Category Archives: Nick Coles

Class Meets Climate in Barbara Kingsolver’s Fiction

“In American life,” wrote Meridel LeSueur in the 1930s, “you hear things happening in a far and muffled way.” She was referring to the labor conflicts of the time, but she also suggests that awareness of class division and conflict has always been muffled by a national ideology of competitive individualism. Today, despite instant mass communication, climate change, too, seems to be happening in a far and muffled way. Except when it comes roaring ashore like Super Storm Sandy, our responses to a rolling catastrophe are subsumed in the daily business of getting ahead or getting by. Or awareness is actively muffled by climate deniers’ disinformation. Of course, LeSueur implies, good writing can pierce the veil of ideology and make large themes like class and climate vivid and consequential.

Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior does that and more: it explores the connections between class and climate in a way that is rare in North American fiction. It’s the story of a Tennessee farm family coping with the effects on their livelihood of a depressed economy and weird weather patterns. The protagonist is Dellarobia Turnbow, a twenty-something stay-at-home mother of two with an urge for “flight” from her marriage and possibly towards a college education. The book’s culture is intensely local. We get to know Feathertown and its people, the Turnbows, and their farm intimately.

At the same time, Kingsolver creates expanding circles of connection and consequence, linking local and global effects of climate change. She also dramatizes the discourses — science, religion, politics — that claim to interpret these effects. At the novel’s center, intertwined with Dellarobia’s story, is the anomalous migration of millions of monarch butterflies to the hills above her house. Local evangelicals hail the arrival of these amazing creatures as a sign of God’s blessing. Scientists see their attempt to winter in Tennessee as a symptom of a biological crisis, jeopardizing more than the butterflies’ survival.

“The problem with writing a novel about climate change—and Kingsolver is not the first to attempt it—is that the issue is fundamentally abstract,” writes Michelle Dean in Slate. Indeed most climate fiction is sci-fi, setting the calamity in future worlds. But Flight Behavior shows changes happening here and now. On the Turnbow’s sheep farm persistent rain has saturated pastures, spoiled the hay crop, and messed up lambing season. A neighbor’s orchard has failed to produce, roads have been washed out, and worse flooding is on the way. Like the marks of the Great Recession on the novel – sketchy employment, second-hand shopping — these events are based in actuality. Torrential rains and a deadly “1000 year flood” hit Tennessee in 2010.

Kingsolver’s one leap into speculative fiction is her invention of the butterflies’ mis-migration to southern Appalachia.   Monarchs still make the trip to Mexico, though their winter habitat in the mountains of Michoaclán is threatened.   Heavy rains on those mountains produced flooding and landslides that destroyed the town of Angangueo, killing at least thirty people — also in 2010. Kingsolver further connects events in Tennessee and Mexico through the immigration of the Delgado family from Angangueo to Feathertown, where the father works as a day laborer. Through a series of halting exchanges between two working-class families on the front lines of climate change, we get a glimpse of the larger disaster, across continents. These biological and economic migrations, beautifully narrated by Kingsolver, illuminate deep links between environmental degradation and increasing social precarity.

Slate reviewer Dean, though skeptical of a novel’s capacity to instruct on such issues, acknowledges “Kingsolver’s frankly exceptional skill at rendering the smaller human dramas that result from the big, societal themes she’s embracing.” These dramas are enacted in witty conversations, often between people of different classes. Sometimes they talk past each other, as when an earnest eco-campaigner tries to get Dellarobia to sign his “Sustainability Pledge,” which includes a commitment to “fly less.” She has, of course, never flown at all. In fact Dellarobia’s “life-style” is involuntarily about as low-carbon as you can get in the US. Nevertheless, she is informed, ”You people need to get on board” the green agenda. The prevailing local view of climate problems — “Weather is the Lord’s business” – also comes in for some acerbic satire.

Beyond skewering the relatively easy targets of liberal elitism and hick superstition, Kingsolver stages some lovely scenes of differently classed characters actually talking together. They challenge and inform each other, especially about class positions and attendant belief systems. Taking her first job since waiting tables as a teenager, Dellarobia works as a field assistant in the makeshift lab of entomologist Ovid Byron, a university professor visiting Feathertown to study what may become a major species extinction. He is stumped as to why the locals don’t believe in climate science or value the knowledge produced by a college education. She explains how class works: “I’d say the teams get picked and then the beliefs get handed around.” While Team Camo gets “the right to bear arms” and “taking care of our own,” she says, “the environment got assigned to the other team. Worries like that are not for people like us.” Ovid replies, “Drought and floods are not worries for farmers?”

Dellarobia realizes he “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that ties up people like her in the day-to-day.”   The novel gives us more than an inkling of that great slog, but it also pushes Ovid beyond his credo that “All we can do is measure and count. That is the task of science.”   Dellarobia teases out his grief at what they are witnessing, his yearning to intervene. In a scene of high tragi-comedy, Ovid finally unloads on a glossy TV reporter for pretending that there’s still a “debate” about climate change. Without getting heavy-handed about it, the novel urges both the responsibility of scientists to put what they know in terms people can grasp, and the responsibility of journalists to report what science shows us.

