September 11, 2015

OFF+ON: Ramps It Up. Again.

Last night I hit the OFF+ON Campaign roll-out event at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Well over fifteen hundred people showed up to a program headlining Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben.

The catastrophic scale and gradual (though escalating) pace of global warming and planetary climate change can make it, I think, perversely compelling for many of us to ignore. It’s too vast, too unstoppable, to contemplate on a daily basis, while even new weather patterns which affect us adversely, like scorching summers, get: well, it’s the weather, what can ya do?          

That’s why, though not a full-time climate activist myself, I’ve made a point of trying to keep up with and their analysis and work since I attended McKibben’s inaugural “Do The Math” show three years ago.

First the event itself. It amounted to a very effective and sophisticated pep rally, with a four-person crew, Klein, McKibben, the “Hip Hop Reverend” Lennox Yearwood and Cynthia Ong from the Borneo region of Malaysia, at center stage. They passed the mike back and forth amongst themselves for scripted stints of no more than a couple of minutes, with sharp visuals and a few brief video messages projected on large screens behind them. There were three brief cultural performances and some other speakers interspersed, notably a quartet of young folk from various countries who were held to the same two-minute, single-point messaging format. big May Boeve closed by sketching out some battle plans for the coming months.

The Message

Here’s the message as I received it. (Your mileage may vary. Watch it here if you are so inclined.)

Things are bad and getting worse. Though fossil fuel companies have reserves 5 times what can be extracted and burned without damaging the biosphere beyond repair, they are still spending hundreds of billions every year in exploring for more.
People’s resistance is growing globally and has won significant victories—the “done deal” Keystone XL Pipeline of a few years ago hasn’t been built, for instance.
We are in a race between global warming and resistance, we aren’t winning yet, and every day counts.
The main enemy is the giant fossil fuel companies (Shell, Exxon, India’s Adani Group, etc.), which must be “turned off” because the logic of their continued existence is to worsen the problem. The main tactic promoted here was divestment campaigns to drive down stock prices.
The rapid growth of renewable energy, especially solar, and the falling price of renewable generation means we can win this (The highpoint of the staging savvy of the evening was the introduction of this point and of the turn toward more optimism overall. It was a powerful and emotional performance of “Here Comes The Sun” by a young activist named Antonique Smith)
Renewables, and the changeover to them, can best be accomplished by taking them up at a community level in conjunction with struggles against poverty and injustice. 
We need “energy democracy” including insuring that the millions of new green jobs created are decently paid union jobs.
The enemy has much to lose, and the money to buy the politicians it needs to stave off change. We must build a movement that builds on our accomplishments so far and unites hundreds of millions who have much to gain.

A Few Observations

Attending such events answers some questions about what the leading figures in are thinking and what they will be doing. The emphasis on attacking the big fossil fuel corporations is a promising new approach, though no claim is made that that successes in divestment campaigns so far, while impressive, have made a qualitative difference. The success of sanctions against apartheid was cited repeatedly, but the likes of Exxon are, by comparison, hardened targets.

Klein, McKibben and the others are clearly intent on baking into this movement a central thrust of justice and equality, and an internationalist stance. This is, of course, helped by the very global nature of the crisis. The symbolic message of who was up on stage, and on screen, was part of this, obviously. Rev. Yearwood wore a Sandy hat for Sandra Bland and name checked Black Lives Matter. And while some of it just came of as earnest assertion, a strong case was made that many of the initial victorious struggles thus far have emerged from indigenous communities, poor and marginalized.

A schedule of big demonstrations pegged to international events like the Paris Climate Summit this December will move things ahead along on the path the group has been following. Ramping up divestment efforts will not take out Big Oil and Big Coal. McKibben hinted at more civil disobedience, but it’s not clear how that might be directed at, say, Shell or the Koch Brothers.

Of course, things which weren’t said also deserve our attention. For instance, McKibben did not mention the July 20 declaration by noted climatologist James Hansen and fellow scientists that newly understood feedback mechanisms may well mean a rise of ten feet in global sea level by 2065, which would be beyond catastrophic. Does disagree with Hansen? Or feel that the news is so grim that it would upset the balance of the ON+OFF dynamic embodied in the group’s new slogan?

More understandably, electoral politics and capitalism itself were touched on only by implication. The refusal to address the upcoming US presidential elections was. I think, wise, and reflects their understanding that only a huge mass movement can produce the changes needed. Subsuming such a movement in a presidential campaign would risk its continued existence once next November has come and gone. (That said, Sanders kids were present in large numbers and leafleting the crowd.) As for a frontal attack on the capitalist system itself, that’s not the job of the spokespeople for a broad and, one must hope, growing united front. That’s our job, us being the Reds, the revolutionary socialists in the movement.

Yo! Frankie!

But this does bring up the most interesting omission, an issue my partner Dody asked me about straightaway when I was telling her about the program: Pope Francis’s recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, which was mentioned only in passing. Not only is this document the most positive development in the Climate Justice movement so far this year, but Bill McKibben himself wrote an impassioned and thoughtful appreciation of it for the NY Review of Books, which she and I had read together.

The Pope challenges, more directly that anything at the OFF+ON event, the “deification” of the market and the money power. More, Francis identifies the biggest obstacle to uniting the hundreds of millions needed to win this life and death battle. As McKibben summarizes him:
Our way of life literally doesn’t work. It’s breaking the planet. Given the severity of the situation, Francis writes, “we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress. A fragile world, entrusted by God to human care, challenges us to devise intelligent ways of directing, developing, and limiting our power.” had an already convinced and ready-to-act audience at BAM. If such people are judged unready to rethink and take on the way late capitalism operates, with its television-reinforced culture of consumption über alles, and to change their lives accordingly, we really are in deep shit. 

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