What Now? — Reflections from a DC Protester
It was the biggest environmental demonstration in U.S. history. On February 17th tens of thousands, perhaps 35,000 protesters, from all over the country defied the bitter cold (about 28 degrees) and flooded the National Mall in Washington, DC to protest the construction of the massive Keystone XL oil pipeline.
KXL is a highly dangerous, profit-driven project to import crude tar sand oil from Alberta, Canada and transport it to the U.S. gulf coast to be refined and then exported for massive profits. Rather than creating jobs and helping the economy recover, it represents a time bomb, threatening farmlands and working-class communities throughout the whole country with likely oil spills.
The Alberta tar sands contain a trillion barrels of oil, equivalent to the conventional oil reserves of any country except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. However, it is an extremely toxic, carbon-rich form of petroleum. If this huge reservoir of greenhouse gases is released into the atmosphere, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben says it will “run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would bring if not hell, then at least a world with a similar temperature.”
The sea of self-made signs, placards, and banners at the protest in Washington DC showed that the destruction of the environment and climate change are definitely on the minds of ordinary people. Climate change is not just an academic discussion in science magazines anymore. After Hurricane Sandy and growing severe weather patterns, many more people realize climate change affects our day-to-day lives.
350.org founder Bill McKibben claimed that the February 17th protest was the birth of a mass environmental movement in the U.S. It definitely represented a peak of environmental protest. Already in the days before the main day of action, there had been protests, including civil disobedience where 48 activists were arrested. This was the first time the Sierra Club endorsed the idea of civil disobedience in its entire history, a sign that the growing environmental movement is radicalizing. Even the president of the Sierra Club was arrested.
But if this was to become a mass movement, a step socialists support in every way, how can we spread it? How can we make the movement move?
Unfortunately, the organizers of the rally, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, failed to show a way forward. Only the speakers of the First Nations in Canada, who are involved in the Idle No More movement, were authentic in their radical speeches. Most of the others used radical phrases to please the crowd, but not to clarify the next steps the movement should take. For example, Obama’s former Green Jobs Advisor Van Jones spoke at the rally, saying this is "the last minute of the last quarter in the most important game humanity has ever played." But if this is true, then is it really enough to sign petitions, to call for Congressional representatives to vote the right way, and to hope that President Obama will listen to us, and not to his billionaire donors?
We can’t wait for these organizations, who are often closely linked to the Democratic Party, to lead the way. If we want to make this a real mass movement, we need to build it from the ground up. We need to build public meetings, rallies, and civil disobedience in working-class communities, colleges, etc. And we need to recognize that it won’t be Democratic politicians who will lead this movement to victory.
U.S. law requires the president to approve new pipelines crossing the U.S. border, and President Obama is currently leaning toward approving the project. Despite his rhetoric, Obama has only taken a few modest measures to slow the growth of carbon emissions. Any gains, however, have been negated by his opening up of pristine Arctic public lands and water to drilling, his promotion of fossil fuels and fracking, his backing down from supporting major funding for green technologies, and his sabotaging the last two major global climate summits.
Far too often, the Democratic Party has turned out to be the "graveyard of movements," channeling the energy of protest movements like the immigrant rights movement or the labor uprising in Wisconsin into electoral support for their own party, only to betray the movements afterwards. Whereas most of the speakers at the February 17th rally saw their task as strenghtening Obama’s spine, Socialist Alternative called for a more effective strategy in our leaflet:
"Beyond building movements, we also need to pressure the government by supporting independent political candidates. We can’t rely on corporate politicians to do what is necessary. Ultimately they are beholden to the corporations that pay for their election campaigns. So, we need to stop supporting the two parties of Wall Street and instead, run our own independent candidates and support grassroots activists who don’t take any money from corporations!"
Also, if the new environmental movement wants to be successful, there’s no alternative to challenging capitalism as a whole. Even if the KXL Pipeline is stopped, capitalism is destroying the environment every day for profit. Our leaflet, which we distributed almost 3000 copies of, explained:
"We should absolutely fight against continued use of oil, gas, and coal in industries that are obvious – such as transportation and electricity generation. But, in our struggle against the Keystone XL pipeline or the massive coal export terminals proposed for the west coast, we would ultimately fail to stop global warming if we did not acknowledge that our entire global economy is fossil fuel intensive – from the way production is powered to the raw materials used to manufacture products. The first barrier to stopping global warming is the existing fossil fuel-based infrastructure. We must recognize that the global economic system of capitalism is focused on maximizing profits. That means every decision, from what products are made to how those products are manufactured, is based on increasing profits. Billions of dollars were invested in this profit-making infrastructure, and corporations want to continue to capitalize off of that. Transitioning to renewables, in contrast, requires constructing an entirely new infrastructure, finding different raw materials to use, and so on. So, there is no incentive to make a dramatic shift under capitalism."
We also argued that the environmental movement needs to avoid the capitalist ruling elite’s "divide-and-conquer" trap where they try to make us choose between either jobs or the environment, as if we can’t have both. Rather than subsidizing oil, gas, and coal companies with roughly $13 billion a year (Bloomberg Businessweek, 12/3/2012), the government should tax these corporations’ huge profits to fund the creation of millions of union jobs developing mass transit, high-speed rail, a new electric grid, and retrofitting buildings and homes for maximum energy efficiency. Rather than turning our backs on ordinary consumers and workers, the environmental movement needs to build support among the working class and workers‘ organizations, such as the ATU and TWU unions which have come out against the Keystone XL pipeline, and organize solidarity support for workers‘ struggles and help rebuild a fighting labor movement.
Seven Socialist Alternative activists from three different east coast cities intervened in the demonstrations, starting chants like:
cannot be solved by corporations!
That’s bullshit! Get off it!
The enemy is profit!"
Our anti-capitalist ideas were very much welcomed, especially by younger protesters. Many at first refused to take a leaflet, probably thinking it was just more of the same. But when they saw the headline "Fight Climate Change! Fight Capitalism!" many changed their minds and took a leaflet.
This movement has the potential to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline, but it will require building a more powerful mass movement to overcome the resistance of the entrenched profit-driven fossil fuel industry. We can make it politically impossible for President Obama to allow the project to go ahead by organizing massive civil disobedience and linking up with working-class people to demand green union jobs as an alternative to this environmentally disastrous project.