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Coalition Blues

Despite all the post-Paris conference self-congratulation, the world’s nations adopted environmental plans that are inadequate, inequitable and unenforceable. If we’re going to solve the over-arching problem of climate change, it will most likely take an international, grassroots-based coalition of unprecedented size to push governments to act in time.

But such coalitions tend to be unwieldy, weak on demands and easily co-opted. The Alliance for Global Justice recently reposted a blog that provides a summary of the problems facing the exploding, but amorphous, “climate movement” in the US and Western Europe. They write:
“It is easy to focus our ire and ridicule on those we call ‘climate deniers’. But the worst climate change deniers are not the ones who say it is not happening, but the ones who recognize the problem but refuse to confront its most basic sources and causes. They are the ones who marginalize and ultimately suppress the voices of those proffering radical solutions and expressing urgency commensurate with the times …. They reject the demands of the Global South saying there is no unity. They put their faith in a quest for new technologies rather than fighting for a new system. They reject calling out the destructive nature of capitalism, saying we need a movement that cuts across class lines. And they treat those who speak about Empire as anachronistic visitors from another age.”

I agree with that statement and have previously written in this blog that the climate change movement must beware of green capitalist allies. “They are frienemies; in the guise of saving us they will make things worse.” Why do I risk attacking potential allies for making the problem worse at a time when building the broadest possible coalition is essential?

Because green capitalist solutions seduce even green-oriented progressives into thinking that we can reverse the coming climate chaos and ecological collapse by mounting a green New Deal that will provide tens of millions of well-paying jobs creating technological breakthroughs, and sustainable infrastructure, energy sources, transportation and housing while continuing our comfortable consumption-oriented life style. This is counterproductive in at least two ways.

First, while everyone deserves a well-paying job, in our system companies will advertise effectively to get these new job-holders to spend their new-found money on their products. This will cause an ecologically destructive orgy of consumption even if those products are made more efficiently. Second, it distracts people from focusing on the root cause of the problem: capitalism’s elevation of competition and its Grow-or-Die imperative. We can’t attack this global problem as long as countries and individuals compete to secure the most resources and accumulate as much wealth as possible. We need worldwide cooperation and social egalitarianism; these can never occur within the capitalist framework.

Since our current circumstances require the broadest coalition possible, we must distinguish between the more powerful promoters of green capitalism and the well-intentioned individuals who grasp at the straws it provides. Our job is to debunk the schemes of the former and persuade, not attack, the latter. The tightrope between fragmentation and co-optation is treacherous, but the only way to get to the other side is to traverse it successfully.  Read More 
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As many of you know I’ve become increasingly concerned with the global ecological crisis and how we can combat this overarching problem. This alarm has led me to facilitate two activist-oriented study groups; we’re reading books together and discussing strategies. The first four books have addressed different aspects of the problem: temperature, climate, sea level, population, resource depletion and war. Now we’re focusing on possible solutions, and so far we’ve looked at green capitalism and green Marxist-socialism.

Green capitalists Mark Hertsgaard and James Speth write that although it will be incredibly difficult given the distribution of political and military power in our capitalist-dominated world, it is possible that we can achieve a sustainable relationship with the biosphere by making major reforms to existing capitalism. They argue that this can be accomplished if the people elect leaders, at all levels of government, who will regulate business activity to ensure its sustainability. Green Marxists John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff, say that capitalism’s basis (profit, exchange and growth) makes it necessary to move beyond our current economic system in order to save civilization.

Both courses of action require mass movements to produce the necessary major adjustments to, or total transformation of, capitalism. Furthermore, these movements must flower very soon, before the worst symptoms of ecological collapse become apparent to most people, because of the thirty-to-fifty-year lag-time in the cause and effect of gathering climate chaos.

While it is hard to believe that even reformed capitalism could become green enough to stave off a collapse of our biosphere, it seems equally unlikely that capitalism can be overthrown in time to avoid that collapse. And finally, there is no guarantee that a post-capitalist world economy will solve the problem.

So that’s the conundrum: what we have time to do probably won’t work, and we don’t have time to do what might. I refuse, however, to act as if the situation is hopeless. Even with these conditions, we can adopt strategies that are either consistent with both positions or at least not inconsistent with either. Since mass involvement is essential to both, one possible course of action is to organize for changes that foster activist engagement and encourage sustainability within the capitalist system, but which also encourage anti-capitalist mass movement building.

How does Bill McKibben’s organization’s (350.org) campaign to get institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies stack up against this standard? Getting tens, even hundreds of thousands, involved in attacking the villainy of some of the world’s most powerful corporate entities promotes a more-sustainable capitalism, and could plant anti-capitalist seeds. That’s good, but is it enough? Don’t we also need to ask how the institutions are going to reinvest the funds generated by their sale of fossil fuel company stock? For instance, if they reinvest in Fiji Water the money will support the manufacture of millions of plastic water bottles made from petroleum products and promote the enormous carbon footprint of shipping water half-way around the world. Perhaps they shouldn’t reinvest the money at all, but instead use it to build community rather than generate increased economic activity and the excess energy associated with it.

There is much more to say about whether we can avoid the approaching ecological catastrophes within the capitalist system, or whether the capitalist system itself is their primary driver. And the next book on our list takes an anarchist position arguing that we must make an even more basic transformation. I pose the problem above as a start, and ask you to weigh in on how best to climb out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. Read More 
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