This Changes Everything – John’s Journey to the New York City Climate Convergence
Saturday, September 20, 2014
The Day Before the March: Four Anti-Capitalists and Bill McKibben
“Nothing passes the U.S. Congress without the approval of the oil companies and Wall Street.”
– Bernie Sanders
“We need to reach the point where politicians fear us the way they fear oil money. But it’s not going to be decided by politicians, it’s going to be decided by us.”
– Bill McKibben
“We need to weave together this movement from all our movements and then we need to get bigger than that.”
– Naomi Klein
“We’re now at the beginning of a titanic clash between our corporate masters and ourselves.”
– Chris Hedges
“Sisters and brothers, history is calling on us.”
– Kshama Sawant
“We cannot exist without hope. And we need even more than just hope to solve a problem as monstrous as the one we are facing – we need extravagant hope.”
– Leehi Yona
Saturday, September 20, was like a giant climate change university and training session across New York City.
There were dozens of workshops organized by the New York City Global Climate Convergence in five locations, including a community garden, churches, and colleges, and I participated in one, called “What Now for Climate Change?”
I also attended a large gathering in the evening to listen to Chris Hedges, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Kshama Sawant, and Bernie Sanders at a forum called “Climate: Which Way Out?”
Afternoon Program: “What Now for Climate Justice? Proposing Radical Inside/Outside Strategies for the UN Battle of the COP”
In the afternoon, I facilitated a workshop that Richard Widick and I had organized.
There were about 35 people in attendance, and true to his word, Bill McKibben popped in and sat in the back, just listening. Of all the things he could have been doing at that hour, for him to come to listen to us seems a bit remarkable to me, and I want to make it crystal clear that for me, Bill McKibben is a climate justice hero, one who has written incisively, spoken eloquently, showed up literally endlessly, and tirelessly out-organized almost everyone in terms of creatively building a U.S.-based mass movement for climate justice that continues to grow and move in more radical directions at every level.
Am I in awe of him? No. He’s too humble and I’m by nature it seems immune to following anyone, however awe-some they might be. But I respect and admire and love him for what he has done, that’s for sure.
But enough about Bill (for now).
The idea of our workshop was to invite everyone at the Global Climate Convergence to bring and present their ideas at a participatory action panel.
All contributors were asked to answer this question:
What strategies and tactics should the climate justice movement adopt, both inside and outside the U.N. negotiations (known as the COP, or Conference of the Parties), to create maximum pushback against the status quo of unfettered carbon-fueled capitalism, and to ensure that the United Nations’ next universal climate treaty, to be adopted at the COP 21 Paris talks in December 2015, leads the world away from its current destination of global climate apartheid and toward climate justice?
On the day, we heard short 2-3 minute (OK, in some cases this lasted up to five or six minutes) presentations by some very passionate, smart, and dedicated advocates of radical climate justice, including Michael Dorsey, Patrick Bond, Kathryn Leuch (for Lidy Nacpil), Jim Shultz, and Anjali Appadurai. I read written contributions sent in by Brian Tokar, Eddie Yuen, and Leehi Yona.
To insure maximum participation among those present, I decided on the spot to ask people to pair up with a neighbor – “if they weren’t too uncomfortable” doing so – to discuss the question of just what to do about these awful U.N. climate negotiations, and the ensuing noise reached levels that surpassed the dozens of times I’ve asked students to do so in my classes at UC Santa Barbara – people were really engaged, and, I think, disappointed when I called them back to order after about ten minutes – they had more to say! I guess they weren’t too uncomfortable…
As expected, we didn’t figure out what to do, but many promising ideas were aired, which Richard and I will bring out in the report for Lima; please contact me if you want to get a copy when it’s ready.
I’ll close the account of the panel with some excerpts from Leehi Yona, a 20-something activist from Canada whom I’ve gotten to know at the COPs in Doha and Warsaw, and always has something to say that moves me.
These are Leehi’s words:
What a loaded question. When I was first asked to answer it, I struggled. I see and interact with climate change from many points of view – as a community organizer, as a budding climate scientist, as a policymaker-in-training, as an amateur sociologist, as an American student, as an Israeli, as a Canadian, as a representative of future generations. How could I possibly condense these viewpoints into two pages?
