Archive for coal

Against the State of Green

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism with tags , on January 26, 2009 by traxus4420

Really good report from the UK Climate Camp here. It’s the best treatment of the difficult and unresolved issues around the green movement, class, and politics I’ve read in a while, not just because of the author’s personal brilliant theoretical synthesis, but because it narrates a live and still very diffuse debate.

This is the real sticking point in the whole controversy, it seems to me:

All of the Climate Campers were at pains to emphasise that they were not hostile to mining communities and were aware of the intrinsic relationship between climate change, class exploitation and capitalism. They also all underlined that they were not ‘official’ representatives of Climate Camp. This was undoubtedly one of the lines that separated the trade unionists from the Climate Campers, the union officials having a much more unproblematic relation to being a representative of the working classes. The Climate Campers were definitely from the more anti-capitalist wing and it might have been interesting had someone from a more single-issue perspective been present. Paul Chatterton, activist and Leeds University academic, gave a well reasoned presentation about the need for a ‘just transition’. After underlining the importance of avoiding a climate change ‘tipping point’ of a four degrees rise, he emphasised that environmentally based politics were ultimately against ‘mindless, ceaseless growth’ in the form of neoliberal capitalism. ‘Just transition’ would share out the costs of climate change equally, through a ‘green new deal’, ecological Keynesianism creating a ‘green collar economy’. This would amount to the re-nationalisation of energy production and a rejection of the market.

I must admit that the concept of a ‘green new deal’ makes me want to strangle the planet with a couple of spare plastic bags. It’s the realist corollary to the utopian elements of Climate Camp, but such an uncritical acceptance of a social democratic solution ignores the problem that capitalist social relations would still remain in place. It would be compatible with the development of an authoritarian, biopolitical state, obsessed with the administration of life. It is quite easy to imagine a dystopian ‘green new deal’ that continued the valorisation of capital alongside a work-ethic based morality all too conducive to the more sanctimonious elements of environmentalism. Chatterton did mention that a ‘green new deal’ might lead to less work and more holidays, a rare acknowledgement that climate change might not necessitate new regimes of scarcity. There is in this a trace of what was missing in the conference, a sense of possibility not embedded in soft focus ‘somewhere else’ utopianism but in an immanent engagement with capital’s apparatus of capture. However, a ‘green new deal’ is unlikely to deliver the kind of simultaneous refusal of scarcity and production that might begin to construct a genuine anti-capitalist response to the exigencies of climate change. It hardly amounts to a critique of wage labour.

Ian Lavery, President of the NUM, underlined the gulf between the NUM and Climate Campers through his refusal to engage with Paul Chatterton’s case for ‘just transition’. Remarking dismissively that he was in the bar during Chatterton’s talk, apparently what was needed was a ‘just transition’ to clean coal. Throughout the conference the NUM’s concentration upon clean coal raised questions about the contradiction of trade unions being not only a bureaucratic appendage to the marketing of labour but also a possible focal point for resistance and the reproduction of communities tied to a particular industry. Lavery’s work ethic was committed to coal rather than a green collar economy. He left shortly afterwards in his big car to go to another meeting. Oh, the life of the full time official.

The focus on new technologies as a general fix for climate change always threatens to introduce a Hollywood blockbuster narrative: ‘And then there was clean coal…’ While the viability of clean coal is in doubt, any present development of it is reliant upon capital being able to extract value from it. The same would go for the development of renewables. It is unlikely that an exclusive focus on technology can really challenge the relation between climate change and the reproduction of capitalism.

Do read the whole thing.


Dispatches from the American Left (part 3)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , on June 12, 2008 by traxus4420

Part one

Part two

“They know what they’re doing is wrong. I waited tables for 15 years, I’ve waited on these people, they know, even the miners know it’s wrong.” This is Mariah Gunnoe, who’s accrued a reputation as one of the most intense and dedicated movement leaders in the contemporary battle against strip mining, speaking to an audience mostly made up of young, middle-class students and activists, myself among them. Once again, she spoke with the ecstatic fury of a preacher, her voice swollen to a dramatic peak, body leaning toward us, hands outstretched and grasping as if to physically tear out our reservations. “You are the future — you have to do this!” She was right. No ordinary response is adequate to her story. To that voice, wavering in unresolved struggle between wail and command. Her war, to protect her home and family against strip mining coal companies, is a necessary one. It was never a question of choice. How can it be otherwise for those who fight wars?


