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Discussion on Divestment

#1
The System Change Not Climate Change listserv has been the venue for a lively debate on the efficacy of campaigns to force divestment from fossil-fuel stocks and possible alternative demands and methods for curtailing carbon emissions. Participants in the exchange have agreed that the topic deserves wider attention, so we are sharing it here.

From: Brad Hornick
Date: 14 Jan 2018

Double hit from McKibben and Klein – any New Yorkers have comments?

New York City just declared war on the oil industry | Bill McKibben

As New York City Declares War on the Oil Industry, the Politically Impossible Suddenly Seems Possible

Here's Klein’s notes from the press conference - (knowing there are many critics on this list). Seems like a new worthwhile twist on the climate justice meme:

Justice means that people who did the least to create this crisis but are bearing the heaviest risks and most toxic burdens need to be first to benefit from green economic development and job creation.

Justice also means that workers in polluting industries are not sacrificed or left behind. And justice means something else too, something most politicians are loath to talk about because the wealth and power of fossil fuel companies is so vast.

It means that the corporate interests that did the most to get us into this mess – with their pollution and with their campaigns of wilful misinformation – are going to have to pay their true share of the tremendous costs of climate disruption, and of delayed transition. Because right now we have it upside down and backwards.



From: Richard Smith
Date: Tue, 16 Jan 2018

When I see Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Bill DeBlasio congratulating themselves on their latest fossil fuel divestment victory, what I think of is this:

https://nypost.com/2017/06/02/de-blasio-claims-hes-a-champion-of-the-environment/

and this:

Americans are using a record-breaking amount of gasoline

and this:

US oil output poised to hit 10 million barrels a day next year, breaking 1970 record, EIA says

not to mention this:

Americans could eat a record amount of meat in 2018

What are they celebrating?

Five years after the fossil fuel divestment campaign took off, actual fossil fuel consumption has not dropped one drop in the United States or the world. It has increased every single year.




From: Steve Ongerth
Date: Tue, 16 Jan 2018

I think it's extremely premature to dismiss the Fossil Fuel divestment campaign as a failure. As I keep pointing out the increase in fossil fuel usage is due primarily to economic growth that is related to trends that have been in motion for most of the decade (or longer, because in spite of the economic crash in 2008, capitalism was bailed out by the state).
In spite of what these sources say (and I have to question the New York Post as a reliable source in any case), during the last five years, the amount of renewables has increased faster than that of fossil fuels.

Also, the divestment campaign has only begun to reach what could be described as a tipping point.

There's also this (which I posted in the forum several weeks ago): How Bill McKibben's radical idea of fossil-fuel divestment transformed the climate debate the argument being that even if the divestment campaign hasn't necessarily blunted capitalism directly, it has brought far more people into the movement (who are likely to question capitalism because of capitalism's inherent flaws) than simply saying "abolish capitalism" would've done.



From: Richard Smith
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2018

Steve et al.

Yes, again, for what it’s worth, I think that the fossil fuel divestment movement is largely a waste of time and effort. Five years on, for all the divestment victories by colleges, unions, local governments and so on, this has not even slowed down the growth of fossil fuel production/consumption, let alone reversed it. Instead, fossil fuel production and consumption are soaring, as the articles I attached yesterday pointed out. What’s more, I don’t see much evidence that the campaign has even changed consciousness out there, has even convinced many people of the need to actually suppress fossil fuel consumption, or even ignited much popular discussion and debate around the issue.

I think that these failures are not accidental. The divestment movement does not focus on production/consumption. Its focus is entirely on investment portfolios. I don’t know anything about the origins of the divestment movement but I would guess that, of all the possible strategies, tactics, actions one might have chosen to take up in the effort to fight global warming, the environmentalists who came up with this strategy chose this strategy precisely because it avoided all the hard questions: It did not threaten production or consumption, so it did not threaten jobs. It did not call on people to change their lives, to “sacrifice,” even to buy a gas-sipper instead of a gas-hog. I guess you could say that it opted for the low-hanging fruit, but I don’t see that it’s even born much fruit. Focusing on divestment was always beside the point. It offered no hope for actually suppressing fossil fuel production because it never really aimed to do so.

We could carry on like this for more decades, patting ourselves on the back with each new successful divestment campaign like McKibben and Klein and DeBlasio even as fossil fuel consumption continues to increase. But, as we all know, we don’t have many more decades to waste in fruitless struggles. We need something that works. I don’t consider myself much of a strategist. It’s not my forte. But it does seem to me that we — the environmental movement — need to direct our energies toward efforts that have some chance of changing consciousness and suppressing fossil fuel consumption. I think the only way to do that is to take on the difficult questions, to aim directly at production and consumption.

We have to be honest and say that, “Yes, protecting the environment means we have to shut down or retrench all kinds of polluting industries. There is no easy win-win “green” solution here. Closing/retrenching polluting industries are going to hurt your investment portfolio and cost jobs. We’re sorry but, that’s the choice we face: Either we save those companies or we save your children’s future. We can’t save both.” The only way to save your future, and your children’s future, and your investments in those polluting companies is to nationalize the companies that need to be closed down so that their assets can be rationally and sustainably redeployed elsewhere in low-to-no carbon work and people are not thrown out on the streets. Since the capitalists aren’t going to give you new jobs, the government will have to do so. And in nationalizing those companies, we (society, the government) will buy them out, not expropriate their owners — many of whom are not evil capitalists but you and me via our retirement portfolios.

