Carbon Consciousness & Action

Archive for the category “Protest Movements”

Did Pope Francis Call for a Gasoline Boycott?

Pope_Francis_at_VargihnaMuch of the media attention on Pope Francis’ recent encyclical focused on its recognition of the causes of global warning and the impact that the Pope might have on international and domestic climate politics,    Less publicized, but possibly more impactful in the long term, is the Pope’s call to consumers to wield their purchasing power as a force for change.

Pope Francis writes:

“A change in lifestyle could bring healthy pressure to bear on those who wield political, economic and social power. This is what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products. They prove successful in changing the way businesses operate, forcing them to consider their environmental footprint and their patterns of production. When social pressure affects their earnings, businesses clearly have to find ways to produce differently. This shows us the great need for a sense of social responsibility on the part of consumers. ‘Purchasing is always a moral – and not simply economic – act.’ Today, in a word, ‘the issue of environmental degradation challenges us to examine our lifestyle.” (Laudato Si, Para. 206)

The education and mobilization of consumers to reduce their carbon purchases has barely begun.   The vast majority of consumers have no idea how much CO2 they emit, nor any sense of moral responsibility to reduce their CO2 emissions, other than perhaps owning a car that gets more than 20 mpg.   Lack of leadership has been a principal driver of consumer apathy.   Until the Pope spoke out, there have been virtually no high-profile persons or organizations calling on citizens to examine their lifestyles and to curtail their carbon purchases. Read more…


lego shell

The gas station is the oil companies’ tentacle into the cars and pocketbooks of consumers.  Located at prominent street corners in nearly every neighborhood in the developed world, gas stations proudly carry the flag of Shell, Chevron, BP, and other oil giants into our communities.   The gas station would therefore appear to be an ideal stage for educating consumers about carbon pollution and its role in fomenting climate change, and for generating friction in the normally smooth transfer of carbon from the oil company to the gasoline consumer.

Despite their potential for education and advocacy, gas stations have rarely been utilized as a platform for protest, advocacy, or carbon education. Rather, with rare exception, they function quietly and efficiently as the oil companies’ community-based carbon spigot, their latent political, economic, and social significance cloaked by the numbing routine of pumping gas.

Since the oil price shocks of the 1970s, most gas stations protests have been about the price of gasoline, most recently with the price spikes of 2008 and 2011.

Recent protests have focused more narrowly on oil company malfeasance.  On Earth Day 2010, activists in Oakland protested at a Valero station in connection with the company’s opposition to climate legislation.  The 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout caused a brief flurry of protests against BP across the country.

In 2014, the pace and variety of gas station protests increased.   In January, protesters in Manchester, England demonstrated against fracking outside a Total station.  In August, 2014 a small group secretly disabled pumps at two Chevron stations in Vancouver, BC protesting Chevron’s actions in Ecuador and the construction of a nearby Chevron oil pipeline.

Greenpeace organized demonstrations at Shell stations in Buenos Aires, Argentina and Santiago, Chile in August 2014 in connection with Shell’s Arctic drilling.  These protests, coordinated with an effective video mocking Shell’s actions in the Arctic, leveraged Lego’s product tie-in with Shell to create strong visuals and international news about the protest, and ultimately caused Lego to cancel its 50-year relationship with Shell.

Gas station protests draw substantial media coverage because of gas stations’ political and economic importance in the community.  Their ubiquity and prominence render them an ideal platform for climate advocacy and protest.  Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions relating to picketing of abortion clinics provide robust rights to sidewalk protesters.