“So how did you get involved?” is a question I was asked more often than I would have liked. What was I doing there? What would I do when I left? The question I might have wanted to ask, “what is the nature of the environmental movement?” quickly fell apart when I recognized the obvious, that today it includes everyone, such that politicians, CEOs, environmentalists, political activists and agitators, seem forced to engage each other on the same physical and ideological terrain. Socialists can’t challenge capitalists apart from the debate over the development and use of ‘alternative’ energy sources, which like their fossil fuel counterparts are owned by the capitalists. Activist organizations that seek expand and establish themselves beyond single issues have to face the same set of compromises as any NGO. Shopping for environmentally conscious products intensifies capitalist domination of the planet and our lives — most of us don’t own the means of survival, much less production. The worst suffering in the world is not everyone’s fault, but we are dependent on many common ‘mediators,’ whether they be ecological or, as is the case now more than ever, economic. We’re all involved, but not all committed. I mean that in the most universal sense.


One of the camp’s visitors was a political science academic, coming off a study of corporate boardroom culture to do an ethnography of activists. “There are some similarities,” she told me. “The free rider problem, for one thing.” She explained to me that good corporate citizens can resolve almost all difficulties (not necessarily to everyone’s satisfaction, obviously) by referring to the mathematically determined bottom line. If someone is suspected of free-riderism, any investigation will be supported by solid criteria even if the relationship in question was temporary. But because of their necessarily greater openness, in activist organizations free riders are harder to expose. I asked her what anyone could possibly get ‘for free’ out of, say, a volunteer camp like the one we were attending. “Well, the sense of camaraderie that a close social environment like this one can foster, maybe. That’s the problem, it’s less well-defined. These camps, for example, they’re difficult and time-consuming to manage, they depend on creating new activists. You’ll notice as the week draws to a close there’s more pressure to attend workshops, more discussion of future organization. More insistence that you explain yourself. People are watching each other more carefully.”


When I do media work, I periodically ask myself, “what am I doing in this situation to not be a tourist?” I’m rarely satisfied by my answer.

During morning circle one day, someone raised a complaint about the presence of cameras. There were two teams of documentary filmmakers shooting all week long, and their subjects were starting to have intimacy issues. “I don’t want this to become like Real World MJS,” someone said. “Having a camera present changes the dynamic of any situation. What happens when we’re trying to plan actions?” No one said anything about the two local newspaper reporters scribbling in their notebooks, but regardless of medium, all ‘media people’ were forced to wear handmade red MEDIA badges, to keep them apart and “protect the camp” (the sole exception being the sketch artist, whose Faces of Katrina project made him sort of a celebrity and who incidentally didn’t allow himself to be photographed). One of the photographers, a college student about the same age (and race) as most everyone there, gave an apology on the verge of tears, with a plea that “we’re just like you. We care about this issue, we consider ourselves part of this movement.” It seemed well-received, but nevertheless, for the rest of the week, every workshop began with the organizer asking “are y’all comfortable being filmed?”

Preview of Francisco DiSantis’ Appalachian voices project

There are of course excellent reasons for caution around ‘media people,’ even if they aren’t (and these weren’t) agents of some massive corporation. As media effects theorist and environmental activist Julia Corbett puts it, “the media role in social protest is primarily one of stability and conflict control.” Much has been made about the distorting effects of mass media attention (or lack thereof) on protests, the Miami debacle being only one prominent example. But the problem goes deeper than corporate funding. Journalistic ethics dictate that the observer not be a participant. Though this line is often blurred in individual cases, the distinction between observation and participation is not. And since there are no disinterested observers, it’s not hard to see why the distinction between media and activism tends to be maintained (culture jamming, propaganda, and off-the-grid ‘zines and blogs aside). No one likes a narc, and the history of social movements in the U.S. is full of them.