This, I think, is the starting point for the discussion we, and by extension the whole society, need to be having. Once we’re agreed that we have to face the difficult questions, then we could consider all kinds of campaigns that aim directly at cutting fossil fuel production/consumption. Here are a few that come to mind:

* Demand a cap on oil production (instead of divestment). Environmentalists should be out there demanding not just a firm cap on production, but that production be ratcheted down year by year toward virtual closure by 2050. Of course that will enrage the oil companies, the car companies and so on. But that’s a fight we want to take on because the evidence and logic are all on our side. We say, “bring it on.” We want to have that debate.

* Ban SUVs and giant pickup trucks. This whole industry is just gross overconsumption, a staggering waste of resources and needless
pollution, and should be called out as such.

* Ban cruise ships (for the reasons I already stated yesterday)

* Ban on production of virtually every kind of disposable product from plastic packaging to disposable H&M clothes to iPhones, to IKEA furniture, to the annual ritual of “new” cars. Here, to my mind, the possibilities for ridicule, humor, street theatre are endless on this topic. Just look at Whole Foods: miles of isles full of organic groceries — all packaged in triple foil and plastic wrappers that will still be in the landfill hundreds of years from now. ”Hey Whole Foods, What’s “organic” about that?”

* Demand that cell phones be designed to last decades, to be upgradable, rebuildable, completely recyclable instead of disposable (one small company is already trying to do much of this, which is admirable, but I’m not sure its a good business plan for them: Ethical Broadband Mobile & Phone Provider |The Phone Coop

* Abolish the bottled water industry: There have been many exposés and thorough critiques of this dumbass industry. It’s not just useless, but drives investment away from repairing and upgrading public water supplies, which we dearly need. This entire industry has to go, and its workers have to be given other jobs.

* Demand producers return to all refillable bottles, abolish all packaging that is not completely recyclable.

One could think of many more industries that need to be shuttered (the war industries for example). I’m sure you and others could think of many other worthwhile projects. But any of these seem to me more worthwhile than the divestment campaign because they all raise deeper questions about what we produce, how much we produce, how it gets produced, and more.

Honestly Steve, if McKibben and Klein spent anywhere near as much time on any of these sorts of topics, they could have generated huge public debate and, I think, mobilized greater numbers of young people who really want to change the world not just diddle with investment porfolios they don’t have anyway. Just imagine what the press would say if Naomi Klein got up on national TV and called for abolishing the production of SUVs, or abolishing the production of iPhones 6,7,8,X,Y,Z. All hell would break loose. Wouldn’t that be great? She’ll never do that of course. But we can do that.



From: David Klein
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2018

What Richard Smith writes needs to be broadcast far and wide.

These environmental NGOs are sucking the oxygen out of an opposition movement that would otherwise pose a serious threat to capitalism. Imagine if the socialists, communists, and labor unions of the 1930s had to deal with capitalism-loving-NGOs like what we have today. We would have never even gotten social security, medicare, or workers compensation.

Steve, the time is long overdue to stop being nuanced, clever, and coy about uttering the word “capitalism.” Next time you go to an environmental group meeting, point to capitalism as the fundamental cause of global destruction. People need to know that and to start talking about it. The pipe dream that capitalism will somehow be overthrown by people who are afraid to even utter the word is idiotic. A prerequisite to overthrowing capitalism is being able to talk about it.

I suggest that everyone make it a point, when talking to people as you go about your life, to say the word “capitalism” at least twice a week and say something bad about it. The NGOs may not like that; in fact they might even kick you out of a demo or two. But be brave and do it anyway.

Richard lists some excellent projects. Militating to shut down air travel would be another good one. In the apocalyptic British film, “The Age of Stupid,” one of the characters remarks, “other than setting fire to a forest, flying is the single worst thing an ordinary individual can do to cause climate change.” That’s essentially correct. Air travel contributes an inordinate amount of radiative forcing that is cooking the planet.



From: Kamran Nayeri
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2018

Please pardon me for repeating this.

Can we shut down air travel at will? How about banning SUVs and giant trucks and cruise ships, etc? Why not just shutting down CAPITALISM? Who or what is stopping us now that we are on the roll?

The problem was long ago tackled by others including Marx and Engels--these steps require revolutionary (anti-capitalist, socialist, and now ecosocialist) mass working class consciousness. I like to ban/shut down/abolish ecocentric capitalist civilization NOW. Unfortunately, I cannot unless I get the big majority of the people of this country and the world to agree with me. Only then we can begin the transcendence. This is the key lesson from the failed attempts at socialism so far--the revolutionary socialists have never been able to convince for any extended period of time enough of the world working people to enact and sustain such transformations.

That is why the discussion of strategy and tactics is important.

Nothing above denies the point that divestment campaigns cannot stop the climate crisis. Much more is needed. If anything, these campaigns are really directed by the leadership and some membership of the mainstream environmental groups that think Green Capitalism will be sufficient to stop climate change and are more than happy to work with the capitalist politicians, capitalist groups, bureaucrats, and technocrats to “make it happen.” We know the crisis is built into the anthropocentric capitalist system. The knife cannot cut its own handle.

