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Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy: an Organizing Proposal

By Steve Ongerth - IWW Environmental Unionism Caucus, April 29, 2017

The world faces a crises of enormous proportions. Global warming, caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels, threatens life on Earth as we know it, and yet, those most responsible for causing the crisis, the fossil fuel wing of the capitalist class, seems hell bent on doubling down on business as usual. In the United States of America, whose corporate overlords are among the worst offenders, they are led by the recently elected Donald Trump, whose cabinet is bursting at the seams with climate change denialists and fossil fuel capitalist industry representatives. Instead of transitioning to a clean energy economy and decarbonizing society as quickly as possible, as climate scientists overwhelmingly recommend, Trump and his inner circle would seemingly rather not just maintain the status quo; they’ve signaled that they intend to make the worst choices imaginable, putting all of the US’s energy eggs into the oil, natural gas, and coal basket.

Worse still, Trump claims to enjoy a good deal of support for such moves from the Voters who elected him, which includes a good portion of the "White working class" who have traditionally supported the Democratic Party, whose policies are just barely more favorable to addressing the problems of global warming (which is to say, still woefully inadequate). Meanwhile, the leadership of the AFL-CIO, pushed principally by the Building Trades unions, have doubled down on their efforts to continue to serve as capital’s junior partners, even as the latter continues to liquidate them in their ongoing campaign of systemic union busting.  Just recently, science teachers across the country began to find packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming", a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to "read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom," courtesy of the climate change denialist Heartland Institute.

One might think, given all of these situations, that…well, to put it mildly…we’re doomed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, in spite of the bleakness of these circumstances, a deeper look behind them reveals that fossil fuel capitalism is in terminal decline, that their hold over our lives hangs by a thread, so much that we the people, the workers and peasants of the world, have the ability to transform the human existence to one based not on plundering the Earth and exploiting the masses for the profit of a few, but one based on true grassroots democracy, free of suffering and want, and one that exists in harmony with the Earth. The key to making this transformation lies with clean energy, and the people who can make this transformation are the very people who helped elect Donald Trump themselves. One may justifiably ask, how is this even remotely possible?

This new organizing proposal, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy, offers a potential solution and practical steps to achieve it which can not only break the reactionary tide, perhaps once and for all, but also can greatly accelerate the very necessary process of abolishing capitalism and building a new, ecological sustainable world in the shell of the ecocidal old by building an intersectional movement championing "Clean Energy Democracy". Such a movement has the potential to unite workers, rural and rustbelt communities, climate justice activists, environmentalists, indigenous peoples, and farmers of all backgrounds and revitalize a vibrant and grassroots democratic anti-capitalist left, and it offers goals that help address the intertwining crises of global warming, decadent capitalism, failing economies, and demoralized communities plagued by economic depression, racism, and reactionary nationalism.

While the burgeoning "resistance", loosely led by a coalition of groups and movements with a smorgasbord of goals and demands, many of which are reformist and defensive (though not undesirable if seen as steps along the way to more revolutionary and transformative demands) has so far successfully held back much of the worst intentions of Trump and the forces he represents, making the latter fight tooth and nail for every single inch (as well they should), such resistance still lacks the positive vision needed to truly meet the needs of most people, including especially the most oppressed and downtrodden. By contrast, Restoring the Heartland and Rustbelt through Clean Energy Democracy offers one piece of a revolutionary and transformative vision that can truly help build a new world within the shell of the old, thus putting an end to capitalist economic oppression as well as the ongoing systematic destruction of the Earth's ability to sustain life.

Download the Proposal (PDF File).

What’s the plan?

By Hannah McKinnon - Oil Change International, November 1, 2017

Why we can’t hide from the discussion about a managed decline of fossil fuel production.

It is clear that the end of the fossil fuel era is on the horizon. Between plummeting renewable energy costs, uncharted electric vehicle growth, government commitments to decarbonization enshrined in the Paris agreement, and a growing list of fossil fuel project cancellations in the face of massive public opposition and bad economics, the writing’s on the wall.

