The Stacks – Issue 8

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The Stacks

The Stacks: Ecological Crisis

With the looming climate crisis in the air, as well as the promise of a Green New Deal, it’s time to take a closer look at the ways in which capitalism is at odds with the protection and preservation — or even simply the survival — of the natural world. This month’s Extremely Offline column examines this opposition and serves as a guide for further reading. We’ve also got national announcements — in case you haven’t heard, a new contender has entered the presidential race — and an update on the YDSA Winter Conference. And it wouldn’t be The Stacks without another Class Enemy of the Month!

 

The Extremely Offline: Capitalism vs. Nature

Too often lost in the onslaught of daily news is the perspective that enables us to make sense of political events as they occur. In this section, we connect the enduring ideas of the socialists who preceded us to the pressing topics of today.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its report in 2018 on the state of climate change, its impending effects, and proposals for mitigation and adaptation. (The full report spans several chapters, but DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group put together a short summary for DSA members.)

The planet has already begun warming, but the IPCC’s report urges radical action to slow the rate of increase to reach 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. This action, necessary to prevent an additional 0.5-degree increase, could:

  • Avoid 10 cm of sea level rise, exposing 10 million fewer people to displacement

  • Reduce the plant and animal species (of the 105,000 evaluated) at risk of extreme habitat loss by half

  • Save two million square kilometers of permafrost, which might otherwise release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere

  • Limit irrecoverable coral reef loss to 70–90 percent instead of more than 99 percent

This list could continue on into depressing depths, but this sample is sobering evidence of the scale of the threat.

Of course, capital is unwilling and unable to address this threat. Rather than acknowledging metabolic rifts, natural limits, or ecological contradictions, capital merely moves its ecological problems around. Once it depletes resources in one region, capitalists search to seize control of resources in other parts of the world, whether by military or market forces. (For more on metabolic rift and the conflict between ecosystems and capitalism, see John Bellamy Foster’s book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, from Monthly Review.)

This has left us with a problem that not only gets worse over time, but also delivers future consequences that we as a planet will feel even if we stopped carbon production tomorrow. As Christian Parenti explains,

The watchwords of the climate discussion are mitigation and adaptation—that is, we must mitigate the causes of climate change while adapting to its effects. Mitigation means drastically cutting our production of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, such as methane and chlorofluorocarbons, that prevent the sun’s heat from radiating back out to space. […] Adaptation, on the other hand, means preparing to live with the effects of climatic changes, some of which are already underway and some of which are inevitable. Adaptation is both a technical and a political challenge.

Parenti’s Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, from Bold Type Books, explores this further.

However, offers from Democrats have been borne of the same market-driven, neoliberal ideology that has guided the party for decades: cap and trade, the Clean Power Plan, a carbon tax, etc. These “third way/Third Stage” strategies, as Kate Aronoff explains, make concessions to capital for the sake of advancing incremental gains and rely on government-created marketplaces, all of which still fall short of the necessary limits on carbon and place the burden on workers.

Meanwhile, 2018 also saw several ballot initiatives, such as last year’s Initiatives 732 and 1631 in Washington state, Proposition 127 in Arizona, and Proposition 112 and Amendment 74 in Colorado, which would impose carbon taxes, mandate higher levels of renewable energy consumption, and increase regulation on oil and gas producers, respectively. All were defeated thanks to massive spending against them from those same producers.

This all requires action on a scale unseen in the US since the first half of the 20th century: specifically, urgent decarbonization and redistribution of the wealth and power that has led to this crisis.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent Green New Deal resolution in the House would be the most ambitious effort yet to address this. Rather than work around the edges of capital as previous attempts have offered, though, the Green New Deal, if adopted, would directly challenge it. The proposal’s federal jobs guarantee would have a two-pronged effect. First, in order to decarbonize our economy, by modernizing our electrical grid, upgrading the resource efficiency of new and existing buildings, and building up the country’s renewable resource production, among other things, the US will need large-scale labor to simply do the work. Second, and more broadly, it would tap into what Marx and Engels referred to as the “reserve army of labor,” those in the working class who have been unemployed or underemployed by capitalism. By guaranteeing a job to anyone who wants it, a Green New Deal would offer relief to workers who are currently pitted against one another for the lowest wage that capitalists are willing to offer.

