This article notes the writers experiences at the Peoples Climate March in New York in September and discusses the linkages between climate destabilization and capitalism through a Marxist lens – Editors
The March and Some Groundwork:
I set off on from Emeryville, CA to New York for the People’s Climate March via the People’s Climate Train. The Center for Biological Diversity organized the ride for the 170 passionate activists and concerned citizens along with several workshops held aboard the train that ranged from Trans/Queer allyship to divesting from fossil fuels. As we moved through the Sierras there was so much haze in the air. We all had limited to no Internet access but word got around that the haze we were witnessing was the result of several nearby forest fires. Unsure if our train would have to pull over, we laughed at the irony of the People’s Climate Train being delayed by a drought-caused forest fire. After four days, we rallied upon our arrival to Penn Station and parted ways into a hot humid New York evening.
The New York march gave room for the Climate Convergence conference put on by System Change not Climate Change and the Global Climate Convergence, along with other side events/conferences that confronted capitalism before and after the march. The convergence began with its opening plenary on the Friday before the march (9/19). Speakers at the plenary included, Oscar Olivera, a Bolivian water rights activist, Immortal Technique, a revolutionary hip-hop artist, and Nastaran Mohit, a NYC labor and environmental activist. The event was moderated by Jill Stein, the 2012 Green Party presidential nominee. The Convergence called for an end to fossil fuels, the mobilization of a broad and intersectional movement demanding for system change and livable wages. By the end of the plenary it was repeatedly made clear that capitalism and democracy are not synonymous.
The next day, Saturday the 20th, was a day filled with so many constructive workshops that it was hard to choose which to attend. Workshops highlighted issues of groups disproportionately affected by climate change, and also issues like fossil fuels and the political economy of energy or Marx and Climate Change. This last workshop was held by John Bellamy Foster, someone who is writing about capitalism and ecological crises has been so clear and mobilizing for me. He noted that Marx and Engels showed a deep understanding of ecology in their analyses of political economy. Bellamy Foster further stated that the social metabolism between humyns and nature is a dialectical relation and that the alienation of labor and that of nature are inextricably linked. I find this last point a simple yet profound statement that can be used to call for the merging of the labor and environmental movements. The same night, Naomi Klein, author of books such as the newly released This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs. the Climate, and The Shock Doctrine, spoke at the closing plenary. Something quite notable that I walked away with from her speech was that people think it is utopian to get rid of our current system, but it is far more utopian to believe we can sustain this system for much longer. She linked the extraction of resources to the extraction of autonomy and money from communities. Desmond D’sa, who also spoke, called for ending the legitimization of the corporate-powered climate negotiation spaces set by the United Nations Framework on Climate Change (UNFCC).
I participated in the People’s Climate March (PCM) the next day, September 21, 2014. The mass mobilization of an estimated 400,000 people on the busy streets of New York was like nothing I have ever experienced. It was an historical moment. The march was organized into six different contingent themes. Leading the march were those on the front lines of climate change, Indigenous peoples, communities of color, low-income people and others fighting for environmental justice. The second group was called “We Can Build The Future,” comprised of labor unions, families, students, and elders. The third contingent was made up of those advocating for just energy transitions, with members from environmental organizations focusing on renewable energies and food and water justice. I chose to march with those in the fourth group, “We Know Who is Responsible.” This was the anti-capitalist brigade comprised of System Change not Climate Change, the Global Climate Convergence (GCC), and left political parties like the DSA and the Green Party. Others who joined in were part of anti-corporate campaigns or with the Peace and Justice coalition. The fifth section was for those who believe taking action is a moral call, like scientists and interfaith members. The last group, which truly illustrates the need for intersectional solidarity, was the “To Change Everything, We Need Everyone” contingent. It was made up of LGBTQ, NYC boroughs, community groups from across the nation and world, and individuals from various cities, states, and countries.
We were advised to arrive by 10 am as they would start closing off the entrances soon after, with the march beginning at 11:30 am. That was certainly not the case, as so many people continuously crowded in. Organizers and police had to leave the barricades open for much longer and delay the march to fit everyone. I arrived to see people making signs that read, “Less Capitalism, More Future” and “Peace, Planet, and People over Profits.” Soon after, a friend and I received our System Change banner, which I had carried at a May Day rally in Santa Barbara, CA earlier this spring. So we waited and waited as people poured in, as we discussed chants and what brought us to this moment in time. 11:30 had passed but the chants and energy were resilient. It was noon and there were still no signs of movement. I learned soon after that those at the front began marching at noon but we did not get a move on til after about 2pm. There was a slow ripple effect taking place; it really did take that long, two hours, for the middle of the march to reach the starting point! I remember feelings of anxiousness but also embracing them with gratitude, as this meant there were that many people who showed up to this historic moment. Chants like “ay, anti-, anti-capitalista” and “clean water is a right; not just for the rich and white” were projected loudly and clearly. We knew who was accountable for the catastrophic mess we have been forced into. Never skipping a beat and hardly with a dull moment, the people I stood with and I proudly carried our signs and made our calls for justice, for a habitable planet, and for the right to be heard and consulted. I never felt so much power in the message I have been telling as I did during the march. I lost my voice by the end of the march, which was at 5pm and about 3 miles later.
