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Understanding Sunrise, Part 2: Organizing Methods

By Dyanna Jaye and William Lawrence - Convergence, March 24, 2022

Sunrise melded mass protest, electoral work, and distributed organizing to great effect, but 2020 upended its plans and forced a reassessment.

Sunrise Movement grew from a labor of love by 12 young people, including the two of us, into the most prominent climate justice organization in the country. We put the Green New Deal on the map, strengthened the Left insurgency in the Democratic Party, and helped drive youth turnout to defeat Trump in 2020. Climate change became a political priority for the Democratic Party, and Sunrise directly influenced Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.

In the last year, though, despite a few impactful protests demanding ambition and urgency from Congress, Sunrise members and observers alike have noted a loss of strategic clarity and organizing power compared to 2017 through 2020. And it’s not just Sunrise: the entire Left has struggled to make the jump from punching upwards in the Trump era to winning material reforms in the Biden era.

In this essay, we’ll pull back the layers of Sunrise’s organizing model: how we actually recruited young people and united them in a structure for collective action. We’ll first discuss the major influences on Sunrise’s organizing and run through how it all played out in practice, the good and the bad.

We share a diagnosis that a central shortcoming in Sunrise’s organizing model was the absence of a sustained method of mass organizing at a local level, which left us nowhere to go once we could no longer rely on the fast-but-shallow growth of distributed organizing methods. We’re proud of the movement’s accomplishments while humble about its shortcomings. We offer our reflection in the practice of learning together in public; we hope our transparency can empower the next generation of movement builders—in Sunrise and across movements—to lead transformative organizing for the next era.

Understanding Sunrise, Part 1: Strategy

By William Lawrence - Convergence, March 14, 2022

Sunrise Movement made climate change a key political issue, but new conditions require new theory and strategy.

The state of Sunrise Movement, one of the more successful and visible U.S. Left organizations to emerge in the last five years, reflects trends in the broader Left. We hit a high-water mark with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ February 2020 victory in the Nevada caucus. Shortly after, the revenge of the Democratic establishment and the COVID pandemic halted all momentum and put Sunrise into a rear-guard attempt to salvage what could be won in a Biden administration. The underwhelming first year of that administration has left us floundering.

Today, a private and public reckoning is well underway. A new generation of leaders is taking account of Sunrise’s successes and failures, and working to design the next life of the movement. Early Sunrise leaders—of which I am one—are in the process of moving on, and handing over leadership of this youth organization to a more youthful cohort.

As a leader in Sunrise’s development from its founding in 2017 through early 2021, I feel obliged to offer an evaluation of our strategy and methods. My aim is to offer a detailed account of Sunrise’s aims and influences, in order that the next generation of strategist-organizers both inside and outside Sunrise may learn from what we did well, while overcoming our limitations.

You can consider just about every word of this essay as a self-critique and a practice of learning in public. As ever, I write with deep appreciation for all the climate justice fighters who find a place to place their hope amidst the looming dread of this crisis.

Part 1 of this essay, which you are reading now, focuses on Sunrise’s strategy, including our demands, rhetoric, and relation to the US party system. Part 2 will look at Sunrise’s methods of organizing.

I hope these essays not only illuminate our specific choices and why we made them, but demonstrate how the theoretical concepts on which we build our organizations actually shape their development. Sunrise’s successes owe much to the theories underpinning our strategy and methods, and our failures reveal much about where these theories fall short. I hope my reflections on these recent experiences may aid in developing better theory to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Coal Miners Weren’t Happy When Joe Manchin Derailed Build Back Better

By Austyn Gaffney - Sierra, January 19, 2022

The United Mine Workers of America issued a statement criticizing the senator for withdrawing his support from the legislation:

When West Virginia senator Joe Manchin III, a well-known coal baron, withdrew support from the Build Back Better agenda, the Biden administration’s landmark climate and social safety net bill, an influential coal-mining union was quick to respond.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), a labor union formed in 1890 to organize coal miners seeking safe working conditions and fair pay, released a statement by international president Cecil E. Roberts on December 20 characterizing the union’s relationship with Manchin as “long and friendly” but expressing disappointment that the bill didn’t pass. (On the same day, the AFL-CIO, the largest federation of American labor unions, released a similar statement.)

“We urge Senator Manchin to revisit his opposition to the legislation and work with his colleagues to pass something that will help keep coal miners working,” Roberts wrote, “and have a meaningful impact on our members, their families, and their communities.”

