Economies and Ecologies in Crisis
by Isaac Hawkins
Friendly Fire Collective
Cascades: Conversations in Crisis
The current state of our environment is one crisis, that for most of us, is undeniable. Specifically I want to address Global Warming because I believe it to be one of the most pivotal issues of our lifetime. It is now inter-related with almost every other progressive struggle we wage. Certainly, within the environmental movement, no issue is without connection to Global Warming. If we want to stop Global Warming, we need to save our forests. If we want to stop Global Warming, we need our oceans to be healthy. If we want our rivers and oceans and people to be healthy, we need to end our energy dependence on coal, oil, gas, and uranium (nuclear). But it is not simply an environmental issue. If we sincerely believe that Global Warming is as big as we’re describing it to be; if we believe that it will contribute to or cause the extinction of up to 80% of the species on this planet by the end of this century and force millions of people to become refugees; then we also need to understand that it is not simply an environmental issue. It is a cultural, social, political and-most of all- an economic issue. If we want to adequately address Global Warming then we need to be honest in these root causes.
Let’s look at the recent events adding to this growing sense of crisis. The events of only the last three months have acted as a giant neon sign directed at our energy policies yelling STOP! First there was the flooded mine in China on March 28th, which killed at least 37 people. (This seemed like a lot until I learned that 2600 people died in Chinese coal mines in 2009 alone). Three days later, on April 6th, an explosion in a West Virginia mine killed 29 people. A few weeks later another mine collapsed in Kentucky, killing two more miners. On May 9th a Russian mine flooded killing 67 workers and on May 30th another explosion in a Chinese mine killed at least 17 more. From China to Russia to the United States people were forced to pause and question the human cost of coal. Five days after the mine incident in China, a coal tanker slammed into the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian Coast, spilling oil and wreaking environmental damage on that unique and sensitive area that scientists estimate will take least 20 years to recover. And on April 20th, the oil rig sank in the Gulf killing 11 people in what was the beginning of the worst environmental disaster in US history.
More and more people who do not consider themselves radical, progressive or even liberal are increasingly forced to understand the harm done by these violent acts to our planet and to the people who live near and work in these industries. But these industries are still drilling! And they are still mining coal. And we extract these resources in order to manufacture products that, when used, contribute further to Global Warming. Why? Because of profit.
Profit is what drives logging companies to clear our forests in Canada and Africa and what drives the leather industry and the Soy Industry to eat the forests in South America and Southeast Asia. It is what drives coal companies in China, the US and Russia to ignore hundreds of safety warnings and send workers into exploding and flooding mines. Profit is what drives companies every day to produce more plastic that fills our oceans, and reckless pursuit of profit is what drives the commercial fishing industry to bulldoze the ocean floor. It’s what drives Peabody Coal to slowly kill thousands of native people in the southwest. It’s what drove BP to cut corners with their safety programs, lie about it and continue to drill, baby, drill. It is not that people in charge of these companies are somehow unaware of the risks their behavior brings. But they have made a decision to ignore, deny or downplay the risks for the sake of their companies’ higher profits. The profit motive is, in my opinion, the single and most important cause of Global Warming and our failure to address this head on will inevitably result in our failure as a movement and the destruction of our planet. Looking at the events above, there is no doubt in my mind that if capitalism is allowed to continue to exist, it will eat the fucking world. As Evo Morales said, “We cannot end Global Warming without ending Capitalism.”
I use to wonder why this wasn’t a bigger discussion at the environmental organizations I have worked at. I have worked with some amazing radical folks working for big non-profits- and yet these discussions are rarely heard. So why? The fact is the stability of a non-profit or non-governmental organization (NGO) is almost always dependent on the stability of their funding. Because of that, I think it is actually impossible for most big environmental non-profits or NGOs to come out against capitalism, or profit-driven businesses, or anything close. Some environmental non-profits, and many NGO’s get funding from the government (grants or otherwise). This is obviously an issue if you come out and criticize that governments’ economic policies.
