The movement needs to keep moving

April 15, 2014

Can we stop the tipping point? Every week seems to bring new and frightening evidence that what scientists call the "tipping point"--when greenhouse gas emissions cause irreversible and disastrous climate change--is fast approaching, if not already here. Yet the multinational energy giants in the U.S. and beyond, aided and abetted by political leaders, are continuing their mad drive to drill, mine and frack.

But the polluters and the politicians are facing growing discontent and a grassroots challenge to their policies from activism emerging in every corner of the U.S. and around the globe. Ahead of the upcoming Global Climate Convergence--10 days of action at the end of April between Earth Day on April 22 and May talked to some of the activists and writers involved in the environmental justice movement today--to ask about the tipping point and what we can do about it. Alex Wilson, Carlos Enriquez and Jonathan Neale give their answers below. Click here to read part one of the roundtable.

Alex Wilson

From the Opaskawayak Cree Nation and organizer with the First Nations-led Idle No More movement

CAN WE stop the tipping point? From my understanding, we can't. We're already tipped. That doesn't necessarily mean doom and gloom, but rather that we have to acknowledge we are at a time and a place in the history of humanity and the earth, and also maybe the universe, where the energy has shifted.

You can think of the tipping point in scientific terms--in terms of the destruction of the planet and humanity. But you can also think of it metaphorically--that it's inevitable that we have to be activists. We have to do something, and consciousness-raising is at the heart of that.

It's linked to education, but it's very much not just awareness, but going beyond awareness to advocacy and activism and action. That's how I would understand the question, and how it fits into our family and maybe Swampy Cree cosmology. Can we stop it? I don't think so, but can we change it? Yes, I think so.

Idle No More activists march through Victoria in British Columbia
Idle No More activists march through Victoria in British Columbia

I think we need to continue the struggle, and we need to be relentless. We need to be bold, and we need to be creative. We need artists, we need scholars, we need children--this has to be on a mass global level. When you have enough people taking part in actions, then change can definitely happen. That's the hopefulness of it.

I always return to the Cree philosophy sakihiwawin--showing love in our actions. I think that philosophy is there for a reason--it has not only sustained us, but enabled us to survive for 50,000-plus years. It's a natural law, or energy, and when it is interfered with, there are physical and spiritual consequences. So perhaps what we are seeing today, the tipping point, is the culmination of these consequences having a collective impact on the environment.

This tipping point has happened so quickly--it's unbelievable how rapid the destruction has been, so we've got to confront it. It's a global imperative.

If you've ever had the opportunity to fly over Northern Manitoba, or other places where there are so many lakes left from the last Ice Age, it's really unbelievable to see, and to know that people live down here, because you can see that it's all water.

We are very much at the mercy of nature. But now, we've constructed these waterways so that major corporations actually control them. For almost every waterway that connects to the U.S. border or to the Hudson Bay, Ducks Unlimited and Manitoba Hydro have complete control over them.

The water levels of the rivers that connect into lakes are all regulated. So when there's a flood like last year, nature just takes over, and all of these artificial changes we have made to the environment fail. The potential for disaster is amplified. With continued climate change, the situation is getting worse.

In our community, Opaskwayak Cree Nation, we have this company Omnitrax, which is shipping tar sands oil by train, right past our First Nation and other communities in the North, up to the Port of Churchill on Hudson Bay. For those of us who grew up there and live there, we know that this train, whether it's hauling grain or whatever, derails all the time. And so now we have the reality of this tar sands oil derailing and polluting. It will happen.

Probably most of the Native people feel a spiritual connection to the land, but I think non-Native people who choose to live up north because they love it--they want to fish, they want to hunt, and they enjoy being there--want clean water and air. They need to be concerned about this as well.

Once you start to see this kind of destruction in your own community, maybe you start to link it to the bigger picture. If we can stop one little thing in one little place, then there's hope for people to stop it in other places. There's no action too small, and there's no action too big.

