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Ecosocialism’s Greatest Challenge: The Color-Line and the Twenty-First Century Ecoleft

#1
Reflecting on the past week's demonstrations in San Francisco, I posted the following article to the System Change Not Climate Change website and invite comments, discussion, and debate here on the scncc.net forum.

Ecosocialism’s Greatest Challenge: The Color-Line and the Twenty-First Century Ecoleft


Banner at demonstration outside Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, September 13, 2018.

Ted Franklin | SCNCC | September 18, 2018

“The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.”
—W.E.B. Du Bois

Shortly before protesters gathered around the world on the eve of the Global Climate Action Summit, an ecosocialist friend commented on the pointlessness of engaging in more “feel good” marches. Something struck me as horribly wrong about this casual dismissal of mass actions in which we take to the streets to bear witness to the mounting opposition to global ecocide

As an active participant in San Francisco Bay Area climate actions over the past five years, I can’t think of a single march or rally deserving of the trivializing “feel good” label. None has been a platform for Al Gore or Michael Bloomberg or Jerry Brown or Michael Shellenberger to peddle market solutions to climate change, fantasies of capitalism without fossil fuels, nuclear power, or geo-engineering.

Marches and rallies are important to the Left not only for their potential to topple governments, but also because the process of organizing street actions builds organizational capacity, strengthens ties among activists working on different fronts, creates opportunities to engage with the larger community, and sparks intense political struggle without which our movement will remain caged on the pages of theoretical journals. If building a more powerful movement also feels good, then we ought to feel good more often.

The Solidarity to Solutions Week of Actions that took place in San Francisco this past week exemplified these gains for the climate movement. They were not “feel good” exercises. In fact, they highlighted the growing strength of a militant anti-capitalist climate movement with significant leadership by and participation of people of color, women, and indigenous activists greatly underrepresented in the self-identified ecosocialist Left.

Ecosocialists have much to learn from this movement that we do not lead, but that articulates a critique of green capitalism, the commodification of nature, and imperialist domination of the Global South that is deeply compelling and akin to our own.

Over recent months, the Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, Indigenous Environmental Network and Right to the City joined forces in the It Takes Roots Alliance to build a week of actions in San Francisco as counterpoint to the Global Climate Action Summit where “market-based schemes will be promoted as the only response to climate change.”

It Takes Roots vowed to “spotlight frontline community solutions to the interlinked economic, democratic and climate crises currently threatening humanity. Frontline community leaders from the Bay Area, across the U.S. and around the world will share and discuss place-based solutions that serve to simultaneously decarbonize, detoxify, demilitarize and democratize our economy through critical strategies such as Indigenous land rights, food sovereignty, zero waste, public transportation, ecosystem restoration, universal healthcare, worker rights, housing rights, racial and gender justice, and economic relocalization.”

The week kicked off with a 30,000-person march in conjunction with the People’s Climate Movement. The march ended without the usual rally orations, but instead featured painting of the world’s largest street mural and a vibrant street fair where groups actively fighting climate change in the Bay Area had an opportunity to engage one-on-one with participants.

The week continued with tours of local sites of environmental struggle, a day-long It Takes Roots member assembly, another day-long summit of workshops open to all, and two major direct actions confronting the invitation-only GCAS from which grassroots and radical activists were excluded.

The larger of the direct actions involved over a thousand demonstrators who linked arms to block entrance to the GCAS on the day Michael Bloomberg was scheduled to speak.

A major theme of this demonstration was “Rise Against Climate Capitalism.” In the call to disrupt GCAS, Diablo Rising Tide posted, “We’ve known for a long time to not believe the false narrative that green capitalism can take care of us and the planet. The people that got us into the climate crisis are not going to be the ones to get us out of it.”

Challenging Governor Brown’s claim to leadership of the world’s fight against climate change, the call continued “Jerry Brown's record on offshore drilling, fracking and protecting the water and air of local refinery communities doesn’t match his rhetoric — so we’re skeptical to say the least.”

Coordinated by It Takes Roots, Indigenous Environmental Network, Idle No More SF Bay, the Ruckus Society, Brown’s Last Chance, and Diablo Rising Tide, the blockade of GCAS was at once one of the most diverse and one of the most explicitly anti-capitalist environmental actions ever held in the Bay Area. Led mostly by young people of color, demonstrators held the street for about three hours before marching to a nearby park for a closing gathering around a large circular banner that proclaimed “End Climate Capitalism.”

