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Capital Blight - The Root of the Problem

By x344543 – October 8, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

I really would rather not be writing this; I honestly wish that I didn’t feel that it was necessary. However, some things simply cannot be left unaddressed.

As one of the half dozen or so charter members of the IWW’s Environmental Unionism Caucus, I comb through a good deal of class struggle and/or environmental news sources, since one of our goals is raising awareness. These sources come from a variety of directions, including syndicalist, socialist, anarchist, progressive environmentalist, and deep green (though not Deep Green Resistance, because of the latter’s transphobia and rigid primativist tendencies). Naturally, one of the most logical sources for this last tendency is Earth First!. Rarely is any source 100% in line with what I and my fellow “Green Wobblies” think represents our position (loosely defined though that may be), and Earth First! is no exception. That which doesn’t fit is generally ignored, and we “stand aside” as they say in the language of modified consensus process. Sometimes, however, our sources will publish something so egregiously wrong, in our opinion, that we feel compelled to respond.

Saturday, October 5, 2013, Earth First! re-published just such a story, called Thanks A Lot, Nebraska, by the Tucson chapter of Root Force (TURF).

What is Root Force you ask? Here’s their mission statement:

Root Force (Fuerza Raíz) is a campaign that recognizes the fundamental connection between the oppression of the Earth and the oppression of its people. The precursor to ecocide and genocide is the separation of people from the land so that both can be exploited. Thus Root Force is a biocentric campaign, asserting that no oppression can be overcome without addressing the relationship a society has with the Earth. To achieve either social or ecological justice, we must achieve both.

Therefore, Root Force aims to help dismantle the system that is killing and enslaving our planet and its people. This will be achieved by (1) identifying the system’s strategic weak points, and (2) targeting those points, thus providing an offensive component to existing ecodefense, international solidarity, and anti-colonialist efforts.

One strategic weak point is the U.S. dependence on the resources of Latin America. The exploitation of these resources is dependent on transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure. Hence this U.S.-based campaign focuses its efforts on opposing infrastructure expansion projects in Latin America, such as Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (IIRSA).

The campaign provides a framework for people to take effective action in solidarity with local resistance to these projects without traveling to Latin America. It is structured to allow for a diversity of tactics, to be undertaken by a wide network of autonomous individuals and groups.

This seems reasonable enough; in fact, I cannot find any really objectionable position in this mission statement at all. Much of it could easily mesh with the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, so having established that, I find the content of the article itself to be quite disturbing.

Essentially, TURF is miffed that a coalition including Nebraska ranchers and farmers, the Nebraska Farmer’s Union, Bold Nebraska,, Sierra Club, Credo, and billionaire Tom Steyer are protesting the impending construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline by constructing a wind- and solar- powered barn in its projected pathway.

Granted there are many criticisms one could make of this action, such as the fact that a great many of these folks are capitalists or enablers of capitalists, the fact that Keystone XL is not the only pipeline we need to worry about, or the obvious fact that Keystone could simply build the pipeline somewhere else (there are enough rural counties sufficiently beholden to corporate fossil fuel interests to ram through the permits barn or no barn), but in spite of these shortcomings, there are lot of good things that could be said about the project as well, including—in my opinion at least—the advocacy of renewable energy, such as wind and solar which could allow a state such as Nebraska which has a fairly good abundance of both to potentially generate all of its own electricity and perhaps even export a bit.

No doubt doing so would lessen that state’s reliance on fossil fuels, and though some of those are extracted and refined locally, the impact of those on the environment effects us globally in ways that greatly outweigh any significant impact from wind and solar. Certainly that would seem to fit the mission of Root Force would it not? Evidently the answer is a resounding “no”. Root Force is overwhelmingly opposed to renewable energy arguing that it simply props up the existing system and perpetuates the destruction of the Earth (and to be certain, the Earth First! Journal published Root Force's position paper on renewables in February 2009).