Given the UMWA’s history with Manchin—he has been an honorary member since 2020—it was a notable reminder of just how much is at stake for miners and their communities as the president’s signature measure hangs in the balance. The Build Back Better legislation includes important items for the UMWA, like incentives to build manufacturing facilities in post-coal communities, financial penalties for employers who deny workers their rights to unionize, and an extension of the black lung trust fund, a levy paid by coal companies that provides a small monthly payment to miners with pneumoconiosis, a disease caused by coal dust and silica inhalation. 

Unions and Climate Change: Toward Global Public Goods

A Green New Deal for all: The centrality of a worker and community-led just transition in the US

By J. Mijin Cha, Dimitris Stevis, Todd E. Vachon, Vivian Price, and Maria Brescia-Weiler - Labor Network for Sustainability, January 2022

This paper argues that labour and community-led advocacy efforts towards a just transition are fundamental to delivering the promises of a Green New Deal (GND) and a just post-carbon world. To this end, an ambitious, far-reaching project was launched by the Labor Network for Sustainability, a non-governmental organization dedicated to bridging the labor and climate movements, in Spring 2020 called the “Just Transition Listening Project’’ (JTLP).

Over the course of several months, the JTLP interviewed over 100 individuals, including rank-and-file union members, union officials, environmental and climate justice advocates, and Indigenous and community advocates to understand what makes transition “just,” what opportunities exist for a broad coalition to advance a GND-style proposal, and to document the struggles facing working people and communities across the U.S. In doing so, we utilize the tools of political geography to examine the politics of spatiality, networks, and scale as well as the geographical and spatial dimensions of policy and political-economic institutions. We are particularly mindful of two spatial dynamics.

First, that transition policies, particularly in a hegemonic country like the USA, have global implications. The industrial transition that took place from the 1970s to the 1990s, for example, bred nativism because it cast other countries as the cause of the problem.

Second, critical geographers have pointed out that environmental justice (EJ) has been neoliberalized in the U.S. as a result of its operationalization, spatialization, and administration, starting with the Clinton Administration. Because JT is rising on the national and global agendas, we pay close attention to whether these dynamics that affected EJ are also operating with respect to JT, as well as how they can be contained.

This research is particularly timely given the ongoing federal governmental efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19 and provide basic economic and social supports. The process of the JTLP parallels the goals of the GND–intersectional efforts rooted in community knowledge for the development of a people-led GND. This paper details the process of the JTLP and the prospects for intersectional, broad-based movements that are the only way a GND can be realized.

Read the text (Link).

Book Review: The Tragedy of the Worker

By Aragorn Eloff - New Frame, October 5, 2021

A radical collective committed to change in the face of climate collapse calls for global solidarity and a turn to the worker to revolutionise how we relate to the world.

The tone of The Tragedy of the Worker: Towards the Proletarocene is set in the opening paragraph with a sobering addendum to the Communist Manifesto’s most well-known sentences: “Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to win. What if the world is already lost?”

This important new book, written by the Salvage Collective – of which well-known science fiction author China Miéville is a member – is a manifesto-like cry to countenance the state of our social and ecological lifeworlds, and to grapple with the question of how “we imagine emancipation on an at best partially habitable planet”. Herein, for Salvage, lies the titular concern of the book, which unashamedly wears its politics on its sleeve: the tragedy of the worker is that “she was put to work for the accumulation of capital, from capitalism’s youth, amid means of production not of her choosing, and with a telos of ecological catastrophe”.

How do we think about progressive – even revolutionary – forms of politics when we live “at a point of history where the full horror of the methods of fossil capitalism is becoming clear”, and where, even if capitalism were overthrown tomorrow, we would “inherit productive forces inextricable from mass, trans-species death”?

As we are relentlessly reminded throughout the text, the situation is not good. The current confluence of accelerating ecological crises, most popularly termed the “Anthropocene” or the “sixth mass extinction crisis” is, as Salvage describes, “a megaphase change taking place in microphase time”.

Making our demands both practical and visionary

By Mark Engler and Paul Engler - Waging Nonviolence, July 27, 2021

How social movements are employing the concept of the “non-reformist reform” to promote far-reaching change.

When it comes to evaluating a given demand or reform proposal, social movements face a common dilemma. In response to the pressure activists generate, mainstream politicians will constantly urge patience and moderation. At best, they will endorse only the piecemeal reforms that they deem reasonable and pragmatic. The result is technocratic tweaks that might offer small gains but do not fundamentally challenge the status quo. On the other hand, at times when they are poised to extract significant concessions, some activists do not want to take “yes” for an answer. They worry that accepting any reforms whatsoever means embracing cooptation and diluting their radical vision. As a consequence, they end up in a cycle of self-isolation.