Coordinated, consistent, fun, well-organized, and friendly actions at gas stations could effectively challenge a broadly-accepted yet ultimately untenable aspect of American life—filling one’s gas tank at the local gas station.  They would likely attract significant media attention, put the oil companies on the defensive, and help generate vigorous debate about personal and corporate responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.


nueromarketingThe 2014 midterm results assure that legislative progress won’t be made on key climate issues until 2017 at the earliest.  Republican majorities hostile to carbon pricing and other carbon-control legislation will be firmly in control of both houses of Congress.  Climate-denier Sen. James Inhofe will be the new chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.  President Obama and the Democrats in Congress will be fighting desperate rearguard battles simply to maintain regulations on coal-fired power plants, block development of the Keystone XL pipeline, and defend other important climate-related laws and regulations. So what are Americans deeply concerned about the climate crisis to do?  Obviously, biding time for two years and hoping that a new pro-climate president and Congress take control in 2017 is not an option.   Rather, the climate crisis requires that we push ahead with even greater urgency the movement to decrease CO2 emissions, despite conventional political channels being blocked. One area where enormous progress can be made now is changing consumer perception of gasoline and other fossil fuels.  Consumers have not been pushed to change their carbon habits—habits that by some estimates account for 71% of all carbon burned in the U.S.   Buying gas, using fossil fuel-powered electricity, and other environmentally destructive routines of daily life are poorly understood and go unchallenged and unquestioned by both consumers and the broader society. Read more…

Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?

This Changes EverythingNaomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything that capitalism and the environment are on a collision course and that narrow measures to address climate change will be inadequate if free-market, corporate-dominated structures and political ideologies remain dominant.  She writes that the Right fully grasps the latent threat that climate change poses to the existing capitalist order, and that its need to squelch this threat explains the lavish financing it bestows on the climate denial movement.

Klein says that in the early stages of battling the present corporate-dominated order to address climate change, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and that “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Klein would thus set the bar for an effective response to climate change much higher than most climate activists presently do. Rather than simply institute a worldwide climate pricing regime and other measures to favor renewable energy over fossil fuels (a tremendous feat in itself!), she argues that it is necessary to form an alliance with other social movements to tear down much of the capitalist order and replace it with a more centrally-planned, collectivist economy dedicated not only to environmental sustainability but also to income redistribution and equal rights for all.

Is Klein right?   Is working towards an environmentally-oriented socialism the most efficient path to reversing the disastrous carbon-spewing road we are on?  Or can the existing capitalist order be tamed sufficiently with narrowly-tailored regulatory and tax measures to achieve the carbon reductions necessary to preserve the planet in livable form?   The latter road would seemingly be much easier given the status quo of free-market ideology buttressed by vast rivers of unrestricted money in politics, and the antipathy many people feel towards government, socialism, and collectivist solutions.  The significant gains the free-market-oriented, climate-denying Republican Party is poised to make in the 2014 midterm elections is evidence of the continued hostility of the political system towards restraints on corporate dominance.

Because the task of dismantling corporate dominance of the economy and the urgency to address the climate crisis is so immediate, I wish that Naomi Klein were wrong about the need to aim beyond climate policy fixes. But I fear she isn’t.  People concerned about climate are overwhelming white, highly-educated and middle class, and therefore a group without the numbers to hold sway over the American and world economy.  Climate change is still too remote and abstract an issue to really move large numbers of people.  In a recent Gallup poll, climate change was identified as number 14 of the nation’s 15 most important problems.

The environmental movement must join the fight against our society’s pervasive income and social inequality, not only to broaden the coalition in favor of climate-friendly policies, but also to help redefine how people can live together peacefully in harmony with their fellow human beings and with the Earth and its creatures.   A society built on narrow pursuit of self-interest and the domination of a small number of rich people over vast numbers of poor people will never achieve a healthy equilibrium with Nature.

The environmental movement has yet to forge a durable alliance with the vast numbers of people discontented with and disenfranchised by the present political order, in part because until recently we believed that the political system could and would make the changes necessary to address our pressing environmental issues. But it is now becoming clear that the oil-and-cash-soaked political system is not any more open to effectively addressing climate change than it is to addressing income inequality, racial inequality, or other pressing issues that affect vast numbers of Americans.