Reviewers of Kingsolver’s novel mostly comment either on her treatment of climate change – some finding it deft and others preachy – or on her treatment of rural poverty – some finding it empathic and others condescending. They don’t notice the skill with which she is narrating the connections between the accelerating climate crisis and the struggles of people, mostly poor and working-class, living with its effects.   For that achievement, Flight Behavior is a worthy fictional companion to Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. It is also provides a highly entertaining and provocative reading experience.

Nick Coles

University of Pittsburgh

 

 

 

 

 

 

Divestment Days and the “War on Coal”

Next weekend, February 13 and 14, hundreds of cities around the world will witness actions as part of Global Divestment Days, calling for an end to fossil fuel addiction and a transition to a clean-energy future. The Fossil Free coalition coordinating these events grew out of the massive People’s Climate Marches (PCM) on September 21, 2014. Divestment campaigns, urging individuals and institutions (churches, universities, unions, banks, and city governments) to withdraw investment dollars from extractive industries, emerged as a key strategy intended to unite students, workers, and people on the front lines climate change.

In an op-ed the day of the March, Desmond Tutu connected the movement for climate justice with the anti- apartheid struggle, which had been aided by a widespread divestment campaign: “Reducing our carbon footprint [has] emerged as the human rights challenge of our time. The most devastating effects of climate change – deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees – are being visited on the world’s poor. Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither.”

Justice, then, requires that those with the capacity should act in solidarity with those most affected, moving our money, if we have investments, and pressuring those who control the flow of capital to do likewise: “Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, we can say that nobody should profit from the. . . human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

Three months before the PCM, citing “a moral obligation to act on climate,” President Obama had given the movement some hope with new EPA regulations limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants. The rules mandating an average reduction of 30% by 2030 were a significant departure because they aim to mitigate impacts of coal burning not only on local air quality but also on global warming. If they are implemented as intended, they could deliver cleaner air and water to local communities, mostly poor and working-class, living near power plants, while also showing US willingness to reduce the causes of climate disasters that have already cost thousands of lives in the poorest regions of the world.

The new rules were met with howls of protest from climate deniers, industry executives, and coal-state politicians, charging Obama with waging a “war on coal.” Thousands of union miners and their families took to the streets during the EPA’s public hearings in Pittsburgh, denouncing the regulations as job killers. Their protest was organized by the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance and industry lobbying groups, along with the United Mineworkers of America and other labor unions.

In testimony at the EPA hearings, former Teamster activist Mel Packer attributed this unholy alliance of long-time class enemies to the miners’ anger and fear in the precarious post-2008 economy: they have seen horrendous job losses, their small towns impoverished, and all the social ills that come with a sense of having no future. “They, like everyone else displaced in this Wall Street ‘recovery’ but working class disaster, need jobs, good jobs with dignity, union protection, and living wages. Jobs that leave us with some sense of pride at the end of the shift, knowing we somehow contributed to the common good.” However, he cautioned, “That ain’t gonna come from the coal companies.”

In fact, contrary to the industry line about “Obama’s war on coal,” most job-losses across the coalfields predated the new EPA regulations and happened as a consequence of decisions made in coal company boardrooms. These included a shift from labor-intensive “room-and-pillar” underground mining to fully mechanized long-wall mining and surface extraction, including mountain-top-removal (MTR) with its devastating effects on human health and the natural environment. As a result, the “coal state” of West Virginia saw employment in mining shrink to 27,000 jobs by 2014, while poverty is higher and life-expectancy lower in communities near MTR sites. And it is no coincidence that those surface mines usually run non-union, reducing the UMWA’s membership and clout.

The hard truth is, though, that in a state like Kentucky, which generates 90% of its electricity in coal-fired plants, job losses in coal are unavoidable, since many old plants cannot be adequately retrofitted. In fact, the future for coal faces a much greater threat than either the EPA’s regulations or the industry’s job-killing mechanization. Saving the planet requires essentially that we stop digging the stuff.

The Guardian recently reported on a study published in the journal Nature, estimating that about 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must be left buried if we are to prevent climate catastrophe. The study also indicates exactly which fuels must remain in the ground, primarily those requiring extreme modes of extraction: Canadian tar sands oil, much potential shale gas, and, of course, coal, “the most polluting of all fossil fuels. Globally, 82% of today’s reserves must be left underground. In major coal producing nations like the US, Australia and Russia, more than 90% of coal reserves” must remain unburned.

A “just transition” to a clean energy future, then, requires that we not only divest from fossil fuels but also reinvest in renewables and in training displaced workers for the new economy. Groups like Appalachian Transition work to develop local wind and hydro generation, solar installations, and building retrofits for energy efficiency, as well as jobs in forest and watershed reclamation. As Nick Mullins puts it in his Thoughtful Coalminer blog, not only would this transition “give people good steady jobs outside of the coal mines–it would decrease our need for fossil fuels, satisfy many environmental concerns, and even give us that national energy security everyone keeps talking about.”