Specifically, they opine:

One fundamental problem with wind, solar and the rest is that they aren’t “clean” by any sane definition. All require massive amounts of industrial materials for their construction, including plastics, copper and steel. However, metal comes out of mines, just like coal does. Ripping open the Earth for copper-heavy solar panels or steel wind turbines isn’t any more eco-friendly than ripping it open for coal. Mines are devastating to local ecologies and communities, poisoning the water as thoroughly as they strip the land. More often than not, these mines are forced on poor and indigenous communities at the barrel of a gun.

This is a damning condemnation, but they offer no facts or figures to support such dire conclusions, nor do they quote a single source to back up such broad sweeping generalizations. Granted mining is (especially under capitalism) a dirty business, but there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that it must always be so. Even within a capitalist context there are some (such as the somewhat oddly named “Energy Collective”) that would argue that mining can be done more sustainably than it is, and given the inherent anti-ecological flaws in capitalism, including especially the shifting of the costs and burdens of its operations to the non-shareholders, a non-capitalist mining operation, which takes the impact on the environment into account, would have much greater incentive to improve upon the ideas discussed in the article by the Energy Collective.

Nobody in their right minds would dispute the more than five centuries of repression and genocide foisted upon the indigenous populations of the Americas (or “Turtle Island” if you prefer), but dirty as it is, mining didn’t have to be forced on poor and indigenous communities at the barrel of a gun, it just turned out that way because of the dynamics of colonialism, imperialism, and capitalism. Mining could just as easily have been mutually agreed upon by consent if the circumstances had been different, and since alternate non-capitalist scenarios generally suggest a more cooperative relationship between humans, they would just as likely suggest a more cooperative relationship with the Earth.

Root Force continues:

Some people have suggested that we could get around this problem by taking old cars and remaking them into wind turbines without mining any new iron, but this wouldn’t be any cleaner. The steel would still have to be extracted through intensive industrial processes—including transporting the cars, melting them down, reforming them and transporting the turbines to the site of the wind “farm.” Which brings up another point: once the metals, plastics, semiconductors and other pieces of solar panels or wind turbines are made, it still takes a heavily intensive (and yes, fossil-fuel intensive) process to make them into these supposedly clean energy generators.

Actually, a good deal of the raw materials could be recycled from electronic waste and dug up from old, unused copper wiring and tubing under city streets (and who among Root Force would oppose the removal of paved roads?) . Studies show that doing so would yield close to 90,000 tons of copper and result in 360,000 tons less Carbon Dioxide emissions from mining the stuff raw.

On the other hand, once again, Root Force, offers not a single peer reviewed study or source support their assertions. We’re simply expected to take Root Force’s word for it as if they’re experts on the matter. They don’t even offer any breakdown of the energy usage statistics for recycling versus the extraction of raw materials. The EPA—flawed though it is--provides fairly accurate statistics on the energy usage involved in recycling e-waste which contradicts Root Force’s assertion that recycling materials “isn’t cleaner”. Granted' it's not perfect by any definition. The folks at Tree Hugger continue to monitor and critique the e-waste industry offering feedback of the methodologies used and proposing suggestions for minimizing its impacts. The general sense that I get from their news stream is that while e-waste is indeed a dirty business (including the recycling process), it's worth the effort if done as cleanly as possible and better than simply burying the stuff.

As for the mater of transportation, again, Root Force provides not a single statistic (let alone a peer reviewed study) to give any sense of how much energy is consumed. I guess they’re trying to convince us that all forms of transportation are bad. Did they consider the mode of transportation for example? Electric trucks are cleaner than fossil fuel powered vehicles of similar design (as long as the electricity is produced by relatively clean sources). Also, transportation by rail is on average 3 to 4 times more efficient than truck transport over similar distances and routes.

Finally, the argument that it takes fossil fuels to produce renewable energy equipment, while currently true (though not necessarily always certain to be true) is a red herring, because the amount of fossil fuels not used in the production, deployment, and usage of renewable energy technology is worth the initial usage of them. In fact, using fossil fuels to produce renewable energy is 18 times more efficient than simply burning the fossil fuels!

