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Synthesis/Regeneration 57   (Winter 2012)

Toward an Ecological Way of Life

review by Kevin Van Meter

Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change, by Brian Tokar, Communalism Press: Porsgrunn, Norway, 2010, 124 pages, $14.95.

As I begin to read Brian Tokar’s most recent work, a short book titled Toward Climate Justice: Perspectives on the Climate Crisis and Social Change, it is a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon in the Pacific Northwest. This is a typical March day here, though it reached above 60° last week, and across the continent in Vermont, where Tokar lives, they are expecting another snow storm. But while the changing weather patterns caused by climate change are not affecting him nor me at this particular moment, the planet is being scarred by rising sea levels, desertification, and erratic weather.

Climate change, as part of a larger ecological crisis, finds its origins in human behavior and can be particularly attributed to the ravishing appetites of capitalism and the nation-state. So says Tokar, and I certainly agree. This point is furthered by linking hierarchy—a fundamental attribute to both capital and the state—and the exploitation of working class and poor peoples, to ecological destruction. Tokar’s thinking is situated within the radical philosophy of Social Ecology.

In five quick chapters, only 124 pages, Tokar explores the politics of climate change, green politics, the relationship between climate and social justice, as well as the barriers to social change. The book has circulated well, reaching number nine on AK Press Distribution’s best sellers of 2010 list. It is the importance of this crisis, as much as Tokar’s readable approach and presentation of complex subject matter, that has led to this popularity. As a short text it is not without its faults.

… capital profits off of the crisis it has created and diverts attention from the causes of this crisis.

A discourse has been developed around the supposed environmental benefits of driving a hybrid car, eating organic food, living “sustainably,” purchasing energy efficient appliances, buying carbon offsets to accompany airplane tickets, and yes, craft beer and bicycling. Capital has created a new consumer market utilizing the desire among a particular sub-set of the population to protect the environment and prevent climate change.

This sub-set of the population, predominantly white and middle-class, are then provided new lifestyles and identities through this association, where the act of consumption results in a smug sense of self-satisfaction, superiority and a false sense of certainty in their actions. Here capital profits off of the crisis it has created and diverts attention from the causes of this crisis. The effect of this discourse has been one of co-optation, where solutions to ecological problems are limited to market-based solutions. Tokar offers a counter-position, based in Social Ecology.

Climate change is linked to a broader set of ecological crises and issues, and he suggests that addressing the ecological crisis in any meaningful way will require massive social transformation, the abolition of not just “market solutions” but capitalism itself, and the creation of decentralized communities in stark rejection of hierarchy and the state. Radical politics, including Tokar’s Social Ecology, offers the possibility of considering the need for new forms of life rather than just new lifestyles.

Radical politics … offers the possibility of new forms of life rather than just new lifestyles.

One of the most startling points Tokar calls our attention too is the UN Human Development Report of 2007, which stated that between 2000 and 2004 1 out of 19 people in the global south were affected by a climate change-related disaster. Those in the north fare much better with 1 out of every 1500 people affected. This difference should come as no surprise and is part of the reason the American population can be so easily steered into false solutions, green capitalism, and outright denial or, as too many activists have adopted, apocalyptic visions about climate change.

To counter the effects of climate change the climate justice movement has responded with a set of proposals, actions and organizational initiatives. “At the local level,” Tokar points to the fact that, “people are regenerating local food systems, seeking locally controlled, renewable energy solutions, and building solidarity with kindred movements around the world.” He furthers this point in speaking about the movements in the US, saying “the demand for climate justice is voiced most articulately by environmental justice activists, mainly from communities of color that have been resisting daily exposure to chemical toxins and other environmental hazards for more than 20 years.”

Covering such a breadth of issues, Toward Climate Justice is limited in its clarity when it comes to how the climate justice movement is actually composed. For instance, while the most articulate demand might have been voiced by organizations of color, it is unclear how these voices are situated within the movement as a whole.

One of the central initiatives, Mobilization for Climate Justice, is a coalition that includes the usual suspects: Rising Tide North America, Ruckus Society, Tokar’s Institute for Social Ecology, and Climate SOS, alongside organizations such as the Indigenous Environmental Network, Women of Color United, and the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. How do activists who have the ability of “working” on the “issue” of climate justice, struggle alongside those for whom climate change, the current economic crisis, and the ravishing effects of capital and the state are a question of survival and daily life?

Has the climate justice movement somehow overcome the radical left’s dismal record of the past 30 years when it comes to grounding themselves in the everyday lives of the population? Are the foremost concerns of the working class setting its agenda? It’s not that I’m suggesting that working class people and their organizations do or should limit their concerns to the immediate means of survival, but where does addressing climate change fit in an array of realities and desires?

… the tendency of the left is to focus on the greatest disaster, at the expense of the little disasters experienced daily.

Here in the US the climate justice movement appears to be a re-articulation and continuance of the anti-globalization movement, involving many of the same characters. My concern is the tendency of left and radical movements here in the US to participate in the “disaster Olympics”—to focus on the greatest disaster, i.e. climate change—at the expense of the little disasters experienced daily by the working class and poor peoples. Tokar’s politics can provide insights into how we can move beyond these major impasses, and the text provides the opportunity to raise these discussions. Though this is not offered in the framework I describe, Tokar is articulating a political project against this narrow approach and “issue-based” organizing.

The choice to bike rather than drive a car, drink local beer rather than one produced by a multi-national corporation and shipped across the country, and other similar acts are certainly political and have political consequences. The question is, what are the possible effects and limits of these actions? None of these will fundamentally address climate change, the ecological crisis, the exploitation of the working class, or the power of the state. That will require the development of radical social movements, linkages created between communities, and decentralized and localized initiatives that restructure our everyday lives. Seeing the roots of climate change in capitalism and the nation-state provides the opportunity to pull these up and move beyond limited visions of social change.

Seeing the roots of climate change in capitalism and the nation-state provides the opportunity to move beyond limited visions of social change.

Throughout Toward Climate Justice Tokar moves seamlessly back and forth from discussing the politics of climate change to the climate justice movement, while developing an argument that builds from one toward the other as the chapters progress. This text serves as an introduction for those unfamiliar with climate justice, as an intervention into the climate justice movement, and I believe will provide insights even for the movement’s most engaged participants.

Unlike Tokar’s previous work, Toward Climate Justice puts his identification with Social Ecology in the forefront; and for those unfamiliar with this body of thought, the final chapter functions as a good overview of its positions and tenets. Some will find the insights of Social Ecology founder Murry Bookchin and Tokar’s politics useful; for others this will develop elsewhere. The question is what politics do, its effects, its limits and possibilities. As Tokar suggests, “Perhaps we don’t yet need to resign ourselves to apocalyptic visions of end of the world. Perhaps the climate crisis, along with the continued meltdown of the neoliberal economic order of recent decades, can indeed help us envision a transition toward a more harmonious, more humane and ecological way of life.”

Kevin Van Meter is an organizer and researcher originally from Long Island and currently based in Portland, Oregon. Recently Van Meter, along with the Team Colors Collective, edited the AK Press collection Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States.

[2 dec 11]

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