How, then, do you decide when a demand is a valid one to pursue, and when a reform is worth accepting? How can movements weigh a desire to make practical gains and avoid marginalization with a need to maintain a transformative vision?

Building eco-socialism: A review of Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal

By David Camfield - Tempest, July 22, 2021

There’s nothing more important today than the politics of climate change. How societies respond to global heating will increasingly shape all political life.

A People’s Green New Deal by Max Ajl, an associated researcher with the Tunisian Observatory for Food Sovereignty and the Environment and a postdoctoral fellow with the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, gives us some insightful analysis of different political approaches to global heating (a term I prefer since it packs more punch than global warming) and many good ideas about how society should be changed to respond to capitalism’s ecological crisis. However, the book is much less helpful for thinking about the political strategy we need to make these changes.

Although some hard right-wing politicians are still intoxicated by the climate change denial nonsense that organizations funded by fossil capital have been spewing for years, smarter ruling-class strategists are planning for what Ajl calls “Green Social Control.” This “aims to preserve the essence of capitalism while shifting to a greener model in order to sidestep the worse consequences of the climate crisis.”

The European Commission’s announced measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the European Union are an example of this approach. It’s what Joe Biden had in mind when he appointed John Kerry as a Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. It’s also the vision of the Climate Finance Leadership Initiative, a group of finance capitalists headed by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s a vision that Ajl skewers.

Economic Update: The Challenge of Progressive Unionism

Fighting fossil fascism for an eco-communist future

By The Zetkin Collective and Kai Heron - ROAR Mag, July 15, 2021

The West Coast of North America is, once again, on fire. Last month, Phoenix, Arizona, recorded temperatures of 46 degrees Celcius five days in a row. A new record. Every afternoon, the surface temperature of concrete and tarmac climbed to 82 degrees Celsius — hot enough to cause third-degree burns. In California and Texas, where temperatures were marginally lower, energy grid operators feared a prolonged heat wave would wreak havoc on energy infrastructure, forcing a repeat of last years’ rolling blackouts. For many dependent on air conditioning to stay cool in the sweltering heat, this would cause health complications or even death.

North America’s ongoing heatwave follows months of dry weather across the West Coast that have established the conditions for a summer of unprecedented water shortages, crop failures and wildfires. California and Arizona’s wildfire season started unusually early. One of Arizona’s first fires roared for four days, incinerating 27 square miles of countryside and forcing the evacuation of two townships. As this interview is prepared for publication, more than 60 wildfires are raging across the West Coast, some two times the size of Portland. As has become commonplace in the US, state officials are sending prisoners in to tackle the flames, paying them as little as $1.50 an hour.

Already this year Pakistan and Northern India have been wracked by temperatures reaching 52 degrees Celsius. While the small town of Lytton, 124 miles outside Vancouver, hit 49.6 degrees Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. Meanwhile, Brazil has suffered under its worst drought in 100 years, sending food prices spiraling upwards. At these extremes, life as normal is suspended. People die. Ecosystems collapse. And out of the disarray, reactionary social forces make their move.

Through a toxic combination of long-established anti-immigrant and racializing tropes and a regressive denialist climate agenda, far-right parties and social movements are exercising increased influence across Europe and the Americas. The Zetkin Collective’s White Skin, Black Fuel: The Danger of Fossil Fascism charts the rise of these movements and ideas and, with an eye to the horizon, forecasts the emergence of “fossil fascism.”

Zetkin Collective member Andreas Malm’s most recent individually authored works How to Blow up a Pipeline and Corona, Climate, Chronic Emergency, were rapidly-written conjunctural analyses of our intersecting ecological, epidemiological and political predicaments. Both books sought to drive a red-and-green wedge into conversations about capitalism’s breathless trajectory towards ecological collapse and the limits of prevailing strategies among elements of the capitalist core’s climate movements.

While none of the urgency of these works is lost in White Skin, Black Fuel, it drops into the background as a richly detailed analysis of the interrelations of racial capitalism, fossil fuel extraction, nationalism and climate breakdown takes precedence. The book is an example of engaged scholarly research at its best. A clarion call to movements and a forceful reminder of the reactionary forces that are stacked against us as we fight to realize an eco-communist future.

In this interview Kai Heron speaks to Zetkin Collective members Andreas Malm, Laudy van den Heuvel and Ståle Holgersen about the Collective’s writing process, climate denial and resistance to fossil fascism.

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