What does this all mean for the future of ecosocialism?

First, it means we means we who belong to largely white ecosocialist groups have many allies with deep roots in communities of color who share our understanding that capitalism is incompatible with a decent future for life on our planet.

Second, if ecosocialism is to go anywhere. ecosocialists must make common cause with these allies, building relationships through working together, just as they have worked together over recent years to build relationship among themselves. If the members of the more than 200 organizations aligned with It Takes Roots are not going to be part of our ecosocialist revolution, we need to reconsider our vision.

Third, to join in common cause will require respect for the vision and priorities these groups bring forward as we all struggle for the revolutionary change. Ecological Marxists like John Bellamy Foster, Chris Williams, Ian Angus, Andreas Malm, Fred Magdoff, Michael Löwy, Joel Kovel, and Richard Smith have made great contributions to our understanding of capitalism’s threat to life on the planet and socialism’s offer of a hopeful way out, but we will not find the path forward if we are only listening to the voices of white male academic Marxists, even those who have the happy gift of writing in a popular style.

Listening to other voices will sometimes require us to accept leadership from others outside our existing circles. The explicit embrace of socialism should not be a litmus test in determining whom we embrace. Twentieth century socialism led to tragic flaws and perversions that have made many sincere anti-capitalists reluctant to reclaim the word, even when garnished with the “eco” prefix. Any notion that we who currently identify as ecosocialists are the bearers of a complete vision of post-revolutionary society, or a complete strategy to get there, is absurd. Our ecosocialist tendency is still much clearer in its diagnosis of the capitalist fever that grips the planet than it is in its practical grasp of how to build a movement that can replace capitalism. The socialist canon does not answer the perennial question, “What is to be done?” An authentic movement for liberation and survival in our time will involve leadership from Indigenous activists like Kandi Mossett and Tom Goldtooth, guiding insights from African-American thinkers like Keeanga-Yamahhta Taylor, and inspiration from the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. We have much to offer in collaboration, not only our connection to a worldwide history of struggle against capitalism and a theory of how it can be overcome but also our curiosity, our determination, and, if we are really hoping to change the world, our humility.

The It Takes Roots alliance has hurdles of its own to overcome if it is to be a unifying ideological and practical center. Some activists who wanted to be part of the “official” Week of Actions could not figure out how to get on board. Mysteriously, It Takes Roots did not welcome efforts by grassroots activists who have been holding off siting of a coal terminal in frontline West Oakland for three-and-a-half years. No Coal in Oakland offered to organize an ecotour and demonstration on the Bay Bridge pedestrian walkway on the day set aside for ecotours. Sunflower Alliance, a local group that led efforts to deny tar sands oil a path to market by imposing caps on local emissions from Northern California refineries, also found itself sidelined. The emphasis on Indigenous leadership, including prayer, reportedly left some Christian pastors wondering where they fit in. Although It Take Roots is sharply critical of capitalism, it has, as yet, few roots in Labor.

Despite these concerns, it would be a tragic mistake for activists who are not well-connected to It Takes Roots to assume ill will. Staging the Week of Actions was an enormous undertaking that, as anyone who has organized a big coalition event knows, required much internal struggle that detracted from the group’s ability to sort out some of its relations with those outside its ranks.

After No Coal in Oakland’s ecotour proposal got no response, No Coal in Oakland activists, a number of whom identify as ecosocialists, found other ways to participate successfully in Sol2Sol week. On the first day of Jerry Brown’s summit, NCIO staged a spirited picket line outside a nearby responsible investment conference to call out the bank seeking to finance the West Oakland coal terminal. Diablo Rising Tide, one of the organizations spearheading direct actions during Sol2Sol week, cosponsored the action along with Sunflower Alliance, and East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. A No Coal in Oakland affinity group also participated in the GCAS blockade. Relationships are built this way, by joining forces.

To be sure, bridging the gap between the currently small ranks of self-described ecosocialists—some 40 or so of whom marched in the DSA-sponsored ecosocialist contingent on September 8 in San Francisco--and the “movement of movements” prefigured by It Takes Roots is going to require ecosocialists to look outside our silo. Only by dedication to that task will we succeed in addressing the twenty-first century problem of the ecoleft’s own color-line.