Putting millions of people to work in the “green economy” also gives workers a direct stake in the environmental quality of their communities. As Jeremy Brecher notes, the “jobs vs. environment” frame is a false one. He writes:

Within such a common frame it becomes easier to build alliances around specific issues in the real world. For example, through the Roundtable on Climate and Jobs, Connecticut unions joined with environmental, religious and community groups to fight for renewable energy standards that create local jobs and reduce pollution by shifting from fossil fuels to renewables, energy efficiency and conservation. Elsewhere, workers in the transportation industry have joined with environmentalists to advocate shifting from private to public transportation—something that would create large numbers of skilled jobs, greatly reduce greenhouse gasses and local pollution, and save money for consumers.

A great case study of this came in the form of Tony Mazzocchi. Mazzocchi was a radical unionist with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) International Union who argued that workers play a strategic role in changing, or stopping, the conditions within industries that pollute the communities in which they are positioned. His work directly lead to the creation of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970 and had many other repercussions too many to list here. See Connor Kilpatrick’s article-length biography “Victory Over the Sun” or Les Leopold’s book-length The Man Who Hated Work and Loved labor: The Life and Times of Tony Mazzocchi, from Chelsea Green Publishing.

Ultimately, mainstream liberal solutions have focused on addressing climate change at the end of the line, demanding the costs be placed at the individual-level, with consumers: recycle more, use less plastic, carpool more. A socialist strategy for reducing carbon emissions must start at the point of production through state intervention on the companies most responsible, 100 of which create 71 percent of the world’s pollution. By building a mass movement united by the power of labor, we can curb and eventually reduce the levels of carbon in the atmosphere and end the climate disaster that capitalism began.

Wes Holing, Socialist Night School Organizer

 

National Updates

  • Check out the February Dispatch from our national director Maria Svart. It includes important updates on new staff, the Medicare for All campaign, our upcoming National Convention in August 2019, and pre-convention regional conferences.
  • Bernie Sanders is running for president. In light of this development, DSA members have to figure out how we will approach his campaign. As a first step, the National Political Committee (NPC), elected by delegates to our 2017 national convention, adopted by a 10 to 3 vote the process recommended by the DSA Exploratory Committee for the 2020 Presidential election to consider an endorsement of Bernie Sanders should he decide to run. You can read all about that process here.
  • Haymarket Books has published a free e-book on Socialist Strategy and Electoral Politics, which collects previously published essays from different outlets. It features a number of DSA members including Seth Ackerman and Daniel Denvir, Ben Beckett, Matthew Karp, Meagan Day, Neal Meyer, and Eric Blanc. It’s a great resource for “teaching the controversy” on electoral politics among the Left today.
  • The teachers’ strike wave isn’t stopping — because neither are the privatizers’ efforts to sell off public education. The next stop on the strike train is Oakland, so make sure to donate to Bread for Ed, which will feed the tens of thousands of Oakland students who rely on free or reduced lunch during the strike. You can also donate directly to the Oakland Educators Association strike fund.
  • DSA Weekly recently hosted a dialogue on US withdrawal from Syria and what socialists should say about it. The blog intends to host more dialogues and debates like this so that members can learn what the lines of agreement and disagreement are in the US left.
 

The Ground Game

Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter — or, in this case the YDSA winter conference, a weekend-long political education event held in Berkeley, California. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email thedsastacks@gmail.com).

