Climate change requires a new abolition movement

With the elections a few weeks ahead and the People’s Climate March in New York a few weeks in the rear view mirror, I’m reminded of a meeting in the Bronx that I attended and spoke at this summer. I wasn’t the featured speaker by any means; a representative of was and made a very compelling speech about the science and consequences of atmospheric warming if present trends continue – “business as usual” as they say in the climate change community.

But when questions and comments were solicited from the audience, I took the opportunity to make some remarks.

Which I would like to share with People’s World readers because what I said has some relevance, in my opinion (although you can judge), to the ongoing conversation on climate change.

It went something like this (full disclosure: I have taken considerable liberties in recreating my remarks):

I have two comments: one seemingly radical, the other seemingly pedestrian.

First the seemingly radical: Roughly a century and a half ago, our nation fought a Civil War. At the end of this bloody inter-sectional conflict, property ownership in human beings – forcibly uprooted from Africa, transported across the Atlantic in unspeakable conditions, and thrown against their will and in violation of their humanity into a relentlessly exploitative, violent, degrading, and racist labor system – was abolished.

Most of the nation cheered this historic event that liquidated the slave-owner class and its mode of production, unshackled three and a half million human beings (who were also major actors in their own liberation) from the chains of slavery, and gave the nation a new burst of freedom.

Admittedly, that freedom, despite enormous courage, sacrifice, and struggle, never fully materialized in the war’s aftermath. In fact, a decade later and then for long into the next century, new forms of servitude – not slavery, but inhumane, violent, racist, and deeply exploitative nonetheless – shaped the political economy and freedom prospects in the former Confederate states. It also turned the South into a drag on the democratic and progressive development of the whole country at the time, and to this very day.  

That, however, doesn’t take away from the historic significance of the fact that millions, black and white, came to the conclusion – not for the same reasons (they varied depending on one’s social status, circumstances, and sensibilities) nor at the same time (many white people came to abolitionist positions in the course of the war, including, and to his credit, President Lincoln) – that ownership of human beings by other human beings had to be abolished.

In other words, slave property that had once been sanctioned by the court, the pulpit, seats of higher learning, custom, and, above all, force, became illegitimate, outmoded, and dispensable in the eyes of a sizable section of the American people, beginning with the slaves and freed black people and their white allies in the North.

Now fast forward to the present. Notwithstanding obvious political, economic, and ethical/moral differences, shouldn’t we use the precedent of that first abolition and the inspiration of the anti-slavery movement to build a modern-day majority movement to abolish another form of property that shackles the country in a different, but perilous way – private ownership of energy resources?

Can we afford to allow the profit motive – the lifeblood and life force of privately owned energy corporations (and other corporations for that matter) – rather than human values and planetary sustainability – to dictate national energy policy and development at a time when our atmosphere is approaching dangerous tipping points that when reached will have catastrophic consequences?

Can we any longer permit the energy corporate elite – the Koch brothers and others – to bankroll the campaign to deny the science of climate change, corrupt the election process with their money, and fiercely resist any, even the most modest, measures to cut down on carbon emissions released into the atmosphere?

Can humankind meet the challenge to slow down, halt, and reverse the buildup of emissions in the atmosphere without abolishing a form of private property that is committed to a policy and practice of  “business as usual” as far as energy exploitation and development is concerned?

Isn’t it naïve, perhaps even suicidal, to think that energy corporations who are addicted to the extraction of fossil-based fuels underneath the earth’s crust and the immense profits and wealth therefrom will act as responsible stewards of our planet?

In an era in which climate change and a warming atmosphere threaten humanity and the other multitude of life forms, hasn’t private ownership and development of our energy resources become illegitimate, outmoded, and irrational too?

Thus, the abolition of a class of property ownership isn’t so radical as it may seem. It has a historical precedent in our nation’s momentous abolition of slave property. It rests on science, common sense, and existential necessity. As in the case of the abolition of slavery, human rights – not abstract, but real, urgent, life-sustaining – trump property rights.

Now to my seemingly pedestrian comment: This fall millions of Americans will go to the polls where they will decide whether the Republican Party – a party that is dominated by the right wing and climate change deniers – will retain control of the House and regain control of the Senate.

Shouldn’t this be on the agenda of the climate change movement too?

It’s hard not to be excited by the new wave of initiatives and forms of struggle – marches, civil disobedience, disinvestment campaigns, and disruptive actions – that are energizing the climate change struggle. It is also encouraging to see political/legislative actions at the local and state level to reduce our carbon footprint.

And I welcome the growing understanding that capitalism’s systemic imperative to grow and accumulate capital/profits without limit is incompatible with planetary sustainability. And more and more see that capitalism runs counter to a new emerging global ethos that embraces cooperation not competition, mutuality and reciprocity not hyper-individualism, equality not dominance, sharing and a sense of limits not unrestrained acquisitiveness and consumerism, and a respect, even awe, for the beauty and interconnectedness of life.

But I also strongly feel – pedestrian as it may seem to some – that taking control of Congress out of the hands of the right-wing Republican gang is absolutely necessary too in this struggle to save our planet.

This anti-democratic, obstructionist faction in Congress isn’t the only obstacle to progressive and radical measures to mitigate the climate change crisis. But it is the immediate obstacle, and its defeat will create more favorable conditions for progressive and left thinking people and organizations to press a climate change agenda on the national level, including inroads into the property rights and power of the energy industrial complex.

Such a turn of relations of power and policy at this level is essential. What other level of government, after all, has – and any fundamental solution to the climate change crisis requires this – the financial and material resources, planning potential, and intellectual wherewithal to meet this challenge?

State and local legislative actions are necessary for sure. The same can be said of direct actions at the choke points along the energy production, supply, and distribution lines.

But by themselves they aren’t enough. They complement and reinforce rather than substitute for efforts to change the balance of power in the national government and, in turn, energy policy on a broad scale.

Thus the climate change movement can’t yield this terrain of struggle to the Darth Vaders of the Republican right nor to the capitalist class a whole. Defeating the right at the ballot box in a few weeks and then in 2016 at the national (and state) level can alter the political dynamics of the climate change struggle in a positive way. How much will depend on, among other things, the sweep of the victory and the breadth, depth, reach, unity, flexibility, maturity, and, not least, staying power of the people’s movement.

Back in 1860, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president didn’t the sound the death knell of slavery; in fact, abolition wasn’t Lincoln’s intention at the time of his election. But his victory broke the grip of the slaveholding class on the federal government, thereby setting into motion a political dynamic that swept Lincoln and all parties into the conflict, created new ground on which the abolitionist movement could campaign for abolition, and catapulted in the course of the war the eradication of the system of slavery to the top of the country’s agenda.

Can’t we reasonably think that breaking the hold of the Republican right on the main branches of the federal government in current circumstances would also open up new windows of opportunity to tackle climate change (as well as other deep-going social crises) on a scale and with the urgency that justice, morality, and science demand?

All of which makes me think that the struggle (and it will be a struggle) to defeat the right at the federal and other levels of government isn’t pedestrian, after all. Rather it is an integral part of a bigger and effective climate change strategy that will prevent disaster and mitigate the worst of a warming atmosphere and planet.

Well, that’s an expanded version of what I said at that Bronx meeting. People there told me it was good food for thought, and action. What do you think?

Photo: The Lincoln Memorial, Washington. Gage Skidmore CC 2.0


Sam Webb
Sam Webb

Sam Webb is a long-time writer living in New York. Earlier, he was active in the labor movement in his home state of Maine.