The inflexibility of the present political system is allowing social pressures to build that can ultimately overwhelm it.   The question is whether we can channel these pressures peacefully and positively to create a movement capable of building a world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.

Building such a movement will require that we find new ways of getting people out of their homes and activated as citizens. It will require using public spaces such as streets, parks, and sidewalks to gather and educate one another about overcoming obstacles to a better future.  It will require finding artists, performers, and orators to help us honestly reflect on where we truly are as a people, and to inspire us to reach a higher level of consciousness.  It will require us disentangling ourselves from the corporate-fomented consumerism that ensnares us. The Obama Campaign of 2008 and the Occupy Movement of 2011 both provided us with glimmers of the power that such campaigns can have and the speed with which they can develop.  They also provide us with a reminder that such efforts can be fleeting if not supported with long-term planning and resources and a fierce commitment to keep going to the end.

Only by developing, propagating, and implementing a broadly shared vision of how we can live better with one another and with Nature will we achieve a sustainable balance on this Earth. Creating such a movement will require enormous patience, hard work, and creativity, but it is the most noble work we can do and the best hope that we have to preserve our Earth and its creatures.

The Democratic Party Has No Phone Number

 The Democratic Party is the premier political organization in America, right?   More people belong to the Democratic Party than any other.  The President and the majority of the Senate belong to it.

But don’t try to call the offices of the Democratic Party organization in Seattle.  You can’t.  The party doesn’t have an office or a phone number.

How about calling the Democratic Party for King County?   Don’t bother.    The King County party organization doesn’t have a phone number either, and doesn’t maintain a staffed office.

The Washington State Democratic Party does have a phone number and office, but has a staff of only 10 people to run operations statewide.   There is no one on the staff tasked with organizing. If you click “get involved” on their website, you are referred to the local party organizations, the ones with no phone number.

The paltry party infrastructure illustrates the weakness of popular political organization in the U.S.   There is no permanent, ongoing effort to establish a sustained and vital connection between ordinary people and the Democratic Party platform of economic equality, social justice, civil rights, and the environment.  Rather, our politics is built around intermittent campaigns for individual candidates focused on expensive media buys and the fundraising required to pay for them.   After Election Day, the campaign infrastructure is dismantled, and lobbyists and vested interests take their usual position linking hands with politicians at center stage of the political process.

Is someone else besides the Democratic Party doing the work of registering voters, educating voters on the issues, building a culture of political involvement, and motivating voters to go to the polls?   Labor unions have long provided most of the organizing muscle for the party, but their strength is a fraction of what is once was.   Unions today represent less than 12% of all workers, compared to more than 20% in 1983, and are generally retrenching amid determined assault from the Right.

Private non-profit organizations once provided some consistent political education and organization.   Acorn, the most prominent of these organizations, claimed to have registered 1.3 new voters before the 2008 election, and were perceived by many Republicans to have been a decisive factor in the election.  After conservative activists released selectively edited videos purporting to show low-level Acorn employees involved in supporting prostitution, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed a law signed by President Obama banning Acorn from receiving funding, essentially causing Acorn to go defunct in 2010.  With the possible partial exceptions of the Public Interest Research Groups and the League of Women Voters, grassroots political organizing and educational efforts are scattered, ad hoc, underfunded and ineffectual.

At times, the party briefly morphs into a well-funded and vibrant political organization. Barack Obama built a formidable political organization for the 2008 election, engaging a diverse and committed grass roots political network.  The organizing paid off.   Nearly sixty-four percent of eligible voters turned out to vote in 2008, including a sizable percentage of first-time voters.  Once the election was over, however, Obama’s organization largely disbanded, its once-vibrant membership reduced to names on direct-mail fundraising solicitation lists.  Last-minute efforts to reconstitute remnants of the organization shortly before the 2010 election obviously fell short.

