The Current Crisis: Letter to a Comrade

February 8, 2017

Dear Saral,

Thanks for writing an essay taking up in depth some of our mutual ideas about how to change the world! It is great to engage at such length over a topic which is on every activist’s mind in the age of climate change and Trump.

I wonder, in the end whether we are really at odds over much, so perhaps it might be best to agree not to disagree (just kidding, as I doubt you’ll agree to that).

And despite any wording to the contrary in this letter, I unreservedly consider you, as you do me, a colleague and comrade.

Your main disagreement appears to be my lack of use of the terms “ecology,” “ecological crisis,” and “ecological movement,” preferring instead to use “climate change” (this is not only about global warming as you say at one point, and I agree) “climate crisis,” and “climate justice movement.”

I do so because my main concern is with a crisis driven by the warming of the planet due to the burning of fossil fuels and the abuses of animal-based industrial agriculture, and my belief is that the main force with any hope of standing against our common annihilation is the rising global climate justice movement, led by young people and connecting with other movements for social justice everywhere.

I don’t consider these to be controversial propositions, nor do I believe that the semantic and real distinctions among “ecology,” “environment,” and “climate,” which you make so well, warrant changing them.

Yes, the crisis is bigger than climate change, and here, rather than the science of ecology which you rightly praise for its key insights, I think the most precise and illuminating way of identifying the crisis in the language of natural sciences is that of the “planetary boundaries” school of analysis pursued by Johan Rockström and colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. They have identified nine of the crucial safe boundaries that the Earth is in danger of crossing or has already passed, including climate change, acidification of the oceans, the nitrogen cycle, biodiversity, fresh water, and land use, which now imperils all life on this precious, wondrous biosphere we call home. I urge everyone to look into this, if they haven’t already. I first came across it in Mark Lynas’s The God Species, and it radically changed the way I understood the science underpinning our dilemma.

Turning to the social movements which are our main concern, a few gentle reminders of my actual views might be useful. You imply that there is a “” theory of the crisis and its remedy, whereas I don’t think there is a single 350 position, nor would Bill McKibben, sharp as he is, be the sole spokesperson for such a position if it existed. Similarly, you think that my participation in the Green Party means that I hold certain views about social change that all Green Party activists do, but as we like to make light of among ourselves, the saying goes “Two Greens, three opinions” (don’t even get me started on how many Greens it would take to change a lightbulb!).

There are no party lines in our movements today, only a variety of proposals, tactics, strategies, memes, and other approaches to mobilization that we might choose from, and so far, while some have accomplished great things, we have yet to find the formula to empower this movement of movements as the force it must become.

So we are searching for ways forward, both desperately and imaginatively, with Solnitian (Rebeccan?) hope in the dark and under the shadow of climate change and now Trump’s increasingly dangerous version of fascism (it might be best to speak of Trump’s incarnation of fascism, as does Christian Salmon in introducing this useful interview with Judith Butler). Years of studying twentieth-century revolutions and the new movements seeking radical social change in the twenty-first have led me only as far as the proposal that you rightly see as my central one:

We may need a combination of both a dense network of movements and a totally new type of political party to achieve anything like deep radical social change. These movements will have to develop both powerful political cultures of opposition, and compelling political cultures of creation.

I do draw a strong contrast between the socialist movements of the past and the new more horizontal ones of the present, not to dismiss the accomplishments of the former or uncritically extol the virtues of the latter, but rather to point to something that lies between elections and direct action, between political parties and social movements, as perhaps a promising way forward which we have snatched glimpses of, but at best only imperfectly realized so far.

The history of the world’s Green Parties is important here, and your discussion of and activism with die Grünen in Germany is most welcome and to be honored. The Green parties of the world have straddled this between space – part social movement, part political party. But even where they attained political power, as they did to some degree in Germany in alliance with the Socialist Party, they failed to bring about the radical social change we require, falling short of discovering the magical recipe for taking down capitalism. I think this was because they couldn’t walk another tightrope that the present and coming experiments will also have to do, and that is “to combine electing ‘progressive’ governments and forging social movements to push them from below and beside to make good on their promises, and to make links with other movements, nations, and organizations everywhere.”

In other words, the parties of our dreams must be of a new type, which at a minimum means finding news way for diverse movements to come together to help birth it, and once in power, this party (or whatever we decide to call it) must be made answerable to those very movements, who are the final source of its legitimacy. We are starting to catch glimpses of this – though all have failed to accomplish the kind of deep social transformation we seek – in the Pink Tide governments in Ecuador and especially Bolivia, in the Saucepan Revolution and the Left-Green government in Iceland from 2010 to 2013, with Podemos and Syriza in Spain and Greece (before 2015), and with the Sanders campaign here in the United States. There will be others.

All of us are searching for this formula, and their limitations to date of those who have tried it before us cannot be held up as proof that we cannot succeed the next time, or the time after that.

We are envisioning a complex, multi-faceted, long-term project for change, and many one-sided, partial perspectives – including those “identity movements” whom I fear you dismiss too quickly – will have to join together and learn to work through and with the issues that stand in the way of their unity (tellingly Black Lives Matter does in fact have “a position on the struggle to protect the environment,” and a very far-sighted one indeed. The coming revolution won’t be carried by just one class, generation, nation, or political culture, however joyful and subversive.

And this is precisely because, as you note, the root cause of the current crisis isn’t only just capitalism, or patriarchy, or racism, or the growth imperative of the global economy, or the ecological limits now imposed on us by our own creation in the Anthropocene. It’s all of these, and they must all be faced.

And by the global climate justice movement, I mean to include the millions of women in the streets of the world the day after Trump assumed office, the brilliant and exciting resistance that has sprung up in the many cracks in the obscene “America First” project, multiplied by the past, present, and future struggles of movements for justice, equality, and participation the world over.

We are global. We are resilient. We are loving. And we are rising.

With a warm embrace,


Tags: American politics, climate justice movement, social movements