The students who initiated the campus divestment movement understood the necessity to both “divest and invest.” They explicitly framed their campaign as a “solidarity tactic” with workers and others most affected by extractive industries. At Swarthmore, for instance, they founded the Mountain Justice organization after a spring break study trip to mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia. Student Stephen O’Hanlon expresses the resulting strategy with typical idealism: “As institutions of higher education, we can leverage our economic and political capital to not only transition from fossil fuels to renewables, but to create a more equitable society in the process. By divesting, we can undermine the fossil fuel industry’s social license, thereby threatening their bottom lines. Through reinvesting, we can actively promote the world we want to see.”

This cross-class solidarity approach has spread to hundreds of campuses, with its most recent success at the New School in New York City. Pittsburgh’s Divestment Day rally and teach-in, Friday February 13, are organized primarily by students from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, in alliance with traditional peace and justice organizations, union and environmental activists. The Center for Coalfield Justice, based in the most mined and fracked corner of western Pennsylvania, will teach us about “living on the front lines of the fossil fuel industry,” while students crank up pressure on their universities to divest from climate-destroying fuels and invest “like Appalachia matters.”

Nick Coles

Climate of Change: Students, Naomi Klein, and the People’s Climate March

I was one of the hundreds of thousands filling the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014. I was there with a dozen students from my freshman composition course, in which we are reading and writing about climate change and what we can do about it. One thing they wanted to do was march – something only a couple of these eighteen-year-olds had done before. So I procured a university van, found sleeping space at a Quaker Meeting House, and drove us to the Big Apple. (Another fifty Pitt students chartered a bus to get there.) In the van we had Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, which is the central text for our course, though I can’t claim it got much attention during the trip: the students spent more time chatting, napping, texting, DJ-ing, and singing along than studying.

Klein is far from alone in pointing out that unless we transition rapidly from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet and our lives are imperiled by atmospheric warming, ice melting, oceans acidifying and rising, resource depletion, and extreme weather events resulting in floods, fires, and droughts. Scientists, writers, and actors from James Hansen to Bill McKibben to Leonardo DiCaprio have made this case with conviction. We also know, as Klein carefully explains, that it is technically and economically feasible to supply 100% of the world’s energy needs with water, wind, and solar power by 2030, if we had the necessary political will and collective vision to mitigate carbon emissions and avert catastrophe.

What is new and powerful in Klein’s project is indicated in its subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. She unfolds the essential contradiction between capitalism’s imperative for ever-increasing extraction of resources and consumption of goods and the climate’s requirement that we give up digging, drilling, and burning, and learn to live on less. This entails not just alternative energy but a deep ideological and structural change, away from the dominant “free market fundamentalism” of our era. This is, as she puts it, “the revolutionary power of climate change.”

In making this case, Klein addresses the “bad timing” whereby the climate crisis — which requires a collective response from an informed public and national governments — has emerged in the era when ascendant neoliberalism has undone government regulation, privatized the public sphere, promoted personal greed, subverted democratic processes, and, for good measure, mounted a massive disinformation campaign about the effects of globalized capitalism on the climate. She argues for the role of government in “planning and banning,” and in reviving public ownership and local power generation. But she also makes clear that moving “beyond extractivism” – an economic system based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth – to a system based on stewardship and shared resources requires not just policy and legal changes but “confronting the climate denier within”: our overindulgence in the goods capitalism delivers. We need to accept and promote “degrowth.”

While “degrowth” is the prescription for affluent industrialized nations, vast swaths of the world’s population already have less of the food, clean water, and energy they need to live on. Many of the poorest nations are also on the front lines of the climate catastrophe, having contributed least to the carbon emissions that are causing it. “Climate justice,” then, implies class justice: supporting efforts at development, especially in the global South, that meet local needs sustainably and equitably, rather than following the “pollute first / clean up later” model of the industrialized North (and most recently China) with its severe inequalities in wealth and life-chances. Klein argues that the prime culprits in overheating the planet should make payments, generated through carbon taxes and other redistributive schemes, to the poorer nations most affected. Payments to keep their carbon in the ground could be invested locally in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and in preparing for the climate disasters headed their way. In all of these initiatives “the overriding principle must be to address the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.”

I hope This Changes Everything takes its place alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century as one of the key books of the decade, since it illuminates the other side of the capitalist coin brilliantly – not only its generation of ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, but also its depletion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” for human and all other species. Reading her provides a powerful experience of connecting the dots, getting the full picture of what we’re up against and the full scope of the necessary and possible transformation.

In making her case for this [re]evolutionary transition, Klein critiques the false hope represented by several “green” trends: the alliance of some environmental groups with corporations to get them to change their ways, the intervention of green billionaires whose bottom line always trumps their environmental leanings, and delusional geoengineering schemes for seeding the oceans, blocking the sun, and such.   Real hope comes from the resistance of front-line peoples across the transnational climate conflict zone she calls “Blockadia,” as well as from from divest-and-invest campaigns, and the many alternative economic and energy projects she outlines, from Nigeria to Bolivia to Germany to the tribal lands of US and Canadian indigenous people.

