Environmental justice: people and nature before profits

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This is the introduction to the Environmental Justice panel presented at the 30th Convention of the CPUSA, Chicago, June 2014.

Communists oppose the rapacious, irresponsible exploitation of nature by capitalists just as we oppose capitalist economic exploitation and oppression of workers.

Environmental struggles are fundamental to the future of humankind. If we live in a world increasingly inhospitable to human life and to the agriculture which feeds us, basic survival needs will trump everything else, including the potential for socialism.

We can't sideline environmental problems-they speak to the most basic needs of all humanity. To feed the hungry, we need to be able to grow food. To shelter the homeless, we need to be able to build sustainable housing. To create peace, we need to protect peoples and nations from environmental devastation. To produce for human needs, we must have natural resources to draw on. In order for humanity to survive, we need a healthy natural world that we work with, not against.

The latest climate research confirms that global warming is getting worse right now, it is caused by human-generated greenhouse gas emissions, it will be worse in the future, and only action to fundamentally change our economy and politics can make enough of a difference.

Ice is melting faster than predicted; storms are worse sooner than predicted; carbon dioxide emissions are still escalating. Hotter fires are burning over larger parts of the globe; drought in many areas is prolonged and devastating. Food and water supplies are stressed; species are going extinct at a rapid pace. This is all a result of the ways we produce, distribute, and dispose of commodities, which means it is mostly due to capitalism. Many capitalists profit at the expense of the future quality of life of all humanity.

Environmental issues have become more important over the last few decades, and they will become more significant still in the coming decades.

We can confidently predict that more and more people will come to understand that environmental struggle is necessary for their own survival and for general human survival. Ultimately, this requires a movement of billions of people, and we must be part of it. We also have a role in convincing the entire international Communist movement to join and lead environmental struggles.

As storms unprecedented in recorded human history inundate our cities, as agriculture becomes stressed due to water shortages and depleted soil, as human health is challenged by diseases resistant to existing antibiotics, denial is not an option. As persistent organic pollutants permeate the entire world and impact human, animal, and plant reproductive systems, pretending that we don't know enough to take action will become an untenable position.

Involvement in environmental struggles is essential to our reaching youth. As well, people of color are among those most concerned about the effects of climate change, though they are not adequately represented or appealed to by the current environmental movement.

The hope of humanity lies in struggles to save our world from those who despoil the earth for private profit. Our job as Communists is not to develop a utopian reconfiguration of technology and industry, it is not to become personally pure, it is to join in the actual struggles going on today.

Here are some examples of environmental struggles that cut across old political boundaries:

  • The Cowboy and Indian Alliance, which sponsored inspiring demonstrations in Washington DC in May. This alliance between farmers, ranchers, Native American tribes, and environmentalists is beginning to transform politics in unexpected places like Nebraska and Wyoming, as well as on the national stage.
  • The Blue Green Alliance, started by the Steelworkers and the Sierra Club, now totals ten unions and four major environmental organizations.
  • There is a proposed public works program to employ low-income youth doing home weatherization. This would put people to work, would weatherize buildings so that less carbon dioxide would be emitted from the energy used to heat and cool them, they would require less energy in the first place, and would save consumers money.
  • The Idle No More movement, initiated by Canadian First Nations activists, is part of a worldwide surge of indigenous peoples working to address many issues including environmental ones.
  • The battle against the Keystone XL pipeline includes innovative tactics, like holding a barn-raising in its path. We could instead take regulatory action to reduce methane emissions through public works jobs to repair existing pipelines, create far more jobs, and protect the environment in the process, uniting environmentalists and unions.
  • The fossil fuel divestment struggles draw on lessons from the anti-apartheid divestment movement and are gaining strength-Union Theological Seminary just decided to divest. Even some investment counselors note that the stock price of fossil fuel companies is based on the value of their "proven reserves" much of which will have to stay in the ground if humanity is to avoid climate catastrophe. So there are moral, existential, scientific, and financial reasons to divest from fossil fuel companies. We should not demonize coal miners, but the corporations which prey on the public, on energy workers, on the future, and who fund climate change denial do deserve our condemnation-the Koch Brothers and the Massey Coal Company are no friends of labor. As well, we should be wary of "green" capitalists who invest in renewables in order to profit from public subsidies and avoid a unionized workforce. "Green" jobs should be unionized and provide a living wage. Our call to nationalize the energy sector includes renewables, which should be run as regulated public utilities.
  • We should commit now to a Party and YCL contingent in the upcoming massive demonstrations in New York on September 20th and 21st, organized in part by 350.org, coinciding with a United Nations Conference of world leaders on climate change.

