A New Ecosocialist Movement?

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Michael Whitehead, a solar energy engineer and activist based in Pennsylvania and North Carolina, reports on the recent ecosocialist conference in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Occupy movement has waned from view, but there is increasing evidence of a new wave of American activism and energy building in response to the accelerating climate emergency–under the slogan “System Change, Not Climate Change.”

Participants listen to a presentation at the ecosocialism conference in Los Angeles

Participants listen to a presentation at the ecosocialism conference in Los Angeles

Evolving from this year’s historic February 11, 350.org-led protest in Washington, D.C., the latest manifestation of these activities was the Ecosocialist Conference 2013 in Los Angeles, held on September 21, followed by a sister conference in Vancouver on September 23–both emerged in the wake of the highly successful April conference in New York City.

In the face of the climate crisis, a coalition is developing between a traditionally fractious American Left, the Green Party USA and other left groups in a Green-Red “ecological solidarity” that bears watching in the coming months.

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THE SEPTEMBER 21 event in Los Angeles was held, quite appropriately, in a repurposed (one could say recycled) former courthouse and police station, now a library and African American history museum. In fact, I thought I had awakened in an alternate reality, seeing former police station walls now celebrated with the likes of Malcolm X and other liberation figures (not to mention showcases of not-so-liberating Obama campaign memorabilia).

This was surrounded with a crew of hundreds of socialists of differing stripes, Green Party members, Occupy LA-ers, unionists, aging and teenage ecosocialists, and even more than a few former Democrats, all in numbers and with an energy and earnestness that one veteran activist with personal experience going back to the 1960s told me he had not seen in LA in years.

In the old courtrooms-turned-political workshops, instead of 1960′s-era petty misdemeanor and traffic trials, conference attendees weighed topics of the utmost seriousness: How can we save humanity from the seemingly inexorable suicide train of looming climate catastrophe?

David Klein, director of Climate Science Studies at California State-Northridge, led the first plenary, with a sobering summary of the latest scientific climate model findings and a conclusion that cogently and glaringly expressed an opinion shared by most attendees about the futility of traditional reformist “green” activism in solving the global emergency:

Global climate models predict a worldwide range of average temperature increase of between 2 and 6 or more degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The upper end is potentially a mass extinction event.

Keeping temperature increase to no more than 2 degrees Celsius is a generally agreed-upon goal worldwide. It has been estimated that carbon dioxide emissions between now and the end of the century need to remain below approximately 600 billion tons to achieve this goal. However, there is a carbon dioxide equivalent of 2.8 trillion tons in known reserves of carbon in the form of petroleum, natural gas and coal underground, valued at roughly $27 trillion to Wall Street firms, and this is included in stock values.

To meet the 2 degree Celsius goal, the vast majority of the carbon reserves must remain underground, unburned, meaning that Wall Street would have to lose approximately $20 trillion to protect the planet from a devastating future.

Humanity is thus faced with the ultimate Darwinian IQ test. It is a multiple-choice question. Choose: A) capitalism or B) the planet. We can only have one or the other, not both.

Lisa Lubow, a historian, activist and professor at Glendale College, made a similar point in her presentation, stating:

Radical changes are needed to save humanity and the planet: to leave fossil fuels in the ground; initiate an emergency program to convert fossil fuel systems to renewables; and radically reorganize our production systems overall for sustainability. The system itself is in direct conflict with the solution to the emergency. The capitalist imperative for unlimited growth through market-driven resource extraction, production and consumption is leading us on a suicide mission. But the system is unwilling and unable to “power down.”

In his talk, author and Pace University professor Chris Williams observed that:

It is increasingly clear to a growing number of people that the ecological crisis is a direct outgrowth of the operation of our economic system; namely, capitalism. The crisis has many facets: environmental racism, energy production, pollution, gender oppression, biodiversity loss, agribusiness and climate change to name only a few. But they can all be traced back to a singular cause: the relentless pursuit of profit and the accumulation of capital.

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CLEARLY, ECOLOGY and economy are intertwined and inseparable, “two dimensions of one reality” in the words of writer, Green and socialist Scott Tucker in his presentation. In fact, as Tucker observed, the prefix “eco” common to both words, derives from the same Greek root: oikos, meaning “home” or “household.”

“Ecology” therefore implies the greater household of nature. The word economics contains in addition the Greek root word nomos, meaning “law” or “custom”. Using the root word meanings, one might therefore say that economics encompasses the customs and processes we use to regulate and operate our home (the Earth).

Ben Manski, Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein’s 2012 campaign manager and president of the Liberty Tree Foundation, eloquently took this idea further in his discussion, arguing, “The exploitation of human nature and the exploitation of nature are part of the same process. An injury to one is an injury to all–that injuries to oppressed people are borne by the Earth, and injuries to our Earth are suffered first by oppressed people.”

Continuing on the interconnection of economics and ecology, Manski argued, “Both practically and theoretically, in the long run there are no boundaries between jobs and environment. There are also no boundaries between class struggle and ecological resistance, and no boundaries between red and green.”

The ecosocialism concept clearly has its roots in the Marxian tradition that calls for a re-organization of society to unleash all human potential. As Manski pointed out:

‘Ecological solidarity’ requires a struggle for democracy–what Marx called the ‘species being,’ the natural essence, of humanity–so that working people can finally ‘become the human race,’ and self-organize to make the most of our species’ capacity to do good, to do right by the Earth, and to respect the rights of nature, so that we may all live in the prosperity that this living planet gives us.”

Green Party presidential candidate and physician Jill Stein, in her rousing closing plenary, proposed a concrete program of “next steps” for the System Change Not Climate Change ecosocialist coalition, outlining a proposal for an “emergency green economic transformation,” based, in her words, on “on the notion that the accelerating climate collapse intensifies all our struggles–for economic, racial and environmental justice, human rights, civil liberties, peace and democracy.”

“While the climate crisis makes all of these struggles more difficult, it also provides unprecedented urgency and momentum for collaboration,” she stated.

She called for an “Emergency Green Economic Transformation” program–a “Green New Deal” for full employment, 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2030, demilitarization, and an economic bill of rights (including Medicare for all, free pre K-through-college education as a human right, labor and immigrant rights, affordable housing, and abolishing student debt).

The project is intended to have two phases with organization and planning starting immediately for a series of gatherings/conferences (Earth Day to May Day 2014) to expand the identities of our individual movements beyond our silos, build solidarity for an emergency green economic transformation in our communities and beyond, and lay the groundwork for a series of rallies and direct actions (Fall 2014) to push for a “Green New Deal” program. More announcements on the plan will be released in the coming weeks.

An earlier version of this article was published at Climate and Capitalism.