Think of it a little bit like having a small stack of paper money . You could quickly burn through all of the money to provide a source of heat, but a fraction of that money could buy more than enough wood to create a wood burning fire that would provide far more heat than burning all of that money at once.

Root Force goes on to argue:

As if all that weren’t bad enough, both wind and solar “farms” require huge amounts of land—mostly indigenous lands and wild areas.

Really? Again, no facts or figures are offered and no sources are cited to back up this statement. Granted it is true that sometimes capitalist power companies do rely upon the institutionalized colonialization of indigenous peoples to use their land for exactly that, but there are at least as many indigenous tribes who have embraced the deployment of large renewable energy production sites.

As for the amount of land required, once again, Root Force offers no figures or citations, but the reality is that not that much land is actually required to provide sufficient generation to provide enough electricity to meet all of the current total US electrical consumption. Root Force's position paper doesn't mention energy conservation at all, but it should be noted that the nature of renewables, including the sizing of power systems encourages conservation, especially if the technology is locally distributed and funded (less energy consumed means less equipment needed to generate baseload power).

In any case, in 2008, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) determined that using contemporary technology, the amount of land needed to provide 100 percent of the national electricity demand of the United States would amount to less than one percent of the total land area. Since the total land area of the contiguous (50 states and Washington DC) land area of the United States equals approximately 3.79 million square miles (9.83 million km2), we’re talking about a total area less than the size of the state of Kentucky. And given the fact that any reasonable renewable energy portfolio would also include some wind power, hydro-electric, geothermal, and tidal energy, we needn’t set aside even that much land, and keep in mind that solar PV technology has increased in efficiency since 2008 and is likely to keep doing so for awhile.

Also, considering that 2.7% of the world's land (excluding Antarctica) is occupied by urban development, particularly in the United States all of the land needed for solar energy deployment could be utilized from already urbanized space, on rooftops, over parking structures, or existing brownfields.

Furthermore, according to a recent study by the environmental NGO, Oceana, very little land need be used at all, because on the Atlantic coast alone, offshore wind offers great potential:

A small fraction of U.S. renewable energy resources enough to power the country several times over…A modest investment in offshore wind could supply almost half the current electricity generation on the East Coast.

However, Root Force's position paper makes it clear that even this wouldn't meet their criticisms:

We’re not just talking about land for the “farms” themselves. We also need to include the massive swaths needed for the construction of new electrical transmission grids across the country. A recent New York Times article notes that the US electric grid is not capable of handling a large influx of wind and solar energy: “The dirty secret of clean energy is that, while generating it is getting easier, moving it to market is not.” That’s because the current grid is constructed primarily for local power generation, while wind and solar energy need to be generated in very specific areas. So, while half of the country’s electricity could be generated from wind in North and South Dakota, half of the population would have to move there in order to use it.

Note that they offer no actual link to such an article--though for once I am inclined to take them on faith that the article they reference does exist, but even if it does, I am not inclined to accept the information in the article at face value. The New York Times has been less than stellar in its coverage of energy issues, tending to parrot misleading and inaccurate information about them with a heavy bias towards the utility and coal industry. Readers of Capital Blight may recall that not too long ago I pointed out that the Times has been taking part in a series of lies manufactured by the corporate coal industry to try and “prove” that the digital world isn’t green, a contention not borne out by the facts.

What the author of position paper is overlooking is that the “grid” is a very complex and quite byzantine animal. It’s not even a unified whole, being owned by separate, private, for-profit entities who’re accountable to capitalist share holders whose aim is short term profits. Currently these private interests are freaking out about how distributed solar and wind energy as well as localized energy storage are undermining their very existence as an economic and political force. Naturally they’re going to argue that in order to incorporate more renewable energy into their system, more investment is going to be needed in that system. The New York Times isn’t likely to deconstruct the argument being made by the capitalist class, but the author, who’s so quick to denounce renewable energy (without providing any evidence to warrant such a position) isn’t willing to even consider that they may be parroting a bunch of capitalist lies.