Her account of these campaigns and initiatives is a pleasure to read. Klein tells stories and explains complex issues with the lucidity of the best non-fiction authors, combined with the passion of a muckraking journalist. She is an impeccable researcher, but she is willing to be a visionary also, claiming the right to “dream in public” – as she shows many other people doing in the book. For instance, in oil-soaked Louisiana where coastline is rapidly succumbing to ocean rise, Anne Rolfes, founder of the environmental justice Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says: “There once was an institution in this part of the world that had economic, social, political control, and people thought it couldn’t be beat. But slavery was brought down, and the oil industry can be, too.”

Klein argues ultimately that it will take a mass social movement to achieve the twin goals of averting climate catastrophe and living on the planet more equitably. She concludes that Abolitionism provides the closest model for the struggle we need to be about, precisely because of the depth and scope of the economic, social, and political changes required and the intense resistance to be expected from those with most to lose. The ideology of extractivism relies on a relationship of ownership and exploitation of the earth and its resources which mirrors slavery’s relationship to the subjugated human body and its labor.   I don’t know how many of us chanting in the streets of New York — “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” — quite grasped that we are engaged in what Klein calls the “unfinished business of liberation.”

But my students, carrying their homemade signs and surrounded by a mass of wildly diverse peers on the march, sensed they were part of something powerful and hopeful. Here’s a sampling of their written comments about it:

  • “While we were marching with 311,000 other people through the streets of NYC, our collective power seemed immense.”
  • “I have never seen such unity, passion, and energy in such a quantity.”
  • “People from all over the world came together to fight for what they love, for what we all have in common.”
  • “The People’s Climate March is only the beginning in my eyes. If change does not happen soon, the people of this Earth will continue to speak out and take action.”

In that struggle, I’m glad they have a book that provides the critical analysis and the models of change we need in this “decade zero” for the climate.

Nick Coles

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pipeline and the Unions

The controversy over the Keystone XL (KXL) pipeline has sharply divided the labor and climate movements. The KXL would provide a new direct route for the northern leg of the existing Keystone pipeline bringing Alberta tar sands oil to refineries in the US Midwest and the Gulf Coast of Texas. The new pipe would be 36 inches in diameter, increasing Keystone’s capacity to more than one million barrels per day. It offers the promise of good jobs, virtually unlimited fuel, and – some claim – climate disaster.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union (ILUNA), has been lobbying hard for Keystone and is frustrated that “a pipeline that could put thousands of Americans to work and help ensure our nation’s energy security remains stalled” because President Obama has postponed making a decision until after the mid-term elections. O’Sullivan regards those who oppose the pipeline as job killers. He has been joined in his pro-KXL campaign by other construction trades unions, including the Ironworkers, IBEW, and Operating Engineers, some of which have project agreements with the pipeline’s builder, TransCanada. In February 2013, the AFL-CIO issued a “Statement on Energy and Jobs” that called for “expansion of our pipeline infrastructure,” though without naming Keystone.

One of the pipeline’s many opponents is James Hansen, the NASA scientist who famously wrote that building it would be “game over for the climate.” He calls the Alberta tar sands oil that would be pumped across the US via Keystone “one of the dirtiest, most carbon intensive fuels on the planet.” Canada’s deposits contain twice the amount of carbon dioxide already emitted by global oil use over time, and exploiting them would raise greenhouse gas emissions to disastrous levels. Hansen’s data and his example helped galvanize the anti-pipeline movement that took to the streets of Washington, DC in 2011, where Hansen and a 1000 other activists were arrested at White House protests. Several labor unions also oppose the pipeline, including the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and National Nurses United.

Opponents point to potential problems beyond the climate effects of extracting and burning this fuel. Unprecedented quantities of toxic crude will be transported across the Ogallala aquifer, the Sandhills wetlands, an active seismic zone, and farmland whose owners can be dispossessed through “eminent domain.” TransCanada claims this would be the world’s safest pipeline (despite a devastating 2010 spill from their pipes in Kalamazoo, Michigan), to which Nebraska farmer Randy Thompson responds: “What was the safest ship that was ever built?” At the local level, a coalition of ranchers, farmers, and tribal communities in Nebraska and South Dakota – including the Cowboy Indian Alliance — is now stalling the pipeline through court challenges and creative direct action.

Supporters of the pipeline are concerned primarily about jobs, though they also claim that it will help ensure US energy independence — oddly, since the point of transporting Canadian oil to the Gulf is primarily to refine and ship it to global markets beyond the US. Access to the much closer coast of British Columbia is blocked by the resistance of First Nations communities and BC residents, despite Canadian Prime Minister Harper’s approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline. KXL opponents point out that a far greater contribution to US energy independence would be created by a wholesale and rapid transition to a low-carbon economy fueled by renewable energy.

Unions, of course, have a responsibility to protect their dues-paying members’ jobs, and to generate more jobs where they can. Around one million construction workers are out of work, and the pipeline is “shovel-ready.” Job-creation estimates for KXL vary wildly from the US Chamber of Commerce’s 250,000 to Cornell University Global Labor Institute’s 500 to 1,000. TransCanada claims 20,000. Whatever the number, most KXL jobs would be temporary, during the two-year construction phase. And again, the pipeline’s employment potential is dwarfed by the numbers that could be put to work – including laborers, pipefitters, electricians, and operating engineers — through a massive investment in renewable energy (wind, solar, and geothermal) and in upgrading the nation’s infrastructure (water systems, public transit, and the electric grid).

