confronting corporate power

To effectively fight climate change it is essential that we put the fight against free market capitalism at front and center.  Our economic system’s need for ever-expanding production, consumption and profit, and thus extraction of the Earth’s resources, puts it inherently at odds with any vision of a sustainable and just world.  We do not seek to do away with fossil fuels and other sources of greenhouse gases only to find ourselves living in a world of solar-powered sweatshops and hybrid logging trucks.  With increasing awareness and hype about climate chaos in recent years, corporations are trying to cash in with bogus quick fixes like carbon trading and offsets, nuclear power, “clean” coal, agrofuels, genetically engineered trees and plantations, and natural gas.  These technologies are dangerous detours on the path to a just climate future, and take us farther away from addressing the root causes of climate change.

If we do not dismantle the cycles of resource extraction and overconsumption that drive the corporate marketplace, we will still push ourselves, and millions of other species, beyond the carrying capacity of our planet.  Finding real and just solutions to the climate crisis means putting the needs of the Earth and people before the needs of the very corporations that created this mess.

The following speech was given by Northern Rockies Rising Tide’s in-house photojournalist and guy who just really gets it, Murphy Woodhouse, at Missoula’s 2010 May Day rally (May 1st, 2010):

It’s May Day folks!  And in that vein I’m going to start off with our good friend Karl Marx.  You remember him, right?  Bearded fellow, read most of the British National Library and whose works are among the brightest stars in the Western intellectual tradition.  The guy the tea party folks would have us believe Obama reads nightly after he sets down his Koran.  Anyway, here’s something he wrote that might sound far more ecologically minded than the Marx you knew:

Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not the owners of the Earth.  They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

So, here we are, knee-deep in a crisis that we’re told has no meaningful end in sight for regular people.  Yes, Goldman Sachs is doling out millions to its execs again, and yes the health insurance industry is riding high thanks to what some mistakenly call health care reform, and yes, the DOW is once again comfortably over 10,000.  But you, friends, are looking at sustained national unemployment near 10 percent and jobs to replace the ones you lost offering dehumanizing, contingent, benefit-less work at rock-bottom wages.  Folks on Wall Street caused this mess, but, in our cruel, upside-down world, it’s the rest of us that have to pay while the corporate culprits continue to live their exclusive lives of unconscionable luxury.

But i don’t need to tell you about this crisis because you know about it all too well yourselves.  What I want to talk to you about the other crisis humanity faces, a crisis with the same origin, but radically different stakes: the environmental crisis.  However, what I’m not going to do is reinforce or re-articulate the trite and dangerous “labor vs. the environment” duality.  Instead I’m going to argue that the future of the labor and environmental movements is in their fusion or nowhere at all; indeed, when your common enemy is as powerful as global capitalism, division is a synonym for surrender.

While the same can’t be said about the staff at Fox News, there is overwhelming consensus among climate scientists that human-generated greenhouse gases are dramatically altering the Earth’s climate and that this process, if unaddressed, could threaten our planet’s ability to sustain human civilization.  And that’s just global warming, the most pressing but certainly not the only component of the larger environmental crisis.  Even if global warming is a hoax, as Glenn Beck would have you believe, we’ve still got deforestation, desertification, plummeting fish stocks, water contamination, air pollution, widespread species extinction, etc., etc., etc.  You don’t have to believe in global warming to see that hundreds of thousands of [barrels] of oil washing ashore in Louisiana is a bad thing.

It is a testament to the subservience of the nation’s media to industry that so many Americans either deny outright the existence of climate change, doubt its severity or feel the costs of addressing it outweigh the ecological consequences of business as usual; these views are no doubt aided by the fact that “objectivity” in covering climate change has been reduced to giving equal airtime to Nobel-laureate climate scientists and Exxon-Mobile’s PR stooges.

