorporate an ecosocialist vision into every aspect of our work, particularly labor and community work. This means we need to think of how we can talk about the environmental crisis and expose the role of the fossil fuel industry and politicians that are preventing an adequate response.
Internationally, it is estimated that the fossil fuels industry receives about a trillion dollars a year in subsidies from governments and various agencies such as the World Bank. While not responsible for the total amount, Washington is responsible for the lion’s share. For example half that amount alone represents the U.S. military’s defense of shipping lanes. Meanwhile the National Academy of Scientists estimated that the industry causes at least $120 billion a year in U.S. health problems alone.
Even without a reduction in work time we can point to the reality that alternative energy creates twice as many jobs as the amount invested in coal or gas. (See a study by the Political Economy Research Institute.) Conversion from fossil fuels to alternative energy needs to be prioritized along with the training and retraining of workers. That is, the cost in making this transformation needs to be seen as a social cost, not one borne by individual workers and their communities.
The blue-green alliance of unions and environmentalists has unfortunately been split over the proposal to construct the Keystone XL Pipeline, but we need to point to the few U.S. unions that have opposed the pipeline: The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union, who call for building mass transit, and the National Nurses Union, which cites health problems as the basis for its decision. The Communication Workers of America has also expressed its opposition.
However we should continue to look for opportunities to engage in campaigns to defend labor rights, such as in its fight for health and safety on the job. Often these fights are mirrored by community struggles around the same health and safety issues. By continuing to find ways to work on such campaigns, we provide a model to the larger environmental movement and keep the door open to discussing these issues with workers and their organizations.
We want to challenge the very idea that energy is a commodity. Various communities around the country are attempting to assert the right to a healthy environment. Some state constitutions (such as in Illinois) “guarantee” this right so campaigns to enforce this right may develop legs in some states. In other states, where laws may privilege business interests, campaigns might develop to challenge and reverse that mandate. (See the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund website).
We need to demand a complete and transparent accounting of all the subsidies granted to the fossil fuel industry and support an end to them. We particularly support the growing divestment movement that has now developed on over 330 campuses and support extending that movement to pension divestment as well.
Because electrical companies have been very slow to meet growing concern for renewable energy, a number of U.S. cities are now in the process of discussing the municipalization of electrical companies. The Akewsasne Mohawk Nation and 22 towns in northern New York have formed the North Country Power Authority to take over National Grid franchises. Other municipalization campaigns in New York State include Syracuse and Albany County. The New York Times reports on similar campaigns in Boulder, Colorado, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Santa Fe, New Mexico. These seem to be promising campaigns that raise the issue that energy sources are too important to be left to profit-driven corporations.
We want to maintain and deepen the Ecosocialist Working Group as a specific place where discussions can be initiated and brought into the whole organization about concrete work that is being done on environmental issues, particularly but not limited to climate change. We want to initiate broader discussions about the implications of the crisis we face as well as what economic and social transformation is necessary to overcome it. We note in particular the manifesto recently issued by Climate Space from the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunisia. The anticapitalist demands they raise are impressive and we should circulate it widely.
We see ecosocialism as a thoughtful movement that can unite various social struggles. It includes the fight against
poverty, the particular devastation of people of color communities suffer from toxic wastes, the fight for employment based on people’s needs, the fight against trade policies that plunder ecosystems and cause rural exodus, an end to militarism and the rape culture it promotes, opposition to privatization and the demand for free public transport, health care and education. We also note the important role women, indigenous populations and farmers have played in challenging economics driven by profit. This is true both in the United States and internationally.
Solidarity can become an important place for discussion and generating thoughtful articles about the environmental crisis, the developing movement and an ecosocialist vision for ATC and the webzine. We already see that we are able to engage other leftists in these discussions, and we believe this work can be deepened.
As for the concrete work within the environmental movement, we encourage members to prioritize organizations that provide a space for democratic decision making, encourage visible forms of protest from teach ins to demonstrations and direct action, and pay particular attention to involving working people. Whether we are working in a united front or in more local groups, we want to point out that given the dominance of the fossil fuel industries, both Democratic and Republican parties are unwilling to take any steps to rein them in or impact their business. Some of our members are longtime members of the Green Party and this is certainly a national organization with a tradition of environmental principles and has a position independent of the Republican and Democratic parties.