Near the end of the week, I talked to half of the film crew from Canada — they were just a couple with a camera, but older and with a distinctly professional demeanor. It turned out that he was indeed a veteran of political and social documentaries, and he entertained me for a while with stories about his work with various celebrity filmmakers. I asked him how he felt about being chastised by the group for being too invasive. He said of course he understood emotional uneasiness around cameras, but excessive paranoia about the motives of ‘media people’ among activists isn’t uncommon either. After having worked with resistance movements all over the Americas, getting involved with everyone from Argentinian factory workers to ghettoized blacks in Toronto, he eventually concluded that “Americans wear the specter of the law more heavily than anyone else.” As a friend of his put it, “in America, they put the cop in your head. It’s frightening to me as a Canadian, and I imagine it’s frightening for them, too.”

The last thing he told me about was a series of observations on activist group behavior passed on to him by Allan King. Apparently there is a rule about proper timing for filming activist groups (of any size or scale). Exactly halfway through the shooting process, they will question their relationship with the filmmakers, and by reflection, their own motives. The question “what are they here to film?” becomes “what are we doing here, really?” “What does authentic commitment entail?” is preceded by “how should it be presented to others?” The camp’s moment of self-questioning did indeed occur — precisely — at the halfway point. “I didn’t believe it either,” he went on. “But that’s how it happens. Every time.” At three quarters of the way through the shooting period, the pace and intensity of the group’s planning and organizing escalate. Anxiety mounts. Passions rise. “You’ll be shooting the whole time. The earlier footage might be nice, but it’ll be fluff. These last few days, this is when you’ll get the bulk of your material.”

I expressed skepticism that the 3/4 mark was a consequence of being filmed and not just collective awareness of the meeting period’s finite duration, but he seemed pretty convinced of the power of his camera. “Most of the people here get what we’re doing and why it’s necessary. It’s just, you know, when you’re in your 20s you think this little cabin in the woods is going to change the world. But when you’re past 30, and you’ve seen a little more the magnitude of what you’re going to have to deal with, you know that to accomplish anything that big you need a really long reach. And you can do it yourself with a little handicam, or you can work with people who have, you know, done this kind of thing before.”

Dispatches from the American Left (part two)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , on June 2, 2008 by traxus4420

That camp I went to is directed at outside recruitment and PR, and, as is historically typical of the Greens, most (not all) of the participants were white, middle-class 20-somethings from other regions. Locally based, single-issue activism depends on external support and national media pressure in order to offset the massive power differential between huge corporations and those most heavily exploited. That latter position is shared by mute Nature and her children, a group of people cast as ‘stupid victims’ by media stereotyping, in this case “hillbillies,” “mountain people,” “white trash,” etc.

The way this plays out, resource extraction and social oppression with the complicity of local political leadership (not to mention a thriving black market), is similar enough to neocolonialism that there are debates within Appalachian Studies about whether to call Appalachia an internal colony or a peripheral region within the imperial center. The role of outside activists would then seem to match up with that of international aid workers; both involve a somewhat conflicted relationship with the local community they’re supposedly there to assist. The chief difference is that unlike aid workers, or Americorps, or Teach For America, an org like MJS lacks the resources to create substitute institutions (education, health care, etc.) for local communities to become dependent on — and anyway, especially given in its environmentalist stance, tends to reject the usual justifications for such things — decontextualized abstractions like “helping people” — as valid.

Instead, the camp functioned more like a school for the outsiders, with occasional visiting lecturers from the territory. Community activist Teri Blanton, for example, showed us around her hometown of Dayhoit, KY (a Superfund site since ’92), and explained the consequences of having a coal power plant and some abandoned coal sites within a few hundred feet of inhabited neighborhoods: the depletion of drinking water and poisoning of what’s left, widespread cancer and other illness, and the seemingly endless battles she and others have had to fight, with everyone from the county commissioner to coal company executives, the MSM to the EPA, in order to get the tiniest bit of consideration. “Most of my friends, the people I grew up with, are dead,” the middle-aged Blanton told us, in the even, practiced tone of someone who has related this story many times before. As of a few years ago the rest of the country started listening. Erik Reece’s award-winning piece in Harper’s can be found here.

