The Washington Socialist Weekly Update <> May 12, 2017
By Andy Feeney
Yet how the world can respond to climate crisis, with Republicans controlling the U.S. Congress and Trump in the White House, is a question on which the U.S. left, and the environmental movement as well, have reached little agreement. Progressive responses to climate change instead are marked by multiple contradictions. Many of these were on public display on April 29 when an estimated 150,000 – 200,000 people, representing some 900 different organizations, participated in the People’s Climate March (PCM) in Washington.
Participants ranged from freelancers with placards like “There is no Planet B” and traditional environmental organizations to many left organizations like the CPUSA, SWP, PSL and various RCP front groups.
DSA organized a vigorous contingent of some 80 to 100 marchers, thanks in large part to the hard work of Brian Doyle, co-leader of our chapter’s Climate Change and Environmental Justice Committee (CC&EJC) and other CC&EJC comrades. Also building the event were David Duhalde of the national staff, members of our chapter’s Events and Logistics Committee, and designers and distributors of signs and swag from Metro DC DSA’s talented Communications Committee.
DSA members arriving from New York and New Jersey, among other states, joined local DSA members for the event. DSA’s signs proclaimed, alternatively, “Change the System, Not the Climate,” “Socialize, Not Privatize,” “This planet is for everyone,” and “Demand Climate Justice.” A number of non-DSA members disembarking from Union Station, before the march began, asked us if we could share extra signs with them.
In short, the PCM was strikingly diverse, exactly as organizers had wanted. But because of this diversity, it was clear the event did not end with general agreement on any common strategy that all participants can pursue after the march ended.
Jacquelyn Smith, a co-leader of the Climate Change & Environmental Justice Committee, recruited the speakers at the panel discussion and organized the event with expert help from Metro DC DSA’s Communications and Events & Logistics committees, notably including Jim McGee and Franklin Roberts. Panelists at the event included economist Gar Alperovitz, NAACP state (Indiana) environmental staffer Denise Abdul-Rahman, UMD anthropologist Shirley Fiske, psychologist Margaret Klein Salamon, and D.C. social activist and PSL member Eugene Puryear.
[Full information on panelists is at the end of this article]
Sam Knight, a new DSA member and a District-based journalist who is the cofounder of the District Sentinel News Co-Op, served as moderator for the panel. A lively discussion followed.
Margaret Klein Salamon, a clinical psychologist who founded The Climate Mobilization shortly following the big 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City, has stated in previous writings that countless Americans are in denial about the gravity and urgency of the climate crisis, and that most of us pay a heavy psychological price for our repression of what we fundamentally know to be true.
“The main obstacle we face in dealing with climate change is climate change itself,” on the grounds that the huge scope of the problem fosters “prevarications and euphemisms” and other distorted forms of communication, even among activists working to shift public discourse on the climate. “We are already in climate crisis,” Salamon said. “So why are the vast majority of people in the U.S., including many on the left, acting as if we’re still basically in normal times?”
In order to avoid unduly frightening people, Salamon continued, too many climate activists offer half-measures to combat the problem, one example being a so-called “100 by 50” bill recently introduced by senators Bernie Sanders, Jeff Merkley, and Ed Markey that would commit the U.S. to achieving complete reliance on renewable energy by 2050.
The bill is has good features, Salamon said, “but it also means that we will keep burning fossil fuels for another 35 years.” As an alternative, Salamon voiced support for TCM’s plan for a crash U.S. government program of war-footing scope that could resolve one problem that moderator Sam Knight posed to the panelists: how to ensure a “just transition” to a green future and resolve conflicts between the environmental movement and organized labor over the elimination of fossil fuels. During the mobilization for World War II, Salamon stated, the U.S. essentially achieved full employment.
Expressing a significantly different view of the green economy and how to build it, Denise Abdul-Rahman of the Indiana NAACP stated that one crucial way in which capitalism blocks the emergence of a greener society is via “the continuation of a false narrative that puts profits before people,” coupled with the low wages, poverty and political disempowerment that the system currently generates, particularly among many communities of color.
Abdul-Rahman, a delegate to the conference that drew up the Paris Agreements in Indiana, organized a Just Energy Campaign reducing coal-fired generation of electricity and successfully fighting pre-emptive legislation disadvantaging rooftop solar.
In Indiana, Abdul-Rahman said, people of color live in a “hyper-conservative state, and the obstacles to a green economy include all the policies of that state.” A green economy would need to be based on social justice and the idea of putting people first, before profits. And given the demographic change that is now well underway in the United States, advocates for a green economy need to engage with people of color and residents of Latino communities. “You can’t just decide to do it, without consultation and engagement. To begin with, the conversation has to involve people who look like me.”
One element of such a framework would include the promotion of community-based and community-owned cooperatives, such as the “Cooperation Jackson” enterprise that the late Choke Lumumba, a radical black nationalist and mayor of Jackson, MS, helped to launch in that city, Abdul-Rahman said. “What would it look like for returning citizens if they could receive free training in solar rooftop installation? That’s part of the just transition that I’ve been working on in our communities.”