In Western European countries, voting participating rates hover around 85%, about double the U.S. average.  Of 169 countries where voting occurs, the U.S. participation voting rate is ranked 120th, sandwiched between the Dominican Republic and Benin.  Most U.S. voters see little reason to get involved in politics, when the parties are distant from them, and candidates reach out to them only at election time primarily with sleazy attack ads and fundraising appeals.

The results of the party’s weak organizational effort are abundantly evident here in Seattle.

  • At Ballard’s Sunday Farmer’s Market on July 2, thousands of people were ambling among the 50+ stalls of people selling fruits, vegetables, fish, and crafts.   There was not a whiff of political activity—not even anyone registering voters or passing out political information, even though the foundations of the welfare state are shaking, and a corporate power grab is picking up steam.
  • I am 45 years old, and have lived in Seattle most of my life.  Not once in my life have I ever been personally contacted by a party representative and asked to get involved.
  • There is no Precinct Committee Officer for my precinct, and only 5 of 14 of the precincts in the area around my house presently have leaders.

Why is the party’s organizational infrastructure so weak and underfunded?   Why is there so little will to create a better-funded, better-trained, more effective party?  Why can’t the local Democrats even keep a phone staffed?  There are several reasons.  The elected officials who control the party are concerned about diversion of political funds and energy to a permanent party bureaucracy.  A dynamic leader atop a vibrant party organization might be threatening to politicians who relate to voters primarily through voting-season television ads and direct mail.   The persistent involvement of an engaged political party is a nuisance for politicians focused on catering to an insider’s network of donors and interest groups.  There is widespread skepticism concerning the ability of voters to maintain interest in politics after an election.  Most important of all, however, is that both major parties have long enjoyed a monopoly on power because of the two-party system.  Shielded from meaningful competitors other than one another, they have not needed to evolve and improve to survive.

What would a revitalized, well-funded Democratic Party do?   The overall goal would be to make every citizen feel connected to the political system, and to believe that he or she can improve his personal situation through maintaining a connection to the party.   Activities which a strengthened party could undertake include:

1)     Hiring professionally trained organizers to recruit, train, and support precinct leaders in all precincts;

2)     Requiring that precinct leaders personally know the people in their districts, and the issues of concern to them;

3)     Providing precinct leaders with a stipend for two weeks of intensive work at election time;

4)     Working with precinct leaders to explain how Democratic Party policies match the needs of the citizens within their precincts;

5)     Support precinct leaders with organizing around and raising the profile of intra-precinct issues (e.g. getting the police to pay more attention to a street corner);

6)     Assuring that party representatives are at all significant gatherings of people;

7)     Working with politicians to give special attention to issues raised by precinct leaders;

8)     Creating programs which create value for constituents such as a “Democratic Job Bank” which matches Democrats looking for jobs with Democrats who are offering them;

9)     Sponsoring housing, legal services, and medical screening clinics with volunteer Democratic lawyers and professionals.

10) Work on burnishing the branding and image of the party (i.e. “The People’s Party”).

A genuine re-engagement with the masses would not only increase the public’s loyalty to the party, it would also reinvigorate the party itself with new spirit, energy and pride generated by the party’s new members.   It might refresh the tired image of a party long branded as the tool of interest groups, lobbyists, and large donors, and provide it with a measure of independence from those groups.  A revitalized party would benefit Democratic candidates at all levels, from state representative to U.S. President, and would therefore be an economically efficient shared platform for candidates.   Even a relatively small increase in political participation, say 5%, would have tremendous impact on elections.

How much would such an organization cost?   In Washington, there are about 6,600 precincts.  If the local Democratic organizations were staffed at the rate of one organizer for every 60 precincts, a budget of roughly $10 million would be sufficient to fund the effort.  Given that more than $70,000,000 will likely be spent on political campaigns in Washington for the 2012 election, such a level of investment would be feasible.

The stakes for the 2012 election could hardly be higher.  Medicare, Social Security and the rest of the social safety net are in jeopardy.   Labor unions are under vigorous and unprecedented assault everywhere.  Four justices on the Supreme Court are in their 70s—a single appointment could dramatically change the Court and the law.

