Labor Network For Sustainability

Note by HealthWrights staff:

This article is noteworthy in two ways: One, despite being realistic about the dangers of climate change, is offers a guardedly optimistic assessment regarding the possibility of our coming to terms with this issue in a positive manner, and two, despite being realistic about how badly progressive efforts have fared during the last decades, it offers some down to earth strategy suggestions for turning this around. For all of us who struggle against despair, it may provide both hope and direction. Minimally it should open up some productive discussion on strategies for health during these dangerous times.

I am not an environmentalist. But all I think about these days is the
climate crisis.

I admit I have arrived late to the party. Only recently have I begun to
realize what  others have known for decades: The climate crisis is not, at
its core, an  environmental issue. In fact it is not an issue at all; it is
an existential threat to  every human and community on the planet. It
threatens every job, every economy in  the world. It threatens the health
of our children. It threatens our food and water  supply. Climate change
will continue to alter the world our species has known for the  past three
thousand years.

As an oyster farmer and longtime political activist, the effects of climate
change on  my life will be neither distant nor impersonal. Rising
greenhouse gases and ocean  temperatures may well force me to abandon my
60-acre farm within the next forty  years. From France to Washington state,
oystermen are already seeing massive die-offs of seed oysters and the
thinning shells science has long predicted. I can see the  storm clouds and
they are foretelling doom.

But my political alter ego is oddly less pessimistic. Rather than
triggering gloom, the  climate crisis has surprisingly stirred up more hope
than I have felt in twenty years as  a progressive activist. After decades
of progressive retreat it is a strange feeling. But I  am haunted by the
suspicion that this coming crisis may be the first opportunity we  have had
in generations to radically re-shape the political landscape and build a
more  just and sustainable society.

The Power of Doom

The modern progressive movement in the U.S. has traditionally grounded its
organizing in the politics of identity and altruism. Organize an affected
group   minorities, gays, janitors or women  and then ask the public at
large to support the  cause  prison reform, gay marriage, labor rights, or
abortion  based on some  cocktail of good will, liberal guilt, and moral
persuasion. This strategy has been  effective at times. But we have failed
to bring these mini-movements together into a  force powerful enough to
enact broad-based social reform. It takes a lot of people to  change
society and our current strategy has left us small in numbers and weak in

The highlights of my political life  as opposed to oystering  have been
marked  by winning narrow, often temporary, battles, but perennially losing
the larger war. I  see the results in every direction I look: growing
poverty and unemployment, two  wars, the rise of the right, declining
unionization, the failure of the Senates climate  legislation and of
Copenhagen, the wholesale domination of corporate interests. The  list goes
on and on. We have lost; its time to admit our strategy has been too tepid
and begin charting anew.

This time can be different. What is so promising about the climate crisis
is that  because it is not an issue experienced by one disenfranchised
segment of the  population, it opens the opportunity for a new organizing
calculus for progressives.  Except for nuclear annihilation, humanity has
never faced so universal a threat where  all our futures are bound
inextricably together. This universality provides the mortar  of common
interest required for movement building. We could literally knock on  every
door on the planet and find someone  whether they know it or not  who  has
a vital self-interest in averting the climate crisis by joining a movement
for  sustainability. With all of humanity facing doom, we can finally
gather under one  banner and count our future members not in the thousands
but in the millions, even  billions.

But as former White House Green Jobs Czar Van Jones told the New Yorker in
2009, The challenge is making this an everybody movement, so your main
icons are  Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber, becoming Joe the Solar Guy, or
that kid on the street  corner putting down his handgun, picking up a caulk
gun. The climate crisis is  carrying us into uncharted waters and our
political strategy needs to be directed  toward making the climate movement
an everybody movement.

Let me use a personal example. As an oysterman on Long Island Sound my way
of  life is threatened by rising greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures.
If the climate  crisis is not averted my oysters will die and my farm will
be shuttered.

Saving my livelihood requires that I politically engage at some level.
Normally I  would gather together my fellow oyster farmers to lobby state
and federal officials  and hold a protest or two. Maybe I would find a few
coalitions to join. But we would  remain small in number, wield little
power, and our complaints about job loss would  fall on largely
unsympathetic ears in the face of so many suffering in so many ways.  And
what would we even petition our government to do about the problem? Buyouts
and unemployment benefits? Re-training classes? Our oysters will still die
and we  will still lose our farms.

To save our lives and livelihood we need to burrow down to the root of the
problem:  halting greenhouse gas emissions. And halting emissions requires
joining a  movement with the requisite power to dismantle the fossil fuel
economy while  building a green economy.

To tackle such a large target requires my support for every nook and
cranny effort to  halt greenhouse gases and transition to a green economy.
I need to gather up my  fellow oyster farmers and link arms with students
blocking new coal-fired power  plants while fighting for just transition
for coal workers; I need to join forces with  other green workers around
the country to demand government funding for green  energy jobs, not more
bank and corporate bailouts; I need to support labor movement  efforts in
China and elsewhere to climb out of poverty by going green not dirty. I
have a stake in these disparate battles not out of political altruism, but
because my  livelihood and community depend on stopping greenhouse gases
and climate change.

In other words, the hidden jewel of the climate crisis is that I need
others and others  need me. We are bound together by the same story of
crisis and struggle.