Gar Alperovitz, a cofounder of the Next System Project stated in the panel discussion what he has previously stated in books such as America After Capitalism and What Then Must We Do? Corporate capitalism in the U.S. is currently in a potentially terminal state of crisis, Alperovitz asserted. One key obstacle to building a green economy as a solution to that crisis is “us” –that is, members of the political left who have not yet formulated a coherent vision of a better system that can win widespread popular support and political acceptance.
As Alperovitz sees the issue, U.S. capitalism resolved its recurring crises throughout the 19th century largely through expansion along the western frontier and, in the 20th century, by military Keynesianism -- the allocation of excess investment capital, labor and economic output to the Pentagon and the military industrial complex. Both forms of deferring crisis are now exhausted, he said. In short, Alperovitz argued, “We’re running out of land, and we’re running out of war, as effective stimulants for capitalism.” The system therefore is facing protracted crisis, creating an era that Alperovitz believes is the most transformative in all of previous U.S. history. Alperovitz in his remarks argued – as he has for many years – for a massive development of community-based, worker-owned cooperatives and similar alternative enterprises as the core of a new system that can serve as an alternative both to corporate capitalism and to state socialism. But in the panel discussion, he argued that democratic socialists should push for the nationalization of the large oil companies – potentially a very centralized step – as a route toward fixing climate crisis.
Though the critical path to bank nationalization was available in the financial collapse of 2008, he said, the Left was unready to advocate, and therefore the public to accept, that move. Today, Alperovitz argued, the government should be prevailed on to cure the climate crisis by a government buyout of the fossil fuel industry Alperovitz said, and “of all people,” democratic socialists should vigorously promote the idea. He noted that the alternative of tougher regulation would be captured by the companies, as always.
Partly challenging Alperovitz’s presentation, panelist Eugene Puryear stated that while alternative visions of the future are important, a potentially bigger obstacle to a green economy is “politics,” the problem that “we don’t have the right people making the decisions.” In part this is due to divisions within the working class that have kept working people from exercising power, suggested Puryear, a D.C. social activist and member of the Party of Socialism and Liberation.
To create a green economy, Puryear added, “We need to grapple with the nature of the State.” The U.S. Constitution adopted by an elite group of white slaveholders in 1789, Puryear noted, had not protected minorities from enslavement, Jim Crow oppression and worse, nor prevented repression of Left activists at various critical points in the nation’s history.
Advocates for a green and socially just economy need to recognize that the repressive power of the political state may one day be used against us, Puryear suggested. As for Alperovitz’s idea of using government-created money to buy out the fossil fuel companies, Puryear said, he looked on oil company executives not as “businessmen, but as criminals.” He added: “We shouldn’t be buying them out. They should be jailed.”
In a follow-up exchange, Alperovitz suggested that Puryear was essentially talking about violent revolution, “and this is not a question to take lightly.” However, Alperovitz agreed that “If we’re talking about democratic socialism, constitutional change is essential.” In a reply to Alperovitz, Puryear suggested that the climate change movement will not necessarily escape from future government repression simply because it pursues peaceful and democratic strategies, if the biggest corporations begin to feel too threatened.
Apart from the question of buying up fossil fuel assets, Puryear noted Bernie Sanders’s support in West Virginia and elsewhere among working people who ended up voting for Trump, “not just because Sanders is ‘white,’ but more basically because he has called for raising taxes on Wall Street and using the money to provide coal miners and other West Virginians with free health care and free college tuition.” Successful campaigns to reach even workers in fossil fuel-related jobs might be based on this recognition.
Panel member Shirley Fiske, a University of Maryland anthropologist, in 2012 submitted a report to the AAA, “Why Climate Matters,” in which she noted that the negative effects of climate change are falling hardest on those members of the human community who have done the least to create the problem, and who are perhaps least equipped to cope with it including low-income, politically disempowered communities even in the United States.
Fiske has noted that in 2014, political gridlock and widespread confusion about the issue in the United States were frustrating action on climate change. And a report she participated in summarized:
“Existing top-down programs do not treat the social and economic variables that underpin vulnerability to climate change – poverty, marginalization, lack of education and information, and loss of control over resources. Unless these factors are taken into consideration, efforts to build resilience and reduce vulnerability globally are likely to fall short.”
In her presentation to DSA’s panel discussion, Fiske expressed “no doubt that capitalism and economic growth are driving climate change all over the world.” Also contributing to the problem, Fiske stated, have been the historic rise of the nation state, the Industrial Revolution of several centuries past and the growth of extractive corporations, “whether they are in China or here[AF1] .” and, as well, the massive displacement of traditional peoples by infrastructure excess such as dam projects and the conversion of communally controlled lands into deeded private property.
Fiske largely called for locally based, community-controlled efforts to address the crisis. “Today is a time to be talking about taking local control [over resources],” Fiske said. joining all the panelists except for Salamon in explicitly promoting locally based, worker-owned enterprises and other cooperative ventures as vehicles for progress.
More than 150 people, including more than 50 local members and supporters of Metro DC DSA, attended the panel discussion. At least two dozen audience members also attended a DSA open house after the event at the Institute for Policy Studies office on Connecticut Avenue.
A video recording of the panel discussion is now available at DSA’s Facebook site. To access it, click on https://m.facebook.com/events/1635564506747020/ .
Full introductions of the panelists are here:
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