The day after the march, Monday, Flood Wall St (FWS) took place. We met at Battery Park, where speeches were given and large chrome CO2 bubbles were inflated. We made our way up Broadway and as close to the intersection of Wall St. as the police allowed. Marching up was a loud and momentous action. Drones were in the air capturing the crowds, the marching band played, someone dressed in a polar bear suit walked around, and the crowds chanted ever so loudly. A bus driver let protestors board and occupy the open deck of the bus. Someone aboard told me they heard the bus driver say he would have been on the streets as well, as his employment does not provide a livable wage, but had to continue with his work day for that limited pay. I think the point of FWS was to make clear that there was a leftist presence, and a large one at the march, as over 3K people showed up and disrupted “business as usual” by blocking the flow of traffic. I also think we got bankers and other Wall Street agents to think, at least a little bit about their role, complicit or not, in funding climate destabilization (through fossil fuels investments, for example).
There have been critiques about the PCM – that there were no clear demands and that it was not “radical” enough. I do believe not having a set of demands can be dangerous, because anyone, a politician let’s say, can claim they are supportive of the cause, but not have to back this up by adhering this support to specific points. Leading up to the march and afterwards I’ve heard that it was “wrong” for leftist groups to engage in this more mainstream event, primarily organized by the moderate 350.org. But I think this attitude is very wrong. Isolating radical ideas within one sect is not going to get these types of solutions on the table. To do the very opposite of that, we must engage with those whose politics may not be quite in line and move from there. We need to build a mass movement, not just one that is comprised of self-proclaimed radicals. The PCM as a “moderate” platform served as a segue, or an on-ramp, for more radical approaches to reach the mainstream. PCM resembles a convergence of diverse groups with a wide range of ideological platforms and solutions. These two days of climate protest were a positive interplay between complementary, not opposing, efforts.
Capitalism and Its Incompatibility With Our Climate:
There is a deep linkage between our climate destabilization, political economy, and the global capitalist system we live in. It is time we connect social struggles to those of the environment, because frankly, what happens to the environment happens to us. We must see that capitalism does not just exploit the worker, but it also robs the soil. We have to look at what 97% of scientists have been basically screaming at us and connect that to the social and political realities of our time. And what is this political and social reality? We live under this capitalist system with its drive for limitless accumulation on a finite planet, which is irrespective of ecological boundaries and the agency of those seen as “others.” The way I see it, climate change is symptomatic of a systemic crisis of capitalism.
I’d like to begin with some groundwork as to what the state of our ecological crisis is and why I think this and future conversations are necessary. Ocean acidification and sea level rise are leading to the dislocation of low-lying island states like the Carteret islands. We’re experiencing record levels of drought, primarily affecting the 80% of the world’s small-scale womyn farmers. We live with an atmosphere with 400 carbon ppm (in the pre-industrial era ppm levels were at 280), beyond the “safe” level of 350 (as in the name of the multi-national green NGO). Air pollution is leading to higher rates of asthma amongst children. In Naomi Klein’s new book, she states that “if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuels economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warming.” Our current energy infrastructure will basically blow our carbon budget by the next 2 years, leaving us no room for additional power plants and other infrastructure, unless they are zero-carbon. In a transitional phase, this would be extremely expensive. We need to leave room, or ration our carbon, because to get to a zero-carbon world, by building a new infrastructure, we’re going to have to burn some carbon. Not doing so will essentially remove the opportunity of staying within the two degree Celsius cap.
Marx and the Exploitative Economy (Which is Also Extractive)
We’ve consumed about 30% of the Earth’s resources in just the past 100 years. Thus, the highly exploitative economy Marx talked about is also extremely extractive. Labor can be seen as a metabolic interaction between humyns and nature. What mediates this metabolism is production, which begets culture. In this way, we see that not only does the bourgeois class have a command over the means of material production, i.e., labor and capital, but also has control over the means of mental production. As such, their ideas, as the ruling class, become the hegemonic ideas; the class with control over the material forces also controls the intellectual forces. These ideas are expressions of the ideal dominant material relations. We’re not consumers by nature and the iPhone6 or the latest Prada bag are not beacons of progress or freedom. As Marx sees it, capitalist ideology inverts the world by fervently talking about freedom without acknowledging that this so-called freedom is the freedom of the bourgeoisie; this is the freedom to gain and retain control of the manual and intellectual workers for the endless acquisition of capital, thus justifying the conditions of life in this particular mode of production. These conditions become naturalized and taken for granted. We again see this in what can be called the climate change denial movement, comprised of right-wing think tanks like the Heartland Institute, which holds annual conferences to deny the remarkable amount of scientific research that proves humyn activity is warming the planet, and the conservative politicians bought off by industry who block any climate action policies. This movement exists because those who spearheaded and partake in it know that climate change (quantitatively) challenges their way of life. Their hierarchical, hyper-individualistic, profit-driven culture is incompatible with the realities of a finite planet. The data exists!
