Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:
Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:
1) Much larger, focussed, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)
2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously underrepresented).
3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings . e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)
4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.
5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.
In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.
I concur with John’s observations but would add this one. As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together. For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?
After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?
Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934: “It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”
Just a few highlights:
Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.
In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need… John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre—all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.
In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from Bard College for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:
One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.
The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil—almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.
The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.