Components of a model political program for ecological survival
Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I'd like to try to convey some of what I've learned over the years fighting against ecological collapse and for a viable form of human society. I'll use the city of Portland to illustrate my points, but the hope is that some of these principles can be adapted by the many people doing this difficult and courageous work all over. These notions aren't exclusively relevant to cities—they scale to counties pretty easily, for instance—but would probably get lost in translation at the federal level. This is more a question of geographic scale than political structure.
Climate plans are nonsense, but read them anyway. You likely won't find many “solutions” worth fighting for in these documents, but they nonetheless will provide you with an inventory of greenhouse gas emissions, and therefore some sense of what must be shut down. One interesting approach to take is to look at emissions in terms of economic activity that meets a real human need—and therefore should persist in some modified form—and what economic activity can simply be discarded.
The Portland Climate Action Plan illustrates this point painfully well. It's a bizarre literary creation much more than a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The individual “actions” in the plan would be extremely tedious to examine individually, but let's use the plan's 63 unique actions on transportation to illustrate the general uselessness of this particular document, and indeed all other instances of the experimental literary genre sometimes called Infographic Techno-Dystopianism, and sometimes called climate planning.
All but nine of the Portland CAP's transportation items fall into four general categories. 11 consist solely of expressing “support” for another plan or policy (e.g. “support implementation of a federal fuel standard”). 21 consist solely of other plans’ putative measures, or planning processes and policies which do not currently exist (e.g. “include carbon targets in update to Portland Transportation System Plan”). 11 are merely efforts to increase modeling accuracy or information availability for some aspect of the economy (e.g. “make data available to improve real-time information about transportation options”). 11 are sufficiently intangible to describe a tremendous range of actions, or very conceivably none at all (e.g. “recognize the role of goods delivery in supporting healthy, vibrant industrial districts”).
What all of these items have in common is that they utterly fail to describe any concrete change in the physical world. This is not by accident, and it goes a long way toward explaining how polities like California and Oregon, and cities like Portland and Seattle, have spent decades releasing climate plans describing declining emissions, while actual emissions, here in corporeal reality, continue to rise. The remaining nine items in the Portland CAP's transportation section are, while tangible, simply ridiculous—things like “smart traffic lights”, which the plan's authors, perhaps mercifully, have neglected to associate with any quantitative measure of emissions decline.
But even if the actual strategies in climate plans are ridiculous, reading them will give you a sense of what strategies are really necessary. Probably most importantly, they will give you a detailed emissions inventory. So if you live in a progressive polity, read its climate plan. If you don't, there may be no climate plan. If that's the case, I recommend reading one that applies to an area similar to where you live, and also looking at GHG inventory protocols—there are many out there—and relating it to economic data for your area.
Recognize that for all the complexity of the economy, its physical infrastructure is very finite. On April 21, 2019, some people blockaded the train tracks leading to a facility that transports tar sands oil, transferring it off of train cars and onto ships. The facility was located in a major industrial corridor in northwest Portland on the Willamette River, populated by many similarly dubious enterprises.
Let's use this particular blockade, and the strategies associated with it, as the model for a much more general political program. The first point I want to make about this blockade is one of scale. Faced with the reality of ecological collapse already well underway, it is difficult to see the point in taking any particular action toward any finite goal. I think this is a consequence of how the liberal/progressive establishment has framed climate action, as a set of manipulations of end-uses, rather than origins. If the problem is the burning of transportation fuel, they insist the answer must be to give developers money for compact development and hope people drive less as a result, rather than simply ceasing the flow of fuel.
But all of Portland's gasoline comes from one pipeline, which originates at a refinery in Anacortes, Washington. There's a valve on this pipeline. What's a good rate of reduction in emissions? I like 10% a year. We could take the Portland Climate Action Plan approach—“smart traffic lights”, whatever that means; financial incentives for developers; commissions to study expanding public transit—and see where that goes, or we could just close the valve 10% per year. We might call this latter approach a climate policy. We might call the approaches described in the CAP adaptations to climate policy. Those in power have very deliberately confused adaptations to climate policy for climate policy itself.
But even still, as ice shelves the size of states plummet into the acidifying ocean and forests burn off more carbon than they store, it can seem a little pointless to win victories at the scale of Portland, Oregon, even if the victories are of the truly transformational variety. But the point about the pipeline applies well beyond the boundaries of the city.
Fossil fuels are transported by four different modes—road, pipeline, train, and ship. Preventing their transport at any point in these networks is just as good as preventing it anywhere else. The facility that was blockaded in April 2019 transports crude oil to refineries all over the west coast. The transportation networks that run through the city are responsible for coal burned in China, lumber sold in Arizona, dynamite used to blow the tops off of mountains in West Virginia, and ships used to offshore drill for oil in the Arctic. And there aren't viable alternatives to pipelines, railroads, and rivers. One can't simply circumvent Portland by any of these means. Radical transformations at a very local scale can have a global impact.