Some in the sustainability movement have been taking advantage of the
power of  doom by weaving together novel narratives and alliances around
climate change.  Groups in Kentucky are complementing their anti-mountain
top removal efforts by  organizing members of rural electrical co-ops into
New Power campaigns to force  a transition from fossil fuels to renewable
power  and create jobs in the process.  Police unions in Canada,
recognizing their members will be first responders as  climate disasters
hit, have reached out to unions in New Orleans to ensure the  tragedies
that followed Katrina are not repeated. Artists, chefs, farmers, bike
mechanics, designers, and others are coalescing into a green artisan
movement  focused on building vibrant sustainable communities. Immigrant
organizers, worried  about the very real possibility of ever-worsening
racial tensions triggered by millions  of environmental refugees flooding
in from neighboring countries, are educating their  membership about why
the climate crisis matters.

My hope is that over the coming years we will be able to catalog
increasing numbers  of these tributaries of the climate crisis. Our power
will not stem from a long list of  issue concerns or sponsors at events  we
have tried that as recently as the October  2nd Washington D.C. One Nation
Working Together march with little impact.  Nor, with the rise of
do-it-yourself organizing, will our power spring from top-down  political
parties of decades past. Instead oystermen like me, driven by the need to
save our lives and livelihood, will storm the barricades with others facing
the effects  of the climate crisis. We will merge our mini-movements under
a banner of common  crisis, common vision and common struggle. We will be
in this fight together and  emerge as force not to be trifled with.

This Time We Have an Alternative

I am also guardedly optimistic because this time we have an alternative.
My  generation came of age after the fall of communism, and as a result, we
have been  raised in the midst of one-sided debate. We recognize that
neoliberalism has ravaged  society, but besides nostalgic calls for
socialism, what has been the alternative? As  globalization swept the
globe, we demanded livable wages and better housing for the  poorest in our
communities; we fought sweatshops in China; we lobbied for new  campaign
finance and corporate governance laws. But these are mere patchwork
reforms that fail to add up to a full-blown alternative to our current
anti-government,  free-market system. Never being able to fully picture the
progressive alternative left  me not fully trusting that progressive
answers were viable solutions.

But when I hear the proposed solutions to the climate crisis, the fog
lifts. I can track  the logic and envision the machinery of our
alternative. And it sounds surprisingly  like a common sense rebuttal to
the current free-market mayhem: We face a global  emergency of catastrophic
proportions. Market fundamentalism will worsen rather  than solve the
crisis. Instead we need to re-direct our institutions and economic
resources toward solving the crisis by replacing our carbon-based economy
with a  green sustainable economy. And by definition, for an economy to be
sustainable it  must addresses the longstanding suffering ordinary people
face in their lives, ranging  from unemployment and poverty to housing and

For years I have tossed from campaign to campaign, but the framework of
our new  progressive answer to the climate crisis now provides a roadmap
for my political  strategy. It helps chart my opponents  coal companies and
their political minions,  for example  as well as my diverse range of
allies. It lays out my policy agenda,  ranging from creating millions of
new green jobs to building affordable green  housing in low-income
communities. I finally feel confident enough in my bearings  to set sail.

The Era of Crisis Politics

While building a new green economy makes sense on paper, it is hard to
imagine our  entrenched political system yielding even modest progressive
reform, let alone the  wholesale re-formatting of the carbon economy. But I
suspect this will change in the  coming years, with our future governed by
cascading political crises, rather than  political stasis.

We are likely entering an era of crisis politics whereby each escalating
environmental  disaster  ranging from water shortages and hurricanes to
wildfires and disease  outbreaks  will expose the impotence of our existing
political institutions and  economic system. In the next 40 years alone,
scientists predict a state of permanent  drought throughout the Southwest
US and climate-linked disease deaths to double.  As Danny Thompson,
secretary-treasurer of the Nevada AFL-CIO, told the Las  Vegas Review
Journal, "the ever-worsening water crisis could be the end of the  world
that could turn us upside down, and I dont know how you recover from  that".

As if that is not enough, these crises will be played out in the context
of a global  economy spiraling out of control. Each hurricane, drought or
recession will send  opinion polls and politicians lurching from right to
left and vice versa. Think of how  quickly, however momentarily, the
political debate pivoted in the wake of Katrina,  the BP disaster, and the
financial crisis.

As White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel famously said "Never let a
serious  crisis go to waste" Its an opportunity to do things you couldnt do
before. While  addressing the climate crisis requires radical solutions
that cannot be broached in  todays political climate, each disaster opens
an opportunity to advance alternative  agendas  both for the left and
right. While politicians debate modest technical  fixes, ordinary people
left desperate by floods, fires, droughts and other disasters will
increasingly  and angrily  demand more fundamental reforms. While our
current  policy choices appear limited by polls and election results, in an
era of crisis politics  what appears unrealistic and radical before a storm
may well appear as common  sense reform in its wake.

My generation has been raised in the politics of eternal dusk. Except for
a passing ray  of hope during the Obama campaign, our years have been
marked by the failure of  every political force in society  whether it be
political elites or social movement  leaders  to address the problems we
face as a nation and world. They have left us  spinning towards disaster.

We can forge a better future. Climate-generated disasters will bring our
doomed  future into focus. The failure of political elites to adequately
respond to these  cascading crises will transform our political landscape
and seed the ground for social  movements. And if we prepare for the chaos
and long battle ahead, our alternative  vision will become a necessity
rather than an impossibility.

As a friend recently said to me, God help us, I hope youre right.