by Brian Tokar
October 15, 2011
How do we develop a genuine movement for Climate Justice in the U.S.? Nearly everyone agrees that community-based environmental justice groups – mainly rooted in communities of color – should be in the lead, but this has presented a host of problems in practice. Environmental justice groups are chronically under-resourced, and activists of color can cite numerous experiences to explain their caution toward working in racially-mixed groups. There is wide agreement that more conventional climate activism is often politically shallow, and that a more systemic critique of the roots of the climate crisis is urgently needed. However, we have yet to see the kind of movement in the US that has united people around the world to raise radical, justice-centered demands to confront accelerating global climate disruptions.
Some of the most inspiring efforts to bridge the divides and develop models of real solidarity in climate justice organizing have emerged from a relatively loose alliance known as the Mobilization for Climate Justice West. In the lead-up to the 2009 UN climate talks in Copenhagen, MCJ-West organized frequent mass actions in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many were organized in partnership with the East Bay community of Richmond, the home of one of Chevron’s biggest oil refineries and a host of other toxic industrial facilities. Large, diverse actions at the gates of the Richmond refinery demonstrated region-wide support for local residents, and helped celebrate their recent court victory against Chevron’s plans to expand the facility.
Still, the steady outpouring of people into the streets of both Richmond and San Francisco left many organizers exhausted, and ultimately frayed the bonds of solidarity that had been so carefully nurtured. After Copenhagen, MCJ-West organizers pulled back, restructured their organization, and recommitted themselves to strengthening their working relationships with community-based environmental justice groups throughout the Bay Area. To outsiders, what was most apparent was that there were no longer such frequent mass actions against the corporations that profit from the climate crisis. Behind the scenes, however, there emerged one of the most original and inspired approaches to genuine alliance building—and sustaining activists for the long haul—that has been seen in more than a generation.
Hilary Moore and Joshua Kahn-Russell’s new booklet, Organizing Cools the Planet, recounts those experiences, and offers some of the most engaged and original thinking about the dynamics of social movement organizing that we have seen in a long time. It urges all of us to reach beyond the limitations of often-insular activist networks and create genuinely collaborative relationships across barriers of age, race and class.
In an insightful, but also very accessible and conversational manner, the authors challenge our understanding of alliance-building, collaboration, and our accountability to the communities most affected by environmental problems. They urge us to act, not out of guilt or ideological fervor, but out of genuine solidarity and engaged relationships of trust, and offer numerous helpful tools to encourage our thinking and activist praxis toward that goal. In a short 60 pages, they describe their own experiences, and present a wealth of new organizing theory, much of it developed in collaboration with Bay Area groups such as Movement Generation and the Ruckus Society.
Organizing Cools the Planet urges us to take home some of the most practical, creative, and up-to-date lessons about the ongoing development of social movements, and helps us begin to feel just how these ideas can transform the ways we work and the way we live. The authors challenge and inspire us to be better people, confront our deepest challenges as activists, and also learn to take better care of ourselves. As people around the world are rising up against the elites that have sold out our future, it could not be more timely.
Brian Tokar is the director of the Vermont-based Institute for Social Ecology and the author of Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change (New Compass Press, distributed by AK Press, 2010). His other books include Agriculture and Food in Crisis: Conflict, Resistance, and Renewal, co-edited with Fred Magdoff (Monthly Review Press, 2010).