This is the program around which current labor-climate partnerships can unite, according to Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability, whose slogan is “Making a living on a living planet.” Uehlein was a member of ILUNA at a time when it featured a bumper sticker that read, “Hungry and out of work? Eat an environmentalist.” He has since worked as director of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Unions Department and was its representative to the UN commission on global warming. He knows the history of organized labor’s tangled relationship to environmental struggles and cites several productive partnerships. “The UAW was by far the largest contributor to the first Earth Day,” and UAW president Walter Reuther was an enthusiastic endorser of the Clean Air Act. The BlueGreen Alliance of unions and environmental groups, founded in 2006 out of a partnership between the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers, works to promote jobs and investment in the green economy. Uehlein’s network promotes a “just transition,” with protections and training for workers in declining sectors of the economy.

You can demonstrate solidarity on issues of climate and jobs by joining the upcoming Peoples Climate March on September 21 in New York, in advance of a UN meeting to hash out an inter-government agreement for dramatic reductions in global warming pollution. Participants announced to date include the ATU, along with locals and regional branches of the Machinists, SEIU, IBEW, CWA, TWU, Teamsters, Nurses, UAW, AFT, AFSCME, Heat and Frost Insulators, and the Canadian Labor Congress.   More will no doubt sign on as the date approaches. The support of so many unions in what organizers predict will be the world’s largest mass demonstrations on climate issues is encouraging.

As Jeremy Brecher puts it, explaining the unanimous vote of the Connecticut State Council of Machinists to support the March, “Addressing the climate crisis is an opportunity to reduce unemployment, grow our unions, improve our community’s health and restore balance to our environment.” These union brothers and sisters, marching alongside hundreds of environmental groups, can help us to be as clear about what we are for as what we are against. A “just transition” to the low-carbon economy, with green jobs at living wages, need to be front and center in the climate rally and the campaigns that follow.

Nick Coles

A Tale of Two Cities and Two Activists

Climate change and increasing class inequities are two of the most pressing issues of our time.  How are policies and activism addressing these problems? Two young women working for progressive change in two mid-sized cities offer inspiring models, one from inside local government and the other via grassroots organizing.

Plymouth, a city of around 250,000 people on the coast of Devon about 200 miles southwest of London, is best known in the US as the port from which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed in 1620.  Once a major naval and commercial port, Plymouth shed population and prosperity as shipyards closed and docks lost traffic.  Western Europe’s largest naval base, HMNB Devonport, sits across the river from the city, but it contributes little to the local economy.

Plymouth’s City Council takes a progressive approach to the city’s social and environmental problems.  A “Fairness Commission” makes recommendations addressing such issues as substandard housing, youth unemployment, isolation of the elderly, ethnic discrimination, cuts in public services, “food deserts,” and disparities in life expectancy between affluent and deprived parts of town.  On the environmental front, Council has established a Low Carbon City Team, “responsible for promoting and delivering plans and projects that will shape Plymouth’s ability to secure radical reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and provide resilience to the impacts of climate change.”  Jenny Howard Coles (my niece) is a member of that seven-person team working on projects that connect energy sourcing, land-use planning, and social justice.

For instance, the Plymouth Energy Community advises residents on switching suppliers to lower costs.  It also offers a Solar Share Scheme, a public-private partnership whereby residents can invest in community-owned small-scale renewable energy installations in the city.  Six primary schools have now been fitted with solar panels, and displays inside each building show students how much energy is generated and carbon emissions reduced.  Jenny’s department also supports “self-build” eco-housing on vacant land provided by the Council, working with a community association to offer training in construction and to maintain existing jobs in the building trades.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has a population of 380,000, down from half a million before the decline of the steel industry.  It sits at the hub of Allegheny County, a conurbation of around two million.  Despite thriving educational and medical sectors, Pittsburghers still suffer stagnant wages, pockets of high poverty, and steep racial disparities in health and in academic achievement. Also, in spite of its near-total deindustrialization, Pittsburgh still has very poor air quality, due to vehicle exhaust and emissions from US Steel’s Clairton coke works.

After decades of fairly dysfunctional city government, Pittsburgh may be on the cusp of a progressive turn.  For instance, Pittsburgh has the distinction of being the first city in the world to ban “fracking” – the extraction of gas and oil through hydraulic fracturing of underground shale – within city limits, due to a groundswell of protest that has united working-class residents with mainstream environmental groups.   Another vital local movement has been the campaign to save the city’s public transportation system.

As a city of hills, rivers, and congested roads, Pittsburgh relies on mass transit to get people where they need to go.  Yet the region has lost half of its routes since 2006, and now has the second highest fares of any US city.  In response to a threatened 35% reduction in 2010, Alicia Williamson helped found Pittsburghers for Public Transit (PPT), which unites riders with unionized drivers and other stakeholders to “keep the public in public transit.”  This includes advocating for state funding:  Pennsylvania has provided no consistent year-to-year support for two decades.  In a key move of solidarity, PPT has promoted a “Transit Bill of Rights” that includes the right to “living wages, benefits, safe working conditions, and union rights for transit workers,” along with “safe, reliable, environmentally-sustainable, and affordable transit that is accessible to all.”

