DSA panel offers participants alternate paths to a Green Economy

We live in an era of worsening climate emergency, in the opinion of most atmospheric scientists.  Last year was the hottest on record, while in the first three months of 2017, the United States alone reported 5,372 severe weather events, more than double the seasonal average for the past decade.  As this article goes to press, much of the lower Mississippi River Valley is threatened by serious floods, the result of 11-inch rainstorms in Missouri and nearby states that an official with Aon-Benfield Reinsurance credits with causing damage "across a dozen states."

According to Canadian insurance industry officials, similarly, "severe weather had a huge impact on Canadians in 2016," as severe floods and one especially massive wildfire insured pushed damages for the nation to exceed $4.9 billion -- dwarfing the old record of $3.2 billion set in 2013.

Elsewhere around the globe, warmer than normal temperatures are melting polar ice and etching a deep and extensive rift in the floating Larsen ice field off Antarctica, which is expected soon to calve an iceberg the size of Delaware. Meanwhile reports by the UN High Commission of Refugees, Oxfam and other sources show 11-20 million people being threatened by East African famines that are being generated by a mixture of wars and drought. Severe drought associated with heat waves also threatens large areas of South India and Sri Lanka.

In the April 21 issue of the progressive Jewish publication Forward, climate scientist Mark Cane, a professor at Columbia, says evidence shows that Syria's deadly civil war and refugee crisis has stemmed in part from a severe Syrian drought in 2007 through 2010, the worst in 900 years, which drove poor Syrians from failing farms in rural areas into the major cities.  There government neglect and economic desperation made many willing recruits for radical organizations, including ISIS.

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.

Signs, banners, slogans, buttons, fliers and giant puppets were hoisted by the marchers, who included a host of different wildlife and wilderness advocates, renewable energy advocates, local anti-fracking activists, union militants, Native American drummers and religious Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Buddhists.  Also marching were immigrant rights advocates and local anti-gentrification activists, among others.

Likewise marching, and/or peddling literature, were some members of the Communist Party USA, the Socialist Workers Party, the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and other left groups.  Scattered throughout the 20 blocks of the march were signs from the RefuseFascism organization -- a project launched by the Revolutionary Communist Party -- urging "Drive Out the Trump/Pence Regime."

Also common along the march route were people with homemade signs stating "There is no Planet B."  Many marchers carried signs saying "Water Is Life," the rallying call of the Indigenous Environmental Network as it fights the Dakota Access Pipeline Project, while others promised "The oceans are rising -- and so are we."  Numerous demonstrators brandished big signs from the League of Conservation Voters stating RESIST/RISE/BUILD -- the official slogan of the march -- and below that the word VOTE. Bernie Sanders supporters from various Our Revolution chapters also fielded a large contingent.  And individual marchers contributed whimsical and even humorous messages to the event, such as "Save the earth; it's the only planet with chocolate," and "What kind of Earth will we leave to Keith Richards?"

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.

Still other marchers carried insignia for such groups as the World Wildlife Fund, League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, Oceana and the Nature Conservancy, among other mainstream environmental groups.  Some individuals also signs showing a Smoky the Bear figure, with his fist in the air, proclaiming "RESIST!"

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.

In hopes of fostering at least some discussion on potential ways forward, Metro DSA hosted a panel discussion on "Building the Green Economy" the night of Friday, April 28, the eve of the march, at Friends Meetinghouse in Washington. It would have been impossible for the panelists to represent the medley of diverse perspectives expressed by PCM participants, but the event was planned to identify and help resolve at least a few of the major contradictions.

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:

  • Gar Alperovitz, a radical economist and historian with experience on Capitol Hill, who leads the Democracy Collective and is cofounder of its Next System Project to develop models of an alternative economy;
  • Margaret Klein Salamon, a trained clinical psychologist and director of The Climate Mobilization (TCM), an organization working to eliminate U.S. dependence on fossil fuels within the next decade;
  • Shirley Fiske, professor of environmental anthropology at the University of Maryland and one-time director of the American Anthropological Association's (AAA) task force on climate change;
  • DC social justice activist Eugene Puryear, organizer of the Stop Police Terror Project and the 2016 vice-presidential candidate for the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL); and
  • Denise Abdul-Rahman, Environmental and Climate Justice Chair for the NAACP Conference in the state of Indiana. Abdul-Rahman spoke in lieu of Jacquelyn Patterson, director of the NAACP's national Environmental Climate Justice Program, who had originally planned to be on the panel but had to cancel due to a competing obligation.

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.

Salamon, 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 efforts we put into denying the truth are both numbing and disempowering, Salamon argues.