The question now becomes: What does the path from here to zero carbon look like? Is it ambitious enough to avoid locking in emissions that we can’t afford? Is it intentional enough to protect workers and communities that depend on the carbon-based economy that has gotten us this far? Is it equitable enough to recognize that some countries must move further, faster? And is it honest enough about the reality that a decline of fossil fuels is actually a good thing?

In short – will this be a managed decline of fossil fuel production, or an unmanaged decline? What is the plan?

Let’s take a closer look:

Time to Pull the Plugs

By Andreas Malm - ROARMag, December 2017

Our best hope now is an immediate return to the flow. CO2 emissions have to be brought close to zero: some sources of energy that do not produce any emissions bathe the Earth in an untapped glow. The sun strikes the planet with more energy in a single hour than humans consume in a year. Put differently, the rate at which the Earth intercepts sunlight is nearly 10,000 times greater than the entire energy flux humans currently muster — a purely theoretical potential, of course, but even if unsuitable locations are excluded, there remains a flow of solar energy a thousand times larger than the annual consumption of the stock of fossil fuels.

The flow of wind alone can also power the world. It has nothing like the overwhelming capacity of direct solar radiation, but estimates of the technically available supply range from one to twenty-four times total current energy demand. Other renewable sources — geothermal, tidal, wave, water — can make significant contributions, but fall short of the promises of solar and wind. If running water constituted the main stream of the flow before the fossil economy, light and air may do so after it.

A Transition to the Flow

How fast could a transition to the flow — all those sources of energy originating in the sun and flowing through the biosphere — be implemented? In the most comprehensive study to date, American researchers Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi suggest that all new energy could come from wind, solar, geothermal, tidal and hydroelectric installations by 2030. Reorienting manufacturing capabilities towards their needs, the world would not have to build one more coal-fired — or even nuclear — power plant, gasworks, internal combustion engine or petrol station. After another two decades, all old equipment based on the stock could be taken off-line, so that by 2050 the entire world economy — manufacturing, transportation, heating: everything — would run on renewable electricity, roughly 90 percent of which the sun and the wind would provide. The job could be done by technologies already developed.

In the real world, the flow does seem to be undergoing something of a boom, output of wind and solar growing exponentially year after year. Despite the financial crisis, global wind-power capacity increased by 32 percent in 2009; for photovoltaics — also known as solar panels — the figure reached 53 percent. In the eighteen months ending in April 2014, more solar power was adopted in the US than in the previous thirty years; in 2013, 100 percent of the fresh electricity in Massachusetts and Vermont came from the sun, while China installed more photovoltaics than any country had ever done before in a single year.

Yet the flow remained a drop in the fossil bucket, evidently doing nothing to dampen the emissions explosion. Between 1990 and 2008 — from the first to the fourth IPCC report — 57 times more fossil than renewable energy came online in the world economy; by 2008, wind represented a trifling 1.1 percent and photovoltaics a microscopic 0.06 percent of primary energy supply; excluding hydropower, renewable sources generated a mere 3 percent of the electricity. In 2013, more energy entered the world economy from coal than from any other fuel. How can this be? Why is humanity not running for life out of the fossil economy towards one based on the flow? What impediments block its way?

A prime suspect is price: fossil fuels simply remain cheaper. And indeed, one decade into the millennium, renewable sources still cost more on average than the conventional incumbents. But the gap narrowed fast. In many parts of the US, onshore wind was already neck and neck with fossil energy, the price of turbines having fallen by 5 percent per annum for thirty years. Photovoltaics crashed at double that speed. In 2014, after a fall of 60 percent in only three years, solar panels cost one-hundredth of what they did in 1975. In nineteen regional and national markets, they had attained “grid parity,” meaning that they matched or undercut conventional sources without the support of subsidies.