Given that there is so much at stake, how is it possible that there is no organization responsible for communicating with and organizing voters on a persistent, disciplined, and effective basis?  Is our plan to leave everything to the last minute as we have in other elections, and rely on political junk mail between elections?   Is our primary response to the 30 second attack ad at election time going to be a 30 second attack ad at election time?  Are we going to once again write off the half of the population which does not vote?

Can someone please answer the phone?

Staying in the Streets

A few hundred protestors toppled the 30 year-old Mubarak regime in less than three weeks.

Those who started the protests took big risks.  They faced the same police torture chambers that earlier anti-government protestors had endured.  They persevered.  Those who came out a few days later faced the loss of their jobs and status in the society, and didn’t go home when the police and army told them to.  By Thursday of last week, Mubarak brought his thugs to beat the protestors, but the protestors stayed in the streets.  When Mubarak announced yesterday that he would remain in office,    they stayed in the streets in ever greater numbers, until the government was finally toppled.  They are now singing and dancing in the streets, victorious.

Given that the army is now in command, they would be fools to leave the streets now.  They need to stay in the streets until their demands for major restructuring social restructuring and democratic reforms are met, and until a free election occurs.

What does the Egyptian experience mean for us?

First, our “intractable” social and economic problems are really not that intractable. We sometimes convince ourselves that we can’t achieve major progressive reforms to our energy, gun, civil justice, immigration, or other  policies.  We tell ourselves that filibustering Senators, a conservative Supreme Court, and a new and reactionary House majority backed by now-uncontrolled rivers of corporate cash are obstacles too large to overcome.    However, Egyptians long-suppressed by torture chambers, giant police and security services, and government-controlled media were able to topple their regime in three weeks.  They did it by simplycoming together and staying for several weeks in ever larger protests.

Who doubts that tens and hundreds of thousands of protestors gathering for three weeks consistently in streets and public squares across the country to protest the domination of our oil, insurance, weapons and banking oligarchs would have a huge impact?   After all, a few thousand tea party activists in each state had a huge influence on the last election.

Given what the Egyptians faced, the obstacles to major social and economic change in our society are relatively minor.  We can communicate quickly and freely with one another via the internet.  We can gather in large groups without fear of violence or reprisal.  We do not have our leaders jailed.  Our political system is responsive to large, well-organized groups of voters.

Then what are the obstacles we face?  Apathy.  Energies focused narrowly on doing our jobs and making money.  Ignorance of the issues.   Disorganization.  These were the precise problems that held the Egyptians back for decades, probably even more than the secret police.

The election of Obama was our closest analogue to the Egyptian revolution.  We were furious with what we felt was an undemocratic Bush regime.  We wanted change.   Tens of thousands of volunteers dedicated their energies in the Fall of 2008 to electing Obama.  When Obama was elected,  we went home.

Going home was our mistake.  Our networks of activists withered, along with our political energies.  As a result, we were lucky to get watered-down health care and financial reform.  There has been no change to our archaic, irresponsible, and dangerous energy policy. No immigration reform.  The tax and budget situation is worse.  Our country is still laboring under the burden of profound misallocation of resources.

After the election, the entrenched powers quickly regrouped, deftly manipulating their financial strength and popular economic frustration and dissatisfaction with the status quo into support for candidates who support policies favored by our economic oligarchs.  They engineered a takeover of the House, and are gearing up to take back the presidency and Senate.

The 2012 election season will spark a revival of political interest.  We need to capitalize on it, not only to re-elect Obama and a progressive Congress, but also to establish networks capable of maintaining the energy and focus on the key issues: good health care for all, converting to a fossil-free economy, narrowing of the gap between rich and poor, immigration reform, and the right of workers to organize freely.   The question isn’t whether we can make these changes.  The question is whether we want them enough to stay in the streets until we do make these changes.

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