“A resounding success!” John Riddell, Louis Proyect, and Ben Silverman report on a major step forward for anti-capitalist organizing in the environmental movement.
by Ian Angus
I was unable to attend the Ecosocialist Conference in New York City on April 20, and it is clear from all reports that I missed an important and inspiring event.
The meeting was organized by the Ecosocialist Contingent, the alliance that participated as a united anti-capitalist voice in the demonstration against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Washington on February 17.
Initiated by members of Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization, the Ecosocialist Contingent quickly expanded to include the broadest range of left organizations and individuals yet seen in the U.S. environmental movement.
See the list of conference endorsers, which includes Climate & Capitalism, here.
Below are reports by three participants in the conference.
- John Riddell wrote his report specifically for Climate & Capitalism. John is best-known as the leading historian of the Communist International, but he is also active in the fight against Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline in Toronto, and a founder of Toronto Bolivia Solidarity. He blogs here.
- Louis Proyect, a long time socialist activist in the New York City area, moderates the popular online discussion forum Marxmail. His report was first published on his blog, The Unrepentant Marxist.
- Ben Silverman is a New Jersey based socialist and environmental activist, and a member of the International Socialist Organization. His report was first published on his blog, The Red Plebeian
For readers in the Toronto area, John Riddell and Abbie Bakan will report on the conference at a public meeting on Saturday May 4 at 7pm, at the Beit Zatoun coffee house, 612 Markham St. Details here.
NEW YORK CONFERENCE CHARTS PATH TOWARD
‘SYSTEM CHANGE NOT CLIMATE CHANGE’
by John Riddell
The Ecosocialist Conference, a broad and enthusiastic all-day meeting in New York April 20, took a big step toward creating an anti-capitalist wing of the environmental movement.
The conference was arranged in just six weeks by organizers of the Ecosocialist Contingent in the mass demonstration against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Washington February 17. It was supported by 29 groups who subscribed to the Ecosocialist Contingent statement for “system change, not climate change.”
The 240 attendees ― more than double the number organizers originally expected ― included members of several socialist currents and many unaffiliated socialists, but the real strength of the conference lay in participation by a great number of young climate-change and ecological activists. Most participants were from the New York region, but a few came from as far away as Maine, Oregon, Texas, and Vancouver, B.C.
Break with Democratic Party
The range of opinion was wide. Many participants, including spokespersons for the Green Party, did not term themselves anti-capitalists, but agreed on the need for ‘system change’ and a break from the corporate-dominated Democratic Party.
Among them was the first featured speaker, Jill Stein, the Greens’ presidential candidate in 2012. “This is an incredible outpouring of support of those not going forward with Obama but forward with the 99% for system change and fundamental justice,” she said. “Capitalism is trying to kill the planet, but the people are rising up.”
Her remarks reflected the view of many participants that organizers of the February 17 mass demonstration had weakened the protest’s impact by presenting it as an expression of support for Obama, echoing his “forward” and “clean energy” slogans, for example. As several speakers noted, the Democratic administration now seems very likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
The February 17 action thus showed both the power of environmental protest and the futility of relying on the Democrats. As Jill Stein said, “the demonstration told Obama, ‘we’ve got your back,’ and then he stabbed us in the back.”
The road to system change
The conference brought together a wide range of viewpoints in a fruitful exchange.
For example, the panel on “Carbon taxes and market approaches” heard Teamster and Green Party activist Howie Hawkins’ reasoned defense of carbon taxes as an immediate measure to alleviate climate change that enjoys “solid support.”
The second presenter in this session, Dan Piper of Socialist Action, counterposed the need for working people to “seize command of the productive apparatus.” There is no way to end environmental destruction through reforms, he argued. For example, cities based on cars or on public transit are mutually exclusive alternatives.
But how can we link immediate concerns like Keystone XL to the need for system change? Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, addressed this point in the closing session by calling for the building of a movement through which “we change our relationship to each other and the planet. We need to shift the pendulum of power – and, ultimately, get rid of it.”