Thus it is that accepting the "brutal truth" about the dimensions of climate change and the enormous effort needed to solve it can be psychologically invigorating, even exhilarating, for individuals brave enough to accept the facts.  Salamon has compared the acceptance of a bleak but honest truth about our warming world to the liberating if frightening process undergone by individuals who have long repressed their knowledge of their true sexual identities, and who at last come out of the closet about who they really are.  The result in many cases is a surge in energy and a radical reorientation of personal goals for the individuals involved.  Similarly, Salamon concludes that embracing the facts about climate change can empower individuals and transform political discourse about the issue.

In speaking at DSA's panel discussion, accordingly, Salamon stated that "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.  "Extreme weather events, drought and wildfires are happening because of it. Severe drought now affects at least four nations of the world, including Syria.  If we don't act on climate change now, Syria is the future of the world.  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, and the result is politically deadening because everyone realizes at some level that the half-measures don't amount to serious efforts at framing a solution.  She mentioned as one example what might be deemed a courageous political attempt to tackle the climate situation, 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.

From one perspective the bill is good, Salamon said, "but it also means that we will keep burning fossil fuels for another 35 years."  Yet global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, are now running at 410 to 412 parts per million -- far greater than the 350 ppm that a large majority of scientists consider the maximum safe level.

As an alternative, Salamon voiced support for TCM's plan for a crash U.S. government program --comparable in scope to the crash mobilization of the U.S. economy that the government oversaw to defeat the Nazis in World War II -- to eliminate fossil fuels from the U.S. energy mix completely over a decade.

A nationwide mobilization effort of this dimensions could pose some potential problems, TCM has acknowledged, but Salamon argued that it could resolve one problem that moderator Sam Knight asked 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.  A concerted national push to move from fossil fuels to an all-renewable energy economy similarly would be a "huge job creation program."

Speaking further on the question of a just transition, Salamon added, "One essential element is speed in dismantling the fossil fuel economy.  What could be more unjust than Third World famines being driven by climate change?  'Faster, faster' is the essence of a just transition."

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, in addition to heading the NAACP's efforts on climate change in Indiana, also is on the executive committee of the Hoosier chapter of the Sierra Club and in 2014 was a credentialed delegate of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance at the COP21 conference in Paris, the conference that drew up the Paris Agreements committing signatory nations, at least in theory, to moving forward with nationally agreed-upon programs to reduce CO2 emissions.

In Indiana, Abdul-Rahman has led successful efforts to reduce lead and arsenic pollution from steel industry emissions in industrial suburbs of Chicago; she also organized a Just Energy Campaign that pushed the Indianapolis Power & Light Co. to stop burning coal in its generators and that also prevented the state legislature from passing a bill that would have imposed fees on the generation of distributed energy from solar rooftop units in the state.

In Indiana, Abdul-Rahman said in the April 28 panel discussion, 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 barrios.  "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."

Expressing apparent support for the "100 by 50" bill, Abdul-Rahman added that climate activists need to create a framework for change that is conducive to greater social equity and economically just solutions.  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.

Other elements of a just transition framework might include the promotion of rooftop solar energy production and community-based solar energy production, 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."

In Indiana, a just transition also would mean addressing the problems that communities of color are facing with lead and arsenic pollution in drinking water, not to mention health problems from air pollution generated by the combustion of coal to generate electricity.  In 2016, the NAACP in Indiana helped to end the burning of coal by the Indianapolis Power & Light Co. and the utility's switch to natural gas in its generators instead. This victory benefitted city residents by reducing air pollutants that were damaging to their health.

And along with other measures, Abdul-Rahman stated, the building of a green economy must include the fight against mass incarceration, the operation of private prisons and the disempowering lack of resources affecting many communities of color.

Gar Alperovitz, a cofounder of the Next System Project along with veteran environmental advocate James Augustus "Gus" Speth, 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 indicated.  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.

Before the massive economic depression of the 1930s, Alperovitz said, individuals and organizations on the left devised a host of different social and economic policies that ultimately were folded into the Roosevelt administration's New Deal and that served as the framework for American-style social democratic liberalism for many decades.  However, these policies and the institutions that supported them now are crumbling, and the viability of the whole economy is eroding as well.

As Alperovitz sees the issue, U.S. capitalism resolved its recurring crises throughout the 19th century largely through expansion along the western frontier, which served as an economic and political safety valve.  During most of the period from World War II through the present, the U.S. economy has been heavily reliant on military Keynesianism -- the allocation of excess investment capital, labor and economic output to the Pentagon and the military industrial complex.  But economic recovery through western expansion is now longer possible, and today's Pentagon budget, however huge it may be in comparison to military spending by the rest of the world, now absorbs only around 3 percent of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

In short, Alperovitz said, "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, including the period of the American Revolution.  To address the crisis and take advantage of the transformative possibilities before us, the American left needs to formulate a model for a new system that can resolve the crisis.