If I could pull some key thoughts, I’d break it down into these nine words: vision, outrage, hope, humanity, storytelling, celebration, interaction, mobilization, and power. These thoughts by no means encapsulate all I have to say about this question, but it brings to light some short, important personal realizations I’ve had in my climate justice work.
What is a vision? A vision is the broader imagination, the future we can see within our grasp. A vision is boldly optimistic, ambitious, dream-like. Of course, our vision is vitally important in determining our decisions. Above all, we need to be driven by a vision, not a goal. This understanding is crucial. Our motivations for our work – the things that govern what we do – should be huge, and hopeful, and even unrealistic at first. That is fine, because they are visions – they shouldn’t be solutions that would work within the systems we currently have, but solutions that transcend beyond these very systems. They should be wildly idealistic, because even the most idealistic of visions have been achieved in history with a little faith.
Where is the outrage? Seriously, where is it? We need more outrage! We need to convey the urgency of this problem, the way we feel it sink a heavy weight onto our hearts. We need to make others – particularly those in power – feel the suffering, feel the heartbreak, feel the injustice, feel the outrage that global warming stirs. The time has passed to temper our anger; we cannot and should not subdue our burning fire that energizes us to find the solutions to this climate challenge.
This outrage cannot survive without hope. We cannot exist without hope. And we need even more than just hope to solve a problem as monstrous as the one we are facing – we need extravagant hope, the unwavering and fervent belief that we will rise to the occasion and find a solution to the climate crisis. Yes, we can be critical (we must), yes, we must have outrage – but we must never lose sight of our vision, lose sight of hope. To do so, to allow our cynicism and pessimism to consume us, would be condemning ourselves to failure by default. We must couple our urgency with active hope.
We must remember that climate change has a human face. Global warming is not about rising sea levels and extreme weather events – it’s about Ula who lives in the Maldives and doesn’t know where her children will live, Olivia who lives in a First Nations community and doesn’t know what’s in her drinking water – it’s about these people on the front lines.
Acknowledging our shared humanity when speaking about climate change is also about acknowledging that some communities are disproportionally affected by climate change compared to others. This particularly includes communities of lower socioeconomic status, people of colour, and women. We need to make sure that these voices are amplified within our movement, so that the most common face speaking about climate change isn’t that of affluent white men. Let’s bring more humanity into our movement by striving to have a real anti-oppression model of leadership.
Storytelling and Power
This humanity is why we need storytelling. Numbers and data don’t really work when it comes to motivating people to act on climate change – but the stories of those suffering climate injustices do.
An important element to acknowledge when it comes to climate change is the third dimension of power. This dimension of power is one that isn’t directly exerted upon a person, one wherein consciousness is manipulated. The third dimension of power here is one that is exerted upon us by broken systems of governance and fossil fuel companies that make us believe that sweeping change isn’t possible or feasible when it comes to climate action. But this isn’t true. We do have the power to change things – we must re-write the narrative we’re being given, the narrative that is being told. Storytelling is vital.
Chee Yoke Ling of Third World Network once told me that youth have the power to bring the future into the present. We must do this through storytelling. We need this framing to bypass the human exemptionalism that is wreaking havoc on climate progress.
I cannot stress this enough. Celebrate! Celebrate every little accomplishment worth celebrating. Celebrate your colleagues, celebrate your volunteers, and most importantly, celebrate yourselves and the collective work you are all doing. We rarely celebrate in this movement – we move forward too quickly. As soon as we’ve finished a march, as we’ve done whatever needs to be done – we move on to the next task at hand. We rarely celebrate the beautiful thing we’ve just done. Of course, this behaviour makes sense, considering the urgency of climate change – but it is unsustainable!
When we’re working on effecting positive change, it’s important to nurture our relationships with each other, and with nature. Many of us may lose sight of this. Think about it: for those of you working on organizing this march, what did you spend most of your time doing? You were most likely, just as I was, glued to your computer, to social media, to various screens that disconnect us both from each other and from the very planet we’re trying to save. That needs to change. We need more direct, face-to-face interactions and conversations with the people who matter – with everyone.
There are frequently such marches and rallies that take place… yet usually, the end outcome is that people go home and after a few days ask themselves, “Well, now what?” Now, we must mobilize! Too often such gatherings are plagued by a lack of concrete demands or next steps. Let’s make sure our demands and asks are clear.
As I mentioned earlier, power dynamics are entirely at play when it comes to global warming inaction. We must recognize these sources of disempowerment and target them directly to shift it back to the people.