Just some thoughts.



From: Patrick Bond
Date: Wed, 17 Jan 2018

Allow me some comradely rebuttals, Richard?

You wrote:

...Five years on, for all the divestment victories by colleges, unions, local governments and so on, this has not even slowed down the growth of fossil fuel production/consumption, let alone reversed it. Instead, fossil fuel production and consumption are soaring, as the articles I attached yesterday pointed out.
But that could be said about all the things we are really impressed with, including Blockadia (here’s a recent global map). Failure at the macro level, so far, does not disqualify any particular strategy or tactic (aside of course, from carbon trading and other false solutions).

(By the way, the same could be said of the long failures of the anti-apartheid divestment strategy from its late 1950s origins until mid-1985 - then suddenly there was an awesome success when the SA Afrikaner regime practically fell apart, due to a financial crisis in large part catalysed by the sanctions movement, leading to a momentous split with english-speaking big capital.)

What’s more, I don’t see much evidence that the campaign has even changed consciousness out there, has even convinced many people of the need to actually suppress fossil fuel consumption, or even ignited much popular discussion and debate around the issue.​

Ditto on my remark above. Nothing much has had that effect, so far, even the extreme weather that cost $300+ bn in 2017.

I think that these failures are not accidental. The divestment movement does not focus on production/consumption. Its focus is entirely on investment portfolios.​

This isn’t your best line of argument, Richard. As any good organizer knows, you work where you can, both geographically and where folks’ heads are at. For kids at campuses far from major point sources of emissions production, transmission or consumption, this is the most direct way to punish the corporations involved with hydrocarbon production. If effective, this strategy will ultimately bankrupt those companies, and en route will make it impossible for them to issue new shares to raise capital to increase the emissions machinery.

(Same in South Africa: the attempt to shut down not just financial flows to apartheid but also the regime’s productive economy, oil, military etc was indirect, via the international sanctions campaign - but sanctions had a strong impact on disincentivizing further expansion of these firms’ productive capacity.)

I don’t know anything about the origins of the divestment movement but I would guess that, of all the possible strategies, tactics, actions one might have chosen to take up in the effort to fight global warming, the environmentalists who came up with this strategy chose this strategy precisely because it avoided all the hard questions: It did not threaten production or consumption, so it did not threaten jobs.​

If brought to fruition, of course it will, by terminally damaging the big hydrocarbon producers. What the divest-invest message signals - albeit within the framework of capitalism, a major dilemma - is to redirect investment funds towards non-carbon systems of energy, transport, etc. Maybe they haven’t made the Just Transition arguments strongly enough in this work, but surely that would be the logic: to shift employment out of climate-killing activities and into earth-friendly work.

It did not call on people to change their lives, to “sacrifice,” even to buy a gas-sipper instead of a gas-hog. I guess you could say that it opted for the low-hanging fruit, but I don’t see that it’s even born much fruit. Focusing on divestment was always beside the point. It offered no hope for actually suppressing fossil fuel production because it never really aimed to do so.​

Well, the rebuttal here is that there are plenty of other excellent initiatives underway to complement divestment in all the areas of consumption and direct-action blockades. The complementarity of these struggles became obvious last year, once DAPL protesters were dislodged from their site occupation, and instead moved to put climate change much higher on their agenda so as to attack the pipeline’s bankers (including international financiers far out of direct range of local protesters). It’s that complementarity of the struggle that you haven’t addressed, in which having a major weapon like divestment really does favorably affect the balance of forces in particular sites of struggle like DAPL.

We could carry on like this for more decades, patting ourselves on the back with each new successful divestment campaign like McKibben and Klein and DeBlasio even as fossil fuel consumption continues to increase.​

To get momentum, each of these little victories - e.g. the World Bank refusing further fossil investments last month - is quite important, keeping people motivated. (From there we hope to raise a call in South Africa - which in 2010 received a $3.75 bn World Bank loan for a coal-fired power plant - to default on that particular “Odious Climate Debt”.) Obviously we all need this process of struggle - on all fronts - to ramp up very very rapidly.

(Again, same question of momentum on the South African scene in the 1980s, when we were all despairing of how long the struggle would take when oppression was at its peak in July 1985... and suddenly the balance of forces changed very rapidly over the next two months and nine years later, there was democracy.)

But, as we all know, we don’t have many more decades to waste in fruitless struggles. We need something that works. I don’t consider myself much of a strategist. It’s not my forte. But it does seem to me that we — the environmental movement — need to direct our energies toward efforts that have some chance of changing consciousness and suppressing fossil fuel consumption. I think the only way to do that is to take on the difficult questions, to aim directly at production and consumption.​

And having several thousand new cadre who have been conscientized about damages from fossil fuels because they got practice making these arguments to their school or church or municipal trustees helps enormously. (I hope!)

We have to be honest and say that, “Yes, protecting the environment means we have to shut down or retrench all kinds of polluting industries. There is no easy win-win “green” solution here. Closing/retrenching polluting industries are going to hurt your investment portfolio and cost jobs. We’re sorry but, that’s the choice we face: Either we save those companies or we save your children’s future. We can’t save both.”​

That’s the line of the divestment movement, isn’t it?