I think that's the beauty of Idle No More. People say, "You haven't been able to stop Stephen Harper and the tar sands." Well no, but look what we have done. We've raised awareness about it--certainly any Native kid on the street, if you stopped them and asked them about the tar sands, they'll be able to talk to you about it. That educational aspect has been really effective.

In terms of Indigenous rights, we're uniquely positioned to legally stop further destruction from happening. Environmental groups and human rights groups are understanding that they need to back Indigenous people and this movement, not only for moral and ethical reasons, but also because this may be the last chance we have to stop some of this before it happens, or stop these bills that continually erode environmental rights at the same time as they erode Indigenous rights.

The narrative that we need the oil, we have to have this to run our cars and so on--that's pervasive. In the same way, they pit Native communities against the environment. In my own community, we've got mining companies that are jockeying to get in there, and that's what they're saying: We need jobs. Well, we do need jobs--but why can't the jobs be doing something else or creating sustainable solutions to our energy and resource requirements.

What needs to take place is that we need to keep moving. The definition of movement is the act of moving, right?

I think solidarity is important. Naomi Klein said that climate change is going to be the one issue that unites all these different people and causes, and that could be the case. The more we can share with each other, the better chance we have of getting some kind of a transformative education and awareness taking place.

It's really important to have solutions in place. People may perceive activists as agitators without any sort of plan. That's absolutely not true in this case because--there are alternatives to the tar sands and other kinds of extraction, and it's important to highlight those solutions and the things that people and communities have been doing all along that are working.

Carlos Enriquez

Chicago activist and member of the System Change Not Climate Change coalition.

REPORTS AND studies have shown that industrial pollution, and the corporate attacks on our ecosystem are impacting our climate on a long-term and short-term basis. A lot of the conversation about how to make it possible to prevent or at least suppress further catastrophe are headed in the right direction.

Movements such as the Global Climate Convergence and System Change Not Climate Change, to name a couple, are focusing on confronting the problem at its root cause--challenging the systems and infrastructures that not only allow attacks on our environment, but are financially dependent on them.

One of the questions that has long been missing from the mainstream environmental movement is how to address that fact that although we are all affected by climate change, these attacks on our ecosystem seem to affect the poor, communities of color and First Nations people at alarmingly higher rates.

For an example of this, those of us in Chicago don't need to look further than the working class neighborhoods, made up mostly of people of color, along the Calumet River in South Chicago. For about six months now, KCBX Terminals, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, has been storing piles of toxic petroleum coke, or petcoke--a dust-like byproduct of tar sands crude oil--out in the open along the river.

Children in the area are not allowed to go out after school because of the fear that the pollution caused by the petcoke can damage their lungs. Community members have stated that many can't even see out of their windows due to the pollution--and this isn't to even mention the fact that petcoke is dangerously combustible.

The corporate plan is for the piles of petcoke to eventually be shipped across the river to a BP refinery in Whiting, Ind. To make matters worse, news reports a few weeks ago revealed that the BP refinery was responsible for a spill of up to 600 gallons of oil that had made its way into Lake Michigan, a source of water for millions of people.

The struggle to end environmental racism is a daunting one--as is the fight to get petcoke out of our communities and to hold BP accountable for the spill in Lake Michigan. However, recent victories by our side have made it clear that we can win.

One such victory came on the other side of Lake Michigan, where three members of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI-CATS) were facing serious prison time after they were convicted for their nonviolent protest against the expansion of a pipeline near the Kalamazoo River that had burst just three years prior. In March, the three were given probation and avoided further incarceration. They are back in the streets fighting the corporate attacks on our climate and are actually integral members of the Global Climate Convergence.

When the topic of climate change comes up, the conversation tends to be a pessimistic one--understandably so, as we have seen time and time again that the 1 Percent seems hell-bent on making sure our lands are fracked, our water is privatized or contaminated or both, and our climate becomes more unstable.