There are other environmental organizations that have a bit more freedom because the majority of their funding comes from donations from everyday people. However, that still creates two major dilemmas. If we have to change, alter, tear down, the current global economic model in order to adequately address global warming, people are going to be very nervous about money and stability (perhaps rightfully so). Fear will cause many people to stop donating to organizations that take this approach. And big, multimillion dollar non-profi t organizations also have many members and supporters who also support capitalism and are personally dependent on profit-driven industries and companies. These people will likely cut their donations immediately to an organization that comes out and says, “To Stop Global Warming, we need to stop capitalism.” For all of these reasons we cannot expect any of the big player environmental organizations to call for anything resembling an end to global capitalism. To do so would literally be to commit organizational suicide.
Instead, these organizations try to work within the system. How do you get a corporation to stop polluting, or to use more recycled materials? You make it profitable for them to change. You give them a bad name, damage their reputation so that consumers stop buying their stuff or supporting that company’s work. Therefore by changing their policies to “greener” ones, they can get back to maximizing profit.
But in the end, the NGOs and large non-profit groups have fallen far short of instigating the kind of action that is necessary if we’re going to address climate change in time. Even those organizations with lots of folks who are ready to escalate and take risks, end up frozen by their fear of destabilizing their funding base. They cannot and will not push hard enough or fast enough. This is where radicals like myself and other members of progressive environmental organizations come in conflict. Using the profit motive to seduce corporations into changing bad habits only yields temporary results. It is a particularly fl awed approach, because the overarching problem is the bottom line, the profit driven motive. If the current economic model of the world is one of the biggest hurdles to stopping global warming and saving our environment, then it is no longer an option to work within that model!
Please understand. I am not one to discredit the tangible effects that many of these organizations have had on people’s lives. Looking back on past environmental battles, I think it is fair to say that some bigger (NGOs) and non-profit groups have played a major role in the fight to protect areas of this planet. .If an organization gets an incinerator or a refinery shut down, it does prevent many people in that community from getting asthma and respiratory disease. And that DOES help people and that DOES matter. And I know that many other radical folks do this work for similar reasons as I do- because I care tremendously for people and this planet. That being said, I must continue to insist that the current model we’re using is not a real solution. We may have had some victories, but we are not saving this planet right now. We ARE losing the larger fi ght. The fact is that we need people and organizations to take risks right now. If we believe the time lines put out by the world’s top climate scientists (and they know a hell of a lot more about climate science than I do), we have got to move hard and move fast. We need to escalate tactics. We need to demand what is needed and not back down. It is no longer a choice, but a necessity.
Let me take a minute and clarify what organizations I am referring to when I use general terms like environmental NGOs or non-profits. Too often, I read radical critiques on the environment movement full of gross generalizations or unsubstantiated statements and this does not help. I recognize that all non-profits are not the same and all NGOs are certainly not the same. And I am not coming from a place where I think environmental nonprofits and NGOs are now doing more harm than good and need to be eradicated along with everything else. I think those who suggest this are working more from emotional reaction than any factual analysis. The organizations I am specifically referring to in this article are the big players- the multi-million dollar organizations. Some most certainly work within the system and either like it that way or are reliant on it: World Wildlife Federation, The Nature Conservancy (who had a big PR deal with BP a while back), or the National Wildlife Federation. Others I think have at least some leaders and members who recognize capitalism to be one of the root problems, but the organization itself is still reliant on stable funding for its existence: Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network.
So if these organizations are hampered and tethered by fear and donor dependence, who is in a position to take the necessary risks and action? These organizations have helped push the environmental movement a good distance, but there is a massive void between how far they can take us and where we need to end up. The question is who or what needs to step into that void? What will that model look like moving forward? If I had that answer this would have been a much shorter article. But I would like to offer some possible ideas for both the larger non-profit community and the radical community.