Communicate an explicit, concrete vision for declining emissions to zero. When the blockade was initiated, a small subset of those involved sent a communication to the city council and mayor of Portland, as well as to the media, announcing the rezoning of the industrial corridor. For years, the city government had been claiming there was nothing it could do about this oil transloading facility—the powerful, when faced with something they don't want to do, often claim they are powerless. We demonstrated an extremely simple action that would end the facility's existence, with the application of an existing policy mechanism. Forest Park—the nation's largest urban forest—is the result of zoning, as is the industrial nightmare immediately adjacent to it, in which the facility is situated.
The actual work involved consisted of reading through the zoning code (well over a thousand pages, but the vast majority of it irrelevant), clicking a few buttons in Photoshop to replace one color with another on an existing zoning map, and writing a few paragraphs describing the allowed uses in the zoning designations. We said:
As reflected on our revised zoning map, the base zone designation for the Willamette River northwest industrial corridor—currently occupied by a number of bulk fossil fuel terminals, heavy manufacturing sites, and a major railroad yard—has been changed from 140 (Employment and Industrial Zone) to 100 (Open Space Zone). The previously allowed use categories of Warehouse and Freight Movement, Wholesale Sales, Industrial Service, Bulk Fossil Fuel Terminal, and Railroad Yards are now prohibited. The Manufacturing and Production Use, which is currently allowed, becomes a limited/conditional use under the new designation.
This type of communication achieves a few different things. Probably most importantly, it communicates an explicit vision for taking out a very significant portion of the city's contribution to the ecological crisis, with one very palpably simple action. Contrary to everything found in the Kafka-esque labyrinth of institutional climate planning, this action is easy to describe in concrete terms and easy for people to mentally model, based as it is on an understanding of finite infrastructure rather than the infinite complexity of end uses. It is almost impossible to overstate the extent to which climate politics are intransigent in part because people simply cannot imagine a world without the destructive enterprises on which our lives are currently based. Tangibly communicating this world is primary among the tasks and burdens of the ecological revolutionary.
Never be agnostic on the relationship between your climate policy platform and the struggle for power. Another important aspect of this blockade, and its associated communication, is that we told of a policy change rather than asking for one. To say “we are enforcing this policy change with a blockade”, while communicating in the terms of actual policy mechanisms to actual policy makers, is to begin establishing the foundations of a parallel institution, and thus of the kind of wholesale sociopolitical transformation one might call revolutionary.
One of the ways I find easiest to convince people who don't identify as revolutionary of the necessity of revolutionary transformation is to talk about the archaic, outmoded nature of existing institutions and protocols. The Supreme Court and the Constitution are two great examples. The idea that a tiny cabal of wizened elders should consult a document written hundreds of years ago for guidance on nuclear energy, electronic mass surveillance, climate change, and a host of other issues that simply didn't exist when the document was written—that simply didn't exist when the scrolls were embellished with ornate calligraphy for them to read in their ritual robes, I should say—is as absurd a paradigm for establishing the terms on which a society operates as one could hope to encounter. Faced with the reality of institutions which are not viable, we should simply make institutions that are.
With respect to the climate crisis, one particularly noteworthy archaism is the lack, in almost every political jurisdiction, of a Climate Department. Considering the minutia of government activity that does need a dedicated department—municipal elections bureaus, parks and recreation agencies, and so on—it is truly ridiculous for progressive politicians to promise to completely restructure every aspect of the economy to respect ecological limits without some kind of staffed, funded entity dedicated to doing so. Thus, in some sense the work of writing and enforcing your own climate policy is the work of a parallel institution, but in some sense the work really has no parallel—it is an act of establishing and modeling a necessary reality. And the creation of such dual power situations is, of course, the work of broader social transformation, without which climate survival is impossible.
Political reality and physical reality have nothing to do with one another. There is real power in staking out a position that acknowledges physical reality at the expense of political reality, and simply declaring the position legitimate. I have written in the past about the Earth First! wilderness proposal of the 1980s. Like me with my zoning map, these agitators simply put a bunch of big black blotches on a map of the United States and said, I imagine with some glee, “we're fighting for these areas to be off-limits to all development, and for existing development to be decommissioned”. The map terrified and enraged conservatives, resource extractive industries, and respectable environmentalists alike, but by the end of the 1990s, the areas of federal lands off-limits to roads and resource extraction looked a lot more like the Earth First! map than anyone else's map from 80s.
Note that this is also how the right has steadily been accruing power for quite awhile now. Not by appealing to common values, not by “meeting people where they're at”, but by taking positions that are shocking, and unrelentingly maintaining them through all the enraged discourse, until they start to seem normal. If people are outraged by your policies, you're doing something right. Every time they reference you in horror, they give you a bigger platform. Every time they describe you as a threat to their way of life, or Christianity, or America, or the cautious deliberative nature of the Democratic party, or whatever, they make you a more serious and relevant aspect of the political landscape.
