Occupy May Day: Why Environmentalists Need to Show Up
Fall 2011 was pretty exciting, wasn’t it? Protesters in Egypt and Tunisia had just won a non-violent revolution. Over 1200 Americans took part in the biggest act of civil disobedience in the history of environmentalism and it looked like they had won. Occupy Wall Street appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and became a national phenomenon calling the nation’s attention to the interrelated crises of political cronyism and deep structural inequity threatening our democracy. For a second it felt like maybe the “post-hope” era was coming to an end. Maybe we’d all finally get off the internet and start directly confronting those things we’d been waiting for President Obama to fix for us since January 2009.
But then, as quickly as it began, it started to feel like it was over. Egypt’s revolution turned sour. Obama started waffling on Keystone. Occupy encampments all but disappeared from our cities and our public life. The Republican primaries came around and it was time to watch in bemused horror as one climate change denying corporate stooge after the next pranced and preened for the opportunity to duke it out on live TV with our very own Disappointment In Chief.
Well, here’s the good news. Occupy is trying to make a comeback. For the past few months organizers in cities all over the country have been focusing on this coming Tuesday, May 1. Here in New York you can’t walk more than three blocks without seeing a sticker, poster, or some scrawled sharpie graffiti reminding you of the "May 1 General Strike: No School. No Work. No Shopping.” I won’t go into whether or not it makes sense to call what’s happening a general strike. The point is that folks are trying to jump start the engine of public critical thought and grassroots resistance and they need your help, just like you need their help if you’re going to be serious about fighting climate change and environmental injustice.
The Occupy idea, in its initial form, was that protesters would camp out on Wall Street, the symbolic heart of global capitalism, come to consensus on their “one simple demand,” and repeat this plea until change occurred, thereby reclaiming political control from plutocratic interests. Obviously, this is not exactly how things have played out. Those who showed up to Zuccotti Park on September 17, about 1000 people by most estimates, did so often out of an enormous sense of desperation and blind faith that people coming together in public space could do something to alter the political-ecological-economic crash course that we seem to be headed down.
No “one demand” or list of demands was ever articulated, although by the end of the first two weeks the Occupiers had, through consensus, agreed to two statements that would play an enormous role in defining the movement, The Principles of Solidarity and The Declaration of The Occupation of New York City. The latter was formatted much like the US Declaration of Independence, as a list of abuses perpetrated by corporate power against the populace and included some language about the food system as well as the contention that corporations keeps us dependent on fossil fuels. However, discussion of the costs of this dependency in terms of climate change and localized damage from extreme extraction were absent.
The fact that climate change was not a fundamental component of these early documents represents an enormous missed opportunity. For decades ecological economists have warned us about the dangers that come with a system geared toward infinite growth in a finite world. Now we find ourselves in a recession where traditional Keynesian solutions are likely to undermine our well being and make it harder to prevent the kinds of irreversible climate change that puts those least responsible at the greatest risk. If Occupiers wanted to talk about building an economy that works for “the 99%” they should have been more upfront in acknowledging how unsustainable our current economy is.
It’s still a mystery to me exactly why climate change and other socio-environmental crises didn’t play a bigger role in these documents. My best guess after talking with dozens of occupiers is that folks felt like it was somewhat inappropriate to try and hijack the agenda in a community that included the homeless, the chronically unemployed, and those struggling with crippling debt burdens.
One activist, a 30-year-old sustainability consultant, told me that he had seen climate as a good “long term” issue for the movement once people had reclaimed their sense of political agency and collective power. There was an assumption that those encamped in Zuccotti would have plenty of time to develop their message. However, shortly after the fledgling group in New York came to consensus on the Declaration of Occupation they began to lose control over the movement they had started.
On October 1, roughly 700 activists were arrested crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. The story became front-page news worldwide. Suddenly, encampments began popping up in hundreds of cities and towns all over the US and in 80 countries worldwide. Some estimates suggest 200,000 Americans got involved with an occupation. Since each of these occupations had their own General Assembly there was no longer one voice that could speak for the movement. This created a serious challenge for environmentalists who had missed their best chance to capture the agenda but were actually getting pretty well organized as “working groups” operating inside the movement.
In New York the sustainability working group powered Zuccotti with energy bikes. The environmentalist solidarity group, more overtly political, led a “climate justice day” of teach-ins and got the General Assembly to issues a public statement condemning a bizarre campaign to support Keystone using the rhetoric of Occupy. Other working groups formed around animal rights, local farms, food justice, The Rio+20 Earth Summit, and trade justice. After the November 15 eviction these groups continued to meet. They even formed an Eco-Cluster in order to collaborate on a month of actions leading up to Earth Day. Yet, despite all of this terrific energy, organizers still couldn’t get the media to talk about sustainability as a core part of Occupy’s challenge to the status quo. The movement is widely credited as having “changed the conversation” in American life but we’re still not talking about the elephant in the room.
If we want to get serious about our one shot to prevent catastrophe we need all the help we can get. We need to have a broad-based social movement in the US that seek to hold corporations and crooked politicians accountable. Additionally, Occupy needs us. It needs our energy and our creativity. It needs our unique understanding of the ways in which the climate crisis, left unattended, will put increased pressure on the 99% globally for the indefinite future.
May Day is a gamble for Occupy. Enormous amounts of energy have been poured into planning and the return on that investment will determine the future of the movement. We have an election coming up in which both sides will be taking enormous amounts of money from the same companies that have been bankrolling mountaintop removal mining, funding climate denial think-tanks, and standing in the way of any meaningful climate legislation.
May Day is also a chance at a fresh start. That means it’s also a chance for us inject some green wisdom into the core of the conversation. You don’t have to love everything that has been done in the name of Occupy so far. In fact, its probably best if you show up with some constructive criticism, but show up. Google your local Occupy group. Chances are they have something planned for May Day. We don’t get to choose when change will come or exactly what it will look like, but we do get to choose whether or not we want to join in the fight.