Alperovitz 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 essentially made the case 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.

When the U.S. financial crisis first emerged in 2007 and 2008, Alperovitz said, the left should have been ready with a credible proposal to nationalize the biggest banks, not subject them to regulation under the Dodd-Frank law or split them up.  Political opinion in the US was not yet ready for the idea of bank nationalization, however, and Washington instead bailed out the largest banks, essentially by the government printing money to do so.

Today, Alperovitz argued, the government should be prevailed on to cure the climate crisis by essentially printing money to buy out the assets of fossil fuel companies.  The alternatives to a government buyout of the fossil fuel industry are unworkable: if the oil and coal companies are subject to regulation, they will eventually capture the regulatory agencies or defeat anti-pollution rules in court.  If the government breaks them up, as Teddy Roosevelt ordered the breaking up of the old Standard Oil Company in the early 1900s, the different fragments of the old trusts will begin to merge again -- as in fact, Exxon-Mobil has united two of the biggest remnants of the Standard Oil empire. A government buyout is the obvious answer, Alperovitz said, and "of all people," democratic socialists should vigorously promote the idea.

Partly challenging Alperovitz's presentation, Eugene Puryear of the PSL 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, Puryear suggested. His obvious implication was that fighting to overcome racism is essential, although Puryear did not specifically state this during the panel discussion.

Puryear also noted that the World War II mobilization that Salamon had mentioned also resulted in some repression of black Americans, making a similar mass mobilization on a national basis potentially problematic for people of color.

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, did not prevent the betrayal of Black Reconstruction in the South a few decades following the Civil War.

The same constitution also permitted the government to arrest countless radicals in the first Red Scare during and after World War I and did not prevent the second great Red Scare that the Truman administration and Sen. Joseph McCarthy, among others, launched against Communists and suspected Communists following World War II. Â During the 1960s constitutional safeguards also did not prevent the FBI from conducting its notorious COINTELPRO operation, which infiltrated and in some cases destroyed organizations in the antiwar movement and Black Power movement.

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 terms of achieving genuine democracy, he said, there is no way that California, with 35 million people, should have exactly the same number of U.S. Senators as Wyoming, with fewer than 1 million.

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 suggested another method for resolving conflicts between environmentalists and labor.  "We need to recognize that in the energy and extractive sectors, people are working in some of the most dangerous jobs in the economy," he noted.

Bernie Sanders has enjoyed remarkable support in West Virginia among working people who ended up voting for Trump, Puryear said, "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.

Anthropologist Shirley Fiske in 2012 submitted a report to 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 -- notably members of traditional, non-industrial societies who live close to the earth and who in some cases support themselves through subsistence farming, fishing and similar activities.

However, there also are low-income, politically disempowered communities even in the United States where the effects of the problem also are being felt, Fiske's paper noted.  She added that "Climate change is happening now," that anthropologists have a good understanding of how past episodes of climate change have disrupted entire societies, such as the late Maya civilization in Central America and the doomed Norse settlements of Greenland that collapsed when a colder climate supplanted the "Medieval Warming" period of the late Middle Ages.

Fiske's paper noted that in 2014, political gridlock and widespread confusion about the issue in the United States were frustrating action on climate change, making it into what anthropologists would call a "wicked problem" with no easy solutions.  Yet given the impacts of the problem on traditional societies that the anthropology profession has been most concerned with, Fiske urged: "we can't let climate and adaptation fall off the policy agenda."

As chair of the AAA's Task Force on Climate Change, Fiske also oversaw the writing of a major AAA report in 2014, Changing the Atmosphere, which acknowledged the gravity of the issue but warned against purely top-down efforts to address it.  Running to more than 140 pages, Changing the Atmosphere made a number of points about the cultural complexities of the climate issue and warned against focusing only on such issues as the numerical concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which the authors saw as ineffective.  The report's executive summary stated in part,

"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 conversion of community-regulated land and other resources into private or state property, the Industrial Revolution of several centuries past and the growth of extractive corporations, "whether they are in China or here."

Around the world, she added, the construction of huge irrigation and hydropower dams by governments has exacerbated the problem by displacing large populations of farmers from their lands.  Still other obstacles to achieving a green future include the poor articulation of global treaties and agreements to curb climate change, such as the Kyoto Protocol, and extensive international reliance on market mechanisms – such as the conversion of communally controlled lands into deeded private property – as a supposed method to achieve environmentally useful objectives.

Along with Alperovitz and Abdul-Rahman, as well as Puryear, 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.

One area of apparent agreement among all the panelists except for Salamon was concerning the merits of locally based, worker-owned enterprises and other cooperative ventures as vehicles for progress, with Chokwe Lumumba's efforts to promote cooperative enterprise in Mississippi being one of several such initiatives warranting special mention.

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.

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