The Ecology Movement, Climate Change & US Empire

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There has been a lot of excitement by the left and the ecology movement lately, particularly around the G20 protests in Pittsburgh, the climate bill proposed by the House and recently amended by the Senate, and finally around the upcoming UN climate talks in Copenhagen.  But it’s worth noting how the broader political terrain today forms the hot topics of the ecology movement if we’re to effectively plan our campaigns and strategies.

This past spring, despite the hopes of environmentalists that lined up behind Obama’s presidential campaign, the EPA okayed over 40 mountain-top removal coal-mining projects without scrutiny. This form of coal mining is one of the more the ecologically destructive methods of coal mining.  The process dumps tons of chemicals and unwanted material down the sides of the mountain. burying wildlife and vegetation on the sides, and contaminating local water supplies.  It also allows mining companies to lay-off workers and cut labor costs because less people are needed than traditional forms of mining.

But just before labor day the EPA released a letter that indicates that the Obama administration and the EPA are seeking to block one of the largest mountain top mining permits issued, citing violations of the Clean Water Act.

Around the same time, the NYTimes began a series on water pollution noting violations of the Clean Water Act by coal mining companies.  The piece sites the lack of oversight and enforcement as a major problem, with companies dumping as much as 1000% of the allowed chemical concentration into local water systems in W Virginia.

So why the about-face?  Is Obama finally fulfilling his campaign promises to the environmental movement?

One of the provisions in the Waxman-Markey Bill (Obama’s climate bill) provided funding for so-called “clean coal”, but even the most the conservative wing of the eco-movement can only say that clean coal — and the climate bill as a whole — is only “better than nothing.”  The only people who stand by this un-tested technolgy seem to be bourgeois politicians, while the anti-authoritarian, and even radical liberal and social democratic groups like Greenpeace denounce the technological prospect of “clean coal” as a farce.

Funding for “clean coal” will only re-invigorate the coal industry and infrastructure, re-enforcing its position as a central part of energy production, while further delaying the move towards “greener” technologies.  Despite Obama’s posturing, the ruling classes in this country are dead set on keeping coal at the center of energy production, with the hopes of further developing nuclear power’s infrastructure.

So where is this all going?  What does this mean for the ecology movement?

While much has been written on the deficiencies and triflin’ measures of both the House and the Senate versions of the climate bill, the ecology movement still needs to come to terms with how the ecological crisis fits in with the broader political crisis.  The latest round of getting tough on polluters — specifically the coal industry — by Lisa Jackson, the newly appointed administrator of the EPA, is indicative of the broader political crisis facing Obama, the Democratic Party, US Empire and, most importantly, working and oppressed peoples everywhere.

For capital, the era of neoliberalism has been defined by the problem to generate profits for capital on the one hand, and the turn to financial means by generating economic “bubbles” on the other.  This is what makes the cap-and-trade system for reducing carbon emissions unique to neoliberalism.  In this system purchased carbon credits allot how much carbon firms can release into the environment.  As these credits are sold on a market (by the way Obama wants to give away 85% of credits provided by the climate bill) the carbon credit market is prone to speculation, and presents another opportunity for capital firms to generate fictitious profits.

Another method for recuperating profits has been for the rulers to cannibalize its own infrastructure.  Most immediately this has meant the attack on wages, healthcare, education, and other basic necessities of the working class.

It’s ironic that the NYTimes series is printing a series on water degradation in order to shore up support for the climate bill, when Obama’s climate bill would strip the EPA of it’s ability to enforce the clean air standards and regulate greenhouse gas emissions.  The destruction of American water systems has been a part of that same process of capitalist cannibalization, and the climate bill wants to continue that attack.  Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act was supposed to prevent the devastation to the nation’s water system and resulting the health, but the Supreme Court was quick to make it irrelevant.

In a period of diminishing returns, the ruling classes are both unwilling (just look at the climate bills) and unable to grant concessions to the ecology movement. But the crisis in ruling class legitimacy opens up space for new struggles by the ecology movement. The Obama administration’s new found concern for the ecological destruction that is visited upon the working class should be understood in this light. It’s an attempt to 1) tighten ranks in his own party in order to maintain ruling class legitimacy, and 2) prepare the US to engage in the international talks on climate change this December in Copenhagen. The later has the potential of being one more bellwether for the health of US Empire.

Facing resistance from congressmen in his own party from coal producing states, the recent efforts by Obama and Jackson to revitalize the Clean Water Act, in addition to the NYTimes series, is an attempt to rebuild support for the healthcare bill… I mean the war in Afghanistan… woops… I meant the climate bill.

This fracture in the Democratic Party, the breakdown of the ‘Washington consensus’ and the broader political crisis is also occurring on a global scale. The same questions being asked in Washington… who is going to pay for this “green” overhaul of the economy, how are the bosses going to maintain profits… are being asked by ruling classes across the globe.

The Clean Energy and Jobs for American Empowerment Act, the Senate followup to Waxman-Markey, is supposed to serve as a measure of good faith on behalf of the US’s commitment to solving climate change.  This is important because, after failing to sign on to the Kyoto Protocols – despite demanding major amendments – the rest of the world is hesitant to sacrifice economic growth to an environmental overhaul to its infrastructure and economy.

This is key because the US and its junior partners in Empire have been demanding concrete concessions from India and China — the two biggest and fastest growing economies in the world today that could possibly become rival imperial blocs to the US.  Neo-Malthusian and white supremacist discussions on population control, which blame the consumption habits of working people of color for the ecological crisis, have been directed at India.

