Newsletter: The Times Are A-Changing
Sometimes, when in the midst of transformational change, it is difficult to recognize that it is happening.
We are in a transformational moment now. The new political culture that erupted with the occupy movement in 2011, but which has roots going back decades, and its evolution into activism on key fronts of struggle such as wages, racism, trade, militarism, capitalism and other issues, has grown to be so impactful that it is fracturing the two corporate political parties.
A lot of change is occurring on many fronts. That should encourage all of us to keep building the movement of movements so we can create the transformation we need.
Metaphor for Transformation: Dying of Nuclear & Carbon Energy, Rise of Solar
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of the nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan following the earthquake and tsunami. The ecological, economic and human costs from that disaster continue with no end in sight.
Problems with aging US nuclear reactors are also mounting. This week a study found the Turkey Point Nuclear Power Plant, located just south of Miami, has caused levels of tritium, a radioactive isotope, in Biscayne Bay to spike to 200-times higher than normal levels. This February it was reported that the Indian Point nuclear plant just north of New York City was leaking “alarming levels of radioactivity at three monitoring wells, with one well’s radioactivity increasing nearly 65,000 percent.” Governor Cuomo has called for the plant to be closed. The mayor of Miami says, closing Turkey Point may be the only safe option.
While some nuclear plants are closing because of safety and economic concerns, it is now evident that the nuclear industry is pricing itself out of the energy market. In the United States and around the world, the experience with nuclear power is consistent: long delays in building plants and massive cost over-runs make it pretty useless for combating climate change and producing new energy. The estimated cost for two new reactors being built in Georgia has increased from $14 billion to $21 billion. The last reactor built in Georgia took 18 years to complete, a decade over schedule.
Solar is the opposite, rather than taking years to build it takes months; rather than costing more, the price of solar is declining. In January, ALL of the new electrical energy generated in the United States came from wind and solar. For the last two years renewable energy has been the largest source of new electrical energy. The last quarter of 2015 was solar energy’s largest in U.S. history, breaking a record set in the previous quarter. Rooftop and community solar allow solar to be a local solution that is affordable for low-income communities. Last week a new breakthrough in battery storage could transform solar and wind within the next five to ten years. There are now more people in the US working for the solar industry than the oil industry.
The oil and gas industry is in a very troubled situation. Oil and gas companies are deeply in debt with prices of carbon energy at new lows and the cost of extraction and new infrastructure escalating. This week at a JP Morgan conference in New York, the CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway told the attendees that fossil fuels are “probably dead.” He said new investments in traditional energy sources will dry up because of environmental hurdles. Industry news outlets have reported concerns by banks and investors that their current oil and gas investments will become ‘stranded assets’ on which they will never see a return.
This week, three members of Congress asked the SEC to investigate whether Shell’s failure to tell investors of the risks posed by climate change violated the law. The SEC has already been asked to investigate ExxonMobil and last week the FBI began a probe of ExxonMobil’s role in creating fraudulent climate change science when they knew their product was putting the planet at risk. This week a Bureau of Land Management auction to lease lands for oil and gas exploration was protested by people urging that carbon fuels be kept in the ground. The auction ended up without anyone leasing the lands. Upcoming auctions in Milwaukee, New Orleans, and Cheyenne, Wyoming will also be protested.
The transition to a carbon-free nuclear-free energy economy has been ongoing for years but is now picking up speed. The transition that we are currently in the midst of has long roots. Protests against nuclear energy are decades long, the climate movement has been building since the 90s and solar energy has grown in spurts since the 80s. There have been also long-term protests against the coal industry, which is now shrinking, especially against practices like mountain top removal. All of these movements seem to be reaching fruition now with multiple plans for a carbon-free world, like this blueprint from National Geographic, or this 50 state roadmap from Stanford University, or the carbon-free, nuclear-free roadmap from the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.
Some states, like California are trying to make solar energy more accessible. Oregon voted this week to switch from coal to clean energy by 2030. Of course, the status quo energy companies are not giving up their profits-first philosophy and are fighting back to stop the transition. Utility companies are moving to push solar energy out of Nevada, but people are fighting back. Similarly, in North Carolina where Duke Energy is seeking to block solar, the people are escalating their protests. There have been widespread protests against FERC as well as against fracking, tar sands, carbon infrastructure, oil trains, off-shore drilling – the public is demanding an end to the carbon-nuclear energy era.
Changing the Political Culture Changes Everything
The impact of the movement for economic, racial and environmental justice is changing the political culture in the United States. The increase in clean energy and the downward spiral of dirty energy is part of that change in culture but it affects numerous fronts of struggle.