The climate change movement showed its potential by delaying Keystone XL, Williams said, “and when it is approved, we should demonstrate again.”
Widely different approaches were also evident in discussions of participation in elections. “We are in uncharted waters,” said Joel Kovel of EcoSocialist Horizons. “There are no market solutions, and no electoral solutions either…. Ecosocialism is a spiritual question; our organizing aims to direct spiritual forces to the Earth and nature,” he said.
Gloria Mattera of the Green Party agreed that “the market system has failed,” but stressed the need for “electoral expression in order to engage the broader population,” calling for “a broad electoral alliance to challenge the power of the corporations.”
Speaking in the opening plenary, Richard Smith stressed the need for wholesale economic transformation to save the planet. “Drastic retrenchment is required. Three-quarters of goods produced are not needed at all.” The argument for this view is strong, but as stated it doesn’t seem to recognize the need to overcome global inequality, in particular the increasingly desperate needs of billions of people who lack even the most basic requirements of life.
Other presentations focused more explicitly on the impact of environmental crimes on victims of oppression. David Galarza, a Puerto Rican ecological activist, portrayed encouraging gains by environmental struggles in his country; Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong of the Native Resistance Project discussed Idle No More and the fight for indigenous rights.
A well-attended panel addressed the broader issue of “Race, Gender, and Environmental Justice.” The first victims of climate change are the peoples of poor countries, and “we have a lot to learn from environmental movements in the Global South,” said Heather Kangas, a Baltimore-based members of the International Socialist Organization. Moreover, “the environment is not just the natural world but also where we work, live and play – it is urban and suburban as well as rural,” she said, advocating that the ecosocialist movement link up with Environmental Justice groups found among peoples of colour.
Amity Page, a journalist with the Amsterdam News, described the systematic racism of the U.S. emergency management agency (FEMA) and other authorities after the Hurricane Sandy disaster. People of colour were regarded simply as “looters,” she said. FEMA and police did not enter subsidized public housing to help those in need and kept other assistance workers from going in, saying it was too dangerous. “A disaster heightens the inequalities that are already there,” she said.
Abbie Bakan, head of gender studies at Queen’s University, Ontario, took up a case study: the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. They have undergone an “indigenous experience, enduring environmental racism,” in which slogans like “make the desert bloom” promote the notion that “the good earth comes only from the colonial project.”
Some comments from the audience in that session:
- “There has been an environmental justice movement all along among indigenous peoples, people of colour, and in the Global South, but you have to have anti-imperialist eyes to see it.”
- “Every climate change activist must also be an antiwar activist.”
- “We will learn much more about racism and how it is manifested through our activity in the environmental movement.”
The event’s program was well-run and varied, with 43 speakers and facilitators. Aside from the panels discussed here, there were sessions on agriculture/food, fossil fuel divestment, Hurricane Sandy, labour, and Green Left history.
No discussion was scheduled on ecosocialist activities going forward, but it was generally felt that the conference created a strong foundation for future activities. Alongside Chris Williams’ call for another Keystone XL protest, there was talk of holding another ecosocialist conference down the road. The Ecosocialist Contingent will hold a teleconference May 6 to discuss next steps. For information, write ecosocialistconference [at] gmail.com.
NEW YORK ECOSOCIALISM CONFERENCE: A RESOUNDING SUCCESS
by Louis Proyect
Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:
Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:
1) Much larger, focused, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)
2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously under-represented).
3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings – e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)
4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.
5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.
In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.
I concur with John’s observations but would add this one. As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together.
For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?
After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?
Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934: “It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”
Just a few highlights:
Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.
In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need … John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre — all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.
In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from BardCollege for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:
One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.
The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil — almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.
The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.
REFLECTIONS ON THE ECOSOCIALIST CONFERENCE
by Benjamin Silverman
This past Saturday, April 20th’s Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard College in NYC I would say was a massive success. Over 240 people showed up, when organizers would have been pleased if just 100 had, and 29 different socialist organizations, groups, parties and periodicals cosponsored the event. This is a massive step forward in rebuilding a stronger, more collaborative and more united far-left in an area of dire importance, environmental justice.
