From Occupy to Climate Justice
I don’t know anyone who has all the answers, but I do know a few people who are at least asking the right kinds of questions, starting the necessary conversations and actually working to connect climate and economic-justice organizing across the country. As it happens, more than a few of them were engaged in Occupy. (David Graeber should be proud.) They point to a convergence of movements for economic democracy and climate justice, and show us what a trajectory from Occupy to something new—call it climate democracy—might look like.
Equally important, they’re acting with the kind of urgency, and commitment to civil resistance, that the crisis demands. They know there can be no climate justice without economic justice, but they also know there won’t be any economic justice—any justice at all—without facing up to our climate reality, simultaneously slashing emissions and building resilience. They know the “climate” part of “climate justice” cannot be an afterthought, some optional add-on to please “environmentalists.” Because this shit is real. And the game is far from over. No matter what happens in terms of climate policy in the next few years—and the prospects are not pretty—current and future generations have to live through what’s coming.
* * *
Rachel Plattus was speaking to a roomful of college students and recent grads at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, where they’d gathered for a weekend in late October along with some 8,000 other young activists at Power Shift, the biannual national convergence of the youth climate movement. Rachel is the 26-year-old director of youth and student organizing for the New Economy Coalition, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. By her side was 35-year-old Farhad Ebrahimi, who serves on the NEC board and who founded and runs the Boston-based Chorus Foundation, which supports grassroots climate and environmental-justice organizing in communities around the country.
I know Rachel and Farhad from the Boston-area climate movement, and I was tagging along with them and their colleagues at Power Shift. It was strange to see the two of them in front of a room at a high-tech convention center; in the past year I’ve been more apt to see them in church basements and community-organizing spaces, leading nonviolent direct-action trainings, or on the streets leading protests against tar sands pipelines and coal-fired power plants.
“I met Farhad at Occupy Boston,” Rachel told the hundred or so young people who’d come to hear about the intersection of climate and economic justice (a strong showing, given the dozens of concurrent breakout sessions offered at Power Shift). “We spent a lot of time there a couple years ago, and it was a transformative experience for a lot of us.”
Two important things came out of her Occupy experience, Rachel explained. First, she and several friends who had been “radicalized on climate issues,” including Farhad and her NEC colleague Eli Feghali (who was also in the room), decided to form an organizing collective “to do resistance work around climate justice.” At the same time, she began thinking seriously about the central question raised by Occupy but never really answered: “If you’re so angry at this system, if all the people here have been wronged by the system, what are you proposing that we do instead?” While she and her friends wanted to keep organizing resistance, she said, “I found myself looking for a way to have an answer to ‘What do you want instead?’” She dove into the worker-ownership movement in Boston and tried unsuccessfully to start a worker co-op with some friends.
It was around this time, in late 2011 and early 2012, that she started talking with Bob Massie, a longtime social-justice and environmental activist, ordained Episcopal priest with a doctorate from Harvard Business School and, among other things, the initiator of the Investor Network on Climate Risk. Massie had recently been hired to head the New Economics Institute, which merged early last year with the New Economy Network to form the NEC. Rachel began to realize, she told her Power Shift listeners, that the kind of work going on in the “new economy” or “solidarity economy” movement—with things like cooperatives and worker-owned businesses, community-development financial institutions, community land trusts, local agriculture and community-owned renewable energy, as well as efforts to reconceive corporations and redefine economic growth—is challenging the dominant and unsustainable corporate capitalist system. And not simply rejecting that system, she emphasizes, but “creating new economic institutions that are democratic and participatory, decentralized to appropriate scale so that decisions are made at the most local level that makes sense and, rather than only prioritizing one thing—the maximization of profit—prioritizing people, place and planet.”
“New-economy innovations are occurring all over the country, bubbling up,” Massie told me. “What they lack is mutual awareness, mutual support and mutual connectivity.” There’s potential for real transformation, he believes, in providing those connections. “As people become aware of each other, their frame of reference about what’s happening, and what could happen, changes. They realize all these problems are linked—but all these solutions may also be linked.” He points to what happened recently in Boulder, Colorado, where voters approved a grassroots energy initiative, by a two-thirds landslide, to move the city from a big, corporate, coal-dominated utility, Xcel Energy, to a publicly owned municipal utility that will expand renewables at the same or lower rates.