Between Empire and Its Subjects: Why We Need A “No Compromise” Climate Movement

by SCOTT PARKIN

“The people who are running society are the corporate liberals. They want to stabilize, not repress … ‘Corporate liberalism’ meant reforms made by the power elite in the interests of social stability [not] redistribution and social equality.”

–Dick Flacks, Students for a Democratic Society

Almost 50 years ago on Thanksgiving Day 1965, Kentucky State Police carried Ollie “Widow” Combs down the side of her mountain home in eastern Kentucky and locked her up in the local jail. The 61 year old resident of Knott County and her two sons had stood in front of bulldozers tasked with strip-mining their mountain home in defiance of powerful coal operators that controlled the region. It was the Widow Combs’ first run-in with the law and she remarked upon release: “I have never been in trouble. I just want to live my life in my hollow and be left alone.” The image of her eating Thanksgiving dinner behind bars spread like wildfire and became the face of a powerful movement.

University of Massachusetts at Lowell professor Chad Montrie, in his excellent work “A People’s History of Environmentalism,” explains that the Combs family’s blockade and sit-in was part of a grassroots movement begun by the locally based Appalachian Group to Save Land and People (AGSLP) that surfaced in the wake of growing coal extraction in Appalachia. AGSLP and the anti-strip mining movement demanded nothing less than the abolition of strip mining. Furthermore, while their campaign included peaceful legal tactics like petitioning, letters to the editor, education, marches and protests they also included civil disobedience, industrial sabotage, armed defense of Appalachians’ property and other tactics that are viewed as insurrectionary and violent by today’s mainstream environmentalists.

According to Montrie, in states throughout Appalachia, what began as a “radical fringe” turned into a vibrant and powerful movement that escalated the fight to the region’s capitals making serious gains. They went up against the money and influence of the coal industry and eventually the fight escalated to the federal level. In Washington D.C., national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Policy Center at first championed legislation to abolish surface mining. But then initially in secret, and then later openly, they compromised for weaker regulatory solutions to the coal industry’s war against Appalachia. During the 1970s, the anti-strip mining movement’s momentum was co-opted for political gain while degrading the movement’s demands from abolition to weakened regulation that became a piece of legislation known as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Action (SMCRA).

A disheartened Congressman from West Virginia named Ken Hechler wrote in a letter to activists at the time: “My people in West Virginia and throughout the nation are getting more and more cynical about compromising politicians, Washington environmental groups who settle for the lowest common denominator, and those that who enjoy the transient glory of winning a few commas or semi-colons while the people and the land continue to be exploited and destroyed.”

Ultimately, SMCRA legalized mountaintop removal coal mining and other forms of surface mining. Since then, mountaintop removal has destroyed over 500 mountains, buried thousands of miles of Appalachian streams and rivers with debris from the practice, and polluted and poisoned communities throughout central Appalachia with exploding mountains and waste from mining operations.

The Clock is Ticking

Fast forward to 2014, the crisis surrounding the fossil fuel industry’s exploitation and destruction of the earth has only worsened.

According to climate scientists, April, 2014 became the first month that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million further pushing us towards a climate catastrophe that includes floods, droughts, mega-storms and greater social and economic inequity. Another recent report states that the earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past forty years due to unsustainable killing for food practices and habitat destruction. Studies have also found that people living near mountaintop removal mine sites are twice more than likely to suffer from cancer than people from other parts of Appalachia. Furthermore, mountaintop removal has been linked to high rates of birth defects. Other recent scientific reports are telling us that the natural gas extractive process known as “fracking” is not only detrimental todrinking water sources and public health, but also has a bigger carbon footprint than earlier reported by industry, politicians and former Sierra Club director Carl Pope.

The most recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in November, tells us that climate change is set to inflict “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” on the natural world and the populations inhabiting it. Furthermore, the report ties rising food and water prices, economic volatility and global poverty to global warming. They also state that emissions, largely from the burning of oil, coal and gas, is increasing and not decreasing as reported in some sectors.

The only solution offered by the UNIPCC is the reduction of carbon emissions to zero on an expeditious timeline.

In the midst of these dire reports, the United Nations is convening the twentieth conference of parties (COP20) in the South American metropolis of Lima, Peru. COP20’s goal is to attempt to develop a draft agreement on emissions cuts. Thousands of diplomats, corporate lobbyists and activists are expected to gather and produce a working agreement. Once a draft is written, the agreement would be carried through to 2015 at COP21 in Paris where it’d be finalized.

Observers have been encouraged by the recent agreement by the governments of the United States and China committing to act on climate. But many also feel the commitments are too little and too late to prevent a 3.6 degree global temperature rise and avert the worst effects of climate chaos.

No Compromise in Defense a Just and Stable Climate

Despite the bleak scientific outlook, movements for action and justice on climate change and the environment are growing in size and militancy. Following in the footsteps of the Widow Combs and AGSLP, the past few years across North America have seen edgier actions that have created a crisis for the coal, oil and gas industries and as veteran street organizer Lisa Fithian once said “crisis is the leading edge where change is possible.” A grassroots rebellion around tar sands pipelines, fracking and coal exports has spread like wildfire throughout the continent and takes an uncompromising position in defense of communities, eco-systems and the climate.

Every week, we see more actions against the fossil fuel infrastructure. This summer, anti-tar sands activists camped out on the eastern plateau of Utah. They deployed regular disruption of the first ever tar sands mine in the United States, despite daily police harassment. In the Pacific Northwest, bold and effective organizing has begun actions designed to disrupt fossil infrastructure from oil and coal trains to huge trucks carrying tar sands processing equipment to export terminal construction. This summer and fall in Vermont and Maryland, anti-fracking activists have teamed up with local residents to resist new gas pipeline and export infrastructure. On Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia, First Nations, environmentalists and local residents have faced down lawsuits and a heightened police state to blockade construction on a Kinder Morgan tar sands pipeline.

