The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

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NOV 2014 Issue
Field Notes

#FloodWallStreet Climate Activists: It’s Capitalism, Stupid!

“We are unstoppable, another world is possible.” “The people united will never be defeated.” “This is what democracy looks like.” The populist chants rang through Manhattan’s Financial District in a scene that is becoming familiar in our post-recession world of mass economic deprivation and uncertainty. A couple thousand activists, united by concern about corporate-driven climate change, effectively shut down Broadway between Morris Street and Rector Street for over eight hours, unfurling a 300-foot banner that named the reason for their arrival: “Capitalism=Climate Chaos.” The message amounted to nothing less than a direct challenge to the core authoritative institutions of our society: an economic status quo empowered by the political establishment and explained to us through the filter of the corporate-owned press. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Department of Homeland Security was never far away. Its vehicles lined the sidewalk between the National Museum of the American Indian and Bowling Green Park. Their presence appeared as a stark reminder of the official interpretation of security in these times of mass economic insecurity.

Photo by Arianna Skibell.

If viewed alone, or only within the context of environmental activism, an anti-capitalist protest might not make much sense to an American audience. A festive crowd shutting down a main thoroughfare of the business district in the U.S.’s largest city, dancing at times to catchy tunes accompanied by matter-of-fact lyrics—“Flood Wall St., shut it down, New York is a peoples’ town”—courtesy of Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a self-described “radical marching band and dance troupe,” doesn’t fit neatly within our mainstream media narrative driven by political speeches, corporate earnings reports, and ubiquitous foreign policy crises and wars.

The anti-capitalist rhetoric comes into focus if we think of it more broadly as a rejection of the political and economic status quo defined for many Americans by some combination of unemployment, underemployment, home foreclosure, student debt, wage theft, disappearing public pensions, and decades of skyrocketing prices of basic essential goods like education and medical care. If the protest is understood as part of burgeoning popular discontent with the political and economic forces that determine most parts of most Americans’ lives, we can see these climate activists as related to Walmart and fast-food workers on picket lines, Chicago teachers on strike, community-based organizations physically resisting foreclosure of their neighbors’ homes, grassroots organizations raising money to buy and forgive consumer and student debt, activist occupations of public spaces, and even, perhaps, Tea Party demonstrators yearning for long-lost, simpler times (before they were co-opted by the political party fundraising establishment). In the seemingly never-ending aftermath of the global economic recession, similar protests, fueled by popular anger about unrepresentative politics and economics, continue to break out sporadically virtually around the world—right now, most notably, in Hong Kong.

The #FloodWallStreet protesters assembled one day after 400,000 people filled Midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March, the largest environmental march in history. While the March drew impressive numbers to a route pre-approved by the police, it didn’t define the “action’” on climate change it sought. Nor did it make a direct call for social change, either through civil disobedience, articulation of specific political demands, or even speakers who might have helped the marchers understand the forces that had brought them there.

In contrast, the #FloodWallStreet activists assembled to answer the Climate Justice Alliance’s call for direct action during the week of the UN Climate Summit. (The Climate Justice Alliance is a U.S.-based collaborative of over 35 grassroots organizations from low-income communities and communities of color.) The event’s organizers—a loose confederation of 20 or so activists devoted to social causes ranging from food justice, housing justice, and climate change to labor advocacy and ending stop-and-frisk policing—hoped that civil disobedience in the Financial District could symbolically connect climate change to the broader economy that profits from it. “[The People’s Climate March] was going to be a march that is family friendly, which is great, but [it] was going to lack teeth and there was going to be this moment of opportunity to escalate a bit, to push the envelope a bit,” explained Sandy Nurse, one of the organizers of the event and a social activist who founded BK ROT, a compost-collection service run primarily by local youth operating in Bushwick, north-Bed-Stuy, East Williamsburg, and Ridgewood. “A bunch of us got together to think about what that looks like, to ask what we should be calling for. It became a weekly meeting where we were trying to think about what kind of actions would draw connections between the climate and capitalism that the march wouldn’t really do. We wanted a mass, collective action that signified something, rather than a cat-and-mouse game with the NYPD.”

The organizers sought to connect climate change to the economy by highlighting voices from front-line communities—groups directly affected by the corporate-controlled energy industry, from those whose groundwater has been polluted by fracking wells across the country or mountaintop removal in West Virginia to communities put at risk by new oil pipelines that will one day spill to coastal communities that will bear the brunt of sea level rises made inevitable by carbon emissions. While the People’s Climate March had also emphasized the participation of front-line communities, #FloodWallStreet provided a platform for front-line stories. The activists who spoke in Battery Park came from a wide range of countries that included Mali, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Honduras, Nepal, and the Philippines.

Ta’kaiya Blaney, a 13-year-old environmental activist from the Sliammon First Nation in British Columbia, Canada, told the crowd of the “devastating industrial attacks” that cause “toxic tailing sludge [to spill] into our tributary rivers, our lakes, and two of the world’s largest salmon runs.” Mamadou Goita, an African socio-economist currently serving as the Director of the Institute for Research and the Promotion of Alternatives and Development in Mali, explained: “My continent is a typical example of criminal acts caused by corporations. Climate change is already causing damages in [the] lives of people. It is causing major losses in food production, but still these corporations are making money.”