They continue:

Even if none of this were true, wind and solar power would still be unjustifiable for one important reason: the last thing we should be doing is adding more power to the US electric grid.

Set aside for a moment the fact that there are no plans to actually take coal and nuke plants offline when wind and solar plants get built. Assume for the sake of argument that the people who run the economy miraculously agree that we’re going to keep the power grid at its current size and just shift it over to wind and solar sources. Who benefits from this setup?

Let’s put it another way: Will it be a better world when the government drags us off to solar-powered jails and launches its nuclear bombs with wind turbines? If we finally build enough wind farms, will all of the dead zones in the oceans magically spring back to life? Will all of the species that have been driven extinct return?

Will the 100 species-per-day extinction rate slow down?

Of course not. Electricity serves the system of industrial production that is killing the planet—the system that the rich and powerful have always committed theft, murder and genocide to maintain.

This is pure dogma. To begin with, as we have stated many times, industrial production and capitalism are too entirely different things. For example, a community can log sustainably, mill the wood with industrial machinery, (using renewable energy to do so), and produce finely crafted wood furniture to be used locally or traded, perhaps, with some other community. Just because for the most part this has taken place under capitalist economics, there’s no reason to suggest that this must always be the case. Furniture has been produced for several millennia; capitalism has not existed as long.

The author acts as if every watt of electricity is utilized to aid and abet capitalism. While it’s true that a great deal of it is there’s absolutely no reason why it must be so, and none of us are naïve enough to believe that simply replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewable energy by themselves will be enough to address the very real problems imposed by capitalism (and who among us would support he continued production of nukes anyway?). To argue, that electricity is capitalism is absurd. Capitalist and capitalist-like activity has existed much longer than has electricity and there is no reason to believe that electricity cannot exist without capitalism.

A resourceful individual could theoretically acquire the means to go completely off grid and live a subsistence lifestyle without engaging in any capitalistic activity whatsoever. Never mind that they might have achieved that lifestyle through the capitalist system; the fact remains that they can divorce themselves from it. If one person can do it, everybody working together could theoretically do so as well. The author is offering a deterministic and pessimistic projection of the future, but they have no way of knowing how people will act; they have no greater access to the future than anyone else.

Furthermore, their belief that capitalism could simply become entirely reliable on renewable energy without deep fundamental systemic change is deeply naïve. There are at least two major obstacles to capitalism being able to do so. The first is the problem of stranded carbon assets. The second is the problem of localized distributed electricity generation. Trillions of dollars are already invested in maintaining the status quo. Capitalism simply cannot wash their hands of these things and walk away from them. Renewable energy actually represents a very serious and systemic threat to them. Granted there are sectors of the capitalist class that are embracing renewable energy; as one would expect, they see it as an investment opportunity, but what they tend not to see if how their actions create huge divisions within their class as those who’re dependent upon the potentially stranded assets of the old system dig in their heals to defend the status quo. In fact we’re already seeing these schisms, such as the very odd coalition between Tea Party reactionaries and environmentalists in support of solar energy (which is opposed by the Koch Brothers and ALEC for the reasons I just described).

As for there not being any plans to shut down fossil fuel plants in exchange for wind and solar facilities, this argument is also wrong. In fact, coal plants are being shut down in record numbers simply because wind and solar have reduced the need for fossil fuel baseload power generation.

The question about repairing dead zones and restoring endangered species is utterly pointless. Nobody is claiming that renewable energy can or will do this, but anyone with half a brain knows that not utilizing wind and solar energy won’t accomplish such things either.

