Economic Justice is Climate Justice

10671423_10152699672523704_4524976519551915064_nEconomic justice is climate justice. These are some reflections as I read Naomi Klein’s newest book “This Changes Everything” about extreme capitalism and the climate crisis.

If we meet RG’s mission of redistribution of land, wealth and power, we will also necessarily have contributed to stopping the climate crisis.

If we stop the climate crisis, really and truly, we will also necessarily have to meet RG’s mission. If land is distributed equitably and cared for by those inhabiting it, if power is held by those who are directly impacted by the decisions made about the resources in their area, if everyone has enough wealth to survive and thrive in dignity…the climate crisis will have been stopped, a new paradigm will have taken shape.
A new dominant economic paradigm* is our only option besides, well, literally ending life as we know it.  An economy that actually centers all life (people and planet) instead of just profits. Here’s why.

The planet is in crisis because of the global systems of trade, development, and resource-accumulation in the hands of a few individuals, corporations, and countries.

Endless growth and a fundamental ideological shift

Success in a capitalist economy relies on endless growth. This is so ingrained in our culture we might not even always realize it. But think about it – the very premise of traditional business** is that it should always and forever be improving and/or expanding, always and forever leading to more profits for the few owners.

It is literally written into the laws of free trade that to maximize profit, you must implement

practices at any and all cost to the planet or laborers. And you must sue anybody – even whole nations! – who try to stop you. For example, here’s a  story about a Canadian solar company that was prohibited from  employing people at a local factory because labor was cheaper in China. The World Trade Organization’s rules force business owners to always opt for who can create the cheapest product, even if it’s more harmful to the environment to ship products back and forth across the globe.

The results are catastrophic. So why do we allow this to happen?

Klein astutely sums it up in the introduction to her book: “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology…we are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (Klein, p. 18, emphasis added).
As RG members connected to or part of that “elite minority,” we have a key role to play in shifting this ideology and releasing this stranglehold. We can join in solidarity with communities organizing and lobbying from the outside; we can use our foot-in-the-door to these elite spaces to advocate from within.

Justice for the climate is justice for all

Just as we’ve been saying that racial justice is economic justice – so too, is climate justice an integral part of economic justice. Another way of saying this is: we can’t reach economic justice without climate justice.

Wealth in our world has been built because of the exploitation of mostly communities of color. From the colonization of the now-United States and genocide of Native people, to slavery, to out-sourcing of low-wage jobs to countries without labor regulations; to the gutting of resources in Appalachia in poor and often rural white communities, as well. This is where people are easiest to exploit (see Bangladesh, migrant workers in the US, dangerous coal-mining as one of the only job opportunities) thus labor is cheapest – and remember, its all about maximizing profits.

Well, all those communities are also being the hardest hit by climate justice, in a one-two punch.  

Punch #1: Wealthy corporations and countries (the US, Britain, Texaco, TransCanada, etc.) invade communities where there are natural resources or labor they need in order to make a profit. Forests for trees, mountains for coal, deserts for oil, oceans for pollution-producing over-fishing practices, swaths of Southeast Asia for mass-producing rice and soy so wealthy nations can eat the processed food we love. As Vandana Shiva put it, “the prevailing model of industrial agriculture, heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fossil fuels, and a seemingly limitless supply of cheap water, places an unacceptable burden on the Earth’s resources.”

You can imagine the list of corporate “grabs” goes on. Corporations do whatever it takes to extract whatever resources they need: dumping millions of tons of oil into pristine rainforests or into water, making monocropping the only economically viable way to farm even though lack of rotating crops ruins the soil, forcibly employing children to mine for metals to turn into my iPhone.

Because the #1 rule of the global capitalist economy is to maximize profit, this disruption is taken to disastrous levels. “Better, faster, more” is in direct contradiction to what it means to be sustainable – continued over time, able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.

Punch #2: Because of  this plundering, the violated communities are emotionally and culturally ravaged as well as literally depleted of their resources.