There were some very minor issues – namely in areas of facilitation of speakers and talks and some other organizational problems for the conference – but for what this was, a big step forward in a number of different socialist organizations working together on a common event for the first time, I really can’t imagine how it could have been any better. Minor mistakes are to be expected, but in all this was a huge success and all the organizers should be incredibly proud of it.
In terms of the talks given, I think what we saw was a real cross-section snapshot of what the current state of ecosocialist thought is at the moment. We have a number of different socialist groups, organizations, parties and periodicals who have up until now, in whatever capacity they have been thinking about ecological-socialism, have been doing so largely parallel to each. For essentially the first time during the Conference we got to see where everyone is at and what we are all thinking. A lot of people have very interesting ideas, unique ways of phrasing and conceptualizing ecosocialism. But we also see that in a number of areas – specifically such as areas of gender, sexuality and race in regards to ecosocialism, along with the more scientific angle of how could we feasibly solve many of these environmental problems – our work up until now is still a little shallower and in need of further development. But that was the good thing about this conference, we got to see that all out in the open for the first time and are now able to carry on our theoretical developments from here and more collectively.
So that comes to that all important question, where do we go from here with this thing we have created. We started with a handful of groups coming together in a Ecosocialist Contingent at the Forward on Climate March. That was a huge success, so then it was thought we should have a Ecosocialist Conference. A far larger number of groups and individuals joined in on the work for this, and that was a massive success. An obvious next step is that we should try to replicate the success of the Ecosocialist Conference in other major U.S. cities such as San Francisco and Chicago, and see how that goes. But that is (relatively) easy at this point, the real question is not on just putting on a another ecosocialist conference (though we should) it’s about building up our ecosocialist praxis and activity.
Up until now we have had minor baby steps towards this direction of a more effective alliance and coalition between socialist groups, organizations and parties in this area of environmental work, with first the contingent then the conference. All of these different groups have a fair amount of political baggage and bad blood between us, so the fact that we haven’t descended into outright sectarianism as of yet and have built this working relationship is a huge accomplishment. So there is an argument, in my view, of taking the next big step for forming a closer alliance of ecosocialists in the US and beyond.
But this is not because of some grand notions of a great fusion or big tent organization of all of the socialist groups as of yet. It’s rather related to a very key fact of the current political moment. All practice comes from theory and must be related to the needs of the current political situation. That present situation is that firstly the natural world is dying fast (and us with it) due to capitalism, and there is a severe urgency to stop that by any means necessary. The second big aspect of the current political moment is that there is now a very real environmental mass movement in this country and there is a pertinent need to relate to this movement as anti-capitalist ecosocialists.
There are millions of individuals in groups like 350.org or involved in movements to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, hydro-fracking, mountaintop removal, divest from oil companies and other pertinent ecological issues, who are angry and desperate in trying to save the planet, and we need to be all working together to engage with them. It is very easy to imagine a situation where this growing movement is brought under the total control of the Democratic Party, like so many others before it, and is then smothered by that corporate backed party. It is all but certain at this point that Obama will approve the Keystone XL pipeline. We need to be in the environmental movements as ecosocialists right now making arguments in a non-sectarian way for independence from the Democrats, and warnings about this impending betrayal of Obama. So that the moment when he does approve the last leg of the pipeline the immediate reaction of the movement isn’t to give up, but to explode and fight back.
Collaborating together closely in a loose alliance or as a tighter coalition, and combining our efforts as ecosocialists could be a huge help in this work to help push the environmental movement forward and to the left, to a more anti-capitalist direction. But those are just my thoughts on the matter. The devil will always be the detail in stuff like this. Many of the differences on the far-left between different groups are very small. Yet so is a pebble, but it can become a big focus of your attention when it gets in your shoe. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, just to say it won’t necessarily be easy. The time to have such discussions about what it is that we want from this Ecosocialist Contingent and Conference is now.
Check the website to learn more: http://ecologicalsocialists.com/