Melt-in on a warmer planet

April 26, 2012

Ryan Anderson and Peter Rugh report from protests on Earth Day weekend.

THE SCIENTIST Paul Crutzen describes the current geological epoch as the Anthropocene epoch, or "the recent age of man," due to the profound impact that humanity has had on the earth's ecosystems since the Industrial Revolution.

But it might be more fitting to use the term "corpocene" to describe our current epoch. After all, it is a small portion of humanity, the 1 percent, that owns the coal mines, the drilling rigs, the pipelines, the lumberyards, the nuclear reactors and the banks. These are the people who--in the pursuit of profit--have put our planet and its inhabitants in the precarious position we currently find ourselves.

On April 21 and 22, Occupy Wall Street activists held a series of vibrant rallies and nonviolent civil disobedience actions against corporate-induced climate change, in an effort to reclaim Earth Day from the greenwashers of the 1 percent.

As Russell Lum, a member of Occupy Wall Street Environmental Solidarity, which helped to organize some of the Occupy Earth Day actions, explained, in light of the "corporatization of Earth Day and the huge ramping up of so called corporate sustainability programs, we wanted to take Earth Day back to being anti-corporate."

Occupy Earth Day demonstrators hold a banner drop from the High Line park in New York City
Occupy Earth Day demonstrators hold a banner drop from the High Line park in New York City (Shannon Ayala)

At the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, over 20 million Americans celebrated and advocated for our shared planet. But today, Earth Day has become a shopping scheme.

Nowhere was this clearer than in New York City last weekend. At the website, visitors could download a "passport to green New York" that various retailers in the five boroughs offered to stamp for them. Twelve stamps, and passport holders had a chance to win a 40-inch flat-screen television from Toshiba at Earth Fair 2012 at Grand Central station.

Among the sponsors for the Earth Fair was Home Depot, an importer of rainforest wood, and ConEdison, which paid zilch in taxes for 2011 and continues to source electricity from both coal and Entergy Corp.'s precarious Indian Point nuclear plant.

Also on the corporate sponsor list--Rupert Murdoch's New York Post. The irony wasn't lost on activists, who know that the latest environmental "expert" hyped on the Murdoch-owned Fox News is "birther" Brian Sussman, with his claims this month that the green movement was "concocted in the minds of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels."

Of course, Marx and Engels didn't "concoct" today's environmental movement, any more than they were responsible for the labor struggles in their own day. But actually, their writings have plenty to offer activists today who are interested in understanding our current ecological predicament. As Engels once wrote, "[W]e by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature--but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst."

Driven by a paranoia about U.S. energy resources rather than concern for the future of earth, Sussman calls for increased domestic oil and gas drilling, hoarding of water--and for 100 new "100 percent clean" nuclear reactors to be built in the U.S.

There is nothing clean about nuclear power, as the ongoing disaster in Japan at the Fukushima-Daiichi reactors shows. In the U.S., many corporations, such as Southern, that run nuclear plants also run coal-burning plants. Fossil fuels are used in every part of the nuclear process, particularly in the extraction and transport of uranium.

And that's not even accounting for the pollution from nuclear plants well short of a disaster. Recently, Entergy Corp. paid a $1.2 million penalty to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation for violating the Clean Water Act after a transformer at the Indian Point nuclear facility exploded in 2010, spewing 10,000 gallons of oil into the Hudson River.

THE OCCUPY Earth Day weekend in New York City began with a "melt-in" at Grand Central Station that highlighted the need to end our dependence on nuclear power. Activists symbolically melted down to the floor of the Grand Central terminal to illustrate the deadly consequences of nuclear power.

The air was tense inside the station, with its tall, domed ceiling decorated with celestial constellations. Busy commuters and tourists tussled past each other, perhaps perplexed at the clusters of police spread about in riot helmets. When one activist arrived to participate in the action, he was greeted by a police captain, who knew him by name--though they had never met. The captain informed him and other activists who gathered around Grand Central's information booth that anyone who laid down would be arrested, and that banners and balloons were forbidden.