The only way to save your future, and your children’s future, and your investments in those polluting companies is to nationalize the companies that need to be closed down so that their assets can be rationally and sustainably redeployed elsewhere in low-to-no carbon work and people are not thrown out on the streets.​

Although nationalization isn’t a demand - the U.S. has such a backward political culture that to be mainstreamed as the divestment movement desires, that call would frighten off too many people - it should be, because you’re right: a proper Just Transition to decarbonized forms of energy, transport, production, consumption, agriculture, urbanization, disposal, etc will need state ownership.

(This is hard everywhere, even a South Africa boasting the world’s most militant working class. In considering the loss of 40% of jobs at Lonmin - the massacre mining house which was bought at 98.6% discount by a disgusting rival last month - my attempts to raise the nationalization option got zero traction. But we must try harder to get that obvious direction into public discussion.)

Since the capitalists aren’t going to give you new jobs, the government will have to do so. And in nationalizing those companies, we (society, the government) will buy them out, not expropriate their owners — many of whom are not evil capitalists but you and me via our retirement portfolios.​

Look, most of the arguments that follow I have no problem with. But it’s still a period of building cadres and getting good information out, and divestment campaigns at several hundred sites of struggle are part of that process. What probably doesn’t help too much is making campaign arguments that are divorced from those organic sites of struggle. So yes, by all means work to ban all these carbon-intensive aspects of daily life, but so as you’re not pissing in the wind, show how these strategies dovetail with existing struggles. There are so many excellent ways to link the issues, and make a campaign for better public transport in California cities and suburbs also a climate justice campaign, for example. Have you tried figuring out how to make the links, frustrating as we all find that sort of work? It’s absolutely necessary, and without connecting to existing social forces, you run the risk of parachuting in the climate campaign without it getting any traction whatsoever.

So when you complain ...

Just imagine what the press would say if Naomi Klein got up on national TV and called for abolishing the production of SUVs, or abolishing the production of iPhones 6,7,8,X,Y,Z. All hell would break loose. Wouldn’t that be great? She’ll never do that of course.​

... my sympathies are not with you, Richard, but with Klein’s strategic approach, attempting to connect the dots as much as possible. (Because This Changes Everything, she convincingly shows.)

Klein certainly has tried her best to make grand strategic interventions, such as calling for a BDS-USA when Trump was elected and also pulled out of Paris. Frankly, to my own great regret, there’s been very little take-up of this fine strategy. (Maybe 2018 will move us forward, especially here in Africa where finally local elites have gotten sufficiently insulted by the Donald to mouth some anti-imperialist sentiments.)

And that reflects how weak the U.S. progressive forces are, fragmented and unable to persuade more than a tiny (and brilliant) fraction of the labor movement to think seriously about ways forward.

So if your disgust for divestment is a reflection of that humbling impotence of the U.S. left, then maybe get to the core of that problem rather than focus so much angst on a symptom?

All this said with complete respect and comradeship, of course!




From: Richard Smith
Date: 18 Jan 2018

Dear comrades,

I’m pleased to see that my criticisms of the fossil fuel divestment tactic have elicited some friendly discussion. Without discussion of results thus far of particular strategies and tactics and evaluation of possible alternatives and/or additional complementary possibilities, we can’t get anywhere. Obviously, discussing these via email is not the best venue because nuances, irony, a smile here and there are lost in text. But it’s about all we can do right now. Let’s please calm down and not “flame” each other. I would like to respond to Patrick’s thoughtful comments, and those of others, in the same supportive comradely fashion:

First, the problem (as I see it): The reality out there is that for all the victories of the fossil fuel divestment campaign, we have so far not managed to suppress actual fossil fuel consumption, anywhere, nor have we changed popular consciousness very much — some, but not very much. In particular, while there is some vague popular consciousness that the fossil fuel companies are “bad,” I don't see any evidence of widespread popular understanding that we need to suppress fossil fuel consumption, at least this is not evidenced by people’s behavior. There’s no mass movement of resistance to fossil fuel use out there like there was a mass movement against the American war in Vietnam, for example. There is a small movement, blockadia, for example, which has had its biggest successes to date in Vancouver (though even there it is, at the moment, stalled). And 300,000 people did turn out here in NYC in Sept. 2014 for the climate march. But those are still nothing like mass movements. We are, as Patrick says, “weak.” Looking around, the evidence is that we seem to be living in a kind of fin-de-siècle world in which we’re all burning fossil fuel (and consuming every other resource) as if there were no tomorrow:

*Fossil fuel consumption in soaring everywhere, not just in China but even in the U.S. (despite all our efficiency gains of recent decades).

*Electricity consumption is soaring everywhere, driven in part by the ever-growing production of new gadgets that consume electricity. And for all the gains of solar and wind, these still produce trivial shares of electricity generation worldwide.

* Instead of producing gas-sippers, the auto industry has almost quit manufacturing actual cars because, given the cheap price of gas and given their incessant advertising push, all people seem to want to buy these days are humongous trucks and SUVs, some of which consume more fuel that the American land yachts of the 1950s. This is true even in China which basically has no oil.

