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Packed NYC meeting celebrates relaunch of Science for the People

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Reborn organization and magazine will combine writing on scientific issues, building a network of radical scientists, and acting for social justice

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Reborn organization and magazine will combine writing on scientific issues, building a network of radical scientists, and acting for social justice 

by Michael Friedman

On July 28, science, technology, engineering and mathematics workers, joined by students, climate justice activists and others, crowded into Caveat, New York City’s science-themed speakeasy club, to celebrate Science for the People’s long-awaited return to publishing. The evening was not only a launch party for SftP’s special-issue magazine on geoengineering, but also a celebration and call to action for the revived radical science organization.

Some 125 people attended the event in person, and about 12,000 viewed it online.

As the room filled with folks interested in spending their Saturday night discussing the nuances of carbon capture and large-scale climate manipulation, it was clear that SftP is an organization poised for renewed interest and relevance in 2018. From tackling the complicity of major tech companies with ICE’s attacks on immigrants, to combating the ever-advancing threat of global climate change, scientists have a unique role to play in reshaping the political landscape, and the time is now for radical science workers to take a stand and build collective power.

This call to action was highlighted in a documentary film on SftP’s history and return to publishing and organizing. The documentary presents the mission of a radical science organization in an epoch of climate and environmental crisis, heightened capitalist exploitation relying on enhanced technologies of social control, racist and sexist oppression justified by biological determinism, and militarism and war aided and abetted by science and technology. It posits a role for science as explicitly activist, and actively engaged with the burning issues of our time.

As SftP secretary Ben Allen notes in the film, the organization’s purpose is not just meant to show the political nature of science, but to prove “that science can serve a different purpose in society, which is to meet the needs of everyday people.”

Through photographs, footage and interviews, the documentary traces the history of the group and the magazine, from its founding by antiwar scientists and mathematicians in 1969 through its cessation of publication some 20 years later, and then through its relaunching conference, held in Ann Arbor in February 2018. The footage from the February conference showed activists from the original organization talking vision and strategy with the newer generation of SftP members, highlighting an inspiring moment of intergenerational and cross-issue organizing.

The rest of the event, co-presented by SftP publisher Christopher Dols and Geoengineering Editorial Collective member Anne-Laure White, focused on SftP’s new special issue on geoengineering. Contributing author Holly Jean Buck gave a pre-recorded commentary, followed by a keynote presentation by author Fred Magdoff. Buck and Magdoff spoke to the issue of geoengineering from very different perspectives.

Buck, a sociologist concerned with interactions between emerging technologies and social trends, maintained that carbon removal is essential to halting climate change despite enormous economic, political and environmental difficulties in its implementation. Assuming no change in prevailing social and economic relations, Buck argued that our political efforts as activists should be aimed at achieving zero emissions and implementing ecological carbon removal processes, but also at implementing and controlling carbon sequestration whose technologies are currently in the hands of the fossil fuel industry.

While she stressed that processes such as reforestation or soil carbon capture are one-offs, limited in duration and by the scale of land needed for such efforts, she didn’t shy away from the daunting task of constructing 10,000 atmospheric carbon removal plants, which would require massive initial energy investments. Buck’s perspective highlights the immediate and daunting needs of populations the world over struggling on the front lines of climate change.

Soil scientist and writer Fred Magdoff’s perspective was that science must distinguish between symptoms and underlying problems. In one analogy, he discussed the instance of high blood pressure in African-Americans, an issue often attributed solely to biology when its root cause has been identified as the stress of living in a white supremacist country. While treating the symptom is obviously important to the individual or population in question, our efforts as radical scientists should be turned toward undoing the white supremacist machine.

Climate change and other environmental problems, Magdoff argued, are systemic problems derived from a social order based on accumulation of profits and consequent growth of consumption. “Once you accept the system as it exists – and this goes for agriculture, health or climate change,” says Magdoff, “you’re well on your way to one or more inadequate and potentially dangerous technofixes.”

Under capitalism, given unremitting competition and a drive for profits, there is no way for the economic actors to take into account social and environmental consequences. This is manifested in the various geoengineering schemes through the environmental and economic consequences they entail. Magdoff argued that system change, entailing transformation of prevailing production and consumption relations, is a prerequisite to halting and reversing climate change and other environmental boundary transgressions. Thus, our efforts as science or climate activists must be oriented toward transforming our social order rather than favoring technological solutions that merely serve to sustain the status quo and result in further environmental disruption.

The July 28 event and the publication demonstrated the growing strength of SftP as an organization that is ready not only to debate political philosophy, but to chart a path forward in finding solutions to our most pressing social and environmental issues. At the end of the evening, SftP announced several upcoming events, including protests against Amazon, Salesforce and Microsoft for their complicity with ICE; an upcoming counter-action against anti-abortion protesters; and participation in the RISE for Climate, Jobs and Justice march on September 6.

Writing critical perspectives on scientific issues, building the network of radical scientists, and marching in the streets with allied organizations: Science for the People is back!

Climate & Capitalism strongly supports the Science for the People project. To learn more about Science for the People, support it financially through Patreon, or join its activities, visit the Science for the People website. Articles from the new issue on geoengineering are being posted on the magazine’s website.

Video of the July 28 meeting, and the new Science for the People documentary, can be viewed here.