I do believe that there are hundreds of smaller organizations, some of whom are non-profits, that have built small but dedicated groups of supporters. These groups could play a major role in pushing the environmental movement forward. They are not the ones whose names you hear on the news claiming global victories. But they are the ones who may have the ability to come out and support and/or offer more radical critiques and approaches to environmentalism. These are groups we should listen carefully to.
One of the most important things for the larger non-profit community to recognize is that they need to be more supportive of smaller groups and of people and groups that may differ in approach or tactics. That is not to say that any and all approaches must be accepted, but the definition of what is considered proper protest has become absurdly narrow. Larger environmental organizations and media appointed leaders must accept that our larger goal requires people to escalate and take risks beyond what bigger non-profits can afford to do.
I would also suggest that when people do push harder, there should be more support, or at least a lack of condemnation. Logistical support is one area I am proud to say some of these organizations help with already. The fact is, when smaller or more radical groups do an action, they are many instances where they are supplied with ideas, training, equipment, and places to meet by these larger non-profits. That is something that should continue to happen and something we should encourage and facilitate. When larger non-profits do not have the ability to push hard enough, but have the resources to help those who can or are willing to, they should supply those resources. Larger non-profits may also need to step back at times and highlight the work of these other smaller groups. This will be hard for some of these organizations. They are used to promoting themselves with terms like “the best” or “the leading” or “the most effective” as a tactic to please donors and maximize funding. The fact is that they may have to instead play a support role to the people and groups of people who are able to escalate and push the movement to where it needs to go. This is a conversation that has to take place within these organizations where employees and supporters are too often times convinced that their way is the best and most effective way of doing things, instead of just one way of many.
I can’t leave the topic of risk taking and tactics without addressing one of the more difficult aspects: that of violence versus non-violence. This is a difficult topic for many people because a lot of it centers around individuals’ personal definitions of violence and non-violence. Because of this I would encourage people to explore what these terms really mean to them. For example, I will always prefer non-violent methods, but often consider property damage as non-violent protest. I hope to use non-violent methods, but recognize there are countless numbers of times throughout history where that was no longer an option. Even Henry David Thoreau, author of Civil Disobedience, and a staunch advocate of non-violence recognized that the question of slavery would probably have to be decided violently. After the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and referring to the need to fight for captured slaves’ freedom, he said, “I do not wish to kill or be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both of these things would be by me unavoidable.” I cannot think of a time when that opinion may be more needed than when we are talking about a global environmental crisis; when we are deciding whether or not we are going to fight for this entire planet’s existence as we know it to be, or whether we will let the capitalist robber barons continue and consume it all. Large non-profits and NGOs need to have internal discussions on this topic, as well as discussions with the radical community, before making broad statements rejecting tactics or groups they deem violent.
But enough critique on what the larger non-profit world should do. What does the radical community need to do in order to address the environmental crisis? As I mentioned earlier, I do not claim to have a magic bullet on this topic. I can simply offer some ideas on how to try and take this crisis on more effectively. But I will say one thing for sure- do something now! I think that within much of the radical community, the environmental crisis has turned into a topic of debate rather than a topic for decisive action. I am guilty of this myself and I can identify at least two reasons why it’s happened to me.
The first reason is frustration with many of the groups working on Global Warming. It has been too long since I have been actually inspired by a group of people or an organization that I felt had a radical enough analysis to not bargain away our future on this planet, but who also understood how big of a movement we must build to effectively address this issue. But frustration is not an acceptable excuse. If we can’t find the organization or individuals, then we must act to build them today.
The other difficult thing about this issue for the radical community is that we may not have the time to fight this on a local level. Like most radical activists I know, when working to address racism, sexism, heteronormativity, or worker’s rights, I have felt that the best place to start was within ourselves…and then within our communities…and then onward and upward. The idea being that it is crucial to build solid infrastructures within ourselves and our communities and those can then act as models to bring and offer to the greater world to replicate. I don’t know that we have the time to use this model when addressing Global Warming and that has paralyzed me at points. That being said, we have got to overcome that paralysis. Under the current economic crisis, global capitalism has once again shown how fragile it is. Ordinary people with no political analysis can see that this system is not just destroying our environment, but has failed the majority of people in their basic lives. While the crash may have already happened, the sentiment is still there and we must take advantage of it.