Make an inventory of basic human needs, and appeal to people's desire for stability and security. People are witnessing the collapse of their civilization, and are justifiably scared that food will soon not be on grocery store shelves, that marauding bands will soon roam the streets, and all the rest. This can make an otherwise compelling climate strategy seem unviable. Again, I think this is because of how climate policy has been framed by liberal environmental groups and policymakers—as something to worry about when we have our basic needs met, which will allow us to keep living essentially the same lives, minus all the destruction.
In reality, the Venn diagram of measures to stay within climate limits and measures to adapt to climate breakdown is one of two mostly overlapping circles. It was never true that stepping off this catastrophic ecological trajectory would happen with consumerism intact. What is needed in order to avoid ecological collapse and in the case of ecological collapse is a local system that meets basic needs—a way to produce enough food to feed people near to where those people live, a way to distribute that food to them, enough local renewable energy to maintain some of the truly essential functions electricity enables, some medical clinics, etc. Fortuitously, this is the same infrastructure that is needed to survive some of the other myriad crises with which the ecological crisis is converging. It's what you also want when the right wing death squads are bombing electrical substations to punish the leftists of Portland, or when Amazon is the last remaining distributor of food in the market economy and they start charging $200 for a loaf of bread.
The desire for radical social transformation often has conflict as its only visible manifestation. The notable exception are mutual aid projects, which are hugely important both for meeting people's immediate needs and for shifting perceptions of possible social relations. This general premise can be applied to establishing the infrastructure to anticipate crisis as well as to respond to it. Such work complements the work of inventorying the infrastructure of emissions and making an explicit plan to shut it down. It is the work of establishing what, out of the myriad useless (or at least far from essential) activities that fossil fuels support, is actually necessary for survival and wellbeing. Simultaneously, it is a subversion of the monetary exchanges on which our current way of life is based.
A simple version of such a project would be to draw whatever arbitrary lines one wishes on a map and call it a neighborhood—the criterion of all points being in convenient walking distance might be a good one to apply. Then an inventory of basic needs can be made based on the population. One could look at existing food production that is close by and try to imagine what agreements and logistics would need to exist to keep enough food coming into the neighborhood to feed everyone. A similar exercise could be taken for local renewable energy, thinking not in terms of what would replace all the energy currently consumed in a neighborhood (a goal that is neither realistic nor remotely desirable), but in terms of what configurations of infrastructure like solar gardens or even just rooftop energy production could sustain, say, the internet, some medical devices, and keeping some of the lights on some of the time.
All the trends are converging on general ecological collapse in the 2020s, including the collapse of the food system. When food production is constrained to significantly lower levels, the power structure will simply adjust supply lines to the best of its ability (and this ability will be surprisingly minimal) and begin raising costs dramatically, intensifying existing dynamics such that even relatively affluent people will go hungry. Circumventing the market, and having our own infrastructure of distribution, will be essential for survival—again, the same measures are necessary to both prevent and to endure the apocalypse.
Projects like this are also cases where abandoning the penchant for specialized language, so endemic to so many political circles, can be very beneficial. In preparation for an action camp, a friend of mine once made a Facebook event with the title “Freaking out about climate change and preparing to do something about it”, which generated more interest, more quickly, than the vast majority of social media outreach efforts I've been a part of. I think this was largely because of the concrete, intuitively comprehensible language. If one is organizing to make a neighborhood more self-reliant, I think flyers that say “Let's plan how we'll feed ourselves when the grocery store shelves are bare” is likely a lot more effective than flyers that say “Planning for local resilience: Making infrastructural, cultural, and organizational connections”.
Fight the culture war you can win. What we can ultimately appeal to is people's desire for freedom. There were numerous cases of early colonists abandoning European civilization to live with native people—there are no documented cases of the reverse happening. Our evolved psychological needs for interpersonal connection, competence, and authenticity are needs which consumer civilization militates against. The radical transformations that are necessary to shift the ecological trajectory are also the only realistic paths away from varieties of misery that are fundamental and ubiquitous to living in this society.
This fact makes the liberal obsession with claiming that we can live essentially the same lives, but somehow live them within climate limits, all the more baffling. Such claims acknowledge neither physical nor social reality. The kinds of superficial changes proposed by adherents of the existing social order—“imagine if your job racing against a robot in the Amazon fulfillment center produced net zero emissions by 2050!”—promises more suffering to people who have already exceeded their capacity for suffering. But if we go a little deeper, if we pursue changes that actually have any geophysical salience, we are suddenly talking about living in ways that meet our basic psychological needs.