Years of campaigning were finally rewarded by passage in November 2013 of PA Act 89 providing dedicated funding for five years to Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) and Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.  Significantly, Act 89 does not provide for restoration of services to communities that were previously cut off.  PPT’s efforts can now pivot towards that goal, along with lowering fares, and greening the fleet – investments that will require downtown corporations, many of which operate tax-free, to pay their fair share towards the mobility of their workers and customers.  The key strategy, Alicia says, is making public planning processes more transparent and inclusive so that the system better reflects the needs of the community.

Alicia Williamson and Jenny Howard Coles are both 30 years old, well educated, from middle-class families with working-class roots.  Jenny hails from Bristol, where her mother is a sculptor and her father a former lecturer in special education.  She holds a Masters in environmental and energy studies from the Center for Alternative Technology.   Before signing on in Plymouth, she worked as an event coordinator, handling sustainability issues for major summer arts festivals.  Alicia, who has lived in Pittsburgh since 2006, is from Duluth, Minnesota, where her dad worked for the Social Security Administration and mother was a high school guidance counselor.  She has a PhD in English, having written a dissertation on the sexual politics of novels written by members of the Socialist Party of America, and she has been teaching undergraduates at Pitt for the past eight years.

Both women show remarkable political savvy and capacity for partnership in their projects.  Jenny understands that good ideas generated with groups like the Plymouth Energy Community need to be thought through with the city Planning Department and need to meet EU statutory requirements for sustainability.  She likes the way this leads to what she calls “joined up thinking.”  So, for instance, the Fairness Commission’s recommendation for school meals for all pupils was implemented in a way that met goals for employment, health, and low-carbon in one move: on-site kitchens were re-opened in each school so that meals were fresher and hotter, rather than being shipped from a central kitchen.  And meals were prepared using locally sourced food, thereby supporting area farmers and businesses and reducing fuel used in transport.

In a similar-but-different vein, Alicia is working with and between two powerful institutions – Local 85 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) and the Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC)  – whose interests overlap in some areas and conflict in others.  As a well-informed and independent community group, not subject to the internal politics of either organization, PPT can take positions that push their agendas.  Crucially, Alicia and other staffers have partnered with the union: many ATU drivers are also members of PPT.  They have also won a seat at the table as PAAC begins a new round of planning for a regional transportation strategy.  Pittsburgh is out in front with this kind of partnership.  Although the ATU International is committed to working with riders’ advocacy groups, PPT was the only such group attending the union’s Transit Action Month rally in Washington DC last week.

A key difference, of course, is that Jenny works within local government, in a city where the Council supports its staff in advising community groups advocating for just and sustainable practices.  She has a direct influence on policy and the resources to implement sound programs.  And she has access to data that allow her to assess progress on Low Carbon goals, such as  a 40% increase in bicycle ridership.  When I asked if she gets discouraged about the slow pace of change in the face of massive problems, she says: “It’s difficult, but good work is good work and it feels good to be engaged in it.”  She believes a food crisis is inevitable within ten years, given the impacts of climate change, and wants to help Plymouth develop the capacity to withstand it.

Unlike Jenny, Alicia works from the outside in, drawing on her experience as an activist for social and economic justice, as she pressures entrenched institutions to heed their “public” and meet the community’s needs.  She’s canvassed, petitioned, demonstrated, testified, lobbied, and handled media for the cause.  At the DC Transit Action rally, Alicia shared the stage with the Rev. Al Sharpton.  She was  one of few women and likely the youngest speaker in a roster of seasoned pols and union leaders.  “Public transportation is the backbone of healthy economies, environments, and communities,” she said, thanking the ATU “for making our transit systems better and safer and more equitable.”  When I ask Alicia the same question about discouragement, she says: “I refer to this work as ‘recreation’ in the most profound sense of the word; re-creating our selves and our world together.”

Jenny and Alicia both stress teamwork with communities in their two cities as a source for the energy, fresh ideas, and optimism that sustain them as they address the impacts of climate change and structural inequalities.  In Plymouth as in Pittsburgh, while fully aware of the daunting big picture, they have chosen near-term local issues around which people can unite and witness the positive effects their actions can have.

Nick Coles

Climate Change and Income Inequality

People committed to struggles for peace and justice always have our work cut out for us.  The forces arrayed against us are powerful and determined, and the range of issues and crises demanding action is daunting.  Given our limited time and energy, where and how do we apply them for the common good?  What guides us in deciding?  Life experience and the values we uphold, no doubt, but also our analysis of the present situation.  For me, the two broad concerns that have become most pressing, at least since the economic collapse of 2008, are income inequality and climate change.

These are, of course, twin products of industrial capitalism and its class system.  The rising oceans, killer heat waves, floods, species extinctions, and crop failures we are witnessing on the climate front – like the poverty wages, attacks on labor, bank fraud, malnutrition, and “austerity” in public services on the class front – are inter-related signs of a system in crisis.  Yet the two issues – climate change and income inequality – are rarely linked in a common analysis.