However, not deploying renewable energy will probably make the “100 species-per-day extinction rate” worse because unless 7 billion plus people suddenly agree to stop using electricity altogether or die off somehow (extremely unlikely scenarios each), because the electricity will continue to be derived from fossil fuel and nuclear sources which we all know are not only going to continue to result in mass extinction of biodiversity, and the die off will almost certainly accelerate.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a definite and legitimate place to critique all technology, including “clean” technology and subject the claims made by its adherents to scrutiny, but if one is going to do that credibly, they should at least do so from a place of informed knowledge. The author of the Root Force document doesn’t do this. They simply make a bunch of claims without providing any supporting evidence whatever.

Fair enough—they might respond—we’ve provided that elsewhere on our website (and I could write volumes about the inherent hypocrisy in using the internet to bash technology, but that would be belaboring the point). Let’s take a look at what Root Force has to say about that. One of their articles, published on Deep Green Resistance’s (!) website no less, make a string of very dubious arguments against wind power from a handful of cherry picked articles. For example, they repeat a very questionable and debatable claim that the widespread deployment of wind turbines would dangerously alter the wind patterns on our planet, a claim not supported by actual peer reviewed science. Although Root Force chose Science Daily as their source, they evidently didn’t take a comprehensive sampling of the articles about wind power featured there which are overwhelmingly positive towards that technology.

The only other anti-wind turbine argument made in the article is that “wind turbines murder (sic) birds” (they don't say anything about bats, which are even more effected by wind turbines, but not as much as sometimes stated.) Murder is an interesting choice of words! Do wind turbines meet secretly when nobody is watching and plot to slice birds up into deli-meat? Do they hide behind buildings waiting to stab their poor unsuspecting avian adversaries with their sharp turbine blades? Let’s get real here! Yes, wind turbines do sometimes result in bird (and bat) deaths, but “murder” is simply not an appropriate description of what is going on.

And let’s be absolutely clear on this matter, while wind turbines can and do sometimes result in bird (and bat) deaths, the effect is greatly overstated and stated completely out of context. In fact, the number of bird (and bat) deaths due to other sources, be they buildings, highways, fossil fuels, and predators (think house cats folks) is far greater than anything imaginable by all of the wind turbines in existence.

Careful readers will note that, for once, I didn’t cite any sources in making this argument. That’s not because I don’t have any. In fact, I have compiled a list of over 100 sources debunking just about every anti wind technology argument imaginable and I am preparing a series of articles that will cover this subject in detail. The problem is that there are so many that posting just one here would not do the argument justice, and there is so much disinformation parroted by anti-wind forces (many of which are anything but environmentalist in nature), finding arguments against them isn’t all that difficult.

Clearly, Root Force isn’t interested in arguing from a standpoint of empirical evidence or peer reviewed science…Why?

Consider their condemnation of the activists who constructed the offending renewable energy powered barn:

What kind of horrible arrogance gives people the right to declare that while it’s obviously wrong to sacrifice Appalachian communities and indigenous Albertan communities for coal and tar sands, it’s fine to sacrifice other communities and their lands for the copper and rare earth metals needed for solar and wind power? … Listen, from where we sit in southern Arizona, fighting against a glut of new copper mines promoted as essential for the expansion of the solar power industry, we don’t appreciate being thrown under the bus.

To begin with, as we’ve already pointed out, “rare” earths aren’t that rare, and there’s quite a few available that do not require mining them from the Earth. Further, what precisely leads TURF to conclude that these rare earths if they are mined would come from Arizona? And finally, to compare even the worst examples of mining rare earths (something we do not advocate, not the least of which is the effect such practices have on the mining workers and their communities, let alone the local environment) to the extraction of coal and tar sands is ludicrous. Anyone who would make such a claim has absolutely no clue what it is like to live in the shadow of a coal or tar sands mine.

And exactly who is claiming that new mines would be required for expanding the production of solar and wind power? Perhaps some capitalist interests who seek to profit off of the digging of new mines would make such a claim, but I doubt few genuine wind and solar advocates would so cavalierly make such a statement.