According to Reece, desire for “an ecological education” is what motivated his investigation of strip mining. What sort of education would this be? Not a ‘communion’ with Nature in the hope of excavating some spiritual truth (as it was for the Transcendentalists), but the re-orientation of humanity and civilization according to their position within an ecological framework. How to accomplish this for others? This is the question not only of a the more holistic versions of environmentalism, but of any sort of education that depends on more than just adding information to the archive, that wants to stage a revolution in thought, overturning the subject’s old understanding of ‘the way of the world’ and insisting that the world was always thus — in short, any theory that would become a movement. Regardless of which ’causes’ which, you can’t have a revolution in social consciousness without a revolution in social action.

True to ecological principles, despite the loyalty of MJS to a single issue, the idea that total revolution urgently needs to take place was pretty widespread among the week’s participants. That they should consider themselves allied to the anti-capitalist, anti-globalization left may be less obvious, but was also (largely) true. MJS exemplifies the activist model for ‘social change,’ leftist code for the overthrow of capitalism (the number of times I heard the phrase “revolutionary practice” casually tossed around made me think I was back in grad school). A basic assumption of left activism in the U.S. (which is largely based on anarchist or autonomist principles) is that capitalist society’s accepted critical institutions, the media and the university, involve a particular sort of training tailored to the production or consumption of commodified product. Subject to the same pressures as any other capitalist organization, they can maybe be critical (provided there’s a market for criticism), but no real challenge to the system can come out of either as they currently are.

reclamation site

Thus, organization is volunteer-based and ‘horizontal’ (non-hierarchical), completely dependent on the commitment of its members. Camp workshops included a mix of issue-specific education, direct action training, organizer education, and entertainment. One could call the outcome ‘committed eclecticism.’ A historian ran an excellent seminar on the history of the opposition to strip-mining, arguing that in many ways the real precursors to the mainstream environmental movement (generally held to have begun with Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring in 1962, and been preceded by figures like Thoreau and Muir) can be found in the labor movement and working class culture (his book can be found here). Workshops were offered in climbing (useful, I’m told, for banner drops), ‘primitive skills,’ the ethics and strategy of non-violence, ecology, community economics, environmental philosophy, and much else. Taken together with evening musical performances, film screenings, and non-official activities like campfire circles, and the pressure to attend even the most frivolous thing that always seems to follow gatherings of idealistic strangers, there was an overriding sense that, for this week at least, and for better or worse, play and work had indeed become the same thing.

The heart and soul of activism is of course self-reproduction, organizing, ideally taking the single issue to the national stage and keeping it there. Though workshops were disproportionately geared toward college campuses, there was plenty of desire to connect with other communities — as one organizer put it, the match of privileged students with ample free time to the problems of overworked, underpaid, underrepresented local people is a “revolutionary combination” — but only vague ideas of how to do so. The better ideas came from those working with groups already involved in a struggle of some kind, usually a housing, labor, or pollution issue. Otherwise proposals tended toward community service (depoliticizing unless transitional), as a self-legitimating supplement to action mostly directed at university policy (i.e. getting the administration to adopt clean energy). Those not intimately connected to universities, specifically their undergraduates, whether as students themselves or as part of a larger activist organization with student ties, were basically left out of discussion. SDS redux, RAN, Rising Tide, Earth First, Greenpeace — I’m not sure any org was represented that didn’t revolve around the college campus and environs.

Fortunately, the situation at hand — strip mining in Appalachia — worked to moderate disagreements and exclusions. What might seem from the point of view of an anthology to be an unwieldy, ‘undertheorized’ conglomeration of ‘leftisms’ — anarchism, socialist democracy, labor, social justice, deep ecology, social ecology, etc. — was not at all divisive in practice. A few people I think were basically Republican conservationists (almost all from in-state, or those whose lives are directly impacted), but even they were clear on the ‘root causes’ of strip mining and what, at least initially, should be done about it.

The question of what should be done was organized around the following problems: a) how to help locals organize against their oppressors without undermining their own interests, b) how to organize and publicize at home, both for this issue and others and c) the methodological controversy over organizing vs. publicizing, or to put it crudely, politics vs. media.

Two added complications. One, I got the sense that over the years it’s become increasingly unclear what role outsiders are actually supposed to play in putting a stop to strip-mining. As I tried to suggest already, even if the unions have sold out, community activism in the Appalachians is extremely strong and getting stronger. The odd direct action aside, within Appalachia MJS has limited itself to holding these camps and doing, as someone put it, “a lot of listening.” One woman I talked to, an Appalachian from a working-class family who was fortunate enough to go to college and now works on this issue in between semesters, told me she’s starting to think local activists would benefit more from donations than help with organizing.

