Bringing together eco and socialism

April 18, 2013

Any rational society would have long ago curbed the emission of greenhouse gases. But under capitalism today, the ruling class is planning to increase oil and gas production.

PITCH-BLACK tar sands oil flowing out of the woods and across the manicured lawns of a suburban development. That image was broadcast around the world last month after ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of the toxic sludge that flows through it.

It was another stark symbol of the ecological threat of tar sands oil production. Yet Barack Obama and his administration have given every indication that they will give the green light to a tar sands pipeline that NASA scientist James Hansen says will be "game over for the climate."

If he gives the final go-ahead for the Keystone XL project, Obama will be defying bitter opposition that has taken root across the U.S.--in Texas and the Great Plains where the pipeline is being built, and in cities and on campuses far beyond. A new movement for climate justice has taken direct action against construction of the pipeline, and gathered in the tens of thousands to demonstrate on Obama's doorstep in Washington, D.C.

The ecosocialist contingent marching in a Washington, D.C., protest against the Keystone XL pipeline
The ecosocialist contingent marching in a Washington, D.C., protest against the Keystone XL pipeline

Most of those protesters will have voted--if they were old enough--for Barack Obama in 2012, and 2008 before that, at least in part because they believed his promise that he would reverse the global warming denialism of the Bush years and take action to stop climate change.

But Obama is providing an abject lesson about the Democratic Party--its leaders say one thing to get elected and do another once in office, because unless confronted with a challenge from below, they don't answer to the voters, but to the elite of Corporate America.

As with so many other ecological challenges, the battle over the Keystone project shows that the climate justice movement has to confront not only a free-market system where the short-term interest of maximizing profits rules, but a political power structure that is warped by corporate influence. The Ecosocialist Conference to be held this weekend in New York City will be a forum for understanding why system change is needed to stop climate change--and discussing the steps needed to get there.

IF IT is completed, the Keystone pipeline system would cover more than 2,000 miles, connecting Alberta, Canada, where tar sands are being mined in colossal projects, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast, where most of the oil is to be exported.

Spills of the toxic mix of tar sands, water and chemicals that will flow through the pipeline--at a rate of close to a million barrels a day--are inevitable. When they occur, the one in Arkansas last month may look minor. The bursting of a tar sands pipeline running through Michigan in 2010 dumped 877,000 gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River. The cleanup has cost $1 billion, and it still isn't complete.

But the environmental damage from even big pipeline spills is localized. In the long run, the greater destruction will come from the tar sands oil that makes it to Texas refineries and depots--because its use will magnify a global warming catastrophe that is already underway.

Getting at the recoverable oil in low-grade deposits of tar sands in Alberta requires destroying huge areas of boreal forest--which made global warming worse before a single barrel of oil was produced because such forests are important in absorbing carbon dioxide. Aside from the greenhouse gases emitted from burning any form of oil, tar sands require even more energy to make them useable. Thus, the title: the world's dirtiest fossil fuel.

According to James Hansen, in the past 150 years, the amount of carbon in the earth's atmosphere has increased by over 50 percent, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 393 ppm--and the impact, particularly in the past decade, is already documented in a rise in average global temperatures, disintegration of glaciers and ice sheets, spread of desert areas and increased extreme weather events.

But burning tar sands oil will send the planet over the climate change cliff, according to Hansen:

The tar sands contain enough carbon--240 gigatons--to add 120 ppm [to the current estimated 393 ppm]. Tar shale, a close cousin of tar sands found mainly in the United States, contains at least an additional 300 gigatons of carbon. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels, there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 ppm--a level that would, as earth's history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.

In a rational world, society would have already taken steps to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, rather than contemplate adding to them. But in the insane world of capitalism, tar sands are celebrated as a component of the U.S. ruling class' new dreams of being not only energy independent, but a fossil-fuel exporter, thanks to new techniques for oil and gas extraction, such as tar sands refining and "fracking" for natural gas.

The U.S. government, managed by the Democrats of the Obama administration, is a full-fledged partner in the drive to increase, not decrease, fossil fuel production. Thus, as Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis, wrote, there are twin threats to the planet built into the dynamics of the economic and political systems:

The need for constant growth is endemic to capitalism and therefore makes it impossible to find a permanent solution to environmental degradation within a competitive, profit-driven system. Alongside that is a second fatal...anti-ecological contradiction of capitalism: the international competition between nation states over resources and political hegemony.

THIS IS why it's important that activists attending this weekend's conference in New York City will put "eco" and "socialism" together.

The large protests against the Keystone pipeline are emblematic of a new character to the environmental movement--a shift away from an overarching focus on lifestyle concerns and individual responses to the ecological crisis. The anti-pipeline protesters surrounding the White House or blockading Keystone construction sites have been collectively confronting corporate and political power.

As the environmental movement has risen to the urgent challenge of the climate change crisis, so, too, must other social struggles. One obvious example is the labor movement, where the AFL-CIO issued an implied endorsement of the Keystone project with a February statement supporting expansion of the U.S. pipeline system--though not explicitly supporting the tar sands pipeline itself.

Labor's main national voice was indulging the old prejudice that unions have to make a choice between jobs for their members and protecting the environment. But sections of the labor movement--led by the Transport Workers Union and National Nurses United--are putting forward a different vision based on organizing for a green jobs revolution.

As Michael Ware put in a feature:

Faced with twin economic and environmental crises, both caused by the free market, working people have to stand together to confront both...

The climate justice movement, the indigenous movement and the labor movement must link arms and recognize a common enemy. Labor has a unique opportunity to rebuild itself by spearheading the fight against climate change--and thereby winning full employment and a much stronger base of members and supporters.

The ecosocialist slogan of "System change, not climate change" can seem overwhelmingly daunting in a world that brings new evidence of the dire effects of global warming all the time. But two points have to be remembered.

First, it's better to fully understand what needs to be done to stop climate change. More and more people are coming to realize that Barack Obama can't be trusted to act on his promises to confront climate change. If the administration gives the go-ahead for the Keystone project, it will shape the consciousness of a generation of activists on what they can expect from "within the system."

Second, though it isn't always obvious, we should bear in mind how far we've come. Gone are the days when any political figure, save the most craven toadies of the energy industry, can deny the reality of global warming. The big turnout for the February demonstration is only the latest sign that climate change is an issue of glaring urgency for millions of people.

The task now is to build the kind of struggles--whether directly related to environmental issues or about other social justice questions--that can draw more people into the movement. The first step may be opening a discussion about an alternative vision to a society in ecological crisis--but our aim has to be turning discontent and outrage into action.

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