Ted Franklin is a co-coordinator of No Coal in Oakland and a member of System Change Not Climate Change and the Democratic Socialists of America Ecosocialist Working Group.
 
#2
I understand the necessity of building alliances Ted, and appreciate the work you do, but following the stale, format-following climate marches I have participated in here, I rarely "feel good", in fact I usually feel like drinking. We don't have the forces here to provide such "counter-point" actions, so radical voices are rarely heard (or actively silenced). In this sense, the repetitive marches only display the local movement's weakness (.001% of the population shows up) and reinforce dissociation and disavowal in the general population because the action, marching and speeching, seem so incommensurate with the existential crisis we are trying to describe/convey. So mine is not a "casual dismissal", it is frustration born of years of fruitless activism including many direct actions and arrests. Perhaps it is contingent on location, but here in the heartland, the Sierra Club, 350.org, and other NGOs make sure there are no risks and demands entail no threats. The liberal/enviro "green capitalist" complex still dominates the discussion in most places.

On a more abstract, theoretical level, I suspect the system welcomes our marches as wonderful displays of the plural, inclusiveness of democratic capitalism. Look how we are allowed to dissent! Look at how tolerant the system is! People can "bear witness" and form human chains or take the streets (whose streets, our streets, this is what democracy looks like, etc) whatever. We provide cover for capital's ideological project.

As for the ecoleft's color line, I think this is also contingent on place. I know that out here we attempt to work with indigenous groups but the "silo" works both ways and it is difficult, time-consuming work to build trust. A serious post-Standing Rock reflection should ask the honest, hard questions about collaboration and strategy because we don't need more defeats.
 
#3
Thank you for this Ted—great articulation of why ecosocialists should have humility about collaborating across difference and be willing to accept leadership from people outside “ecosocialist” circles who are deeply ideologically aligned and rooted in local struggles. The protests you describe were an important intervention against the GCAS, and it's a very welcome development that there's an increasingly strong and militant anti-capitalist climate movement led by PoC and Indigenous organizers from frontline communities.

Re: this part:
“The emphasis on Indigenous leadership, including prayer, reportedly left some Christian pastors wondering where they fit in.”
I agree that ecosocialist and climate justice organizers need to make common cause with aligned elements of the religious left, but since anti-colonialism is an explicit part of It Takes Roots’ analysis, it makes sense to me that for these particular actions around GCAS, which were meant to center Indigenous priorities, they didn’t go out of their way to include Christian pastors.

Re: the particularities of attempts to collaborate with It Takes Roots, it sounds like your group did well to figure out useful ways to participate in solidarity even though you weren’t actively included in the ITR coalition. Coalition work can definitely be hard and time-consuming work, and POC/Indigenous groups might be mistrusting of largely white groups for lots of historical reasons. As you suggested, often the best thing organizers from largely white groups (like DSA & other ecosocialist orgs) can offer is humility and willingness to be de-centered.
 
#4
Welcome to SCNCC.net, sheek, and thanks for your comments. The arrival of ITR makes me very hopeful about the future of our movement. The climate movement may be one place where the relationship between white socialists and POC/Indigenous activists (socialist and otherwise) can begin to be worked out. Of course, there are other struggles--for housing, education, medical care, for example--where these relationships can be built. I agree that "willingness to be de-centered" is key for organizers from largely white groups. Sometimes this will take us out of our comfort zone. We are bound to make mistakes, but the only way to build trust is through our efforts to learn from the past and try to do better.

Personally, I have been very much inspired by the Indigenous activists who have provided the spark and spirit in many struggles to resist infrastructure expansion. I hope folks from other religious traditions appreciate the distinct voice and authority that Indigenous leaders, many of them women, bring to the movement for climate and environmental justice.
 