Had it not been for state subsidies to fossil energy — six times larger than those to renewables in 2013 and showing no signs of decreasing — sun and wind might have had significantly lower relative prices. Had the costs of climate change, air pollution, lethal accidents and other “externalities” been included in the market price of fossil fuels, they would not have stood a chance.

The ongoing collapse in the prices of the flow is, at bottom, a function of its profile: the fuel is already there, free for the taking, a “gift of nature” or Gratisnaturkraft, to speak with Marx. The only thing that has exchange value is the technology for capturing, converting and storing the energy of the fuel, and like all technologies, it is subject to economies of scale: mass production slashes the costs of panels and turbines. Every time the cumulative volume of photovoltaic installations has doubled, their market prices have declined by roughly 20 percent.

Moreover, there are numerous potentials for increasing performance and further cutting costs. In what is perhaps the only subfield of the climate debate bristling with optimism and near-utopian zeal, experts predict that both solar and wind will be generally cheaper than fossil fuels sometime before 2025. There is talk of approaching “peak fossil fuels,” beyond which coal, oil and gas will be left in the ground simply because they cost so much more than their clean alternatives.

Trump's Policies Won't Bring Back Coal Jobs -- They Will Kill More Miners

By Michael Arria - Truthout, February 4, 2018

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump consistently claimed that he would revive the coal industry, and since becoming president, he has consistently declared victory. "Since the fourth quarter of last year until most recently, we've added almost 50,000 jobs in the coal sector," Donald Trump announced last June. "In the month of May alone, almost 7,000 jobs."

Trump was presumably repeating a number he had heard mentioned by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who proudly touted the 50,000 figure in various media appearances last year. Pruitt's numbers are, in fact, way off. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the beginning of 2017 through that May, about 33,000 "mining and coal" jobs were created. That's obviously much lower than 50,000. Plus, most of those 33,000 jobs actually came from a subcategory called "support activities for mining." When Trump made that statement, the actual number of new coal jobs was about 1,000. Now it's about 1,200. Preliminary government data recently obtained by Reuters shows that Trump's efforts to increase mining jobs have failed in most coal-producing states.

In addition to coal production dropping off, solar and wind power are now a cheaper option, and more Americans are becoming aware of coal's devastating environmental impact. Even early Trump supporter Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the country's biggest privately held coal company, admitted that the president "can't bring mining jobs back."

Coal Country Knows Trump Can’t Save It

By Jeremy Deaton - Nexus Media, January 18, 2018

Since taking office, President Trump has been checking items off of a coal-industry wish list—ditching the Paris Agreement, stripping environmental safeguards, undermining workplace protections for miners. While the president’s rhetoric has raised hopes for renaissance of American coal, Trump’s policies have done little to revive the ailing industry.

Experts warn that the administration’s repeated promises to resurrect mining jobs distract from the hard work of rebuilding coal country. Appalachians understand that industry isn’t coming back, but Trump is making it hard for them to move on.

“Promising to bring coal jobs back and repealing environmental regulations at the national level is only harmful to these communities, because it gives them a sense of false hope and it would set them back,” said Sanya Carley, a professor of energy policy at Indiana University and lead author of a new study that examines how Appalachians are coping with coal’s decline.

Over the last three decades, the coal miners have suffered a series of blows, losing more than 100,000 jobs. The biggest hit came during the Reagan years when coal companies started replacing men with machines, allowing them to mine more with fewer workers. Then, hydraulic fracturing drove down the price of natural gas, making it cheaper than coal. More recently, the price of wind and solar power has plummeted, dealing another blow to the industry. Today, coal-fired power plants are shutting down right and left, and there is virtually nowhere in America where it makes sense to build a new coal generator.

Trump can nix every environmental protection on the books. It would do almost nothing to revive jobs. Miners’ biggest foe is, and has always been, the steady march of technological progress. There is perhaps no better symbol of the industry’s decline than the Kentucky Coal Museum, powered, as it is, by a set of rooftop solar panels.

