[Editor's Note: The following article was written by GLS Co-Founder Brendan Smith for the Labor Network for Sustainability in preparation for the upcoming climate meetings in Cancun.]
I am not an environmentalist. But all I think about these days is the climate crisis.
I admit I have arrived late to the party. Only recently have I begun to realize what others have known for decades: The climate crisis is not, at its core, an environmental issue. In fact it is not an "issue" at all; it is an existential threat to every human and community on the planet. It threatens every job, every economy in the world. It threatens the health of our children. It threatens our food and water supply. Climate change will continue to alter the world our species has known for the past three thousand years.
As an oyster farmer and longtime political activist, the effects of climate change on my life will be neither distant nor impersonal. Rising greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures may well force me to abandon my 60-acre farm within the next forty years. From France to Washington state, oystermen are already seeing massive die-offs of seed oysters and the thinning shells science has long predicted. I can see the storm clouds and they are foretelling doom.
But my political alter ego is oddly less pessimistic. Rather than triggering gloom, the climate crisis has surprisingly stirred up more hope than I have felt in twenty years as a progressive activist. After decades of progressive retreat it is a strange feeling. But I am haunted by the suspicion that this coming crisis may be the first opportunity we have had in generations to radically re-shape the political landscape and build a more just and sustainable society.
The Power of Doom
The modern progressive movement in the U.S. has traditionally grounded its organizing in the politics of identity and altruism. Organize an affected group -- minorities, gays, janitors or women -- and then ask the public at large to support the cause -- prison reform, gay marriage, labor rights, or abortion -- based on some cocktail of good will, liberal guilt, and moral persuasion. This strategy has been effective at times. But we have failed to bring these mini-movements together into a force powerful enough to enact broad-based social reform. It takes a lot of people to change society and our current strategy has left us small in numbers and weak in power.
The highlights of my political life -- as opposed to oystering -- have been marked by winning narrow, often temporary, battles, but perennially losing the larger war. I see the results in every direction I look: growing poverty and unemployment, two wars, the rise of the right, declining unionization, the failure of the Senate's climate legislation and of Copenhagen, the wholesale domination of corporate interests. The list goes on and on. We have lost; it's time to admit our strategy has been too tepid and begin charting anew.
This time can be different. What is so promising about the climate crisis is that because it is not an "issue" experienced by one disenfranchised segment of the population, it opens the opportunity for a new organizing calculus for progressives. Except for nuclear annihilation, humanity has never faced so universal a threat where all our futures are bound inextricably together. This universality provides the mortar of common interest required for movement building. We could literally knock on every door on the planet and find someone -- whether they know it or not -- who has a vital self-interest in averting the climate crisis by joining a movement for sustainability. With all of humanity facing doom, we can finally gather under one banner and count our future members not in the thousands but in the millions, even billions.
But as former White House "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones told the New Yorker in 2009, "The challenge is making this an everybody movement, so your main icons are Joe Six-Pack, Joe the Plumber, becoming Joe the Solar Guy, or that kid on the street corner putting down his handgun, picking up a caulk gun." The climate crisis is carrying us into uncharted waters and our political strategy needs to be directed toward making the climate movement an "everybody movement."
Let me use a personal example. As an oysterman on Long Island Sound my way of life is threatened by rising greenhouse gases and ocean temperatures. If the climate crisis is not averted my oysters will die and my farm will be shuttered.
Saving my livelihood requires that I politically engage at some level. Normally I would gather together my fellow oyster farmers to lobby state and federal officials and hold a protest or two. Maybe I would find a few coalitions to join. But we would remain small in number, wield little power, and our complaints about job loss would fall on largely unsympathetic ears in the face of so many suffering in so many ways. And what would we even petition our government to do about the problem? Buyouts and unemployment benefits? Re-training classes? Our oysters will still die and we will still lose our farms.