Elisa Estronioli, a member of Brazil’s Movement of People Affected by Dams, explicitly confronted the contradiction of current capitalist energy production. Estronioli comes from a community in the Amazon affected by the Belo Monte Dam, which is currently being built by the corporate energy conglomerate Norte Energia. Forty thousand members of her community will be affected by the dam, meaning they will either lose their land along the Xingu River, have their fishing livelihood disrupted, or will otherwise be separated from their social community. Norte Energia will not compensate most landowners, unless, in accordance with Brazilian law, the company itself recognizes them as the legal owner of the expropriated land—a clear conflict of interest that all but assures many of the people previously living on confiscated land will be left uncompensated. Estronioli argued for the inclusion of the social costs of energy production in any consideration of the “clean” nature of an energy source, asking, “When governments and companies present hydroelectric energy as a solution to global warming, since they see this as a clean energy, we ask: how can it be clean inside a model that violates human rights, destroys entire communities, leaves many families in poverty, brings violence to populations, and destroys nature?” She then challenged the crowd to confront a series of questions about the logic of international energy production: “We ask: energy is produced for what? Energy is not a common good, but a commodity. We ask: energy is produced for whom? It’s for the transnationals that control the whole world. We ask: Who pays the bill? [Is it] the workers who receive low wages, [who] are displaced from their lands, [who] lose their right to the rivers, [who] do not have access to energy, [and who] are paying very high bills? In every corner of the world, we are victims of the same global model in which energy plays a central role. There is no clean energy in a capitalist system.”

Following the program, Clayton Thomas-Mueller, a member of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, Canada, explained to me the impact of tar sands development on indigenous communities in Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada, which is located downstream from significant tar sands mining sites Thomas-Mueller described the cancer clusters that have taken root in the indigenous communities, labeling them evidence of “environmental racism,” that, if extrapolated to large population centers, “would have tens, if not hundreds, of square blocks of citizens dying from cancer.” He relished the opportunity to share his experience with what he sees as an ignorant, though potentially well-intentioned, American population. Describing the direct action as a “teaching moment,” Thomas-Mueller explained, “Particularly here, in the belly of the beast, the United States of America, people have a really hard time talking about the ‘c’ word. So our objective here today is to help Americans get over their inability to even say ‘capitalism.’”

The hard-to-define term “capitalism” functioned at the event as a buzzword for the political and economic status quo. Protesters did not clarify its meaning through contrast with an opposing term—like, say, “socialism.” Instead, a shared feeling that the status quo—no matter what it is called—does not work for huge portions of the population drove the criticism of “capitalism.”

For many, today’s economic experience makes a mockery of our collective conception of ourselves as a middle class—or, better yet, classless—society. Right now, we are stuck with mind-boggling inequality. The most recent analysis finds the top one percent of U.S. wealth holders have 39.8 percent of the country’s individual wealth. The top 10 percent have 74.4 percent, which leaves 25.6 percent for the bottom 90 percent. The top .1 percent own 21.5 percent of the national wealth, while the top .01 percent—just over 31,000 people out of a national population of just over 316 million—own 11.1 percent. And the top one percent of income earners has taken home over 95 percent of post-recession gains in income. One recent report, titled, “The Low-Wage Recovery and Growing Inequality,” explains that lower-wage jobs constituted 21 percent of recession job losses but represent 58 percent of post-recession employment growth. Reports of job growth in the mainstream press—in May, the economy finally recovered the 8.7 million jobs lost during the recession—rarely mention the post-recession structural shift toward low-wage employment, a symptom of the American workforce’s weakened bargaining position that corporate employers have expertly exploited. A recent report found over 50 percent of non-managerial fast-food workers earn poverty wages so low they are on welfare, leaving taxpayers paying what amounts to a $7 billion annual subsidy to the industry. The industry has managed to privatize its profits while socializing its costs, a development aptly described as “corporate welfare” or “corporate socialism.”

Meanwhile, campaign finance rules have always cast doubt on the idea of U.S. political democracy, as shown by the history of constant legislation on the subject—major disclosure laws were passed in 1910, 1935, 1943, 1971, 1974, and 2002. The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon vs. Federal Elections Committee struck down “the appearance of corruption” as a legitimate form of campaign finance corruption, a distinction that surely could come in handy about now. In a political system dominated by SuperPACs and corporate lobbyists, the majority of Americans, without money to even pay down their consumer debt, are rendered politically invisible. Accordingly, when politicians seek to cut spending, they look to individual welfare, not corporate welfare. Corporations are encouraged to feast on the public treasury that is systematically denied to the rest of us.

The logic of the political and economic status quo also applies directly to climate change because the politicians and corporations who got us to the brink of catastrophe are the very same actors that the People’s Climate March hoped to spur to action. Even though corporations have caused the climate crisis—90 corporations are responsible for two-thirds of all historical carbon emissions—they stand to manage and profit from policy responses to the climate crisis. The preferred climate reforms are best represented by the feature event of the UN summit: the Private Sector Forum, which brought corporate executives together to discuss a global cap-and-trade program. The policymakers are apparently unmoved by the fact that cap-and-trade programs have been implemented before but have never worked. Though the European Union launched a cap-and-trade program in 2005, the price of carbon has actually decreased even with the introduction of permits that are supposed to put a market price on pollution.