Corporations and wealthy countries can leave once they’ve milked the area for all they could get (and found somewhere else to exploit). This means that as the climate changes, these communities at the front-line of the one-two punch are defenseless and the hardest hit, in some of the most gruesome ways.

You can probably track it over your lifetime: think about the labels on the clothes you buy. It was Indonesia for awhile, then Pakistan, India, China, and Bangladesh, to name a few. When labor laws intensify, when carbon emissions hit a certain level, the company moves to a new country. The climate crisis is accelerating as more and more places are forcibly converted to polluting economies. They are given almost no job and economy-generating options besides what the corporations put forth, and then left high and dry when the corporation pulls out.

Think about it on a small scale. When there’s a snowstorm, or even just a really rainy day – who has the easiest time maintaining their livelihoods, and who suffers? The unhoused people who don’t have many material resources or stability are caught outside in the rain, or crafting a makeshift shelter to keep out the snow. The slightly-wealthier people maybe just stay home; they don’t have a car to leave the house but they do have a warm and dry house (though this still could have dire consequences, like if they can’t get to work because of the weather and then get fired). And the wealthiest folks can still go about their business as usual – driving from one place to another, all which are well-insulated. You see how the richest people are able to best-defend against the elements, whereas people who are working or poor are hit most directly and severely. This is how it works on a global scale, too.

One example – Walmart

For example, Walmart. The founders, the Walton family, are one of the richest families in the world. Walmart’s net sales in 2010 was more than the GDP of Norway.

Part of how prices can stay low at Walmart, and owners and investors can profit so immensely, is because they (1) source their products from where and whomever can pay their workers the least (aka, maximize owner profit) and there are the least regulations on climate; (2) fly the products all around the world to their stores; and (3) skirt the blame for bad conditions and environmental impact because the production happens in other countries.

Its important to note that Walmart paid $110 million in environmental fines just in the US in 2010, for “improperly dumping pesticides, fertilizer and other hazardous materials into public sewers and landfills…the second-largest environmental criminal penalty ever imposed in U.S. history, after the $4 billion BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico” (“Walmart is still bad for the planet,” Boulder Weekly). Lest $110 million sounds like a lot, this was hardly all of Walmart’s profits.

According to an investigative report from Mother Jones magazine,

[Walmart’s] carbon footprint—from its stores, distribution centers, company offices, corporate jets, and so on—totaled 21.4 million metric tons in 2010, more than that of half the world’s countries…But that figure doesn’t include Walmart’s supply chain, a web of more than 100,000 suppliers from Tennessee to Turkey, Cambodia to Mexico…Counting all the suppliers, factories, mills, farms, and so on in its supply chain, Walmart estimates its total carbon footprint is closer to at least 200 million metric tons. And even that estimate doesn’t include all of the companies Walmart does business with, such as its distribution trucking firms.

Walmart is just one easy example. Most large corporations function like this; product and profit built at the expense of exploiting natural resources (through extractive corporate practices mentioned earlier) and human resources (with abysmal wages for workers, child labor, dangerous factory conditions, etc). A few people or countries can get rich, but the majority of the rest suffer. And it will continue to get worse.
As Naomi Klein puts it: “The same logic that is willing to work laborers to the bone for pennies a day [aka: which leads to wealth accumulation and hoarding in the hands of a few] will burn mountains of dirty coal [aka, mess with the planet] while spending next to nothing on pollution controls because it’s the cheapest way to produce [aka: because, remember, the rule of extreme global capitalism is prioritizing profit at all cost]” (p. 81; brackets and italics added).

So what do we do!?

Soon, even wealthy people are not going to be able to defend against Mother Nature. Put bluntly, we’re all screwed or we’re all saved – its not going to work to only stop climate catastrophe for some.

Fighting climate crisis is the ultimate project in interconnectedness – finding justice and peace in our world means we must fight the climate crisis, the racial injustice it breeds, the economic injustice it propels. All humans and other living things share Earth our one home, with its finite resources.