Like I said, these words do not encompass all I have to say – but I do believe that they can bring us closer to building the movement we need for real climate justice.
Thanks, Leehi, for your wisdom, and your joyful work…
* * *
Evening Program: “Climate: Which Way Out?”
Saturday evening I attended the big-name plenary, pictured above. It was a decidedly anti-capitalist gathering – all the speakers but Bill McKibben so-identified pretty explicitly.
When I arrived, more than an hour before the event, the line went around three sides of a New York City block. As I walked to find the end of it, I realized I was never going to get inside, no matter how big the hall was. As I trudged toward the end of the line (which was not in sight), I heard someone call my name, and I was then attached to a group of young activists who had spent the day at the Youth Convergence, and through this miracle, I got a spot in the hall.
In the end, I actually got a third row chair in the aisle, as it turned out, next to Rebecca Solnit, one of my writer-activist heroes. Tongue-tied as I was to meet Rebecca for the first time after exchanging a few e-mails over the years, I acknowledged this but managed to tell her that “You often write what I feel,” and that I had experienced this feeling many times, ever since I first read the opening lines of Hope in the Dark. I was too shy, and she was too tired, so in the end we shared a quiet half hour together, and that was enough for me.
As I did for Friday night, I took some notes on what was said by the speakers. There is also a Dandelion Salad video of the evening here. You can listen for an hour and forty-five minutes or read what follows for the highlights as I wrote them down. Here we go.
The only socialist in the U.S. Congress, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, opened with a pretty basic talk for those of us – and there were more than a few – who are ecosocialists. One interesting point that made me think was that “dealing with global warming is going to cost a lot of money, but not dealing with it is going to cost a helluva lot more.” Finally, someone who is willing to acknowledge the cost, very refreshingly.
I say this because there’s been a lot of optimistic liberal commentary lately – most recently by Paul Krugman in the past week, but also by some influential climate economists such as Lord Nicolas Stern, author of the aptly named Stern Review: The Economics of Climate Change back in 2006 (you can read all 662 pages at http://mudancasclimaticas.cptec.inpe.br/~rmclima/pdfs/destaques/sternreview_report_complete.pdf), that conversion to a low carbon economy based on renewable energy is not going to actually cost much, maybe something on the order of about 1-2 percent of global GNP. I find this incredibly deceptive and wrong-headed, and believe that it is being touted as a way to convince us all that not only can the worst be averted as climate change rolls on, but that it’s going to be relatively easy to do so within a capitalist economic framework, even if it requires a revolutionary shift in mindset and hitherto unknown political leadership and will in the global North.
Krugman’s piece opens:
This just in: Saving the planet would be cheap; it might even be free. But will anyone believe the good news?
I’ve just been reading two new reports on the economics of fighting climate change: a big study by a blue-ribbon international group, the New Climate Economy Project, and a working paper from the International Monetary Fund. Both claim that strong measures to limit carbon emissions would have hardly any negative effect on economic growth, and might actually lead to faster growth. This may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. These are serious, careful analyses.
I don’t think so. These reports are by the same global cadre of pro-capitalist economists (almost a redundant qualifier) who put it forward either because they don’t want to scare economic elites or the government of the North, or, because, well… they don’t understand capitalism’s growth imperative, its profit imperative, its resource-devouring imperative. Krugman does make the valid point that there is good growth (in the sustainable future) and bad growth (the kind we have now). It’s true that if we took out all the spending on the military, downsized the useless advertising industry, reformed the health care sector so private insurance and professional greed didn’t drive up costs exorbitantly each year, got rid of the billions of dollars wasted on subsidizing fossil fuel and the all the industries that run on it (including agriculture, aviation, the private car, and so on) and re-invested this money in a massive public transit revolution, green building and energy-efficient retrofitting, and effective, smart, low cost health and educational systems, plus a whole new way of growing food and making things, there would be a boost to the global basket of goods and services, and lots of jobs in the bargain.
But how does anyone think we are going to get there, in the time frame that matters, without something akin to radical social transformation (let’s call it a successful movement for radical social change)? Um, and what about the finite number of natural resources of all kinds that are not even extractive fossil fuel industries – like fresh water, healthy soils, living oceans, forests, oh, and a livable atmosphere?
