Memory and vision: The Apollo Alliance and eco-apartheid
The Apollo Alliance presents itself as the new wave of environmentalism, marrying concerns about global warming and environmental degradation to the bread and butter concerns of Americans for good jobs and economic security. It has assembled an impressive coalition of labor unions, environmental activists, elected officials, and corporate support.
If you go to the website of the Apollo Alliance you will find a 1962 speech by President Kennedy at the launch of the Apollo Project to put a man on the moon. It is an inspiring speech, designed to unite and energize Americans around a powerful symbol of our technological prowess. It asserts American leadership in the pursuit of universal human goals defined as good; progress and mastery of the physical world. It is the inspiration for the method and the name of the current group.
The speech achieved its goal of mobilizing an emotional response and uniting the country in Kennedy's visionary project.
What else was happening in 1962? What motivated the Apollo Project that is useful (or not) in our current struggle against global warming? What's missing from the picture?
- We were in the thick of the Cold War. The Russians were threatening to outdo us in the space race, and Washington was genuinely worried that the USSR would get to the moon first. Although the challenge was not referred to in Kennedy's speech, it was prominent in Washington's strategic thinking and a subtext in the national discourse. The Cuban missile crisis was one month away.
- The Civil Rights Movement was gathering steam, but had yet to have an impact in Congress. James Meredith broke the color line at U Miss in Oct. '62, but Freedom Summer, Martin Luther King's march, and the rise of the more militant Black power movement were still in the future. Southern Democrats controlled the Senate on behalf of segregation.
- In January 1962, US helicopters first sprayed Agent Orange on Vietnam, and the first US combat troops were killed in action.
- The US was the world's preeminent industrial power, largest economy, principal creditor nation, and far and away the largest producer and consumer of petroleum. "Made in Japan" had not yet begun its migration from a derisive comment on shoddy production to a mark of high-tech prestige.
- The conservation movement was small, elite and white. Earth Day was eight years away.
- Social democracy, and the liberal view that government had a role in equalizing access to basic standards of health and social welfare and tempering the self-interest of big business, expressed in the US as the legacy of FDR, was ascendant across the political spectrum. Medicare was on the horizon.
How the world has changed (or not) 45 years later?
- We won the Cold War, we landed a man on the moon, and the space program lost the imagination of the public and its urgency as a symbol of national progress. We got cell phones, Teflon, and GPS out of it.
- Civil Rights legislation was passed, and a small proportion of Black Americans were promoted into previously all white domains. The gap between Black and white in general however, remains as wide as in 1962. Residential and educational segregation remain by and large unchanged.
- We lost the war in Vietnam, and were deterred by the social impact of that war from another ground war until Iraq. While Vietnam was cloaked in the Cold War rhetoric of stopping the spread of communism, Iraq is about maintaining the flow of oil. Shifting values at home bring quicker disaffection for the war, but a weaker protest movement.
- We are the world's principal debtor nation, our economy hollowed out by the rise of other nations and the power of corporations which have no national allegiance. We survive on the credibility of our currency as the world standard. We are a dwindling producer of oil, but an increasing consumer, locked into our military adventures around the world by the need to continue to secure the flow of oil. (60% of oil is imported, most still from Western hemisphere)
- The larger, white "environmental" movement, composed of members from the elite to the middle class, has saved some wilderness and put global warming on the political stage but has not offered an effective strategy to mitigate it. Environmental racism is not central to its agenda.
- The ideology of market supremacy in all areas, and wealth as the preeminent marker of moral value, dominates the political spectrum in the United States. Governmental programs designed to establish a floor of social welfare are under attack. Polarization of wealth reaches historic extremes.
- (NEW ITEM) Global warming, an unforeseen byproduct of our technological success in mastering the physical world, threatens our continued existence on the planet.
- (NEW ITEM) The accelerating depletion of fossil fuels, with petroleum and natural gas at or near peak production both creates global warming and limits our ability to respond to it. Our technology, political stability, and our economic system depend on continued consumption, and continue to deny the physical limits of growth and the depletion curves of both cheap energy sources and other resources.
The Apollo Alliance's choice of model and metaphor is straightforward. It precisely represents their values. Its professed goal is the abatement of global warming, but its program aims at restructuring the US economy to ensure continued growth and restored leadership in the world economy. This aim stands in contradiction to the need for the US to dramatically reduce its disproportionately high consumption of all resources, most especially energy.
Environmental racism on a world scale is exemplified by the relatively greater impact of global warming on the global South, an issue which the Apollo Alliance is constitutionally incapable of addressing. The rest of the world is absent from the Alliance's program, except for some platitudes about extending the benefits of a green economy to the Africa, India, or China. The commitment of the Apollo Alliance to growth prevents it from recognizing the impending peak of cheap energy.
Van Jones, leader of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, has become one of the most effective critics of eco-apartheid, his term for the continuing failure of the environmental movement to understand the role racism and class divisions in the US play in frustrating the environmental agenda. Jones is also clear that African Americans and other people of color people have a huge stake in environmental justice, and that environmental justice need not contradict the goals of justice in other arenas. His articles The Unbearable Whiteness of Green and Beyond Eco-Apartheid should be read by every global warming and peak oil activist.
No one can reasonably contest Van Jones's analysis of the U.S. environmental movement and its heritage.
Nor can one contest his claim that until the fearmongering of corporate polluters is challenged by an environmental program that truly addresses their needs, people of color and the working class in which they are overwhelming represented, will not provide the movement against global warming with the political base it needs to succeed.