Developing nations and radical groups are demanding that imperial and colonial states provide aid and funding for climate adaptation – the cost of what it’s going to take to adjust city infrastructure to rising sea levels, for instance – under the slogan of “ecological reparations”.  But whether the character of these reparations will follow the traditional forms of aid under US Empire, or whether they will be the demands of a people-to-people democratic eco-solidarity campaigns here in the US has yet to be clarified by the green Left.

This is just one question faced by the ecology movement in the US.  The consequences, for instance, will determine how organizers will address the “rights” of the Chinese state to continue economic development, or whether organizations here will launch solidarity campaigns with the people clashing with Chinese state security forces over health issues and ecological devastation.

Despite the fact that the ruling classes of many developed nations have agreed to pay for climate adaptation the figures needed for this are being purposefully low-balled.  And instead of providing aid through the UN, the US is hoping to initiate a new round of lending to developing nations with the all too familiar structural adjustment programs.

But preliminary discussions are hinting that ruling class consensus on the climate crisis will not be reached within the usual parameters that has defined the last 40 years of US Empire, structural adjustment programs and all.  It’s so bad that some are already calling for a “plan B” to Copenhagen before it has even started. There is no agreement under US hegemony.  No one is willing to foot the bill, and no one is obliging to the threats, promises or leadership of US Empire.

With no coherent vision to rebuild ruling class legitimacy, the rulers are up shit creek without a paddle, and the fractures will only continue to get bigger.  But this means that the ecology movement needs to find new strategies and methods for organizing.  Protesting decaying institutions like the EPA or G20 with the hope of moving them to the left will only get us so far.  Protests of opposition to these bodies can be a useful tactic, but only if they are coupled with organizing movements from below to seize control of the very institutions that are turned against the ecological world.

While the Senate climate bill places heavy emphasis on developing the “green jobs” sector, the aforementioned limitations facing US capital, coupled with the attacks on Van Jones demonstrate that US rulers are not only unwilling but unable to provide economic relief for people of color and the working classes. And as Van Jones was the “green jobs czar” the same holds true for the ecological crisis.  The failure of the climate bull and Copenhagen reveal the ruling classes inability to provide a way backward for the ecology movement.  The ecological crisis deserves a broader scope if our organizing strategies are going to be able to adjust to these new times and take advantage of our new opportunities.

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2 thoughts on “The Ecology Movement, Climate Change & US Empire”

  1. Excellent post. This highlights the political character of climate change in important ways.

    Your point is key about how U.S. attempts to manage climate bills at home is reflective of its maneuvering to deal with its declining power in the international arena, as talks like Copenhagen will and have put on display. As you put it, “No one is willing to foot the bill, and no one is obliging to the threats, promises or leadership of US Empire.”

    Part of this decline is rooted in the dynamism of capitalist competition and the inability of U.S. capitalists in the last couple decades or so to exploit the growing emphasis on “green” capitalism to maintain their own dominance in the global market. I know the anti-capitalist left doesn’t often like to attribute any even remotely positive sounding attributes to capitalism, but it seems important to recognize that the ingenuity of some capitalists to deal with climate change on capitalist terms is changing the playing field of US imperialism and capital, as well as shaping many of the ways in which progressive environmentalist groups conceptualize organizing against environmental devastation.

    There’s a PBS Frontline special called “Heat” that shows this well in the context of the decline of U.S. auto. One thing it exposes, I think unintentionally, is how U.S. auto capitalists & the government have failed to have a long-term vision with regards to “green” economic growth. There’s a chapter that discusses how the Big 3 automakers missed the boat on the hybrid and electric car, which they didn’t want to make because making the big trucks & SUVs was more profitable at the time (late 90s or so).

    In the last couple years, after gas prices have spiked, while the idea of green capitalism has been gaining in popularity because of a growing recognition that real ecological crisis is already upon us, and since the economic crisis has hit, people don’t want to buy those big ass cars (as much) anymore and U.S. auto clearly made the wrong decision. They have lost huge portions of the market to makers like Toyota who decided to make a hybrid because they actually feared being left behind by the U.S. makers on this front. Now U.S. automakers are 10 years behind Japanese capitalists on this technology & market. There’s no getting around that the Japanese capitalists have simply been much more innovative than U.S. capitalists with the green capitalism stuff (and in general) and we’re seeing the consequences of that now with the defeat of U.S. auto.

    I’m curious to hear more about the ways in which you think that “a people-to-people democratic eco-solidarity campaigns here in the U.S.” could be built. Are there examples you know of where this has been built? The population control talk could be a key target of such, especially given its racist character as you point out but also its patriarchal character since any population control measures always invariably mean repression of women’s reproductive freedom.

  2. yeah, the cap-and-trade system, which is supposed to limit carbon emissions, or force companies that do emit above a certain amount to buy permits, that is being debated internationally gives the US state the ability to not only place limitations on growth possibilities of non-US firms, but also allows them to, ideally, set the terms of those limitations. this might give US firms time to catch up. what is key is that the domestic climate bill gives 85% of the carbon permits away for free, making companies pay for only 15% . it remains to be seen as to whether these will be distributed according to a protectionist policy giving US firms either all or most of these. also, agriculture, last i heard has been exempt all together from carbon emission regulation, which gives US agro-capitalist firms a secure and competitive position in the domestic agricultural sector.

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