The death of coal, inevitable though it may be, is a tough pill to swallow in parts of Appalachia, where coal permeates every facet of local life. “The coal industry sponsors local elementary schools. There are signs all over the place about different coal companies. They pay for sports, and the students wear their logos on their t-shirts,” said Carley. “We’re told the coal industry goes to high schools and essentially recruits people out of high school and sometimes encourages them to get their GEDs, but other times doesn’t. So, these students leave high school making $60,000 to $80,000 to $120,000 dollars a year immediately without even needing a college degree.” Today, those jobs are increasingly hard to come by.

The 100-year capitalist experiment that keeps Appalachia poor, sick, and stuck on coal

By Gwynn Guilford - Quartz, December 30, 2017

The first time Nick Mullins entered Deep Mine 26, a coal mine in southwestern Virginia, the irony hit him hard. Once, his ancestors had owned the coal-seamed cavern that he was now descending into, his trainee miner hard-hat secure.

A just transition from coal demands a cross-regional sharing of benefits and costs

By Natalie Bennett - The Ecologist, January 4, 2018

The world has to stop burning coal to produce electricity. We cannot afford the dirtiest fuel, killing with its air pollution, heating the planet with its carbon. That’s a reality that’s dawned in increasing numbers of countries, with the UK among them, who have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks.

In Britain, the reality is this signature is more symbolic than practical. The government had already promised a phase out by 2025 (which could be a lot earlier). In August only 2 percent of electricity was produced through coal and its financial cost is increasingly ruling it out.

But the politics of coal are very different in Poland, where 80 percent of electricity is still produced with highly-polluting fuel, and the government is one of the last in the developed world still building new coal-fired stations.

Climate Crisis and the State of Disarray

By William C. Anderson - ROARMag, December 2017

We are indebted to the Earth. Our gracious host has provided us with more than enough resources to live, grow and prosper over time. But throughout history, and especially in the modern capitalist era, some have let their desire for more become a perilous dedication to conquest. The urge to make other humans, wildlife and all parts of nature submit to the will of markets, nations and empires is the rule of the day. Today, anything associated with nature or a true respect for it is regarded as soft. That which is not vulturous like the destructive economics of the reigning system is steamrolled to pave the road to unhinged expansion.

This logic of expansion and conquest undoubtedly changes the relationship between humans and their environment. In this context, the “debate” over climate change actually becomes a matter of human survival. Those who entertain climate change as a question at all have already, maybe unknowingly, chosen a side. The fact is that climate change will create more refugees and forced human migrations; it will lead to the murder of environmental activists around the world and start new resource wars; it will spread disease and destabilize everything in its path — and more. Unless capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for natural resources and the fossil fuel combustion that powers it is abandoned, the Earth will be forced to do away with humans cancerously plundering the carbon energy it has stored over millions of years of natural history.

What is most unfortunate is that capitalism, which has multi-layered discriminations encoded within it — racism, sexism, classism, and so on — affects how thoroughly people are capable of bracing for the damages wrought by climate change. Though nature is indiscriminate in its wrath, the sustained ability to protect oneself from rising temperatures and natural disasters is a privilege not all can afford. Those who are already harmed under the pitiless whims of capital are doubly hurt by the lack of protection afforded to them for life in an increasingly turbulent environment. The Global South is much more likely to feel the brunt of climate change, despite contributing much less to causing it. But even in the world’s wealthiest nations, the poor and working classes are much more vulnerable to ecological devastation.

If the people who understand the gravity of the situation want this state of affairs to cease, then the system of capitalism and the egregious consumption of the so-called First World itself must cease. That which puts all of us at risk cannot be tolerated. The vast satisfactions in wealth hoarded by a few does not outweigh the needs of the many suffering the consequences every day, as the Earth deals with malignant human behavior. The systemic drive towards excess that is pushing the planet’s carrying capacity to the brink must be brought to a halt throughout the world, but especially in the empire that exemplifies excess best: the United States of America.

