Gathering the grassroots for ecological justice

October 24, 2013

Zach Zill, Tyler Hansen and Michael Ware report from Pittsburgh on a conference that brought together a cross-section of the developing environmental movement.

MORE THAN 6,000 environmental activists assembled in Pittsburgh for PowerShift 2013, sponsored by the Energy Action Coalition (EAC). This fourth PowerShift reflected the broader changes taking place in the environmental movement, with more emphasis placed on grassroots struggles, climate justice, racism and indigenous rights.

This year's conference was the first to be held outside the Washington, D.C., area. The choice of Pittsburgh as the location signifies the deepening of locally based resistance to extreme energy extraction and growing criticism of fracking practices nationwide.

In late 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city in the U.S. to ban drilling for natural gas within city limits in response to the health and environmental threats posed by fracking. This unanimous decision of the Pittsburgh City Council followed the May 2010 decision of the Delaware River Basin Commission to enact a moratorium on fracking within the basin, which supplies drinking water for 15 million people in four states. These decisions came due to overwhelming popular pressure.

More than 6,000 people descended on Pittsburgh for the PowerShift conference
More than 6,000 people descended on Pittsburgh for the PowerShift conference (Robert van Waarden | Energy Action Coalition)

Whit Jones, campaign director for EAC, talked about the importance of PowerShift's move to the front lines of the anti-fracking struggle. "We're taking it out of Washington, D.C., and bringing it to Pittsburgh because we really want to focus more on grassroots strategies," Jones said.

Increasingly, environmental organizations are feeling pressure to shift resources away from dead-end strategies like lobbying the thoroughly corrupt and pro-corporate U.S. government--and toward activism and climate justice. For a movement that has long suffered from a separation between a middle-class NGO orientation on the one hand, and grassroots formations taking on, for example, environmental racism in indigenous communities and Black and Brown neighborhoods on the other, this change is very welcome.

Though we have a long way to go and radical voices are still marginalized in NGOs with deeper pockets, we are closer now to a more inclusive movement that can be effective in building pressure for change.

THE VAST majority of conference attendees were college students, many of whom are participating in fossil fuel divestment campaigns. One development at the conference was students coming together to discuss the formation of a new organization to press for divestment, independent of the more mainstream, which many feel is too tied to corporate funding and support for Democratic Party politicians to be effective.

There were many other campaigns represented among student attendees, including opposition to fracking, tar sands oil and mountaintop removal. While there were many workshops addressing these issues, the most popular were those with a sharper political edge.

PowerShift Saturday began with a double session on environmental justice perspectives, followed by an identities and anti-oppression trainings. Topics ranged from "Capitalism, Climate and Injustice"; to "Voices from the Gulf Coast"; to "The School-to-Prison Pipeline Affecting EJ Communities."

In "Environmental Justice 101," Sachie Hopkins Hayakawa of Swarthmore College corrected the idea that environmentalism is chiefly about protecting wilderness and endangered species. "The environment isn't some pristine swath of land," Hopkins Hayakawa said. "It's the places where we live and work and play and come together as a community. So in that regards, environmentalism is about having clean water and clean air and healthy spaces to live."

In the same workshop, LaTasha Mays from New Voices Pittsburgh further defined climate justice: "Having a healthy environment is a basic human right for all people, regardless of where you live or what you look like or how much money you have...Environmental justice takes as the starting point that our bodies are the first environment. After our bodies, it's our homes. And then our neighborhoods."

Under capitalism, businesses and governments seek to externalize costs by dumping pollution, noise or toxic waste onto the least powerful communities. Given the history of racism in the U.S., this often means communities of color.

In a workshop titled "Coal Blooded," Jacqui Patterson of the NAACP noted that asthma rates for African American children are three times higher than average, and they are twice as likely to die from an asthma attack. Living in the shadow of a coal or nuclear plant often means contaminated water, heavy metals, coal ash, train and other noise, radiation and a lifetime of ailments that are less known in affluent neighborhoods.

Patterson highlighted the relationship between the increased severity of storms due to climate change and the disparity of the impact on the developing world and lower-income communities. A savage tornado might not destroy a brick house, but it will likely obliterate any mobile home in its path. Housing on floodplains is usually inhabited by poor people. Meanwhile, places like the Maldives or the First Nation island of Kivalina will be underwater in a few decades due to rising sea levels.