Consider how much less mining would be necessary and how much less pollution would be necessary if renewable energy replaced fossil fuel and nuclear energy? And don’t even get me started about Nuclear. All one has to do is look at what is currently happening in Japan at Fukishima to know that nuclear power is done as an alternative—though I would argue that it was never a legitimate choice.

As for “being thrown under the bus”, perhaps Root Force might turn their attention to more appropriate targets, such as the city of Liverpool whose mayor--in a gesture of subservience to fossil fuel interests--announced his scrap all 24 of its commuter bus lanes or Pittsburgh which is looking to literally throw their bus service under the bus, all in the service of capitalist and racist gentrification. Consider the current labor struggles of the Bay Area BART and AC Transit Workers. Think about how cuts to transit service will result from the ongoing austerity measures at public transit agencies worldwide will affect the environment .

Earth First! has always had this identity problem. It manifested itself from the get-go when co-founder Dave Foreman and leading inspirer Ed Abbey insisted that the “radical environmental movement” have no formal structure. And those two (along with Chris Manes) actually did a lot of damage by melding the very reactionary, pseudo-scientific nonsense of Thomas Malthus (“On Population”) and Garrett Hardin (“Tragedy of the Commons”) to the very reasonable theory of biocentrism. In doing so they looked to outspoken defenders of elite power structures, including capitalism (and in Harden’s case, white supremacy) to inform their views. As a result, Earth First! hamstrung itself by eschewing class struggle, a problem overcome by Ecotopia Earth First! and Judi Bari by the formation of Earth First! – IWW Local #1, but one apparently replaced by the downward spiral into the primitivist, end civ. camp.

To me this is a shame. One doesn’t have to be against technology to be critical of it, and if one is critical of technology, they should have some basis from which to criticize it. Sanctimonious and sneering dismissal of other activists who don’t follow the “right political line” is the province of authoritarian dogmatists like Stalinists or Maoists, not genuine radicals.

As far as I am concerned, the world needs Earth First!, or at least the Earth First! movement that blockades logging roads, conducts tree sits, or locks down to pipeline building equipment and attempts to stop the forces of capitalist destruction in its path. Simply writing articles (mea culpa!) or merely organizing discussions about the issues are not enough, and I think we would all agree that there is no confidence to be gained from consumer activism or electoral campaigns (though it would be a mistake to eschew them completely either strategically). But Earth First!, whether it’s an organization or a movement, is also something much greater, and that is a spirit. The idea of people taking direct action and openly defying powerful forces against them and collectively shouting “STOP!!!” is a very inspiring and legitimate form of activism; the world needs more of it, but those calling themselves Earth First! are not going to win any converts by stubbornly marginalizing themselves in a dogmatic anti-technology ghetto.

Many true believers in Earth First! will scoff at my prediction, and point to the fact that Earth First! remains quite big (and they are certainly bigger than us half dozen or so IWW members who comprise the EUC); and they’re right. However, I maintain that this is due to the kick ass direct actions rather than the adherence to primitivism. When Judi Bari introduced the concept of class struggle environmentalism to Earth First!, that was the key ingredient that allowed it to grow from a small guerilla movement conducting actions led by a few dozen people to one able to mobilize 1000s and 10000s. It was that which allowed the formation of the Blue-Green Alliance (which, though it is flawed, could have been far more revolutionary had those of us who helped launch it been sufficiently organized to keep it going in the right direction). It was that which played a key part in bringing about the huge,/i> coalitions which organized the massive demonstrations against the WTO in Seattle and elsewhere between 1999-2002. In a sense that is what is allowing the huge movement against extreme energy extraction(the overwhelmingly vast majority of which supports renewable energy and lots of it).

That movement would be far more effective if Earth First! were playing a key role in it, and being critical of technology, including renewable energy technology, can and probably should be an ingredient in the mix, but if it is to be included, it should be based on fact and evidence and placed within greater systemic context. Root Force’s position paper and arguments are none of these things and do not help in any positive or meaningful way.

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