From Occupy to Climate Justice
In the face of our climate reality, Farhad told me back in Boston, “economic transition is inevitable.” In Appalachia, as coal declines, it’s already happening. The question is: “Will the transition be just or not?”
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, he noted, is part of the recently formed Climate Justice Alliance, a national collaborative effort among more than thirty-five organizations committed to grassroots organizing in frontline communities, especially communities of color. Its recently launched Our Power Campaign focuses on three “hot spots”: in the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation, led by the Black Mesa Water Coalition; in Detroit, led by the East Michigan Environmental Action Council; and in Richmond, California, led by the Asian Pacific Environmental Network and Communities for a Better Environment. Each of these groups is not only fighting the local impacts of fossil-fuel extraction and infrastructure—coal mines and power plants in Arizona, a coal plant and oil refinery in Detroit, and the massive Chevron refinery in Richmond—but just as much, applying principles of economic democracy to work toward more sustainable and resilient local economies in struggling communities.
Jihan Gearon, executive director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, grew up on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. She told me that their approach to climate is “holistic,” addressing not only emissions as they move away from coal but also adaptation—especially as water becomes scarce—and economic transition. “We are not content with parts per million of CO2 reduced,” she said. “We also want to ensure that we protect health, water and jobs as we reduce CO2.”
In any likely scenario, Farhad asked, “what are we going to need, no matter what? Local political power and local resilience.” We won’t get where we need to be politically on climate change, at the national and international levels, “without real local base-building,” he added. And if we don’t get anywhere at the national and international levels, “well, then, we’re going to need the local work in place so that we can take care of each other as the old way of doing things slips away.”
Farhad and Rachel both like to think of this work as having three essential pieces. The first is resistance: saying “no” to a corrupt, oppressive, extractive system, whether through legislation and litigation, at one end of the spectrum, and nonviolent direct action or mass protests at the other. The second is “replacement”: creating the alternatives, which can itself be a form of resistance, as Rachel noted. And the third essential piece is resilience.
“So we’re trying to go from ‘no’ to ‘yes,’” Farhad said, “but it’s gonna be a really fuckin’ rough ride. It’s gonna be a rough ride because of climate change. But it’s also gonna be a rough ride politically and economically.”
Resilience becomes crucial, but so does social justice, because the two are intimately linked. Resilience requires strong communities—and there’s no real community without social justice.
“We have this journey, this transition, that we have to make,” Farhad told me. “And we have to figure out how to organize so that we’re not only going toward ‘yes,’ but we’re doing it in a way that’s equitable.” Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, he pointed out, is important right now because of how it intervenes in Kentucky politics, organizes communities and fights the big coal companies. “And when the climate changes and what grows there changes and how they can live there changes—they’re going to need that ability to act collectively to deal with all of that as well.”
Farhad thought of another example. “Occupy Sandy happened not because people responded to Sandy really well; it was because the relationships and tool sets were already built through Occupy Wall Street.”
David Graeber argues in The Democracy Project that Occupy reawakened the radical imagination in this country. To the extent that’s true, it’s possible that the merging of climate justice and economic democracy can matter in a similar way—reawakening the sense of democratic possibility and grassroots power in our communities. But Occupy did something else, too: it reminded us of the sheer speed and unpredictability with which unrest can explode across the country, taking everyone (including the organizers) by surprise.
In Cambridge, I asked Rachel if she agreed that much of the economic left has yet to take on board the full magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis. “I mean, the climate movement has barely taken it on board,” she replied. “There are a lot of folks, even in the climate movement, and certainly in the economic left, who haven’t even made the decision to take on the reality of it—and to recognize that this fight, [which] for them was never really about survival, all of a sudden is.”
When that recognition finally comes, anything could happen.
“It’s interesting,” Rachel said, “because there certainly are parts of the left, not the liberal elite, but parts of the left”—like those, she pointed out, who have fought their whole lives for racial justice—“for whom being engaged has always been about survival.”
“There is a deep, rich tradition of organizing for survival,” Rachel said. “In fact, it’s the only thing that’s ever worked.”
Read Next: Wen Stephenson: “Keystone XL and Tar Sands: Voices From the Front Lines”