So the first thing we need to do is to stop talking and critiquing, and to start (or continue) organizing in all senses of the word. Global Warming is an issue that is so tightly bound with hierarchy, in terms of who will suffer first and worst, that we owe it to ourselves and to each other to get informed on this issue. We should know the time lines scientists are putting out there. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with all of them but we should know them. We should know which elements of this earth and which processes are the biggest contributors to Global Warming and which elements and ecosystems are most crucial to fighting it. This is a major crisis within our lifetimes that will shape everything in the future and we should be as educated on it as we are on past battles in Spain or past theories of dead philosophers. We can’t all learn of this quickly enough. Through organizing together, however, we can share the research and learning and build our overall knowledge. I also think we need to organize ourselves into more cohesive groups. We need to be having discussions on what strategies are effective at what times, and on what entities or people we are fighting. We need to be discussing what tactics are effective at which times in order to further this fight because there ARE effective and non-effective ways of fighting any battle. And with the magnitude of the environmental crisis, and the short time line to fight it, if nothing else we have got to be informed and strategic!
Organizing ourselves is not only important in terms of tactics and strategy but also in terms of inspiring more people to get up and act. Clandestine actions and approaches are very important for obvious reasons, but so are massive actions with a lot of people fighting together. If not for the immediate goal of the action, then because it is one way to inspire more people to become a part of that movement. It is inspiring to see hundreds or thousands of people standing together for something. It is magnetic and draws people into that movement, and in this fight we are going to need millions of people to stand up and fight.
The last and maybe the most important reason to organize ourselves is to supply a vision of what organizing should be. It is another opportunity to show the world that a group of people can lead a fight without leaders. It is an opportunity to fi ll an important missing link in the environmental movement with a group or groups that operate on horizontal organizing principles and respect the opinions and contributions of everyone no matter race, class, gender, age, orientation or anything else. It is an opportunity to show that our model of organizing works, because if we don’t, you can bet the group that fi lls that void will only reestablish the hierarchal organizing norms.
The final thing I would suggest is that the radical community get back to offering alternatives. I am referring specifically to a lot of the climate talks, summits, etc. It seems to me we have gotten into the habit of protesting what is happening without offering alternatives. We are great at yelling how this conference model or the deal being discussed sucks, but it’s my impression that we have stopped offering enough alternative models or proposals. I do not feel it important to offer these alternatives because I want the “leaders” inside to accept our proposal instead of theirs. I think it’s important to offer these alternatives to the people around the world who feel the same way as we do but see no other alternatives presented- all of the people who know their “representative” or “leader” doesn’t give a fuck about them or their opinion, but see no other option. Let’s put proposals out there that these people can see as alternatives. Lets put models out there in which we can welcome these people’s opinions to be heard. Maybe these exist already and maybe it has been tried, but maybe if we organize ourselves into a more cohesive movement, we can help each other get these alternatives out to people across the world more effectively.
As a radical environmental activist I am suggesting to the larger movement that we look the enemy in the eye and say the name out loud— global capitalism. I challenge the larger environmental non-profit community to recognize our limitations, based on donor dependencies, and fi nd ways of supporting—instead of condemning—those individuals and groups who are ready and willing to take the necessary risks to confront this enemy. And I challenge the radical community not to write off all organizations labeled nonprofits! I challenge us to organize, get informed, propose alternative solutions and to take those risks needed. I challenge us to fill that void.
Isaac Hawkins is an anarchist. He has worked for years with many larger environmental non-profits on fund raising, outreach, and non-violent direct action. He has also worked with smaller groups focused on direct action as a means of change and helps to organize other community projects with the anarchist community. Isaac welcomes feedback and discussion on these ideas and can be reached at HawkinsIsaac28@gmail.com