Republicans and some coal-state Democrats are characterizing the new EPA rules regulating carbon emissions from existing coal-fired electric plants as part of a supposed "War on Coal" by Obama.

Regulating carbon pollution is one essential step to fight climate change. However, the EPA's proposed rules say nothing about retraining workers or income replacement, about public works to create new jobs, nor do they offer assistance to communities dependent on these industries, communities which will be devastated by changes that ignore their needs.

The head of the Utility Workers Union says, " . . . any energy policy that subsidizes corporate profits to compensate for the costs of change (but) disregards the devastating costs to workers and communities that bear the brunt of change is bad policy." Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO asks, "Will our efforts to fight climate change be another excuse to beat down working Americans, or will we use this opportunity to lift employment standards, to create good jobs in places that need them . . .?"

Workers want to build a sustainable future; they want jobs that don't require them to choose between work right now and a future for humanity. As well, unions represent workers who are subjected before anyone else to pollution and untested chemical compounds on the job, and then subjected to pollution in their communities as well.  Building bridges between the labor and environmental movements is a key contribution we can make. Progress has been made to include demands for green jobs in environmental programs, but there is still more to be done to connect environmental groups and labor.

Real solutions to the climate crisis and other environmental problems challenge the very basis of the capitalist system. Solving these threats requires challenging profit as the main determinant of decisions. Solving these threats requires challenging private property prerogatives and free market fundamentalism. It requires social decisions about production and distribution, about priorities in public policy, about democratic control of economic decision making.

Right-wing billionaires fund climate change denial not because they are stupid but because they understand that the facts challenge their profit. Acknowledging the reality of climate change threatens the future of their system. So the right tries to prevent even the collection of factual data. For example, in North Carolina, the Republican-dominated legislature prevented a study of eroding coastlines from considering climate change as a cause!

Environmental issues are class issues. Creating fundamental change, for people and for nature, is an issue of  what class holds power. Choices about what to produce, how to produce it, and how much of it to produce should be made on the basis of what is best for people, not on what makes the most market-driven short-term profit. This requires a fundamental restructuring and democratization of our economy, exactly what Communists advocate.

We have a political job to do-to build unity between the environmental movement and labor, between  all parts of the broad coalition against the ultra-right, to point out the commonality of many struggles.

The same reactionaries who oppose regulations on coal-fired plants oppose raising the minimum wage. Right-wing Governors who try to take away voting rights also try to take away our ability to establish safety standards for or limit fracking. Senators who say no to slightly liberal judicial nominees also want to abolish the EPA and rescind the Endangered Species Act. The same ultra-right groups who oppose abortion rights also oppose unions, civil rights, legalizing gay marriage, extending unemployment insurance, cheaper student loans, immigrant rights, and environmental protections.

The environmental movement must address racism. Racism enables chemical plants and solid-waste dumps to be sited in or near minority communities. Racism discounts the importance of people of color in developing countries who already face the first and worst effects of climate change. Racism rationalizes exporting not only our jobs but also our toxic waste. Racism justifies laying waste to reservation lands, justifies ignoring the impact on communities of pipeline leaks, justifies anti-democratic decisions about our economy and our very existence. Environmentalism must in part be about survival for the polar bears, but it must be more about the well-being of billions of people. Looming extinction for various species is an important warning to us, but those billions of people are who we need to reach and organize.

Any problems with the environmental movement will not be solved by standing outside as critics, but by our active engagement in promoting its demonstrations, rallies, petitions, organizations, coalitions, and electoral struggles, and by focusing on the demands that bring all progressive forces together. We must be partisans of this movement and improve it through joint struggle.

In the process of environmental struggles, we can argue for "People and Nature Before Profits." We can explain that environmentally-friendly methods create more jobs, and that corporations do not have the best interests of workers, consumers, communities, or the future at heart-they are trying to use and confuse us when they falsely pit jobs against the environment in attempts to divide, delay, and conquer. We can point out that environmental problems have a disparate impact on minority communities as well as on developing countries, and that racism offers a rationalization for maintaining "business as usual." We can continue to use peoplesworld.org to explain the science, to report on the demonstrations, and to create opportunities for dialogue with other left forces.

The movement needs exactly what we Communists can bring:

  • A vision that unites masses of people to fight for a sustainable future for all humankind.
  • The experience of building and working in broad-based coalitions to move millions into motion.
  • The understanding that the power of workers is central to any fundamental change.
  • The knowledge that fighting racism is an essential aspect of building unity.
  • The connections with many organizations and movements, which enables us to play a key role in bringing them together for our common battles.
  • And our analysis that socialism is necessary for human survival.


Photo:  Party contingent in the march of 45,000 demonstrators at the Battle in Seattle 1999.  Google images

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