We're talking about things like not going to work. There are significant tradeoffs involved with stepping off the treadmill of consumerism—consumer pleasures are, after all, pleasant—but the part where you get to step off the treadmill is nice, too. The trap this economy has laid for us involves the same biological processes involved in addiction to substances. You do something miserable with most of your day, and then you come home and partake in various gratuitous pleasures to cope with the misery. The trajectory away from extinction is one where we get to feel better about what we actually do with ourselves—we get more agency, we get to feel like what we do might actually matter—but we also may not have artisan ice cream shops on every corner (I'm using somewhat Portland-specific illustrations here, but they can be easily generalized). This is a winnable war.
A relatively small proportion of the population is ever going to be moved by ecological messaging per se. I say this as someone who devoted his life to ecological interventions after a teenage revelation in the forest, so I'm emphatically in that small proportion. But that fact makes me all the more confident in the assessment that most people simply aren't wired that way, and at this point, the empirical reality of how far into collapse we are, with this little meaningful engagement, is ample evidence that ecological messaging has its limits. As does all the “green jobs” messaging that liberal environmental groups use.
“Fuck your job” has a fundamental appeal that “we will guarantee that there will always be some job for you to go to, only it will be good for the planet” utterly lacks. In the city of Portland, we could get somewhere promoting a political program that will allow us to go back to spending most of our time making art and will save the world.
In other words, part of the cultural and psychological appeal of a political program to avoid extinction is in avoiding the misery of work in this economy, but part of the appeal is in pursuing the joy of work outside this economy—if we take work in a broad sense, to refer to whatever specialized tasks people feel it is their mandate in life to perform. One of the great tragedies of the consumer economy is all the geniuses who never get to write their mathematical proofs, or synthesize proteins that produce electricity, or whatever, because they are too busy chopping garnishes for the lunches of computer programmers, who are also geniuses who never get to put their technical acumen to any purpose greater than selling advertising. What we are selling is a chance for people to do their most vital, interesting, and important work.
This does not just relate to highly specialized tasks. Whenever I have not made ends meet with writing and organizing—which has been a considerable majority of the time—I have fallen back on line cooking and construction labor. At this point, it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to imagine working any more jobs in these areas. But I can't overstate how much I actually miss both these activities, and wish I could apply my skills to something broadly socially useful outside of a job context. If it was my role to feed my neighborhood in a non-commercial setting, I would cheerfully wake up at 4am to start cracking eggs and chopping potatoes, as I have often done at resistance kitchens and in collective houses. I love to cook for people. I take pride in my ability to create meals out of sparse ingredients. I just can't walk through the doors of another fucking cooking job. By appealing to people's desire to do meaningful work, avoid meaningless work, and apply their specialized skills and talents, we fight a culture war that has been raging for centuries, that people have always fought intuitively, as the rich have sought to ensnare us in their economy.
Don't wait until you have the perfect coalition, nor the perfect political opportunity. The inability of establishment liberals—whether in environmental nonprofits or in public office—to articulate a set of social and economic changes compatible with ecological limits is not surprising, because such changes would be radical and liberals are inexorably wedded to the status quo. However, it is undeniably true that grassroots political actors have likewise failed in this regard. In both cases, the explicit justification is that they are waiting for some set of supposedly necessary conditions to be met.
Within institutional politics, whether we are talking about international climate negotiations or municipal policy, everyone is always waiting for sufficient initiative to exist in other polities before the difficulty and risk of enacting real climate policies can be undertaken. At the grassroots level, the perfect coalition must exist, (supposedly) representing a massive proportion of the population, and they must agree on every aspect of the policies one pursues. Most of the grassroots political actors who have offered an opinion on policies that I have promoted in the course of my organizing have told me they didn't have sufficient support from some particular demographic or another, and thus it was not only ill-advised but ultimately oppressive to promote them.
All of these notions—these variations on waiting until the right conditions are met to begin proposing concrete changes—are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of power. It would be necessary to consult with as many different groups of people as possible if one had any real shot at enacting meaningful policies through institutional channels. Because no one does have a real shot at this, articulating policies must be thought of as an exercise in changing the political conditions in which policies are made, rather than an exercise in actual policymaking.
Moreover, the notion that a broad consensus on climate policy is going to emerge from a vacuum, from the abstract question “What should we do about climate?” being presented to, say, refinery workers and people of color who live in the pollution streams those refinery workers produce, is absurd. The only conceivable way for a broad consensus to emerge is for many different people to explicitly articulate their different visions, and for points of convergence and divergence to be sought out and assessed among them. What happens when we stop waiting to have the perfect coalition reach the perfect consensus is that we start having a rich landscape to draw options from, rather than no landscape. Everyone should have their own climate policies. You should have yours, and I should have mine. It is not the work of those in power. It is not the work of a coalition which has yet to really come into existence. It is your problem and mine.
This is the essential, creative, courageous work before us.