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The Environmentalism of Occupy

PLEASE NOTE: Due to technical difficulties, the first twenty minutes of this panel were not captured onto video. We apologize for the inconvenience. The first twenty minutes as well as the full audio for the panel can be found in the audio version above.

Held at Left Forum 2012 at Pace University, New York on March 18, 2012

Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society.

Panelists:
Phil Aroneanu (US Campaign Director, 350.org)
Alex Gourevitch (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Brown University)
Nicholas Mirzoeff (Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, NYU; OWS Education and Empowerment WG)
Peter Rugh (OWS Environmental Solidarity Committee)
Brian Tokar (Director of the Institute for Social Ecology)

Occupy's protests against oil companies and pipelines are rivalled only by those directed against banks and financiers. By any standard, environmentalism is a prominent part of the ongoing Occupations. Yet what stands out against the background of protest is its apparently novel way of thinking about environmental politics. Activists no longer view sustainability as being achievable in terms of regulation or international negotiations, but rather focus their efforts into spontaneous acts of resistance and prefigurative politics. Perhaps this augurs more than just frustration with accelerating environmental degradation, and points instead to the disenchantment of past environmental politics. Occupy's emphasis on local-scale and decentralized activity, for example, seems to draw into question the desirability of a project for large-scale social transformation previously advocated by eco-socialists. Dissatisfaction with the present also appears to take the opposite form, Left environmental scepticism by groups such as Spiked Online. To complicate things further still, many radical environmentalists do not even consider themselves to be Leftists in the first place.

This panel explored how all these manifestations of contemporary radical environmentalism and consider to what ends they lead. It will consider what it would take for the next phase of Occupy to move beyond the failed environmental strategies of the past, and lift the horizon of what is possible.

Panelist questions:
1. Although Occupy began with a call to reduce income disparity it quickly became a gathering point for a variety of contemporary discontents, of which climate change was but one prominent example. While most would concede it has yet to become a movement that is more than the sum of its parts do you think it is heading in that direction?

2. The vision of transformation for many Occupiers was utopian and looked to prefigure social transformation in the life of the encampments. So, for example, a common response to something like accelerating greenhouse gas emissions was to create a low carbon lifestyle in the camp. What do you think about such initiatives? It seems to us such prefigured approaches are hardly new and seem to come out of the period when environmentalism first emerged - the 1960s and 1970s. Why do you think such approaches still persist when these previous movements failed to transform society sufficiently, achieving minor reforms at best alongside highly localized rural and urban spaces in which committed activists practice decades of self-abnegation? If the stakes are now global ecological crisis, is this scale of change enough?

3. A flip-side of the previous question is that since environmental degradation has accelerated it has forced many activists into crisis mode, in which a constant stream of campaigns and initiatives are being massed against an impending environmental tipping point. While this sense of emergency is powerful, allowing for large-scale international movements to emerge overnight, can it just as easily function to prevent reflection on the effectiveness and aims of the movement? Where is the space to think and be critical about environmentalism in the present?

4. A trend in the politics surrounding climate change in the US attributes inaction to the interference of Republicans or the influence of Big Oil on the Democrats. The inference is that if extra-legislative political pressure was brought to bear on Democrats they would be forced to act responsibly. In your mind has this strategy worked in the past, and if not, why do you think it might it work now? Do you see any dangers of this kind of approach ultimately funnelling into Democratic electoral success while accomplishing little of the social transformation necessary to meet on-coming environmental challenges?

5. There appears to be a conservative character within the 99% that becomes visible through environmentalism. On one hand conservative forces appear to oppose many environmental initiatives auguring significant popular support. On the other hand the environmental movement frequently brings together disparate political threads, including conservative figures such as the Republican Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska who opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline or the Carrying Capacity Network which uses the logic of ecological economics to bolster anti-immigration policies. Furthermore, there are some groups that identify with the Left who are openly hostile to environmentalism, such as Spiked Online. How do you account for the emergence of all these counter-posing forces in the present?

6. The history of the Left and the connection of capitalism and the environment also raises the possibility of human freedom, in its social and natural aspects, in a way that is historically unprecedented. There is ambivalence towards this history that can be witnessed in contemporary environmentalism. Eco-modernizers, on the one hand, affirm the powerful dynamic of capital reproduction bringing about a decentralized low-carbon future, while eco-pessimists romantically reject this dynamic. Would you agree that both these responses are as much a part of modernity as environmental degradation? If so, what would it take to move beyond the perpetual seesaw of affirming or rejecting the present?

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