A couple of weeks ago, on November 22nd and 23rd, I was invited to participate in the Earth at Risk: Social Justice and Sustainability Conference in San Francisco, California. The event, organized by the Fertile Ground Environmental Institute, took place at the magnificent Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, located in the Marina District of Fisherman's Wharf. Over the course of two days, speakers from all over the world—activists, writers, filmmakers, intellectuals and poets— gathered for the most educational and inspiring conference I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending. On a personal note, it was a great honor to share the stage with many of the authors and activists who've had a profound impact on my own politics, worldview and social justice work.
Each of the guest speakers provided a unique perspective on current political, economic, social and environmental issues. Some of the keynote speakers included environmental author and poet, Derrick Jensen, world-renowned activist and author, Vandana Shiva, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Chris Hedges, and one of the most influential writers of our time, Alice Walker. In addition to the wonderful lineup of keynote speakers, the various panels that took place throughout the weekend included Indigenous peoples, environmental activists, intellectuals such as Guy McPherson, Charles Derber and Gail Dines, world renowned poet, Dominique Christina, anti-war activists, veterans, anti-human trafficking/prostitution activists and many more.
Indigenous Struggle and Ecological Collapse
We must immediately recognize the never-ending assault on Indigenous peoples, their life-sustaining ecosystems and cultural practices. While a majority of people perceive these processes as natural, or unfortunate events, that took place a long time ago, ongoing oppression haunts the day-to-day lives of indigenous peoples around the globe, from the Amazon to British Columbia. Indeed, simple, natural processes, such as annual salmon runs, experiences akin to the Christian Eucharist in some Indigenous epistemologies, have been negatively altered or totally eradicated, primarily due to the construction of tens of thousands of dams. In other words, the demand for electricity has wiped out entire peoples, their cultures and natural topographies. Thus what is viewed as a very natural request in industrial societies, electricity, is considered a source of exploitation among many indigenous communities.
Okanagan activist and educator Jeanette Armstrong, articulated the fundamental difference between advanced Western societies and primitive Indigenous cultures: Western societies, on the one hand, view the natural world as something to exploit, commodify and consume while Indigenous peoples "enter into relationships with the natural world," respecting all forms of life, even those forms which Western peoples consider non-sentient: rocks, rivers, soil and wind, to name a few. In Indigenous culture, these elements form the foundation of our very existence. In Western culture, such inanimate objects provide economic opportunities to be exploited until "exhaustion or collapse," as Chris Hedges opines.
This fundamental ideological difference forms the core of what has become a centuries-long war between so-called civilized humans on the one hand, and perceived savages, on the other. Chief Caleen Sisk, of the Winnemum Wintu people, urged those attending the conference to spend more time with the living-world, as opposed to artificial mediums such as flat screen TVs, video game systems, computers, phones and tablets. For instance, the average American spends more than 45 hours per week with these devices, while spending less than 5 hours per week in nature. This cultural and ecological schism has created a world where many human beings now live completely detached from the natural environment. Of course, all of this takes place in the name of progress.
The most frightening presentation was undoubtedly the "Indicators of Ecological Collapse" panel, which featured Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources and the environment at the University of Arizona, agricultural historian Richard Manning, Texas-based CodePink activist Dianne Wilson, and TruthOut journalist Dahr Jamail. Immediately, McPherson catapulted the crowd headfirst into the depths of our ecological madness: feedback loops, runaway temperature increases, species extinction, etc. Journalist Dahr Jamail followed, reminding the crowd of the neglected and now forgotten BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These legacies are terrifying, to say the least. Dianne Wilson followed with some words of inspiration, encouraging those in attendance to organize with southern workers in places like Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.
Next, Richard Manning deconstructed the "Green Revolution" and provided a fascinating history and examination of Industrial Agriculture, a process which has allowed for increased calories, yet decreased nutrients, leaving many humans malnourished and unhealthy, the natural world mutated and dead. In other words, the food we eat, is not really food at all. And the manner in which society is growing this toxic garbage is literally destroying the very soil on which our livelihoods depend. In short, the practices of Industrial Agriculture have resulted in millions of farmers, landless, homeless or jobless, as they're swallowed up by mega-agricultural industries, their lands destroyed by Monsanto seed and mono-crops, and local economies ravaged by neoliberal economic reforms. In California, the topic is particularly prescient, as Industrial Agriculture accounts for over 77 percent of California's total water use. As Derrick Jensen regularly notes, "Taking shorter showers isn't the answer to California's drought."
I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Indigenous perspectives on ecology, philosophy, ideology and resistance. Much of the personal testimony was heartbreaking, however it was delivered with a level of humility and resilience that cannot help but infect one's soul. For example, Freda Huson and Dini ze Toghestiy represented the Unist'ot'en Camp, a resistance community whose purpose is to protect sovereign Wet'suwet'en territory from several proposed pipelines from the Tar Sands Gigaproject and shale gas from Hydraulic Fracturing Projects in the Peace River Region. Their story of political struggle provided real-world examples of effective resistance against the most powerful fossil fuel industries. These "front-line" activists deserve not only our admiration, but also our solidarity and material support. Environmental activists in North America would benefit greatly from hearing Huson and Toghestiy's reflections and insights.