In September, in the wake of the People’s Climate March in New York City, three thousand climate activists flooded and occupied New York’s financial district. Flood Wall Street making connections between capitalism and the climate crisis.

In South Dakota, the Rosebud Sioux have decreed that if the northern leg of Keystone XL pipeline crosses into their traditional territory, it will be an “act of war.” Furthermore, climate activists around the continent are preparing to respond to a possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Concurrent with negotiations inside COP20, a strong social movement contingent is expected to manifest in the streets of Lima in the coming days. Organized through the Caravana Climatica and the People’s Climate Summit, it will bring together a coalition of workers, students, environmentalists, Indigenous peoples and anti-capitalists to demanding “no compromise” to an official process controlled and dominated by corporate interests.

Veteran street organizer David Solnit recently linked anti corporate globalization and climate justice movements when reflecting on the 15th anniversary of the WTO protest in Seattle: “like corporate globalization, climate and related ecological crisis affects everyone, everywhere, so gives us an amazing opportunity to organize across the many things that keep us divided and ruled. The challenge is to define the climate crisis deeply in a way that understands that it is rooted in an economic and political system that is hardwired to be anti-democratic and exploit the earth and people for profit.”

All of this bold and effective organizing in the climate movements has created a crisis in the boardrooms of North America’s oil, gas and coal companies. As Naomi Klein explains in her book, This Changes Everything, the capitalist economic model is hardwired to exist only at the cost of the climate, the people and our wild places. Industry’s bottom line is derived from draining the earth of its natural resources and converting them into energy for a profit. Activists from British Columbia to Utah to Vermont and Maryland fighting back and saying “Not One More Step” against fossil fuel expansion embody a wrench in the gears to that economic model.

Between Empire and It’s Subjects

But, as with the anti-strip mining movement, the political system is designed to either contain or divert social movements’ energy and momentum. Hence, the climate movements’ future is fraught with peril from both enemies and purported friends alike. Two strategies widely used by the wealthy elite in stopping movements for real change are force and repression by the police state; and the sanctioning of liberal institutions to be a moderating voice when the masses are rattling the palace walls.

Suppression of social and environmental movements by police agencies is not a new thing. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began in 1908 as a counter to radical anarchist and labor groups and has continued that long tradition into the modern era. Every police department in the U.S. has been militarized and trained to contain social unrest. The North American direct action movement against the extraction of oil, coal and natural gas has become a beautiful and powerful thing. This broad-based climate justice movement has organized effective campaigns against the fossil fuel industry. Therefore, it’s only natural the government wants to crack down and stop it before it grows too strong and threatens to shut it down.

The more insidious technique used by the elites is the legitimization of liberal institutions (in this case the environmental establishment headquartered in Washington D.C. and San Francisco) that uses co-optation and moderation to defuse real resistance to the corporations fueling the climate crisis.

Author and activist Arunduti Roy said of these liberal institutions, or the non-profit complex (NGOs): “NGOs alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt political resistance. NGOs form a buffer between the sarkar and public. Between empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.”

The Beltway based green groups adhere to a politic of compromise; which in fact depoliticizes real resistance by co-opting its momentum and isolating everyone from the Widow Combs to the new anti-extraction movement as a marginalized radical fringe. Its goal is to turn confrontation into a negotiation that they cannot win because they aren’t invested in building an alternative sustained power base. In reality, they achieve an ultimate goal of protecting the existing political order by setting movements up for failure.

Former Sierra Club director and founder of Earth Island institute David Brower once commented on the environmental establishment’s fondness for compromise with “polite conservationists leave no mark save the scars upon the Earth that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”

Furthermore, a systemic critique is all but lost on these groups. Naomi Klein, in an interview with the Earth Island Journal, called the denialism around the failures of neo-liberal capitalism to counter the climate crisis within the Beltway green group much more dangerous than climate denial perpetrated by right think tanks and oil companies. Groups like Flood Wall Street, Rising Tide North America, and the Climate Justice Alliance all have incorporated these critiques into their organizing and communications, yet the mainstream environmental groups continue on the same trajectory a failed economic and political system.

Journalist and opinion-maker Chris Hedges takes the analysis once step further by noting that corporatized green groups like Environmental Defense and the Climate Group have taken a page from the Clintionian political playbook. They’ve attempted to triangulate the grassroots climate movement by “partnering” with big corporations and playing the rational voice against radical (or even not so radical) margins. Not surprisingly, these organizations also are funded by the same companies investing in, or directly contributing to the climate crisis.

To be clear, the only silver bullet solution to the climate crisis is keeping carbon in the ground. Yet, the planet is still boiling over and the focus continues to be on participating in the unending political gridlock both nationally and internationally. As in the 1970s with the Widow Combs and AGSLP, the big environmental groups have moved to protect their interests. But, the grassroots climate and environmental movements are obviously mobilized for a fight against the pipelines, export terminals and drilling operations across the continent. The arguments have been made about the impacts of extraction and emissions.

In a post-Occupy Wall Street reality, movements making radical demands outside what had been acceptable amongst the established opposition has been a dynamic shift for left movements. In the labor movement, we’ve seen a shift towards the left with campaigns against Wal-Mart and the fast food industry demanding higher wages, benefits and better working conditions. In a fierce new civil rights movement, activists seek to disrupt business as usual in the aftermath of the police murder of Michael Brown and violent crackdowns in Ferguson.

Now is the time, for anti-establishment climate movements to take its message of “No Compromise” to the streets, the corporate offices and, if need be, to the offices of the Big Greens.

Scott Parkin is a climate organizer working with Rising Tide North America. You can follow him on Twitter at @sparki1969