Earth Day – Its Legacy and Our Future

Paul Prescod, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, April 22, 2013

EARTH DAY BEGAN on April 22, 1970 as an environmental teach-in modeled after those on the Vietnam War, initiated by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson in response to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. It had resonance because there was a vibrant environmental movement that had been developing. The date was deliberately chosen because it was not during students’ exams or spring break, and 20 million activists participated. Streets, parks, auditoriums, and college campuses were the sites of protests against environmental degradation.

Another important figure related to this was Tony Mazzocchi, a labor leader who took the lead in building strong ties between the union movement, including his own Oil Chemical and Atomic Workers, and the environmental movement. Mazzocchi was heavily influenced by Rachel Carson, whose famous book Silent Spring brought to light the dangers of pesticides and chemicals in our lives.

The modern environmental movement came out of the activism of the 1960s, a product of the politicization and activity that was taking place on a mass scale in the United States globally. Most environmental regulations and legislation that are worth anything today are a result of this movement. It also gave rise to the environmental justice movement, which focuses on environmental issues in communities of color.

For many activists, the awareness of the effects industrial capitalism was having on the environment was integrated with the consciousness that had developed on a number of issues. Struggles of African Americans, feminism, gay liberation, and resistance against imperialist wars were all part of the atmosphere.

This environmental consciousness must be developed again, for today we face a truly planetary crisis. In many different areas of ecology we are fast approaching several tipping points that are unalterable on a human timescale. Ultimately it is up to the populations affected to make Earth Day resonate beyond April 22nd and to build a society that respects ecological limits and addresses real human needs.

With Hurricane Sandy and other extreme weather incidents there is a growing awareness that climate change is already here, and it’s real. The movement against the Keystone pipeline showed its force on February 17th with the largest demonstration against climate change this country has ever seen, although the result still hangs in the balance.

As the fracking industry in the country develops, so does the resistance of the communities whose land and water are being destroyed. Globally there are even more inspiring examples of resistance on these fronts.
Melting, Drying Up and Drowning

Climate change is perhaps the most urgent crisis, whose effects are clearly already being felt around the world. The record-breaking U.S. Midwest and plains drought last summer, and the “super storm” Hurricane Sandy, have demonstrated the seriousness of this issue. Extreme weather of all kinds has made its mark across the world. Arctic sea ice had a record melt in the summer of 2012 and scientists are seriously contemplating whether an Arctic without ice in the summer will be a reality within as few as 5-10 years.

Scientists have generally considered an increase in global temperature of two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) as the point where control of climate change will be out of human hands. (So far, the temperature increase is already 0.8 degrees C.)

This temperature increase would correspond to cumulative carbon emissions of about one trillion metric tons. If business as usual continues we are set to hit that mark in 2043, just 30 years from now. The real goal should be to stay well below this mark, at around 750 billion cumulative metric tons of carbon. In order to avoid this mark we have to decrease our rate of emissions by 5.7 % per year. To put it another way, the International Energy Agency recommends that 80% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves stay put in the ground.

Contrary to many predictions, the financial crisis has not led to a decline in carbon emissions. Emissions did drop by 1.4% in 2009, but only to spike up by 5.9% in 2010. The widely predicted onset of “peak oil” production also will not come to the rescue : Increased global coal production, tar sands and fracking are being enthusiastically pursued by governments and energy corporations. These sources contain enough carbon to push the planet far over the temperature tipping point if they were to be burned.

The effects of climate change go beyond rising sea levels and more unpredictable weather. Extreme weather, floods, and droughts will change the way farming is done around the world and could set off catastrophic food security crises in Africa and Asia. Staple foods could double in price by 2050 as a result of all this.

Many regions around the world can expect to experience declines in crop and livestock production. Agriculture is simply not flexible enough to adjust to such massive climate swings occurring within a few decades.

As disastrous as it is, climate change represents just one of many ecological crises currently underway. The acidification of the oceans is a direct result of climate change, and even small changes in acidity can cause a huge change in sea ecology. Species extinctions now taking place are on par with other periods of mass extinctions in geological history. Dead zones in oceans are being caused by nitrogen pollution, fueled by its use in chemical fertilizers.

A dramatic loss in freshwater supplies is also occurring, leading to a push for the global privatization of water. Dams, irrigation, destruction of forests, and artificial tree plantations all play a role in disrupting natural water cycles. The depletion of the ozone continues, as well as the destruction of the rainforest. Of course all of these ecological factors interact with and influence each other, making precise predictions about their future development difficult.
Economy and Environment

All this is taking place amidst a global economic crisis that does not show many signs of letting up. The usual rhetoric by world leaders of encouraging economic growth raises serious problems when considering the ecological devastation this “growth” has caused, and the limits that we are pushing up against.

This situation brings many challenges for environmental activists. The economic crisis has brought alarming rates of unemployment, declining wages, erosion of the social safety net, and a more precarious mode of living for many people. Faced with these very real and overwhelming problems, long-term environmental crises will be hard to bring to the forefront of peoples’ concerns. The old ” jobs vs. the environment” card will undoubtedly be played by the energy industry against any threat to its profits.

Socialist activists should be sensitive to this issue and be able to offer up solutions and alternatives. Clearly, the massive infrastructure changes that would be needed to create a truly sustainable society would require equally massive numbers of new jobs. New industries could be accompanied by trainings and employment for workers previously employed in carbon-based energy industries. The various alternative energy sources that do exist, and how they could be utilized, needs to be pointed out. The system of capitalist production is based on limitless growth, continuous consumption, planned technological/psychological obsolescence, and constant expansion. A high level of planning and cooperation would be needed to seriously address the ecological crisis. This planning simply cannot be dictated by the laws of private profit if it is to be meaningful or effective. The political leaders of all the worst polluting nations have utterly failed to come up with any type of plan to limit climate change or avoid any of the other crises.

It is revealing that in the last presidential election neither Mitt Romney nor Barrack Obama mentioned climate change even once in their debates (in fact, none of the journalists even asked !). Instead they fought over who was more supportive of the coal industry. Obama did begin talking about climate change after the election, but this is primarily to satisfy the Democrats’ voting base and because the movement around the Keystone XL Pipeline made it an issue he could no longer ignore. Except when there’s some current disaster, the mainstream news networks are still largely silent on the issue.

It goes without saying that the Left needs to be heavily involved around these issues. On April 20th an Ecosocialism conference will be held in New York City at Barnard College, involving the collaboration of several socialist organizations. This is a step in the right direction going forward and hopefully will help in refining our analysis of the crisis and what we can do about it. Surely this should be an issue at the center of attention of all generations fighting for a real chance at a future.

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