Why would we consider what I have just described anything resembling actually existing capitalism as we have always known it (much less the particularly virulent strand of neoliberal capitalism that we have been living under as long as we’ve known about the climate crisis)? And how would we do any of this without the biggest social movement the world has ever seen?
Perhaps all of these people who think that economic growth measured in ever-rising increases in GNP and dealing with climate chaos are compatible should take some time off and read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, and don’t forget to read the subtitle: Capitalism vs. the Climate.
What were we talking about? Oh, yeah, Bernie Sanders opening remarks. “Nothing passes the U.S. Congress without the approval of the oil companies and Wall Street.” He reminded us in no uncertain terms that millions lost their jobs, homes, health care “because of the unbelievable greed of a billionaire class who couldn’t care less about our children or the planet” and that “The only way this is going to stop is what we are doing tomorrow – take to the streets” and that real change “can only happen if millions of people get involved in politics.”
But what kind of politics? The existing political system in the U.S. is not equipped to handle the demands of millions of people, and there is no party for them to vote for (other than my beloved Greens, of course), who don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell (or a glacier’s chance in 2030?) of coming to power here. Or do they?
Another Vermonter, Bill McKibben, started out where Bernie left off, by telling us that we had missed “the most important applause line in Bernie’s talk: ‘I just spent some time in Iowa.’” And Sanders is apparently exploring a run for the presidency in 2016 – you heard it first here, and I got it from the horse’s mouth.
Back to Bill (whom I’d sooner vote for, if he’d run for something):
It’s an open question whether we’ve started in time. The science is dark and hard. And I’d be lying to you if I said anything other than that. Business as usual – leading to warming of more than two degrees Celsius – is probably the most unjust thing that has ever happened.
Tomorrow, expect people to come out in 170 countries around the world. The pictures coming in already are beautiful to look at.
It’s not that we’re going to the U.N. appealing – we’re not. We’re expressing our frustration and our anger.
Wear blue on Monday – the idea is to flood Wall Street. People will be acting powerfully. This has to continue in the months ahead.
Someone recently sent me a copy of the trade journal Pipeline World [!] and a major CEO said “We’ll never be able to build another pipeline in peace again.”
We need to reach the point where politicians fear us the way they fear oil money. But it’s not going to be decided by politicians, it’s going to be decided by us.
None of this will be easy or simple. I really like the slogan for this march “to change everything we need everyone.”
[The noise we’ll make] is the burglar alarm on the people who are trying to steal our future.
Take that frustration and anger and mix it with the joy and hope that comes from rubbing shoulders with other people.
It’s both an obligation and a privilege to be around right now and to be involved in the most important place in the world [meaning perhaps NYC on the 21st or the U.S. as the belly of the beast in general].
Naomi started with a passage from her book:
“The climate justice fight here in the U.S. and around the world is not just a fight against the [biggest] ecological crisis of all time,” Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), explains: “It is the fight for a new economy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world that we want. We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to gain…. We are bound together in this battle, not just for a reduction in the parts per million of CO2 but to transform our economies and rebuild a world that we want today” (TCE, pp. 155-56).
Naomi asked: “Why haven’t we done it?” She makes the “bad timing” argument: that the same year that James Hansen testified about the reality and danger of climate change before Congress, Canada and the U.S. signed the first free trade agreement that launched an avalanche of neoliberal assaults on our lives. “The problem is that this ideology is directly at odds with what we need to do to deal with the problem. The climate deniers understand this. Because if the science is right, then we have to break every rule in their idiotic handbook!”
Chris was, I felt, at his best, exuding outraged and passionate intensity. He paused to say that we all owe Bill an incredible debt, a generous gesture that I hadn’t expected of him.
Then he got warmed up: “I want to talk about power. We are no longer a functioning capitalist democracy with a liberal class.” He harkened back to Ralph Nader’s remarks at the first Earth Day, observing that the Democrats had given us no new significant environmental legislation since the early 1970s.
The old liberalism that functioned as a safety valve no longer exists. Obama serves corporate power [perhaps it was a coincidence but Bill McKibben seemed to choke just as he said this]. Clinton destroyed liberalism. The right has become insane. Obama has done nothing to undo the Bush administration on war, extraction, surveillance, referencing The Kingpins of Carbon and Their War on Democracy.
Hedges went on and on about his disgust with the Democrats at a pace far beyond what I could possibly have kept up with in my notes.