For instance, a recent study by the UK Government Office of Science predicts that, given increasing global population, “by 2030 the world will need to produce 50 percent more food and energy, together with 30 percent more fresh water, whilst mitigating and adapting to climate change.”  Author John Beddington adds, “This threatens to create a ‘perfect storm’ of global events,” without specifying what those events might be or how they will be exacerbated by unequal distribution of the necessary resources.

The just-published fifth assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) goes a bit further, according to The Guardian’s report:

The volume of scientific literature on the effects of climate change has doubled since the last report, and the findings make an increasingly detailed picture of how climate change – in tandem with existing fault lines such as poverty and inequality – poses a much more direct threat to life and livelihood. (my italics)

One study that does make the link explicit comes from the NSF-funded Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center in a report titled “Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling Inequality and Use of Resources in the Collapse or Sustainability of Societies.”  When Nafeez Ahmed wrote about this report in his Earth Insight blog for The Guardian, he touched a nerve regarding our “convergent catastrophes,” and generated a storm of commentary.  The study, Ahmed writes, “highlight[s] the prospect that global industrial civilization could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

The HANDY report begins with a review of past collapses of societies – such as the Roman Empire, Han dynasty, and Mayan civilization – to demonstrate that societal collapse is “a process recurrent in history, and global in its distribution.”  Collapse typically entails loss of political authority, breakdown of economic systems, and inability to sustain the population.   Not all societies collapse, of course, but in those cited the cycle of “boom and bust” seems to take about 300 – 500 years.

Noting “widespread concerns that current trends in population and resource use are unsustainable,” the authors apply their analysis of such collapses to the question “whether modern civilization is similarly susceptible.”  Explanations for particular cases of collapse vary by time and place and include drought, foreign invasion, earthquakes, technological change, famine, and popular uprising.  But across states and cultures that have collapsed over the past 5000 years, the authors find two common features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity, and the division of society into Elites (rich) and Commoners (poor).”

Using the HANDY theoretical model, the authors analyze interactions between population and natural resources as these tend towards equilibrium or towards collapse, across three scenarios: 1. Egalitarian society without Elites, which can achieve a “soft landing” to equilibrium;2. Equitable society, with Workers and non-Workers (students, retirees, disabled people), which oscillates a bit but can still achieve a negotiated sustainable equilibrium; 3. Unequal society with Elites and Commoners — “most closely reflecting the reality of our world today” – in which,

Given economic stratification, collapse is very difficult to avoid and requires major policy changes, including major reductions in inequality and population growth rates.  . . .  However, collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Good luck with that, you might be thinking – but it is the goal!

The HANDY analysis is mathematical and complex, but two significant points emerge clearly.  One is that technological innovation does not reverse the trend towards collapse:  “Technological change can raise the efficiency of resource use, but it also tends to raise both per capita resource consumption and the scale of resource extraction, so that, absent policy effects, the increases in consumption often compensate for the increased efficiency of resource use.”  For example, greater fuel economies for cars can have the “rebound” effect of encouraging people to drive more and faster, in newer cars.  Current “policy effects,” despite occasional “green” tweaking, all tend towards encouraging consumption as a stimulus to economic growth.

The other point addresses the conundrum: do the leaders of the fossil fuel industries, and the politicians who do their legislative bidding, not know that their activities will make the Earth uninhabitable, for themselves as well as the rest of us?  Well, “it is important to note that the Elites – due to their wealth – do not suffer the detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners.  This buffer of wealth allows the Elites to continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.”   This mechanism, the authors believe, may explain the obliviousness of the elites in the face of the impending Roman and Mayan collapses.  But they got theirs in the end.

Although I’ve been concerned here with scenarios of collapse, I am an optimist, still hopeful that the arc of human history does indeed bend towards justice.  I am also a realist, and I sense that the arc is going to need a mighty shove from those of us who still believe we can shape our history.  The fundamental problem we face, as the HANDY study makes clear, is that a sustainable equilibrium of population and resources is incompatible with business as usual under industrial capitalism.  And the difference in the current cycle of boom and bust is that the society threatened with collapse is not Roman or Mayan or even American, but global.  It’s all of us.

Perhaps I ‘ve gone a long way round to affirm the obvious: that issues of economic and social justice are interrelated with issues of environmental justice and climate change, and that we need to keep making those links visible in our activism.   But I find it helpful to have an analysis that explains the linking mechanism and points a way forward, while laying out very clearly the consequences of inaction.

Nick Coles

Learning about Labor in London

I have been living in London for a month, as part of my university’s study abroad program.  (It’s a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it.)  As it happens, I am a Brit and lived here decades ago between college and grad school, before moving to the US for most of my adult life.  It’s good to be back, as a sort of native foreigner, and with a group of American undergraduates for whom it is all new.  They’ve figured how to cross the road without getting killed, how to bag their own groceries, how to say “cheers” instead of thank you, and they seem to be enjoying the younger drinking age.  But they were floored by the recent strike on the London Underground, which they have learned to call “the tube.”  Commutes to class that normally took forty minutes now took two hours.  Why wasn’t everybody else outraged?