Social Justice and Systems of Power
Ultimately, our culture is sociopathic at its core, Professor Charles Derber suggested during the "Capitalism and Sociopathology" panel. Derber reminded the audience that the dominant culture's sociopathic behavior is rooted in its collective institutions, primarily economic and political systems, not individualized psychiatry. Derber continued, "Capitalism requires, by law, constant expansion and maximization of profits at the expense of the natural world and human beings." Remember, these real-world consequences are considered "externalities." For economists, this is business as usual. For the natural world and 99% of humanity, this is madness on a global scale. Clearly, Derber's analysis struck a cord with the audience, as many grapple with the worst economic collapse since 1929.
Derber told me, "I purposely make my material accessible for anyone and everyone. It's important for public intellectuals do that." Of course, I agreed. "After all," I told him, "it was Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, who first influenced my political thought and activism." He laughed and told me that Howard was a friend of his from way back. We talked about a lot of things, but mainly why we do this work. He asked a lot of questions, as most good intellectuals do. I told him about my childhood, my experiences in the Marine Corps and my work as an activist. He reflected on his experiences with his students throughout the decades and the changes he's seen take place within the university system. All in all, Derber represents the very best of higher education: humility, solidarity and a quest for truth.
Even more, cartoonist and author Stephanie McMillan added her unique analysis of capitalism and revolution, reminding everyone in attendance that only we have the power to replace systems of oppression and domination with systems of compassion and direct democracy. After a full day of "end times" lectures, it was refreshing to hear Stephanie inject some optimism into the dialogue. Later that night, I sat next to her at a dinner party for the guest-speakers. We talked about a wide-range of issues. One of them was the ways in which some environmentalists paint humanity with a broad brush, labeling everyone insane, ignorant, materialistic, etc. She and I agreed that this wasn't the case for the poor communities we organize in. These communities understand how the system works. They're not counting on elites to fix the system.
Class, race, and other factors play a major role in determining how and why people accept, or reject, the system. Obviously, people in poor black communities view the world much differently than people living in affluent white suburbs. Consequently, I've never had to explain to black communities why the US isn't the greatest nation in the world, yet I've had to engage in that debate in plenty of white neighborhoods. It's the same with environmental issues. Poor communities of color have endured capitalism's noxious legacy for centuries. For example, the vast majority of waste sites, dumps and factories, are located in poor black and brown communities. These communities understand environmental devastation. They live it. On the other hand, middle to upper-middle-class whites often benefit from, and apologize for, systems of oppression.
Undoubtedly these phenomena intersect with the legacy of patriarchy. As the "Confronting Misogyny" panel detailed, domination is inherent in patriarchal systems. The disastrous legacy of patriarchy predates the formation of capitalism, in fact it forms the very foundation of Western Culture. In such a culture, men are trained to be hyper-masculine, with males often embodying the most violent and brutal attributes. Nonetheless, within capitalism, patriarchy manifests in sickening ways. To illustrate, Cherry Smiley, Sarah M. Mah and Yuly Chan spoke at great lengths about human trafficking, pornography and prostitution. Some of the panelists focused on the growing epidemic of human trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, which is routinely taking place in "booming" mining and fracking towns, the latest intersection of ecological exploitation and misogynist violence.
Late Sunday evening, I had a chance to take a car ride to Berkley with Alice Walker, her partner and some friends. We talked about life, family, children, society and war. Alice's partner is a Vietnam vet, and a great person. He shared his knowledge with us. We shared ours with him. For the first half-hour of the trip, Alice didn't say a word. She just listened. Then, she chimed in: "What do you guys think will motivate the younger generations to get involved?" The van was silent at first. Eventually, my friend Graham responded, "I think it would help to have mentors." Alice turned around and quickly said, "We're here for you. I know there should be more of us, but we're here." Alice Walker's grace, intelligence and passion are second to none. She, like so many females in my life, reminds me to always be courteous, inspired and respectful. Her words of wisdom were a gift that I'll treasure for the rest of my life.
From start to finish, the Earth at Risk Conference not only provided a platform for radical views, but also a vital organizing space, which, if managed properly, could connect organizations and individuals for years to come. All of this is quite rare in the realm of political conferences. Usually, conferences tend to be pretty boring: meetings, panels, keynote speakers, short Q & A sessions, then everyone goes home. This time, however, a vast majority of the speakers hung out together, ate dinner and chatted till the late night hours, sharing personal stories and ideas for future actions and possible coalitions. This, is where the most valuable political work takes place, not in the meeting rooms, but in barrooms and diners, on street corners and during car rides.
This event will forever be seared into my consciousness, leaving traces of inspiration and despair along the way. When tackling environmental and social justice issues, it’s often easy to fall into the spaces of hopelessness and anguish. Yet when surrounded by so many great activists, it’s hard to become fully discouraged, especially when everyone is determined to remain in contact and continue this very important work of ours. In retrospect, I am thoroughly humbled for the opportunity to contribute to such an important event. I expect the groups involved will continue the dialogue, hopefully resulting in worthwhile and effective coalitions, campaigns, strategies and tactics.