This year’s YDSA winter conference, “Class Struggle in Session,” took place during one of this country’s most turbulent political moments in recent history. The weeks leading up to the conference were marked by a series of political developments that shaped the workshops, panels, keynotes, and overall atmosphere at the national gathering of socialist students. Everything from AOC’s Green New Deal to the rising tide of education strikes to Bernie Sanders’ highly anticipated presidential bid coalesced around a single, crucial question that set the tone for this year’s conference: what is the role of socialist students in building a mass movement of the working class?

International student leaders, high school organizers, grassroots political candidate Jovanka Beckles, and a variety of experts fighting on different political fronts came together in Berkeley, California to tackle this question. By Sunday afternoon, there was a clear consensus among the almost 200 young socialists in attendance. In order to build the mass party of the working class that will save the world, socialist organizers must intervene in the spaces of dispossession and alienation created by the many failures of capitalism. For students, this means politicizing our campuses by organizing against the crisis plaguing the education system, as well as embedding ourselves in rank-and-file labor struggles, all the while articulating a broader critique of capitalism and advancing a positive socialist alternative — that is, an alternative predicated on a mass democratic socialist program.

Sebastián Uchida-Chávez, City College of New York YDSA

 

Class Enemy of the Month

On January 25, 2019, a mining dam in Brumadinho, Brazil suddenly collapsed. The poorly constructed dam full of mining waste was perched precariously above the local town; when it finally broke down — after years of locals and experts warning about its structural issues — it unleashed a toxic wave on everything and everyone in its path.

At least 154 people perished under what amounted to 5,000 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of sludge. It then reached the Paraopeba River, guaranteeing the pollution of downstream areas. “Rio Paraopeba has started to die,” tweeted one observer with a video of suffocating fish struggling in the heavy brown water.

The Brumadinho dam was managed by the Brazilian-owned Vale, which is the world’s largest mining company. This is not the first time Vale has unleashed ecological and human destruction on its home country. Just three years ago another one of their dams, co-owned by the Anglo-Australian company BHP, collapsed in the city of Mariana, killing 19 people and pushing polluted muck 400 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

The environmental consequences are incalculable. Three years after the Mariana disaster, water in the nearby Rio Doce is still unfit for human consumption at 90% of monitoring stations. If contamination from the Brumadinho dam travels from the Paraopeba River to the southward São Francisco basin, the consequences may be irreversible. 64% of fish species in that area are found nowhere else in the world, and many are already endangered.

And it’s not only in Brazil that Vale has threatened the most elemental conditions of life. In 2012, activists dubbed it “the worst company in the world” for its abusive labor conditions, environmental destruction, and harmful impact on communities in which it was present.

Vale owns hundreds of mines like Brumadinho across Brazil and across the globe. And climate change is exacerbating the likelihood that more will collapse. Climate change can cause elevated levels of rainfall, which turns the semi-solid mud waste that makes up these dams into liquid which then bursts through barriers to consume surrounding areas.

That’s what makes Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s climate policy — perhaps better termed an anti-climate policy — so dangerous. In addition to championing the exact type of deregulation that kept the Brumadinho dam from being properly monitored, he has advocated for the wholesale pillaging of the Amazon rainforest. Scientists say that if his plan is implemented, the deforestation rate in the Amazon could nearly triple. That would release the Amazon’s vast stores of carbon into the atmosphere, rapidly accelerating the rate of global warming.

So why did we choose Vale for our Class Enemy Award, instead of Bolsonaro? Bolsonaro certainly deserves the title. But far too often, the wealthy corporations who drive policies like Bolsonaro’s get to remain faceless and anonymous. Even if Bolsonaro were gone, Vale would still hold enormous power over the economies and political systems of everywhere it’s present, from Mozambique to Canada to Brazil. We have to confront the power of these multinational companies directly. Both because the havoc they wreak in one country accelerates climate change everywhere; and because if we don’t, we’ll keep seeing more Bolsonaros and more Trumps empowered to carry out their agendas.

 

 

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to thedsastacks@gmail.com.

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, John Speranza, Ajmal Alami, Rachel Johnson, Andrej Markovčič, Wes Holing, Stephen Gose (graphic design).