To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
April 2, 2015
RE: About the environmental teach-in of
March 27-28 at the University of Michigan

Some Issues in the Environmental Movement: Report on “Teach-In + 50” at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor

by Pete Brown

This teach-in was held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first teach-in held at U of M in 1965 to protest the war in Vietnam. This current event was labeled “End the War Against the Planet”, and the idea was to connect the anti-war movement of the 1960s to the environmental movement of 2015. The teach-in lasted two days and had three plenary sessions with lectures about the environmental crisis and how it might be possible to make the transition to a carbon-free economy. I attended the morning session on Saturday, March 28 with an anti-fracking activist from the Detroit area.

The session we attended lasted two hours and had four speakers with a few hundred in the audience. The first speaker was TOM HAYDEN, former 1960s activist, co-founder of SDS and later a Democratic Party congressman from California and environmental adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown. He headed Brown’s commission on the transition to renewables in the 1970s when Brown was governor, and he holds the same job again today. The title of Hayden’s speech was “Ending the wars over fossil fuels.”

Hayden tried to make some connection to the 1960s by showing slides of old pictures – his boyhood home, Hayden as a student at U of M, Vietnam killings, etc. – but it didn’t connect to the main content of his speech. The main point of his speech was: The way to resolve issues is to trust bureaucrats like him to take care of things and develop voluntary agreements between states. He didn’t mention any activist movements against environmental pollution. He did mention that under his and Brown’s wise guidance California now gets 15% of its electric power from renewables, and that the way forward is for California to make voluntary agreements with other states so they can come up to California standards. This was a glaring problem in his speech, as he also insisted that the oil and gas industry will never do anything voluntarily to reduce emissions or cut back on carbon burning. If they won’t do anything voluntarily, and they hold extensive political power in the states as Hayden asserts, how is it they can ever be corralled?

The only answer Hayden gave was: Put Democrats like him and Brown in office. He said Michigan made a lot of environmental progress under the previous governor, Democrat Jennifer Granholm (Really? – didn’t notice), but now is sliding backward under the Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. Al Gore’s defeat in the election of 2000, Hayden said, was the worst disaster ever for environmentalism, the last chance we had before we’re swamped by pollution and global warming. Does that mean Democratic President Obama is no good? Not at all; Hayden also defended Obama against attacks on his policies by people like Naomi Klein.

So Hayden’s idea for ending the wars over fossil fuels is to put peacemakers like him and Brown in office and then wait for them to come up with rational plans that everyone will volunteer to accept. It doesn’t include activism or protests, it doesn’t include mobilizing the working class, and it doesn’t include having the masses supervise and enforce environmental safeguards. Not surprisingly, Hayden’s speech left the audience cold.

The next speaker was JAHI CHAPPELL, Director of Agroecology and Agriculture Policy at the Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Chappell’s speech was billed as “setting the table for what comes after capitalism”, which attracted some interest, particularly when Chappell began connecting the transition from capitalism to social issues. For example, he advised environmental activists to connect up to social movements like the protests against racist police murders. But his idea of capitalism was weak, as he equated it with neo-liberalism, and his “alternative” was largely focused on only changing trade policy. Outside of that he wandered into the thickets of academic jargon, promoting “eco-commensalism” as the alternative to capitalism. With “polycentric” decision-making, he promised, citizens could “explore the grammar of co-operation”. What it came down to was that citizens should be active in local government budgetary decisions. Trouble is, the oil and gas industry is organized on a national, not local, scale; they’re not subject to government budgets, since they’re a private industry; and they have money enough to control any local body like your typical town council. This kind of advice was a comedown from getting active in national protests like those against the racist police murders in Ferguson, New York, etc. So Chappell ended up losing those in the audience looking for an alternative.

The next speaker was ARTHUR WASKOW, a Jewish rabbi and older activist who spoke at the original 1965 teach-in. His speech was titled “Facing the Carbon Pharaohs: The Role of Spiritual Communities in Organizing to Heal Our Climate Crisis.” Waskow connected the climate crisis to Bible stories like Moses standing up to Pharaoh and said we need to take a stand like the native fighters in the movie “Avatar.” He endorsed and promoted Bill McKibben’s call to divest from oil and gas, and he especially appealed to students to demand that U of M switch from coal to renewables. This was the only direct, concrete suggestion made by any of the speakers, and he got a rousing standing ovation for his speech. No doubt there were students in the audience who would take his admonitions to heart and begin organizing. Some of his speech wandered off into spiritualism, but the audience appreciated his enthusiasm for activism.

The next speaker was SANDRA STEINGRABER, a professor of environmental health in New York who, as an activist, helped get fracking banned there. The challenge now, she related, is getting fracking waste banned. There’s no fracking in New York, but waste disposal companies want to truck in wastewater from fracking sites from other Northeast states and store it in salt domes near Seneca Lake, one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. This shows one of the dangers of fracking: aside from possibly polluting the fracking site itself, drilling companies have millions of gallons of leftover wastewater after finishing their job. The wastewater is polluted with chemicals used to fracture underground rock, and on the way back up to the surface it takes in other minerals, even radioactive ones. New rules proposed by Obama’s EPA stipulate that this wastewater cannot just be dumped into the environment. But then, what do the companies do with it? Storing it underground in salt domes creates the possibility of polluting a site hundreds of miles away from any fracking site. This shows that the problems with fracking don’t end at the fracking site itself, and why it’s important to get this practice banned.

Steingraber aroused interest by speaking about the need to talk to everyone you meet, give educational talks in libraries, church basements, etc. She gave examples, both personal anecdotes and from opinion surveys, of how people’s attitudes have changed toward fracking and global warming. She encouraged the audience to step up their educational efforts and confront challenges bravely as civil rights activists in the 1960s did.

Some other activist groups were present outside the meeting hall. Some were distributing literature against nuclear power. The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan was there distributing brochures and signing up volunteers to collect signatures for such a ban. Any activists present must have felt invigorated by the last two speakers, Waskow and Steingraber, who encouraged their efforts. Chappell also spoke positively about the movement but then wandered off into academic dreamland. This shows the theoretical weakness of the movement as it tries to orient itself towards other issues and its basic class orientation. Hayden’s speech shows the political disarray of the movement: if it gets itself tied to the apron strings of Democratic Party politicians, it’s doomed.

(Reproduced with the correction specified in the DWV list item of April 4, 2015.)

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Posted on April 4, 2015.