Photo by Arianna Skibell.

Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, argues that capitalism is essentially incapable of addressing climate change because its logic of short-term profit demands endless growth. The need to reduce carbon emissions requires a reduced-growth, or even zero- or negative-growth, strategy. Philip Mirowski, a professor of economics and policy studies at Notre Dame and author of Never Let a Serious Crisis Go To Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown, has taken the argument even further in past years. He argues the corporate response to climate change is threefold: first, short-term denialism that can buy time for the two later components; second, designed-to-fail carbon emissions abatement schemes in the medium term, like cap-and-trade; third, long-term entrepreneurial attempts from commercialized scientists to geo-engineer the planet and “solve” the carbon problem.

The approach would allow the corporate class to have its cake and eat it too; it can profit from carbon reserves still in the ground, which are roughly valued at $10 trillion, while also creating and profiting from new markets of high-tech climate saving technology meant to address the environmental costs of burning all of that carbon. This context explains why Rex Tillerson, C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, could state, “What good is it to save humanity if profits suffer? [...] We (humans) have spent our entire history adapting. So we will adapt to this. It’s an engineering problem, and it has engineering solutions.” It is for the same reason that solutions like space mirrors that reflect sunlight, enhancing Earth’s albedo to increase atmospheric reflective capability, scrubbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and “seeding” the ocean to produce more carbon-absorbing algae are discussed before simpler solutions like widespread, decentralized dispersion of solar panels and wind turbines connected by smart grids with enhanced energy-storage capabilities.

Yotam Marom—the founder and director of the Wildfire Project, and one of the main facilitators of the planning for #FloodWallStreet—pointed toward the Our Power Campaign, developed by the Climate Justice Alliance in conjunction with the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and the Movement Generation, as the type of climate plan required. (The Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and the Movement Generation are two U.S.-based environmental justice campaigns based in low-income communities and communities of color.) The campaign’s goal is a transition to an energy economy built upon democratic decision-making, local control of energy resources, and community well-being. For example, in 2001 Navajo and Hopi people in Black Mesa, Arizona began the Black Mesa Water Coalition to evict from their native lands two Peabody Coal Company Mines: the Black Mesa Mine—which has depleted and contaminated the community’s aquifer, its lone drinkable water source—and the Kayenta Mine. The group successfully shut down the Black Mesa Mine, and the Mojave Generation Station that received its coal. It plans to establish a solar manufacturing facility on the abandoned mine land that the community will own collectively. The plan for the local living economies is built around six objectives: 1) Clean community energy—including solar, wind, and micro-hydro energy—on decentralized distribution grids; 2) Local farming meant to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizers and vastly diminish transportation emissions; 3) Zero waste through comprehensive recycling and compost programs; 4) Extensive public transportation developments running on clean energy; 5) Efficient, affordable, and durable housing that will simultaneously lessen household energy demand and make housing structures more resilient to extreme weather; 6) Ecosystem restoration.

#FloodWallStreet organizers are not interested in climate solutions that conform to the logic of extreme profits for a few and complete dependence for many. Instead, the #FloodWallStreet activists protested not only governmental and corporate inaction on climate change but also the solutions currently being proposed. Given the political status quo that privileges an economic elite, many of the people worst affected by the carbon energy paradigm face being completely left out of the prosperity promised by investment in a renewable energy economy. Chris Hedges, in his short address to the crowd at Battery Park, captured the obstacles facing the economic unprivileged crowded out by the logic of the political-economic status quo: “Up that road,” Hedges bellowed, “lies the emerald city of Wall Street. In that city the wizards of finance profit from the death of the planet. The wizards own the press, the courts, the politicians, and the government. No one will stop them but the people. We are the people. This means revolution.”

The populist angst of the protesters—and Hedges—was directed against a political and economic power structure, represented by the term “capitalism,” that has demonstrated time and time again it does not work for them. After such long-term blatant disregard—like during 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath—hopelessness must set in. President Obama, widely identified as a liberal, campaigned on a green energy platform before opting for an “all of the above” energy strategy that could just as easily lend itself to the development of future high-tech markets promising to reverse climate change by imposing humanity’s will even further upon the climate. President Obama did, after all, recently make public a $7 billion pledge for a corporate-dominated Power Africa initiative, a plan to expand energy access throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Deciding between President Obama’s Democrats and a Republican Party not willing to even acknowledge the existence of a climate crisis, there is no place for disaffected Americans like those who filled the New York City streets in a political establishment where the two-party fundraising monopoly cannot be challenged. Taking to the streets becomes their only chance to be heard. They will have to return.


Geoff Gilbert

Geoff Gilbert's writing focuses on the low-wage economy, poverty, and social movements. It has been published by the Indypendent. Follow him on twitter @geoff_gilbert1.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2014

All Issues