But equally disturbing is the widespread notion among mainstream environmentalists that capitalism, while responsible for many of the ecological catastrophes we face, is the only force capable of bringing us back from the precipice.  This is based on the dubious premise that capitalism, if given the proper incentives, can spread environmental restoration and health as easily as environmental devastation; I invite you all to look into the fraud of carbon credits and offsets if you’re curious about how these ideas play out practically.  What this line of thinking fails to recognize is that it is not a particular form or manifestation of capitalism that is the enemy of ecology, but its central and defining attribute: the insatiable hunger for ever-increasing profit.

The simple fact of the matter is that profit-centered thinking is incompatible with ecological thinking.  Given enough time, the sum total of all ecological catastrophes will of course end capitalism, along with civilization, but in the short term, the only term in which capitalism can think, the big picture rarely effects immediate production and profit.  It is by thinking this way that oil executives can talk about quintupling Alberta tar sands production by 2015 and continuing to expand for decades until an area roughly the size of Florida looks like [J.R.R. Tolkien’s] Mordor while prominent climate scientists, such as Dr. James Hansen, say that unabated development of such unconventional fuels makes climate collapse inevitable.  Capitalism is oil to ecology’s water; just ask the folks on the Louisiana coast.

Now, it is May Day, so I should bring it back to workers and the tar sands provide an excellent way to do that.  To many environmentalists, the tar sands are the most destructive and demoralizing industrial development on the face of the Earth.  For the workers up in Fort McMurray, however, the tar sands have provided them with the best paying jobs they simply will ever have.  With this in mind, the conflict between those who seek to shut down the operation and those that depend on it for their livelihoods should make pretty good sense.  This same dynamic played out in the Pacific Northwest’s infamous “spotted owl vs. logger” conflict and the myopia and intolerance that characterized and weakened both sides can provide us with valuable lessons for the future of the radical labor and radical environmental movements.  Writing about the conflict in the Northwest, ecosocialist John Bellamy Foster wrote, “the narrow conservationist thrust of most environmentalism in the United States, the unimaginative business union response of organized labor, and the divide-and-conquer strategy employed by timber capital and its allies within the federal government against its two most powerful opponents – the working class and the environmentalists – have thus far combined to block the formation of any such coalition.”  This whole conflict took place against the backdrop of rising tension between timber companies and their employees, with the former demanding wage and benefit concessions and systematically breaking the ability of their workers to demand decent treatment.  With only a few notable exceptions, environmentalists either ignored this conflict or openly showed their lack of concern for the loggers, whom they conflated with the companies responsible for the devestation.

What we need to realize is that the dynamic that makes capitalism so destructive to the environment is the same dynamic that makes it so antagonistic to workers and the economic well-being of most people.  Goldman Sachs, anyone?  Just as capitalism cannot think ecologically it also cannot think humanely, and it is workers and their movements, not environmentalists, that have addressed the latter defect while largely ignoring the former.  But we can’t pick and choose crises anymore because we’re not just driving off one cliff.

The two fundamental questions we are now collectively facing and failing to adequately answer are the following: do we want to live on a planet that can sustainably provide for humankind and reproduce the ecosystems and species that we and all other species depend on and do we want to live in a society that values the right of all people, regardless of identity or geography, to live lives of dignity and meaning?  Our collective silence is a collective “no” because capital has always answered these questions in the negative, albeit through the obscuring filter of PR departments.

I’m not asking you to answer these questions verbally.  I’m asking you to answer these questions physically and collectively.  Some folks here have already started doing this, namely the Otter Creek 5 (sic), which, I am ashamed to say, I did not make the Otter Creek 6.  But I applaud their efforts.  However, the vast majority of us are still clinging to the empty hope of quiet parliamentarism and electoral democracy solving our epochal challenges.  I think it’s appropriate to point out here that Obama, the perennially disappointing demigod we invented a year-and-a-half ago, supports opening the Atlantic seaboard to offshore drilling, clean (sic) coal technology, and tar sands development while also failing to adequately push for the Employee Free Choice Act, a piece of legislation that could easily reverse organized labor’s slow slide into irrelevance.  If it’s change you want, you’re going to have to make it yourselves, but this isn’t a bad thing because the change the people take themselves to is always better than the change they’re led to.


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