For a moment last fall, it felt like the “post-hope” era was coming to an end. Protesters in Egypt and Tunisia had won nonviolent revolutions, Occupy Wall Street offered us our own national rallying cry against the deep structural inequity threatening our democracy, and over 1,200 Americans took part in the biggest act of civil disobedience in the history of environmentalism. Maybe we’d all finally get off the internet and start directly confronting those things we’d been waiting for President Obama to fix for us since January 2009.
But then, as quickly as it began, it started to feel like it was over. Egypt’s revolution turned sour. Obama started waffling on Keystone. Occupy encampments all but disappeared. The Republican primaries came around and we watched in bemused horror as one climate-change-denying corporate stooge after the next pranced and preened for the opportunity to duke it out on live TV with our very own Disappointment in Chief.
Well, here’s the good news. Occupy is trying to make a comeback — and those of us who are concerned about the climate have an opportunity to push the issue into the spotlight, a chance that we largely missed the last time around.
For the past few months, organizers in cities all over the country have been focusing on Tuesday, May 1. Here in New York you can’t walk more than three blocks without seeing a sticker, poster, or some scrawled sharpie graffiti reminding you of the “May 1 General Strike. No School. No Work. No Shopping.” I won’t go into whether it makes sense to call what’s happening a general strike. The point is that folks are trying to jump-start the engine of public critical thought and grassroots resistance. If you’re serious about fighting climate change and environmental injustice, it behooves you to join in.
Spending considerable time around the movement, I’ve found that most Occupiers care about climate change, they just don’t always know how to talk about it. When protesters made camp in Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17, they did so out of an enormous sense of desperation and blind faith that people coming together in public space could alter the political-ecological-economic collision course that we seem to be headed down. The early days of the Occupation were a whirl of political debate which generated documents like “The Declaration of The Occupation of New York City,” a list of abuses perpetrated by corporate power against the populace. This list included keeping us dependent on fossil fuels. However, there was no discussion of the costs of this dependency in terms of climate change and localized damage from extreme extraction.
The fact that climate change was not a fundamental component of this and other early documents represents an enormous missed opportunity. For decades, ecological economists have warned us about the dangers that come with a system geared toward infinite growth in a finite world. Now we find ourselves in a situation where traditional Keynesian solutions are likely to undermine our well-being and make it harder to prevent irreversible climate change that puts those least responsible at the greatest risk. If Occupiers wanted to talk about building an economy that works for “the 99%,” they should have been more up-front in acknowledging how unsustainable our current economy is, ecologically speaking.
It’s still a mystery to me exactly why climate change and other socio-environmental crises didn’t play a bigger role in these documents. My best guess after talking with dozens of Occupiers is that folks felt like it was somewhat inappropriate to try and hijack the agenda in a community that included the homeless, the chronically unemployed, and those struggling with crippling debt burdens.
One activist, a 30-year-old sustainability consultant, told me that he had seen climate as a good “long-term” issue for the movement once people had reclaimed their sense of political agency and collective power. There was an assumption that those encamped in Zuccotti would have plenty of time to develop their message. However, shortly after the fledgling group in New York came to consensus on the Declaration of Occupation, the movement spread nationwide, and they began to lose control over the conversation they had started.
Environmentalists continue to work inside the movement, however, many of them in well-organized “working groups.” In New York, the sustainability working group powered Zuccotti with energy bikes. The environmentalist solidarity group led a climate justice day of teach-ins and got the general assembly to issue a public statement condemning a bizarre campaign to support the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline that used the rhetoric of Occupy. Other working groups formed around animal rights, local farms, food justice, the Rio+20 Earth Summit, and trade justice.
After the Nov. 15 eviction from Zuccotti, these groups continued to meet. They even formed an Eco-Cluster in order to collaborate on a month of actions leading up to Earth Day. Yet, despite all of this terrific energy, organizers still couldn’t get the media to talk about sustainability as a core part of Occupy’s challenge to the status quo. The movement is widely credited with having “changed the conversation” in American life, but we’re still not talking about the elephant in the room.
If climate activists want to get serious about our one shot to prevent catastrophe, we need all the help we can get. We need to have a broad-based social movement in the U.S. that holds corporations and crooked politicians accountable. Additionally, Occupy needs us. It needs our energy and our creativity. It needs our unique understanding of the ways in which the climate crisis, left unattended, will put increased pressure on the 99%.
May Day is a gamble for Occupy. Huge amounts of energy have been poured into planning. The return on that investment will determine the future of the movement. We have an election coming up in which both sides will be taking enormous amounts of money from the same companies that have been bankrolling mountaintop-removal mining, funding climate denial think tanks, and standing in the way of any meaningful climate legislation.
May Day is also a chance at a fresh start. That means it’s also a chance for us inject some green wisdom into the core of the conversation. You don’t have to love everything that has been done in the name of Occupy so far. In fact, it’s probably best if you show up with some constructive criticism. But show up. Google your local Occupy group. Chances are they have something planned for May Day. We don’t get to choose when change will come or exactly what it will look like, but we do get to choose whether or not we want to join in the fight.