With a nod to organized labor, Patterson finished with a call for a "Just Transition" for workers employed in polluting industries like coal. The idea is that if a plant shuts down, workers should be retrained for employment in the renewable energy sector, public transportation or retrofitting old homes and buildings to make them more energy efficient.

Given that African Americans have been largely excluded from higher-paying energy jobs, comprising only 1.1 percent of energy workers, any Just Transition should also prioritize righting this wrong.

Groups like Labor Network for Sustainability, Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, and the Blue Green Alliance have pushed for a Just Transition. Meanwhile, within the organized labor movement, the Transport Workers Union, National Nurses United and the Amalgamated Transit Union have come out against the Keystone XL pipeline, setting the pace for a progressive position for unions.

Sadly, though, the AFL-CIO has not prioritized Just Transition organizing and remains divided over the Keystone XL. Unions like the Laborers are on the wrong side of the debate, backing anti-union corporations and the worst polluters with the false promise that temporary pipeline construction jobs are in their members' best interests.

ONE INTERESTING thread running through the conference was a questioning of capitalism, the system behind all this environmental destruction. While many speakers wouldn't go near the subject, other participants clapped, snapped, twinkled or cheered at any reference to the systematic nature of the climate crisis.

The few workshops with "capitalism," "imperialism" or "systemic" in the title were filled beyond capacity. In the "United We Dream" workshop, a young Latino student who was stopped and frisked with marijuana on him said, "The whole war on drugs is meant to get minorities in jail"--to which the entire room bursts into applause.

The System Change Not Climate Change ecosocialist network sponsored a well-attended workshop and organizing meeting, and there was a good-sized turnout for a dinnertime meeting on "Why We Need a Revolution" sponsored by the International Socialist Organization.

Though not necessarily surprising given the level of disgust at the government shutdown or the continuing disconnection of mainstream politics from the concerns of ordinary people, almost no one defended the idea of putting our faith in Barack Obama or the Democratic Party. The "lesser evil" mindset isn't dead, but for many on the youth side of the movement, the question is no longer how to push Obama forward, but how to push him out of the way.

This was the most striking shift from previous PowerShift conferences. A grassroots approach is displacing the NGO inside-the-Beltway model, at least among this group of activists. The environmental movement is maturing at a rapid clip.

PowerShift was not without flaws. While capitalism doesn't go out of its way to make organizing activist conferences affordable, why create Platinum, Gold and Silver sponsors, mirroring the corporate domination of sporting events and music festivals?

Registration ranged from $50 to $120, with tables at the Career and Organization Fair costing $100 to 300. The venue, the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, seemed a tad posh given the audience. A few radical groups complained that their workshop proposals were denied for political reasons. While the workshops could explore more radical themes, keynote presentations were well-crafted, beautifully lit and firmly in the liberal camp.

The conference concluded on Monday, with 4,000 people marching through downtown Pittsburgh to protest PNC bank. Activists marched on the bank's headquarters, condemning it for financing mountaintop removal. The bank, which calls itself "green," responded with a denial that it extends credit to mountaintop removal projects. But according to the Rainforest Action Network, in 2011, PNC loaned money to four of the largest U.S. coal companies, which were responsible for 47 percent of mountaintop removal projects.

As the march moved along the Allegheny River, it passed a barge piled high with coal that had a banner saying "Support American Energy, Support American Jobs." This represents the classic divide-and-conquer tactic that we have to challenge. Clearly, coal companies are more concerned about falling market share and their dirty business model being outlawed than good wages and the safety of their employees. No one in the labor or environmental movements should buy these lies.

But at the same time, no activist should pretend that we can jump ahead to an idealized world. For example, on the march, a self-proclaimed anarchist started the chant "Jobs Kill, Kill Jobs"--which contradicts the urgent need to struggle for the creation of millions of new jobs as part of a Just Transition to a more democratic and ecologically sustainable society.

We want to see labor at the center of the movement--so that someday we have its power behind the struggle to end the fossil fuel industry as we know it, and move on to a sustainable future.

PowerShift 2013 was smaller in numbers than previous conferences, possibly the result of holding the meeting outside of Washington for the first time. But the four days clearly demonstrated that the movement is headed left--and growing more inclusive and democratic.

Further Reading

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