*Houses just seem to get bigger and bigger (and the construction industry, it should be noted, is the biggest consumer of plastics in the U.S., accounting for a third of all plastics consumption and most plastics are fossil fuel based).

*Air travel is just off the charts. Whereas when I was a kid, we vacationed by going boating or driving to the nearest mountains and national parks (I grew up in Seattle where we were blessed with a magnificent natural environment and lots of recreational opportunities close at hand), today people jet off to the far corners of the world at the drop of a hat, even several times a year.

*Cruise ships are the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry (I won’t say more about this)

*Production of disposable products is relentlessly and systematically replacing durable products across the economy from shoes and clothes to iPhones to appliances, furniture, cars, even actual houses (really: in China, where neighborhoods dating back to the Ming and Ching dynasties have been leveled and replaced with newly constructed but shabby houses and apartment buildings which even government officials admit are not expected to last not much more than ten years. Another mark of China's “advanced” capitalism).

*And so on and so forth (I discussed more such trends in my six theses article)

So this is the reality we face. In truth, we’re weak, and we’re losing the battle against global warming. Naturally, in such a desperate situation, it’s tempting (at least for me) to think that if we had a better, more political, more direct approach, we would have a better chance at turning things around. Maybe, maybe not. Again, movement building is not my forte. I don’t claim to have any great insight here. Other people, Patrick Bond, Naomi Klein, Bill McKibben and others have vastly more experience and are much better at that than I am. Still, for what it’s worth, it seems to me that the fossil fuel divestment campaign is not a particularly effective weapon. As I’ve said before, I don’t oppose divestment campaigns in general. In the South African anti-apartheid movement, I campaigned for divestment at the University of California in the 1970s and 80s and, as Patrick reminds us, that was a triumphal success. I also support the Boycott Divest from Israel campaign right now. We can see the huge potential of that campaign by the apoplectic response of the Israeli fascists and the JDL and religious fascists in this country.

That said, I don’t think it’s a very good, or the best tactic we could/should use in the fight against global warming, for the reasons I stated. It’s quite true, as Patric says, that

"Failure at the macro level, so far, does not disqualify any particular strategy or tactic (aside of course, from carbon trading and other false solutions).”​

It’s also true that as Patrick says again: "Nothing much has had that effect, so far, even the extreme weather that cost $300+ bn in 2017.” Maybe no matter what strategy or tactic we adopt, we will still fail in the end. That may be our fate.

But here let me add a response to Patrick: He says,

As any good organizer knows, you work where you can, both geographically and where folks' heads are at. For kids at campuses far from major point sources of emissions production, transmission or consumption, this is the most direct way to punish the corporations involved with hydrocarbon production. If effective, this strategy will ultimately bankrupt those companies, and en route will make it impossible for them to issue new shares to raise capital to increase the emissions machinery.​

Here I strongly disagree. Yes, the divestment movement seriously threatened the South African government financially. Yes, the BD from Israel could seriously threaten the Israeli government. But there is just no way that fossil fuel divestment campaign is going to “bankrupt those companies . . . make it impossible to issue new shares or raise new capital . . .” Patrick, I wish you were right on this but I think you’re dreaming. Those companies are the richest companies in the world. They’re gushing cash (so to speak). With prices rising again, they can’t pump oil fast enough to rake in all the potential profits. Even if colleges, cities, trade unions and so on drop their stock, even if the World Bank refuses to fund fossil fuel investments, they have no trouble raising cash. Someone else will buy their stock, the Chinese for example: they’re buying into Aramco and other companies because China desperately needs more oil and gas, and they can pay for it. China is already the world’s largest importer and will soon become the world’s consumer of oil and gas. The companies’ real problem is the difficulty of finding more easily accessible supplies, and also future competition from renewables. But I don’t see divestment campaign as any threat to “terminally damaging the big hydrocarbon producers.”

So, for a variety of reasons, I don’t think the divestment campaign is the best use of our limited eco-socialist resources. I very much favor direct action: blockadia, DAPL (I participated in blocking train tracks against weapons shipments in California in the 1970s), and so on.

But I would like to see campaigns that focus directly on oil production/ consumption, not just investment. I would like to see a campaign that calls for a cap on oil production instead of just disinvesting. I don’t see why students, unions, cities could not focus on that just as easily as on divestment. If McKibben & Co. were pushing DeBlasio to cut the city’s consumption of oil, instead of just its pension fund investments in oil, DeBlasio could not so easily blow off criticism of his gross personal overconsumption. And such a campaign could spur all kinds of direct municipal actions from shifting to renewable energy, reconsidering how many Uber limos should be allowed on public streets, cutting the waste of electricity from leaving the lights on all night in buildings, rethinking buying fleets of SUVs for the police department and the Mayor’s office, etc. etc. Divestment campaigns per se, don't challenge actual fossil fuel consumption. But isn't that what we really need to do?