Currently, we must forgo four fifths of all known fossil fuels if we are to stay within the 2-degree-centigrade level of warming. That is an estimated 20 trillion dollars that would need to be written off. The problem is that the fossil fuels industry is an interest that permeates our entire political system. As Marx noted in The Communist Manifesto, “the executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” This can be seen with neocolonial economic agendas like industrial resource extraction, as is the case with mountaintop removal or the land-grabs suffered by Indigenous populations at the hands of multinational corporations. This intensive industrial development has been enabled through international policies, through institutions like the WTO or the IMF. Such policies have forcibly replaced womyn-led, regenerative farming, for example, with unsustainable food production led by exploitative corporations like Monsanto. Monsanto is able to bioengineer seeds, patent them and thus monopolize crops. This inevitably shuts out small-scale sustainable farming (for all genders) at home and abroad. Here we can see the ecological and economic struggles of the global south and Indigenous people as connected. The societal and political positions and the way of life of many of these groups are at odds with today’s development model centered on endless capital accumulation.
Hair of The Dog: We Can’t Fight Climate Change with Capitalism
We need solutions that challenge capitalism, rather than ones that accommodate it. As this is the case, solutions will not be found by those who have ruined our planet, the bourgeoisie, those owners of capital, whose accumulation without limit is destroying the planet. To illustrate again how the state manages the affairs of capital on its behalf, we can look at the state of international negotiations on climate change. For the last 20 years, global leaders have been meeting at the Conference of the Parties, or COP, and other sorts of UN meetings to find solutions. But these meetings have been dominated by big business, with corporate logos and leaders who show up with industry-favoring agendas. At last years COP19 in Warsaw, Poland co-hosted an event with the World Coal Association alongside the talks.
To quote Chris Williams, “The need for constant growth is endemic to capitalism and therefore makes it impossible to find a permanent solution to environmental degradation within a competitive, profit-driven system. Alongside that is a second fatal–and under-appreciated–anti-ecological contradiction of capitalism: the international competition between nation states over resources and political hegemony.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
We see racism in the unequal distribution of toxic waste dumps and air pollution at home and in the neo-colonial frameworks abroad that enable the disenfranchisement of people and their homes (seen specifically in the example of Indigenous peoples). People talk about the “export of the climate crisis,” where the U.S exports coal to China instead of directly consuming it or uses fracked natural gas instead of coal, which is just the lesser of two evils. We need to decrease CO2 production, not displace it.
We also see issues of gender inequality in the case of small-scale farmers but also at the policy level. Womyn are highly underrepresented in roles of leadership in national grass-roots groups and also in those roles at the state-level. The policies that have arisen from states or at the UN or COP meetings have not been gender inclusive. The saying about womyn, which goes something like “first affected, last consulted,” rings true in this case.
This is also a class issue. It is clear that the poor are not the biggest consumers or those who make the economic decisions that are so ravaging to the Earth. At home, those workers who occupy positions in highly toxic industries are most often low-income or people of color. They often experience 2-fold exposure, in their workplace but also at home in their communities that are often burdened and marked as sites for these poisonous industries. We need look no further than the Long Beach ports in Los Angeles to view this reality.
This may all sound scary or bleak. We are after all talking about changing a system, breaking it down brick by brick, wall by wall, and we have a pressing deadline. But fear must catalyze us into action, for the antidote to despair is action. What is so important to recognize is that the environment can serve as a point of coalescence to unite everyone from labor unions, to womyn’s rights’ activists and those fighting racism at home and in the Global South.
A solution is offered by ecosocialism, with some form of a freely-associated labor and a planned economy. It is really the only sort of environmentalism that challenges the economic system that so ravages the earth. To get there we need to build a movement that is highly inclusive and intersectional, and one that openly challenges capitalism, but isn’t alienating in its tactics or jargon. We need cooperative economies rather than exploitative ones but we also need coordination at the global scale. This is a global issue after all.
Let us no longer be alienated individuals facing the prevailing conditions of an unjust world. Let us fight for and declare the independence of womyn and the environment. Let us liberate ourselves from capitalism, the system that privileges the few, prizes relentless growth and endless consumption, all the while destroying the Earth.