by Scott Parkin
A version of this essay was originally published on Counter Punch.
“You can’t hate the roots of a tree and not hate the tree.”
― Malcolm X
Somewhere between the Bay Area’s environmental non-profit bubble and multi-million climate march planning in New York City, 21 people in the Utah desert took action to shut down the first tar sands mine in the United States.
They’d been part of a larger encampment on the eastern plateau, where local organizers educated over 80 student climate activists about the Utah tar sands as well as trainings on organizing, direct action and anti-oppression. Utah tar sands fighters have spent the summer living in the area as a constant protest against Canadian-based company U.S. Oil Sands’ extraction efforts on the plateau. Every night, black bears raided the camp looking for food and every day local and state police agencies harassed the camp with veiled threats and innuendo derived through Facebook stalking. Despite the harassment and surveillance by the state, actions happen. This particular arrest action gained lots of national media attention and a number of larger environmental organizations put out statements of support of the activists. It also included a number of escalated felony charges on some of the activists.
Utah tar sands fighters living on the ground on the plateau, in Moab and in Salt Lake City live and breathe the campaign against the Utah Tar Sands. They strategize and organize it the same way that Appalachian mountain defenders organize the struggle against mountaintop removal coal mining. They live it the same way that the Tar Sands Blockade lived the campaign against the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in east Texas and Oklahoma. In all of these campaigns, it’s been an alliance of unpaid radical organizers working with local landowners and community members fighting to save homes, forests, water supplies and more. Furthermore, these campaigns have defined risk and sacrifice.
In Appalachia, after numerous actions on strip mine sites, coal companies filed lawsuits against those participating in civil disobedience actions. West Virginia law enforcement imposed huge bails to further deter actions on mine sites. In Texas, TransCanada sued numerous individuals and three grassroots organizations for over $20 million after the same sort of action. The Canadian oil giant also compiled dossiers on noted organizers and briefed local and federal law enforcement agencies with possible crimes and charges for stopping work on its work sites. Texas law enforcement obliged TransCanada’s hard work with felony charges and violent brutalization of peaceful protestors.
In each of these campaigns, bold and effective organizing against oil, gas and coal companies has created moments to stop egregious practices and projects at the points of destruction only to be abandoned or ignored by the larger environmental establishment. In the wake of that abandonment, hundreds of Appalachian Mountains have been leveled while oil flows through the Keystone XL pipeline from Cushing, OK to the Gulf Coast, and ground is now broken on the first tar sands mine in the United States.
The liberal reform agenda of the environmental establishment continues to dominate the climate movement. Organizations sitting on millions of dollars in resources and thousands of staff are now engaged in a massive “Get Out The Vote” style operation to turn out tens of thousands to marches before the September 23rd United Nations’ Climate Summit in New York. Their hope is to impact the summit framed as U.N. Secretary General Bai-Ki Moon’s dialogue with global politicians on climate change in the lead up to the 2015 climate talks. Civil society’s demands include passing meaningful climate legislation and signing binding agreements on carbon regulation.
History continues to repeat itself as the environmental establishment had similar demands in Copenhagen at the 2009 climate talks. After spending millions of their donors’ dollars and thousands of hours of staff time, successes included an email campaign that got President Obama to travel to Denmark and personally witness the failure of those climate talks. Almost simultaneously, legislation to regulate carbon emissions failed in the U.S. Congress as well. After outspending the climate liberals 10 to 1, the political will of Big Oil and Big Coal remained unbreakable. Meanwhile, these same companies continue to drill, mine, frack, pollute, poison, build pipelines and burn coal in neighborhoods and communities from coast to coast.
However, there is recent precedent for movements to effectively confront power-holders that moves beyond traditional liberal solutions of compromise and polite advocacy with grassroots organizing, direct action and meaningful solidarity with communities seeking clean and just solutions to pollution and exploitation.
In 1999, the North American anti-corporate globalization movement partnered with peoples’ movements in the Global South to literally end business as usual at the World Trade Organization (WTO) talks in Seattle. A grassroots spirit dedicated in solidarity with anti-austerity, human rights and environmental movements around the world spread like wildfire. Rooted in direct action, direct democracy and anti-capitalism of movements both in the U.S. and abroad, the global justice movement had been built over decades to stop the privatization of labor, environmental and human rights protections across the globe. The Seattle shutdown happened in defiance of Democratic politicians, Big Labor and other large organizations dedicated to reaching agreements with Corporate America in the WTO talks.
In 2011, after decades of pickets and strikes, of budget cuts, layoffs and evictions, the movement for economic justice in the United States rose to a new level as Occupy Wall Street began to occupy parks and public spaces across the nation. This happened after decades of politicians creating policies that benefited the rich and powerful while harming poor and working people. These occupations against the power of the “1%” created such a dramatic tension that the Dept. of Homeland Security coordinated a massive crackdown that ended many Occupy camps.
Throughout the Global South, they fight back against the polluters and the profiteers as well. In states across India, residents living near coal plants regularly engage in direct action and street fighting against authorities defending the right of corporations to poison their communities. In China’s Hainan and Guandong provinces, tens of thousands have taken to the streets in resistance to coal polluting their air and water. In 2011, Bolivia passed the rights of mother earth into law in defiance of companies in western democracies profiting from destroying the planet for financial gains.
While the liberal climate agenda is rooted in compromise with policy-makers and playing nice with corporations, a radical climate agenda must take the small disparate pieces of the existing climate movement and grow them exponentially to become a fierce counterbalance to the fossil fuel industry. It must include strategies that create an environment so toxic for the climate pollution industry, its executives, its politicians and the financial institutions that back them that business as usual becomes impossible.
Furthermore, this agenda must be rooted in principles of justice and ecological sanity as well. Lastly, it must be willing to take risks, do jail time and say what doesn’t want to be heard by friends and enemies alike.
People are hungry to do more than send emails to President Obama asking him, once again, to do the right thing or march in a permitted march. Real change won’t come from professional activists rooted in the existing political and economic system; it’ll come from a mobilization of people willing to engage in risk and sacrifice.
Scott Parkin is a climate organizer working with Rising Tide North America. You can follow him on Twitter at @sparki1969