From: Kamran Nayeri
Date: 18 Jan 2018

I have been meaning to say a few words about the fossil fuel divestment campaign in the U.S. in comparison to the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the 1980s and the BDS campaign against Israel. The anti-apartheid divestment campaign was of an entirely different order than the others two because the ANC was a revolutionary democratic mass movement fighting apartheid for decades and Nelson Mandela was a folk-hero in the U.S. among the Left but also in the union movement, in black churches and other churches, and among the progressive student movement. In New York where I was active as a socialist, there was tabling, educational meetings in colleges, unions meeting, and churches, and there were rallies and marches.

The BDS is also a movement, mostly based on campuses, with links to Palestinian struggle and support among the progressive Jewish community. Yet, the BDS falls short in comparison with the anti-apartheid divestment movement because it is largely focused on the two-state "solution" rather than demolishing the Israeli colonial-settler state in favor of a democratic Palestine as home to Palestinian and Jews and others. It also suffers from a lack of any revolutionary national-democratic leadership among the Palestinians.

The situation with the fossil fuels divestment in the U.S. (I cannot speak to other countries) is as I have stated before far from building an independent movement of the working people. It is rather a joining of the leadership of some mainstream climate justice groups, chiefly 350.org that includes both Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein (she is a member of the board of 350.org) and others with some Democratic Party leaders who as even the NYT admitted in an editorial a few days ago serves their politicians ambitions (as well as the climate activists who work with them). It really is NOT a movement. As I related from my own experience, in Sonoma County, the woman who has taken this project as her own had trouble filling up ONE CAR with supporters to go to Sacramento to stage a silent protest at the CALPERS, the California State retirement fund, board meeting.

Of course, I fully realize that we are NOT in a position to offer anything in terms of ACTION to stop and reverse the climate crisis. But to work towards that goal, we must try. That requires a sense of where we are and where we need to go and how to get there. These are the burning questions of our small movement. I am sure we can learn from each other’s knowledge and experience to take steps in this direction.



From: Michael Friedman
Date: 21 Jan 2018

I'm extremely pleased that Patrick brought up the almost elephant in the discussion, which is the anti-apartheid divestment movement. And, of course, it was appropriate that Patrick did so. That was the movement in which many of us college students at the time cut our teeth. And like today's divestment movements, some at that time did not consider it "radical" enough. I remember heated debates (and even slander campaigns waged against divestment activists) with some Pan-Africanists who felt that divestment was not "anti-imperialist" enough, and that activists should be demanding support for the PAC and "victory to the armed struggle." And then there were those, such as the Progressive Labor Party, which felt that the entire enterprise was hopelessly reformist, and demanding the overthrow of capitalism. The problem with both of these groupings is that they really lacked a political analysis, and a strategy. The analysis they lacked was of the social forces that were actually in play on the ground. Class forces, it needs to be said. And the strategy -- which generated most avowed socialists' support for the divestment movement -- was mass social movement-building. Instead, the rrrrevolutionaries sought to impose their idealistic schemas, on the movement, or at least the organized activists in the movement. Within their line of reasoning was a decidedly unradical mistrust or lack of confidence in ordinary people. Why else would they come to meetings stridently and sometimes violently seeking to convince leftist activists to "get the movement to" give up divestment and "support the armed struggle" or "overthrow capitalism"? The fact of the matter was that divestment wasn't decided upon by a cabal of activists. At Cornell, I was one of three members of the YSA that (to the then SWP's credit) were urged to throw ourselves into divestment movement building. But, neither we, nor any other organized left group started that movement. It emerged from the grass-roots, from hundreds, and then millions of students across the country, many of whom emerged as leaders on their campuses, and then other venues. How could some self-appointed vanguard even consider imposing its own disconnected tactics and demands -- even formally correct ones -- on that movement? Many of us were, indeed, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist. We looked, as Patrick said, for ways to link the real, existing political moment with broader demands and deepening systemic understanding.

Sadly, Richard seems to be cribbing the political playbook from those same idealist forces that many of us confronted during the anti-apartheid struggle. He admits that he is ignorant of the origins of the current divestment struggle, but makes a big and revealing assumption: "I would guess that, of all the possible strategies, tactics, actions one might have chosen to take up in the effort to fight global warming, the environmentalists who came up with this strategy chose this strategy precisely because it avoided all the hard questions: It did not threaten production or consumption, so it did not threaten jobs." Isn't it more likely that Klein and others, who Richard acknowledges are experienced organizers, were both taking up a demand that was already circulating among student activists, and relating to the political efficacy of that demand during the anti-apartheid struggle?

It seems to me that we ecosocialists need to place equal emphasis on both sides of the term, we are not "pure-and-simple" environmentalists (green Gompers?), nor old school, developmentalist socialists. This means employing class analysis and politics -- effective, organizing tactics at the service of a social-movement strategy. For the reasons stated by Patrick, the movement as it exists should be a radical left's point of departure, which doesn't exclude making deeper links, nor raising other demands where appropriate. At times, this may even mean we have to back counter-intuitive demands to build the broader movement, as Patrick can detail regarding South African workers opposition to a coal-plant closing.

I would also add that some of Richard's proposals ring of precisely the same dismissal of class analysis as the old ultras within the earlier divestment movement. For example, his assertions in the vein of "Houses just seem to get bigger and bigger." I would urge Richard to differentiate and detail WHOSE houses are getting "bigger and bigger"? Without this clarification, as the basis for a demand, this won't resonate well with the millions of Americans who live in deteriorating, double-mortgaged housing stock, particularly working-class people of color.