Despite the attempts of intimidation, at a little after 3 p.m. someone yelled "mic check" flags, banners and signs were unfurled, and about 50 people hit the floor.
After a few moments, police moved in with plastic handcuffs out. The melters sprang up and began chanting, "We are unstoppable, another world is possible," along with their supporters, the words echoing through the huge station.

A line of police officers eventually escorted the activists out of Grand Central, but on the way to the doors, they stopped in front of a Toshiba display booth, chanting, "Hey Toshiba, you're obscene, Earth Day ain't no shopping scheme."

The next day, Occupy activists staged a New Orleans-style jazz funeral march for "The Death of Earth as We Know It"--commemorating the second anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The funeral march began at a BP gas station in Lower Manhattan and was led by a New Orleans-style brass band. About 100 people marched up Broadway through weather befitting the somber mood: pouring rain.

New Orleans native Imani Brown reminded the crowd of "mourners" that the BP disaster is far from over--crude oil continues to wash ashore and thousands of Gulf Shore residents, many of them uninsured, continue to suffer serious health effects from oil and the 1.9 million gallons of toxic dispersants that BP sprayed in the Gulf. As Brown said:

Despite this incredible ecological disaster that we are here today mourning, the Obama administration has seriously ramped up extraction of dirty energy. Obama has bragged that his administration has added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth and then some. We're here today to call for an end to this policy and to call it out for what it is: it is psychotic, it is toxic and it is ecocidal."

Of course, while pollution and corporate-induced climate change has altered the Earth irrevocably, there is still plenty to fight for. When the procession arrived at Union Square, protesters held a wake, where speakers talked about the earth we once knew, but also spotlighted movements fighting to ensure that ecocide, like what was unleashed on the Gulf Coast by BP, never happens again.

Representatives of the Fukushima and Gulf Coast diaspora were joined by activists involved in a variety of interlocking ecological issues, from the extraction of tar sands oil to fracking for natural gas, from nuclear power to genetically modified food. The gathering was an acknowledgement that these ecological fronts are the result of a common system that is undemocratic, puts profits ahead of the earth and people, leads to waste and overproduction, and is spiritually and morally bankrupt.

Eddie Bautista, director of the New York Environmental Justice Alliance, told protesters about the coalition's fight against attempts by Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration to build trash-to-energy incineration plants in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Bautista pointed out New York City has a recycle rate of just 15 percent--meaning that these incineration plants will be burning waste packed with plastic, unleashing cancer-causing chemicals into the air, which families living in what the city has classified as industrial zones must breath every day.

Clare Donahue of the Sane Energy Project told the crowd about the proposed Spectra pipeline, which Texas Eastern Transmission wants to build in the West Village. The pipeline would transport fracked natural gas through Lower Manhattan and would be located directly adjacent to the High Line Park, an old elevated train line converted into a pedestrian walkway.

Donahue said the pipeline would pose a serious safety risk to thousands of people living next to it. Aside from the chance of explosions, Donahue warned that the pipeline "could bring Radon-laden gas to our apartment stoves" and would certainly "increase fracking" nationwide.

FROM UNION Square, activists marched to take a stand on the site of the proposed pipeline. As the march neared the location, Occupy activists dropped a banner from the High Line that read, "We don't want your fracking pipeline."

The group concluded the weekend's actions with a rendition of "This Land is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie and calls to continue the struggle against the 1% who are destroying the planet.

David Braun, co-founder of United for Action, an organization battling the incursion of fracking into New York state, left Earth Day occupiers with this message:

We cannot allow our world to boil because there are countless generations of people that are looking to be born on this planet, to know the same beautiful things that we have known. And we must allow them the opportunity to have that same quality of life that we have been given, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they have it.

If we are to avoid further ecological meltdowns, our society must move away from dirty, deadly and ecocidal forms of power--including coal, natural gas, uranium and corporate power--and towards a sustainable world. The weekend of political actions was an important step, but we will need years of patient struggle.

The green movement--with all its allegedly "Marxist"-concocted notions--has more to offer people than free tote bags or flat-screen televisions: a chance to participate in building the democratic, equitable and sustainable society our rapidly warming planet desperately needs.

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