Organizing on a Sinking Ship: The Future of the Climate Justice Movement

By Kevin Buckland - ROARMag, December 2017

Climate change rarely comes up at the top of the list when people are asked about issues that concern them most. While this is not surprising, it is nonetheless disturbing considering the gravity of the climate crisis. Yet the key problem of our collective negligence of the climate crisis is reflected in the question itself, rather than the answer. Let us be clear: climate change is not an “issue.” Rather, it is now the entirety of the biophysical world of which we are part. It is the physical battleground in which every “issue” is played out — and it is crumbling.

The global justice movement is one of the many actors trying to maneuver on this battlefield, and the direction it is headed in is reshaping the narratives, tactics and structures that comprise it, hinting at the future of social movement organizing on a radically transformed planet. The rules of the game have changed: welcome to the Capitalocene — goodbye to “activism-as-usual.” As the climate changes, so must movements if they are to withstand, even thrive, inside the coming cataclysm of winds, waves and wars.

Movement Cultures in the Capitalocene

As our planet rockets into a new geological epoch, we find ourselves on unfamiliar terrain. The only thing that is certain is that no one knows what will happen, and no one is in control. The rest of our lives will be defined by an exponential ecological entropy that will increasingly destabilize both the economic and political foundations upon which the modern world has been built. All bets are off. The collapse will be anything but boring.

The Capitalocene is defined partly by a disappearance of spaces of refuge: there is no escaping this problem, and nowhere to hide. We’re all in the same boat. But the boat has crashed into a drifting iceberg, and is sinking fast. Our response to the climate crisis has been to rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic, but whatever we are doing, it isn’t working. It’s time to try something new. On a sinking ship, one’s logic and frames of references must change, just as the traditional frames of the left must evolve in the emerging context of crisis. The struggle is no longer to organize the deck-chairs so that we can ensure equal access for all. Rather, the most critical question now becomes: “How can we best organize ourselves to turn as many of these deck-chairs into life rafts?”

Perhaps as obvious as the climate crisis itself has been the inability of social movements to properly organize around it. For years, the climate movement has been trapped between two discordant discourses: between changing light-bulbs and global revolution. On one hand, any action can seem minuscule and ineffective compared to a crisis as big as the entire world. On the other, deep systemic change can seem far too slow for the urgency of the crisis we face. Yet one cannot “fight climate change” in the absence of such structural transformations, for the climate crisis is itself the result of an extractivist logic based upon an exploitative relationship with the world around us. Long before the industrial revolution, the emerging capitalist world-system was fueled by the exploitation of women, people of color and entire ecosystems.

The climate crisis is the ultimate symptom of this extractivist dynamic, and is an entirely new species of crisis that requires our movements to enact an entirely different logic — including entirely different values, morals, assumptions and strategies — if we are to confront it. Confronting climate change means confronting the system and the culture that has caused it, and providing a scalable alternative. More than merely constructing a new politics to confront the “issue” of climate change, the task of the left in the Capitalocene is to cultivate new processes for engagement in politics. The culture of organizing itself becomes key.

If movements in the Capitalocene are to effectively confront this crisis, it means enacting an alternative set of values and organizational principles. The legacy may have less to do with solar panels and community gardens than with incubating scalable organizing cultures that can be shared with allies, volunteers and partners in ways that improve access to justice as we move together into an exponentially tumultuous future. It may just be these cultures, being incubated now inside globally connected movements, that will write the next chapter of human history.

Cultural revolution is not only desired; it is needed. If we fail to offer scalable discursive, tactical and structural alternatives to the extractivist logic that has created the climate crisis, capitalism may itself transform the coming wave of disruptions into its own benefit, exacerbating existent inequalities for every social and ecological “issue” as it strengthens its stranglehold of the future on a rapidly destabilizing battleground. History is speeding up. It’s time to play to win.