He might also wish to clarify his demands to eliminate cruise ships and airline travel. Millions of working class immigrants -- such as the large Dominican population in NYC -- travel en masse to visit their loved ones during the holidays. Would he make provision for such travel? Or would he choose to alienate some of the most oppressed sections of the working class? In addition, the country I emigrated to, Antigua, is utterly dependent on tourism, as are many other developing countries. The fiat elimination of airliners or cruise ships would total these countries' economies. Such a demand would logically be seen as "green imperialism" by people down here. These countries simply don't have the economic capacity to retool at the drop of a hat. Any discussion of such changes in the developed countries must a priori take into account the impact on the global south. Such demands must be preceded by discussion -- and real, concrete action -- toward climate reparations. What I am suggesting is that these demands need to be thought through much more deeply, and in the framework of a revolutionary socialist political strategy.


From: Richard Smith
Date: 22 January 2018

Mike, thanks for your contribution. I have a question for you. Climate scientists tell us that we in the large industrialized nations including China need to radically suppress fossil fuel production/consumption by about 6% per year from now through around 2050 until we virtually phase out fossil fuel use — or our goose is cooked. Assuming you agree with the above, how do you propose do to this?

I criticized fossil fuel divestment as a useless tool for this task because it does not address production/consumption and for all the fossil fuel divestment victories, fossil fuel use is actually soaring and, according to IEA and industry predictions, on track to grow by an additional 40 percent or so in the next few decades. So why waste time with a losing strategy which is, moreover, beside the point?

I said that, given the failure to date of all “green” capitalist efforts to date to suppress fossil fuel emissions — cap & trade, carbon taxes, and fossil fuel divestment, the time has come (actually it’s long overdue) for the environmental movement to call for directly suppressing fossil fuel production/consumption. In this thread and in my book and essays I have suggested a few ways we might be able to do that such as:

1) Cap and cut fossil fuel production/consumption. After all is said and done, the only way to really cut fossil fuel production/consumption is to do so directly: Impose a cap on production and ration fossil fuel use by need, not price.

2) Shut down and or drastically retrench fossil-fuel dependent industries. Some extremely polluting, unnecessary, superfluous, wasteful industries or production lines should, I suggest, just be closed down altogether. I suggested that SUVs, cruise ships, many industrial chemicals including those used in industrial farming, in plastics production and so on, bottled water, virtually all disposable products from plastic bags and wrappers to iPhones 6,7,8,X,Y,Z, disposable shoes, clothes, furniture, the whole scam of annual “new model” auto production, and so on. Let me just add leaf blowers to that list. The list of dispensable industries we do not need to have a decent living standard is very long. I’ve often quoted a guy who said that “most production today is not for the needs of people but for the needs of industries to sell to people.” I stand by that. In general, I suggested that, if we really want to cut fossil fuel consumption and the waste of other resources, most to all disposable industries need to be replaced with durable production (like many used to be), with shared consumption, and so on.

I suggested that other industries including coal and oil production, construction, ordinary auto production, aircraft and airlines, and others would have to be radically retrenched (in truth we need some coal, at least for steel production). I did not say we need to “eliminate” airlines. I said we need to drastically reduce the number of flights, by rationing them. I did, however, say that if there is no way that the cruise ships can be made ecologically sustainable, then what choice does society have but to close down that industry? The goes for many other industries including those I listed above.

Against this, Mike says we should not close down or retrench the airline industry or the cruise boat industry because that would amount to “green imperialism” since lots of Caribbean countries depend upon the airline and cruise boat industries. Well, the same goes for Detroit or Shenzhen, doesn’t it? These days, the American “auto" industry is almost entirely dependent upon production of monster Ticonderogas, Armadas, Denalis and similar SUVs and ginormous trucks. There is just no way that, outside of some industrial uses, that these vehicles are “necessary” let alone sustainable. So if we abolish or drastically reduce production of these ridiculously unsustainable vehicles, hundreds of thousands of workers will be out of work. The situation in China is even worse: The whole economy has been rebuilt based upon producing mostly unsustainable disposable products from shoes and clothes and plastic junk to iPhones and cars. Those exports turned China into the light-industrial workshop of the world but today, all this unsustainable consumerism has spread to China itself. Today, more than a hundred million jobs in China depend upon those industries. In the U.S. millions of jobs depend upon the oil and gas and coal industries too. Yet if we don’t close down or drastically retrench unsustainable industries from Texas oil fields to Detroit auto production to Shenzhen iPhone production to airline flights to Antigua, then our goose is cooked. At the end of the day, there’s just no other way to suppress emissions.