We can see the impact of political culture in the presidential nominating process of the Democratic and Republican parties. Both parties seem to be fracturing over rejection of the establishment candidates. Senator Sanders, who is talking about popular issues like Wall Street corruption, inequality and single payer health care, is making party favorite Hillary Clinton’s nomination more difficult than expected. And the rise of Donald Trump led a recent meeting of Republican Party leaders and funders organized by the right-wing American Enterprise Institute to become a strategy session on how to oust him.
Will these fractures grow and create a vacuum, and if so, what will fill it? When opportunities such as this arise, those who are the most organized have the best chance of advancing. This is an important question for the movement to consider. Can it be filled by the Green Party, an alliance of progressive parties or a new anti-Wall Street party?
Trade is a defining issue in the elections with Donald Trump expressing his opposition to corporate trade agreements like the TransPacific Partnership (TPP) in every speech. Bernie Sanders is also using his consistent opposition to corporate trade as a way to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton and reach people in communities where their economy has been undermined by trade agreements. Clinton has been forced to change her position on the TPP, saying she now opposes it, because of public pressure. The movement against global trade, rooted in the 90s, has developed into a large movement of movements. Corporate trade has become a toxic political issue that puts careers at risk.
The wealth divide is an issue that has been put on the agenda by the popular movement. The reality of the divide, highlighted in the 99% meme, has provided a lot of energy to the Sanders campaign. Sanders has long raised the issues of inequality and the corrupting influence of Wall Street, but the social movement gave his campaign energy which he is riding. Whether he wins or loses, this will be an issue that will remain on the political agenda and which elected officials will be forced to deal with.
The Black Lives Matter movement has made sure its issue was on the political agenda and used targeted protest to ensure that police violence, mass incarceration and racism became part of the campaign dialogue.
The same has been true for the Fight for 15 movement which has been protesting in cities holding debates to make sure they are heard and the issue of a living wage becomes part of the campaign dialogue.
The transition on the drug war and marijuana policy has also been notable. In recent years states have passed voter initiatives to allow the medical use of marijuana, legalize and regulate non-medical use of marijuana and to increase the use of treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenses. This has changed the political culture and now these issues are being addressed in legislation.
Other movements are growing like efforts to stop the corporatization of schools, high stakes testing, cuts to education funding, school closures and inadequate programs to train teachers. The student debt movement is growing especially around the for-profit college scam. As a result of pressure from parents, schools are allowing parents to opt-out of testing and even entire school districts are choosing to opt-out. This week thousands of students marched in Boston against cuts to schools; and the Chicago Teachers Union has called for a general strike on April 1 to shut down the city.
Facing the Roots of the Crisis
The movement is making progress on changing the political culture, winning positive changes and impacting political priorities. While this is all good news, we have a long way to go in formulating a plan that brings these issues together into a coherent system to replace big finance capitalism and US Empire.
“The Greek riots of December 2008, the mass protests against austerity in Southern Europe, the Occupy movement in North America and the UK, the student mobilizations in Canada and Chile, the mass demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and countless other countries of the Global South, the urban uprisings against anti-black police brutality in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore—each of these brief ‘insurrectionary’ episodes constitutes a flashpoint in the emergence of a new politics, offering a collective vision of a radically different future that is being imagined in the very process of struggle.”
He does not see us developing a “new anti-capitalist politics” that pulls all these movements together. There are some commonalities, among them a desire for democracy, with slogans like “Real Democracy Now” being heard in countries that claim to be democracies. What is desired is not the traditional representative democracy with corrupted political parties, but more direct democracy as practiced in the encampments of the Spanish Indignado and the Occupy movements; and that is being put in practice at the urban level with participatory budgeting and cooperatively-run workplaces.
Gar Alperovitz, a historian and political economist, describes how people are gradually bringing democracy to the economy through cooperatives, land trusts, public ownership of energy and public banks, to name some examples. Finding opportunities to put in place democratic control of structures is a critical ingredient, combined with a social movement, for shifting the power from big finance capital to the people. This is a form of a gradualist revolution that Alperovitz calls the “evolutionary reconstruction” of our political and economic systems. This reconstruction occurs as the current Wall Street-dominated economic and political system gradually loses its political legitimacy and the power of the movement and these new systems grow.
The success the movement is having at this stage in shifting power and creating significant change should encourage each of us to bring more people into it and to take more action to continue to build the national consensus for dramatic change. We are already having an impact greater than many of us can see.
In the words of Bob Dylan:
The present now
Will later be past
The order is
Yes, the times they are a changing.