But can an organization such as the Apollo Alliance, which promotes "growth" on the basis of green jobs accomplish the goals of
- Preventing of global warming
- Equitably distributing of the resources of our society
- Recreating healthy communities and a dignified life for all who live in this country?
And, can it do this in a context where energy costs will be rising geometrically as fossil fuels reach their peak and production begins to decline?
Unfortunately, the answer is simply no, because Mr. Jones' vision, and the vision of the Apollo Alliance, continue to share the core values of the system which has gotten us into this mess:
- Unquestioned acceptance of market economics
- Complete faith in technological innovation to overcome all limits of the physical world, including the laws of entropy
- The equation of more stuff with a better life
- Denial of the limits of cheap energy
If we promote the view that we can have "more" -- bigger cars, bigger houses, more gadgets, more and longer airplane flights to vacation resorts; if eco-equity is used as an excuse to continue to promote consumption and "higher living standards", in the purely material meaning which that phrase has acquired in this country, through green jobs and green industry, we are simply playing into the hands of corporate power, speeding up the toasting of the planet, and engaging in fraud.
We are in a time of resource depletion. As US economic power wanes, limiting the options of its corporate elite, ever more reckless adventures are being launched in an effort to maintain the status quo. A rapidly widening polarization of wealth on both a national and international level threatens a global economic collapse. The objective conditions are far different from those of the early â€˜60's. The differences require a far more serious questioning of our values, our definition of success, and the strategies we need to achieve it. The prices of necessities are beginning to rise faster than those of luxuries, with food prices skyrocketing because of the competition of agrofuels. The increased cost of gasoline is now an inconvenience to many Americans, and a hardship to some, but across Africa the lights are going out because governments cannot afford oil to run their electric generators, and families cannot afford cooking gas.
The challenge of eco-equity is a challenge to alter our values, away from racism, but also away from the equation of more stuff as the most important value of life. A global problem requires a global strategy, and putting America first cannot do that. Growing an American economy where the median consumer uses 5-10 times the global per capita average of energy and goods, and has a footprint which is six times larger than the Earth can sustain cannot help us achieve a global solution. We must move towards the values Jones cited at the beginning of his article in speaking of Native Americans, values of equilibrium with our environment, of life in a trusting community, of an economy where we borrow only what we need from the Earth, use it respectfully, and return it when we are finished.
The prevailing public values of the United States today are empty of concerns other than the accumulation of money. They equate accumulation of wealth with moral good, conspicuous consumption with personal prestige and social status, and competition in all things to the exclusion of any sense of community and social responsibility. Privately many of us reject these values. Collectively they make us unhappy, and contribute (along with racism and the polarization of wealth) to the excessive levels of violence in our society. Yet politically, we do not have the courage to confront them programmatically.
Any effort at confronting global warming or racism without confronting these values head on is an exercise in frustration. It is indeed difficult to go against the grain of the social environment and insist that quality of life does not depend on quantity. It is considered unsexy and impractical to suggest that families can be happy in 900 square foot rowhouses, in neighborhoods free of violence, with community garden plots and public parks, but no lawns requiring power mowers is the alternative to inner city poverty, (and suburban sprawl). Nor is the suggestion greeted with enthusiasm that the good jobs we seek should be accessible on public transit, and that we do not need automobiles, or vacations by airplane to be happy, if we live in a community with a vibrant, volunteer cultural life. To demand quality public education and national single payer health care aren't as sexy as talking about energy independence or new opportunities for green entrepreneurs and investors, but they in fact are much more important to the value shift we need.
And no effort at confronting global warming or racism can succeed without rejecting the blind faith in technology to let us have our cake and eat it too. The economics of declining access to cheap energy and rising commodity prices will hit soon in the US with a vengeance. Sectors of the now fairly comfortable middle classes will fall into real poverty. We are already seeing the increasing collapse of the housing market. Many economic indicators are pointing toward serious downturns. How would a "green growth" strategy work in an imploding economy?
The Apollo Alliance, with its program of high technology, and the support of major US industries seeking to regain their competitive edge simply cannot respond to these realities which are bearing down on us. With a leadership almost exclusively white and male, it is unable to respond to Van Jones's challenge.
Other historical movements offer us better models than the Apollo Project.
In the past the labor movement and the civil rights movement both contributed to a paradigm shift in US values, shifts that have largely been erased in the last 25 years. Both of those movements acted locally to make changes which then snowballed up to the national level. Both shared a vision of improving the material lives of their constituents, but both in their vision promoted values which had greater importance than the accrual of material benefits.....human dignity, mutual responsibility, equal value of persons regardless of wealth or color. Both emerged in a society where community was much more real, the interdependence of families in working class neighborhoods or small rural communities was real and taken for granted. Both succeeded in large part thanks to the historically invisible leadership of women and minorities in the picketlines and boycotts. In some ways we face a harder challenge, because we have to focus on the intangible values, and our community bonds are magnitudes weaker than they were 50 or 80 years ago.
Rebuilding local communities, generating our wealth in human interaction and our economic and social security by recycling and redeveloping local resources, including, as a leading edge, urban agriculture is an essential element of meeting the challenges of global warming and peak energy. Decentralizing our movement to both liberate creative energy and allow leadership from people of color, working people and women to emerge is essential to shifting our values. The Apollo Alliance, with its top down, non-democratic structure, and overwhelmingly white male leadership cannot address this agenda. But it is one that Van Jones is addressing, and it is one which is being addressed by various elements in the environmental and peak oil movement who are nevertheless guilty of the eco-apartheid that Jones indicts. Its time for those networks to come together, and recognize that our agendas must converge and learn from each other if any of us are to succeed.
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