If Mike had read my articles and my book he would know that whenever I have stated that the only way to suppress emissions is to suppress industries producing those emissions, I always paired that with the argument that societies and governments are going to have to create new jobs, and new jobs in low-to-no carbon work at comparable wages for all those millions of workers whose jobs will have to be eliminated in order to save the planet for those workers’ children. That’s not only just and fair but it’s the only way to get them on our side to save the planet. I completely agree with Mike that "These countries [tourism dependent countries] simply don't have the economic capacity to retool at the drop of a hat. Any discussion of such changes in the developed countries must a priori take into account the impact on the global south. Such demands must be preceded by discussion -- and real, concrete action -- toward climate reparations.” I’ve said many times myself that the industrial countries need to abolish unsustainable production and turn to helping less developed countries develop but in non-capitalist modes. I also completely agree with Mike when he says that “What I am suggesting is that these demands need to be thought through much more deeply, and in the framework of a revolutionary socialist political strategy.” This is a huge challenge but this is the challenge we have to face.

So, to come back to the dilemma I posed at the beginning: If we don’t shut down or retrench industries fossil fuel production and fossil fuel dependent industries, we can’t cut emissions. But if we don’t cut emissions we’re doomed. What to do? I suggest as thinkers and activists, we need to do two things: 1) First, admit that green capitalist strategies including divestment have failed and cannot work, and urge the environmental movement to push for direct cuts in fossil fuel production/consumption with all that entails. “Cap Oil or Kill the Planet." It’s as simple as that.
2) Secondly, devote more attention to envisioning practical utopias as alternatives to market-driven ecological collapse. We need to envision a sustainable world, to envision new modes of life that do not depend upon incessant consumerism, on ever-growing production of luxury condos (that’s what as a carpenter I’ve done for a living for most of the past thirty years), on ever-growing and ever more trivial and irresponsible tourism, on envisioning ways to conserve instead of waste resources, and so on. How about responsible, sustainable tourism, for example? How about, say, sailboats to Antigua instead of jet planes or ginormous cruise boats polluting your waters and bashing your lovely coral reefs? If we don’t have to spend our work lives producing useless, destructive, wasteful products and services, we’ll have plenty of time off to take the slow boat and enjoy the trip. Just a thought.


From: Michael Friedman
Date: 22 Jan 2018

I think Patrick, myself, and others have already answered this a number of times over. You have repeated your consumption/production argument several times. But, I think the key message is that we need to think this through as socialist organizers, not environmentalists. At the forefront, we should not place the environment and the ideal programmatic responses to the environmental crisis, but the broad masses of ordinary people, where they are at, what demands and tactics will flesh out a strategy that allows us to proceed to your goals -- within the context of a socialist transformation, of course. You keep proclaiming how urgent the looming crisis is, but none of that matters without masses in motion, and in motion with a deepening political and environmental awareness. One that comes not from enlightened folks, but from collective struggle. Perhaps the question needs a pedagogical, not environmental, focus.


From: Kamran Nayeri
Date: 22 Jan 2018

I agree with the thrust of your contributions which I have outlined in a number of essays directed at the mainstream climate justice movement as well in discussions on this list. One issue needs thinking about. Ecological socialism is not the old socialist doctrines including those held by the 1980s YSA (which you belonged to) or the 1980s SWP (which I did). The recognition already noted in The German Ideology and later developed by Marx and Engels but never integrated into the materialist conception of the history of human embeddedness in nature calls for a corresponding integration of theory and practice as ecological socialism that no longer divides the world into socialist and environmentalist movements. This theoretical and practical work is still undone despite some important contributions. Again, this note does not deny the value of your contribution (indeed, it would be very helpful to anyone interested to revisit The German Ideology and Trotsky's Transitional Program to see a similar argument done in terms of materialist philosophy and in terms of strategy and tactics learned by the Bolsheviks and summarized by Trotsky).
 
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Hey everyone,
Thanks for inviting me onto the forum. I don't get to be a part of such thoughtful discussions anywhere else, and reading this thread makes me realize how much I miss serious political discussion.
On the whole, I find Richard's arguments about divestment for fossil fuels convincing. These corporations are too rich, and can always find investments from other capitalists who have no ethical standards. I don't think it makes sense to compare them with nation-states like South Africa or Israel. They just don't have the same vulnerabilities. What I do like about it however, is the effort to look at the problem on a system-wide level. I think it's dangerously simplistic to judge a strategy based on its impact to date. Progress is not linear. I'm much more disturbed by the people who diligently recycle and drive a hybrid car, but never contemplate the capitalist system. It's too easy to just disengage and substitute personal choices for system change. Individual consumption choices will not add up enough (not to mention the capitalist necessity for economic growth). Maybe some people need to have the experience of the divestment campaign to get to something better. Let's offer something better!
The best way to defeat bad strategies is to organize around better ones. We need to offer inspirational solutions, like expanded public transportation, that create jobs, improve the lives of regular working people, and take a big bite out of climate change.
I also think cruise ships are an easy target, because really, how many people take cruises? Air travel have become so accessible to the public, and people are so interconnected around the country and the globe, I think that's a harder nut to crack. In general, I think we need to slow life down, so people can take slower methods of transportation for big trips. I am looking forward to my first ride in a zeppelin! ;)
I believe a rationally planned economy, that guarantees jobs and income, and allows for democratic cooperation between workers and communities will make the right choices for the climate. Highlighting the toughest choices that need to be made, regardless of what system, is not be the best approach for the general public. But I still think we can make the argument that 1) a socialist society will be far better for the vast majority of us, and 2) It's the only way to address the climate crisis.


In Solidarity,
~Matt A.
 
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