The second complication is that under capitalism local problems with resources of any kind are inevitably reduced to examples of a larger tendency. The state of coal has obvious importance for everyone, even if taken as a whole it seems impossible. The lure for the generally more privileged outsiders can’t be reduced to individual psychological states like altruism or narcissism. Like any self-respecting ponderer, I look for the structural explanation. Rather than a rotating staff of humanitarians, the temporary concentration of activists in ‘problem areas’ can almost be understood as a microcosm of the concentration of labor in the cities, or students in the university town. But unlike those examples, neither capital nor production are direct incentives. The closer model is vacation spots.

So where is the fine line? We have only one way of measuring it. The site, regardless of its importance for inhabitants, would not be on the map were it not also a potential stage in the formation of a potential movement. Utopian forms of community are experimented with, long-distance connections are made in a coming together of strange bedfellows otherwise engaged in all sorts of interests and activities, concluding with the exchange of email addresses, facebook IDs, and promises. And then…dispersal.

A deficit in experience, maybe, but I could find no simple, practical reasons for us outsiders to have spent that week together. If we have problems with practical solutions, ours are ‘local’ too. For while a ban on strip mining may someday be achieved, maybe even as a product of our labor, it will have little to do with the visions of social transformation many of us write, dream, and sing about. The currency of our altruism, they amount only to a promise in the name of a possible future, the latter nothing more than a product of the former. No draw for us but the prospect of ‘social capital‘ and ‘knowledge production,’ seductive for having rejected their material guarantors, reaching out for a new ground that does not yet exist, a ground no one seems to know how to build except by more reaching.

This is a source of enormous tension for everyone involved.

More to come…

Dispatches from the American Left (part 1)

Posted in Activism, Environmentalism, U.S. Politics with tags , , , , on May 29, 2008 by traxus4420

I really had no business attending this, but I did anyway. The posts that follow contain my report and analysis.

Mountain Justice Summer’s (MJS) loose, unofficial organization is based on a single issue: ‘mountaintop removal,’ or the strip-mining of mountains to more cheaply extract coal. Figures vary, but around 50% of U.S. electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, while more than a third of that coal comes from the Appalachian mountain range, at once among the most beautiful and the poorest regions in North America. The history of Appalachia is also the history of labor’s militant resistance to exploitation, the most famous instance being the ‘Redneck War,’ fought by the United Mine Workers and supporters and culminating in the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921. The one time in history the U.S. government bombed its own people in its own territory, that event triggered the eventual nationwide establishment of the eight-hour working day, medical benefits, paid leave, worker’s comp, etc. All of which we are now steadily losing.

But though terrain and tactics have changed, the war has never really ended. Surface mining has been a major site of resistance since the ’50s, and right on through its escalation in the early ’70s as (ostensibly) a response to the petrol crisis. The process of destroying the mountain devastates the local ecosystem, causing flash floods, rockslides, poisoned headwaters, destruction of farmland, and eradication of a dizzying array of plant and animal species; it also devastates the local economy through massive job loss (being easier to automate than underground mining), the weakening of unions, and widespread health problems. The upshot of ruining hundreds of thousands of acres of (populated!) land is increased profits for coal companies and the supply of somewhere around 5% of U.S. electricity demand.

Of course, this image is prior to legally mandated “reclamation.” The options for the land’s future use tend toward more civilized pursuits.

Twisted Gun golf course, WV

The U.S. Geologic Survey considers the Appalachian reserves (the highest quality coal in the country) good for one to two decades at current production levels. When taken together with the recent spate of “clean coal” propaganda, Bush’s elimination of “buffer zone” laws intended to protect mountain streams (a major national source of drinking water) from mining pollution, and the co-optation of both Democratic presidential candidates, it seems pretty clear that Big Coal is on a intensive disinformation campaign to wring the last bit of profit from a dying industry regardless of ‘external’ cost. The idea would presumably be to speedily accumulate the rights to all remaining reserves, then maintain national dependence on coal as long as possible through its inevitable decrease in supply. Maximize profit, drag out the pain.

More to come…