Of the cities I’ve known, London has the most efficient and rider-friendly transportation system (also the most expensive).  Trains and buses are clean, comfortable, and safe, arriving every few minutes, from early morning until late at night.  Electronic signs at stations and bus stops inform you when the next will arrive.   The “Oyster card” makes for easy movement through the turnstiles, and there is usually someone to help if they jam or you’re lugging a large suitcase. Clearly, smart investments have been made by Transport for London (TfL), the “public private partnership” instituted in 2003 under former Labour mayor Ken Livingston, known as “Red Ken.”

The tube carries 3.4 million riders a day, so even without a strike it can get crowded in rush hour, as I discovered recently at Victoria station.  The platform was packed with people from the wall to the tracks, with more filing in through the access tunnels, and another file trying to make for the exits in the opposite direction.  Trains arrived a minute or two apart and the front layer of people would push on board each time.  I was amazed by the orderliness of the scene, maybe a thousand people waiting, taking turns, no-one apparently complaining or freaking out.  So this is in fact possible: the tacit solidarity of strangers for the common good.  In this case, keeping safe and getting home or to dates with who- or whatever.

Although during the strike most Londoners – who are used to these biennial disruptions – seemed to “keep calm and carry on,” the strike did expose fractures in this apparent solidarity.  What looked initially like a political contest over control of public resources, and of the workforce that sustains them, turned out to have roots in class conflict as well.

The simple version of the cause of the February 2014 strike is unionized tube workers’ objection to proposals by TfL to close station ticket offices at a cost of about 950 jobs, for a saving of £50 million a year.   The unions involved – the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) – obviously have an interest in protecting their members’ jobs, but there are also issues of safety at stations with only one staff member on duty to help passengers in need or respond to emergencies.  Too, the unions argue that not everyone has access to the smart phones and credit cards — that TfL says will replace ticket and information booths.  RMT claims the cuts will have a “seriously adverse impact on women, older and disabled people and the BAME [Black, Asian, and minority ethnic] community.”

The UK tabloid press, which makes no distinction between news and opinion, quickly lost sight of those issues and instead set the story up as a melodramatic power struggle between Good Old Boris Johnson, the mayor, and Bad Old Bob Crow, leader of the RMT.  Elected in 2008 and again in 2012, Johnson is a fully vested member of the old-Etonian, Oxbridge-educated set that once again rules this country (Prime Minister David Cameron has the same pedigree).  With his artfully tousled blond mop and clownish wit, Johnson conceals a nimble right-wing opportunism.  Bob Crow is a Cockney Socialist, whose union was “disaffiliated” from Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 2004 in a clash between RMT’s left alliances and New Labour’s pro-business agenda.  According to the Guardian’s Decca Aitkenhead, Crow “sees himself as waging class war in his job every day.”

Johnson appears to be much the better PR man.  He has deflected attention from the inconvenient fact that he campaigned against former Mayor Livingston on a platform that included “no ticket office closings” – and won.  Now he says, everyone has iPhones so technology makes the offices redundant.  Johnson has instead made much of that fact that Crow, who earns $145,000 as head of his 70,000 member union, lives in a Council (i.e. publicly subsidized) house.  Crow, of course, would claim that this allows him to stay connected to the working-class community he came up in.  Johnson, meanwhile, makes $250,000 a year for his weekly column in the conservative Daily Telegraph, which he uses to lambast Crow and his union for their attempt “to paralyse the greatest city on earth.”

Crow did score a point when he invited Johnson, on a radio show, to sit down and settle things, which Johnson has repeatedly refused to do.  “He’s met 86 bankers since he’s been mayor. But he won’t meet the trade unions,” Crow pointed out.  Labour MP Emily Thornberry had this to say to Johnson: “How mad is it that you haven’t spoken to [Bob Crow] for five years? He has to call you up on LBC to talk to you. It’s not right.  It’s nonsense why the leader of London is not talking to the leader of the Underground union. It’s just the most ridiculous bit of willy-waving I’ve seen.”  Compounding Johnson’s failure of leadership is the fact that as mayor he is also Chairman of the Board of Transport for London and sets its budget.  These are his proposals that he is refusing to discuss, in pursuit of the Tory’s anti-union agenda.

So the first 48-hour strike went ahead, February 4 – 6, with about 30% of trains running, thanks in part to strikebreakers who were skillfully rebranded as “ambassadors” (to evoke the spirit of the 2012 Olympic Games here, when such volunteers helped visitors find their way around).  A second strike planned for the following week was called off after TfL agreed to halt implementation of the proposed cuts pending consultation with the unions and passenger groups over a range of future issues impacting safety, cost-saving, and job security, including ticket-office closures, “lone working,” and 24-hour service.

For my students, coming from a culture in which unions are often demonized as a greedy special interest, this is a great learning opportunity.  They can study the class conflicts that underlie London’s business-as-usual, which get exposed when it is disrupted.  They can also study the reasons for “industrial action” and glimpse the possibilities for beneficial outcomes: the chance, at least, of cooperation between local government and labor organizations in the interest of a safer, more efficient public transportation system staffed by people whose expertise and right to a decent livelihood is respected.  That, anyway, is what I will try to teach them.

Nick Coles