But the movement is calling out capitalism as the root cause of this destruction, and fighting for quality health care and education for all, for an end to deportations and mass incarceration and for a living wage. When that movement does win, not only will a society that puts the planet, peace, and people over profit be a reality--so will a world in which we are actually able to live.

Jonathan Neale

British socialist and author of Stop Global Warming: Change the World

CAN WE stop climate change before we reach the tipping point?

We can't do it by reducing our consumption. If we had to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, we could do it that way. But we have to cut global emissions by more than 50 percent, emissions in most rich countries by at least 80 percent, and emissions in the U.S. by at least 90 percent.

A 90 percent cut in real living standards would mean average Americans living like people do in Congo now. But it would be worse than that, because people in Congo have farms and lots of ways of getting by cheaply--which is why no one is seriously proposing cuts in living standards on that scale. There would be general revolt and a financial collapse.

But we have to cut emissions by 80 percent to 90 percent. We can't do it doing what we do now, only less of it. We have to do something different.

That's possible. To stop the advance of global warming, we have to leave the great majority of current reserves of oil, gas and coal in the ground. Instead, we have to do three major things. We have to build enough wind, solar and other renewable energy to meet all the world's energy needs. We have to switch from cars to public transportation in order to save energy. We have to winterize and summerize all the homes and buildings in the world. And we have to run all vehicles and heating on electricity from renewables.

We already have the technology. It would take between 100 million and 150 million workers 20 years to do it for the whole world. That, combined with a lot of smaller measures, and quite a bit of regulation, would do the trick.

Those jobs would cost a lot. But cost a lot means that a lot of people would be paid to work. In the U.S., the work that needs doing would mean at least 6 million new jobs--mostly manual work, such as driving buses, fixing houses, and building wind turbines and solar panels. Plus another 3 million jobs in the supply chain. People need those jobs. The government ought to be hiring them now.

Telling people they have to give up most of their income won't build a movement. Telling people they can win millions of jobs can build one.

Some people say we couldn't afford the money. But when the banks needed government help, the money was there. If Mother Earth were a bank, the politicians would already have rescued her.

And government spending to solve a great crisis doesn't bankrupt you. Look at the Second World War. Every great power changed their whole economy to make as many weapons as possible, as fast as possible, to kill as many people as possible and win the war. They hired millions of new workers and new soldiers. The result was not economic collapse. Instead, it ended the Great Depression.

Maybe can't fix the global economy this time. But we can make millions of new jobs and save the planet.

However, a lot of corporations would lose out--the oil, gas, coal, auto and energy corporations, and the banks that loaned to them. Last year, the 10 largest corporations on earth included Walmart, three car companies and six oil companies.

Moreover, if we spend that much money to save the planet, it will be the end of neoliberalism and austerity. The governments and politicians don't want that.

On top of that, in the long economic crisis since 2008, all the countries of the world have been competing with each other desperately. No government wants to be the one that loses out by spending on renewable energy or refitted housing or buses.

So the corporations and banks and politicians who rule us have decided to do nothing. Maybe we can build a movement big enough to force them to act in time. I have spent the last 10 years of my life trying to build that movement. I'm not stopping. People have changed the world before, and capitalists have fixed problems before.

But the odds against us are long. We will probably see runaway climate change, with famines, droughts, refugees, wars and hundreds of millions dead. My best guess is this will take place in the lifetimes of most of you reading this.

At that point, everyone will know the world has to change. And the corporations and their politicians will fill the streets with tanks--to control us, to make us do the sacrificing, to prevent the real change that could save the planet and to turn the desperate people of each nation against all the other nations.

At that point, though, humanity could still save the world. We would have to change the whole system. That might--just--be possible. But only if there are a lot of socialists around. And no one will listen to those socialists unless they are already an important and respected part of a mass climate movement.

So get stuck in now.

Karen Domínguez Burke, Andrea Hektor, Ragina Johnson, Alan Maass and Chris Williams helped with this discussion.

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