 I know this sounds daunting – it is the project of a lifetime, of a generation.  It is also a big opportunity and one we must all get behind – our survival as a species is surely something that can and must unite the masses! It can be a useful banner for issues and communities around the globe to stand behind in interconnection and solidarity. As Yotam Marom writes,

Farmers in the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement fighting for their land are not so different from the Lubicon Cree in Northern Alberta, Canada, standing in the way of the Keystone XL pipeline that poisons their water, or the residents in Atlanta, Ga., trying to win their homes back from the banks. The working-class white West Virginians resisting fracking are in the same boat as the families in Far Rockaway whose kids’ lungs are infected from living in moldy homes after Hurricane Sandy. They have a lot in common with those in the South Bronx who have been fighting against pollution caused by big business for decades, or the mothers in Detroit who are building urban gardens to cope with food deserts. They’re not so different from the Indian women fighting Monsanto, or those resisting wars fought for oil, and on and on the connections go. We’re all connected by the climate crisis, and the opportunities it opens for us.

Luckily there are more and more ways to be part of the solution. The equitable distribution of land, wealth and power literally means that the world can do more with the finite resources we have. If you need a dose of connection to why this is paramount on an inherent, spiritual, psychological, existence level, check out this article by Donella Meadows – Just So Much and No More.”

Yes, wealthy folks and wealthy nations, this might mean foregoing chocolate grown on other continents and not getting a new iPhone annually. It might mean less vacations to Hawaii if you live in New York City. We’re focusing on structural change here, but its true, personal material “sacrifice” will have to be made by some. Climate justice also means military budget cuts, because the US military is one of the biggest polluters in the world (Political Economy Research Institute “Greenhouse 100 Polluters Index;” Klein, 213).

The solutions also mean better quality of food because government spending has shifted from subsidizing corn, soy, and packaged corporate products to making local food affordable and the norm. It means a deeper, stronger connection to your community and local ecosystems. It might mean a culture shift to less time at work, to make time for growing your own food. According to Klein’s book, it probably means going back to lifestyles more like in the middle class of the US in the 1970s [cite].

Not so bad, right?

Members of RG who are young people with wealth and class privilege: we have so much to contribute to this changing course. We have to start now, and act boldly. These changes are happening now, and time is literally of the essence. Many of you are already involved! A few ideas to get it going. We can…

  • Campaign for taxes on the wealthy that channel revenue directly to green economy initiatives in our local areas.

  • Donate our money and time to grassroots organizing and progressive lobbying efforts for fair wages, secure housing, and affordable food.

  • Fundraise our wealthy networks to support these same causes, being spokespeople for why its crucial.

  • We and our community are the shareholders of corporate stock – we can lobby for a new definition of profit that stops pollution and exploitation, and end the destructive agreements like NAFTA and the WTO.

  • Learn about how to use your investments toward a just transition to a sustainable economy – like RG and Confluence Philanthropy’s Next Gen Fellowship in Mission-Related Investing.

  • Get inspired by and learn from what other RG members are doing, like the core team of ReGenerative Finance.

  • Watch and share these videos from our friends at EDGE Funders and the Our Power campaign that show some real, scalable projects transitioning communities to the next economy.

  • Write op-eds, speak to your representatives, join protests, sign petitions that make this ideological and narrative shift – that the concentrate of resources in the hands of an elite minority is not only unjust, exploitative, and morally wrong; it is also barreling us toward planetary destruction.

  • Support worker-owned businesses.

  • Check out Naomi Klein’s “Beautiful Solutions” webpage for the growing examples and experiments of the next economy.

We can say “enough is enough! This stops with our generation.”

*These economies have existed before; it is not “new” to rely on localized, sustainable infrastructures that prioritize community health over concentrated financial profit. However, it would be new, as in never done before to transition from our current globalized, capital-driven economy to an alternate model.
** There are alternative business models cropping up (or becoming popular again), like B Corps. However these are nowhere near “the norm” of how businesses function, nor do they control financial markets the way traditional business does.