To appeal to the Democrats is to throw our energies into a black hole. They’ve sold out the citizenry to corporate power. Both parties have done and will do nothing to stop the ravaging of the planet.
The Democrats will violently shut down dissent with force. The laws are in place. On Monday [at Flood Wall Street] the face of the corporate state will show itself.
We will have to view the state and the Democratic establishment as antagonistic to real reform [at this point, Bill McKibben looked down].
“We’re now at the beginning of a titanic clash between our corporate masters and ourselves.”
Kshama’s talk had some great turns of phrase, such as her reference to the “rapacious oil vultures” and her opening words themselves: “Sisters and brothers, history is calling on us. To answer that call, we have to make sure that tomorrow’s protests lead to social structural transformation….”
Our message on Sunday must be clear. If you are not yet organized, join a group – labor, environmental, socialist….
The so-called free market can’t end this addiction to fossil fuels, and certainly not in the time span we have. It cannot coordinate the massive public investment that will be required.
She called for public ownership of the giant fossil fuel corporations:
You cannot control what you do not own. We will need to deploy many strategies and tactics. Our movement must be guided by the interest of people and workers.
We won the highest minimum wage in the country in Seattle by demanding it. God knows what we would have won if we had started out with what we were told was acceptable.
We must approach the climate crisis in the same way.
Only a new party based on workers, young people, environmentalists, and labor will be able to do this…
When she praised Bernie Sanders as an alternative to Hillary Clinton, Bill McKibben seemed to smile in approval. And she laid out a program for him to run on: cancel; student debt, tax corporations, get single payer health care. Someone shouted “You should run!”
A recent poll showed 68 percent of Americans want a third party, according to Kshama.
She ended by invoking Rosa Luxemburg’s words, uttered in 1916 that the future would be one of “socialism or barbarism” [the full quote is “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism”] and updated this to “The future will be one of climate chaos or a beautiful, just, sustainable future!”
Q and A
“What do you – Bill McKibben – want the newspapers to say on Monday, in light of the strong words you’ve heard today?”
Bill said that the New York City organizing committee had chosen eight spokespeople to talk to the press, and he thinks they’ll do a pretty good job, probably without using ideological language. “All I know is that organizing stuff is hard. We’ll keep doing it. I think civil disobedience is a pretty good idea. I think it’s a better idea to do things than to talk about them.”
“How would you define ‘success’”?
Chris Hedges: “The power of gathering in a march is that it has the capacity to radicalize people, and gives them a sense of empowerment. A lot of people criticized Occupy for having no demands. I think they had a pretty clear demand: to undo this corporate coup. This is a system that has to be broken. As Václav Havel said, we have to live in truth, to expose the bankruptcy of the corporate elite.”
Naomi Klein: “This has already been a tremendous success. The city feels occupied by people talking about these issues. The most exciting thing is that this gives us the potential to establish a movement of movements.
We are in climate year zero. We need to turn things around by the end of this decade. Can we weave together all our movements and supercharge them with existential urgency?
Let’s articulate a positive vision so that people can get over their fear. We need that fear and a sense of somewhere to leap to. We need to weave together this movement from all our movements and then we need to get bigger than that.
I think eventually, with a push from below, yes, a global climate treaty can be achieved that is fair.”
When Q and A was interrupted for the breaking news that the de Blasio administration had just announced that New York City would cut its greenhouse gas emissions from public buildings by 80 percent by 2050, people actually laughed, presumably because they knew that all pledges to do so and so by 2050 from politicians just left the hard work to someone else, much later, when it will be far too late to matter in the way that actions undertaken now matter. As even the New York Times editorialized about this “commitment”: “But there is not going to be any 89-year-old, 10-term mayor named de Blasio declaring a local victory in the battle to save the planet. This is a long march to a distant goal.”
Bill McKibben had the last word (that I recorded, anyway), a clarion call to battle and a prefiguration of the two days that would follow this glorious evening: “They have all the money so we have to find some other currency to fight them. And that’s why the march will be beautiful and what happens Monday down on Wall Street will be beautiful.”
* * *
It was a great night: getting a seat against all odds, finding myself next to Rebecca Solnit, listening to four passionate, smart, angry, articulate anti-capitalists and Bill McKibben, who, it was announced on September 24, has won the Goldman Environmental Prize, given each year to one person from each continent, “for sustained and significant efforts to protect and enhance the natural environment, often at great personal risk.”