#5
Ted, this is a very articulate and comprehensive review of the week of the GCAS. What hasn't been mentioned by other commenters is the wisdom embedded in your article. The question I ask is this. Beyond humility -- which I endorse --what is it that ecosocialists can / must advocate that will do positive things for the POC and indigenous allies we hope to partner with? We should judge our policies on what it does for the Poor Peoples' Campaign and for other allies. I would add one more thought: you mention that It Takes roots has "few roots in Labor." Historically Labor hasn't paid enough attention to the interests of ITR, nor to the interests of the Poor Peoples' Campaign. We should attend to that, with great effort. There is a great eductional desert between people with jobs and those without. As long as a job is a requirement before you are entitled in this society to food and shelter, there are not enough jobs. Hence lots of poor people. This will only get worse, and the conflict looming between those protecting jobs (and thus inclined to go on emitting GHG) and those with no or precarious employment or worse, experiencing incarceration, is a policy area we must address.
 
#6
Thanks, Ted, for a beautiful description of the Saturday March and blockade of the GCAS on the following Thursday. Yes, it was frustrating to be sidelined in the organizing of the march. But it did build connections with groups like Poder and some younger folks hired by 350.org (national). Now we have worked together in a huge set of (seemingly) endless meetings on Logistics of the event. While there was a predominance of younger white men in the meeting leadership, they were determined to have the "Leadership" team be the final guides and decision makers with its strong women leaders from Idle No More and Poder (and possibly other groups I didn't identify.) While this referral back to the Leadership team did slow down the setting up of website info and outreach, it was important to do. (I also suspect that like Sol2Sol there was important need to solidify internal relations in the Leadership team.)

While some Christian pastors may have also been sidelined too, this march had the largest presence from the various Interfaith groups I have yet seen at past Climate events. The Interfaith coalition in the Bay Area has probably solidified into an on going connection. However I did miss seeing the radical Black churches involved with the Poor Peoples Campaigne, but may be "next time" they will connect visibly.

I was also impressed by the greater number of Labor unions that endorsed and had a visible presence in the March with banners and a truck. They should now be easier to connect with if we are able to access the databases of 350.org.

As for 350.org - I salute them for 1) making sure that we had a Leadership com. with POC and younger people. Also we won a big issue with them, since they were supposedly at first reluctant to say "Keep it in the Ground" for fossil fuels and the local 350s should get credit for pushing the national 350 in the right direction. I must personally admit that I've been deeply suspisious of the huge amount of money they and PCM were able to throw at the event. It was rumored to be about 75K possibly more. The interfaith group was told that in the future the Bay Area would be "on its own" financially. Actually, fund raising and financial sponsorship by endorsing groups is a powerful way for groups to feel ownership of an event and make them more willing to do their own outreach rather than waiting for some higher up approval.

Frankly, I felt that the long delays in hiring people to do some of the website, databases, outreach etc. slowed down a wider outreach, if things had started a few months sooner. Also lines of decision making and implementing seemed confused. Okay, I know what a huge job it was with new people having a learning curve. I just hope the new people are local and can join in when there are no deep pockets behind the scenes.

The strong anti-capitalist stance of the actions during the week of GCAS was very heartening to see and strengthens the ties between eco-socialists and some younger groups that came out of the Occupy movement. We now have some good slogans for banners - Keep It in the Ground and End Climate Capitalism.
 
#8
Ted, your thoughtful analysis of why we need to build doors and windows in our silos helps me to recommit to what I am trying to do in Decatur IL. As another writer above notes, it is difficult and time consuming work. Why would it be anything else? For those disempowered in so many ways by capitalism to easily trust usually white eco-socialists who express the desire to build coalitions, how could their experiences with socioeconomic subjugation predispose them to anything but distrust? And within the white environmentalist groups I currently work, many of whose members are quite economically comfortable, their members have their ways of doing business, tend to be older, and are accustomed to the positions of leadership they have defined for themselves. These realities mean working to build real alliances takes time--at a time when the planet is careening toward destruction. That's my frustration. At this time of crisis, and because we haven't stepped outside our silos, we are having to work carefully and slowly when we need to be developing strategies much faster. As with any negative emotion, I will acknowledge the frustration and then go back to the methods of working that I hope will bring real and powerful and long-lasting alliances.

Once when trying to drive a 14 foot U-Haul down the highway toward Barstow in a raging blizzard, I felt the terror of going off the road, but then I had to just keep going. I learned after I got off the mountain that four cars crashed off the highway that night. Somehow I did not. As long as I am moving forward, in my car or in my body, I will just keep moving through the blizzard. But, along the way, reading a post like yours keeps me going.
 
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