Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has an estimated net worth in excess of $118 billion, which makes him “the richest man alive,” according to CNN. He owns “a 5.3 acre property in Medina, Washington, another home in Beverly Hills, California, a 30,000-acre ranch in Texas, and apartments in New York.”
But that is not all.
According to the Washingtonian, the richest man alive has been renovating a 27,000-square-foot Washington, D.C. mansion he purchased in 2016 for $23 million in cash. This renovation project, the Washingtonian reports, “includes 25 bathrooms, 11 bedrooms, five living rooms/lounges, five staircases, three kitchens, two libraries/studies, two workout rooms, two elevators–and a huge ballroom.”
“Our estimations show,” write economists Thomas Picketty and Lucas Chancel in their 2015 study “Carbon and Inequality: from Kyoto to Paris,” that the “top 1% richest Americans, Luxemburgers, Singaporeans, and Saudi Arabians are the highest individual emitters in the world, with annual per capital emissions above 200tCO2e.” The top one percent’s per capital emissions, Picketty and Chancel further find, is “about 50 times world average,” and signifies the level of emission inequality between the extremely wealthy and all other humans.
It is probably safe to say that Jeff Bezos is one of the highest individual carbon emitters on Earth. Moreover, given his 16% stake in Amazon–a high emitting corporation that has, over the last two years, “aggressively courted the fossil fuels industry, landing deals and partnerships with companies like BP, Shell, and Halliburton”–we can assume Bezos’ per capital emissions are greater than 50 times the world average.
This “emissions inequality” between Bezos and the rest of us is truly a reflection, if not a measure, of the wealth gap between the 1% and 99%. As such, it is necessarily inextricable from both national and global economic inequalities.
Even more, however, this emissions inequality is also inextricable from Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices.
Under Bezos’ watch, for instance, Amazon resisted–for years–raising employees’ hourly wages, even while Amazon was well on its way to becoming a trillion dollar company. As a consequence of this wage suppression, many Amazon employees had to rely on food stamps and other public assistance in order to make ends meet (this is why New York Representative Ocasio-Cortez recently decried Amazon’s “starvation wages”). Though it is true that, after much public pressure, the company in November 2018 finally raised hourly wages to $15 an hour, this modest increase in pay–as Politifact writer Bill McCarthy notes–probably won’t “change things for all employees.” Indeed, some continue to be, and will likely remain eligible for, as well as reliant on, government assistance.
Amazon has also aggressively resisted its workers’ efforts to form unions. For example, when corporate executives got wind that workers at Whole Foods–which Amazon owns–was starting to organize, the company sent to Whole Foods’ Team Leaders a “45-minute union-busting training video” that the company produced for just such occasions (this video was leaked to the press).
Meanwhile, Amazon has paid its CEOs handsomely. This past April, The Seattle Times reported that the company’s CEO pay ratio “was 1-to-58 in 2018.” In 2017, the ratio was 1-to-59. Andy Jassy and Jeff Wilke–the CEOs of “Amazon’s two biggest business units”–each received “total compensation of over $19.7 million.” Amazon’s senior vice president Jeff Blackburn “received $10.4 million,” and “chief financial officer Brian Olsavsky received $6.9 million.” The pay ratio for Wilke, “whose organization includes the warehouses and logistics operations where Amazon’s lowest-paid employees work,” is approximately “1-to-684.”
Because wage suppression and union-busting help to ensure that “an enormous and ever-increasing share of income growth goes to corporate profits and executive pay,” Amazon’s wage policies and labor practices have guaranteed that much of the wealth its workers produce goes to the company’s profits and to its CEOs’ generous salaries and bonuses. In this way, the company’s policies and practices help to produce national and global economic inequality.
Let’s not stop there, however.
This transfer of income growth puts into the hands of Bezos and the other high-paid executives more money with which to sustain and expand Amazon’s high carbon-emitting business processes and infrastructure, more money to invest in the company’s fossil fuel projects, more money with which to purchase their personal mansions, New York apartments and private jets – more money, in fact, with which to burn up the earth.
In other words, the power Amazon exerts to hold down its employees’ wages helps to produce not only emissions inequality between the 1% and the rest of us, but also the individual emission privileges and advantages Bezos himself enjoys (and that Amazon’s other CEOs likely enjoy). That $15 an hour helps to make Bezos’ per capital emissions 50 or more times the average.
No doubt all of this is true as well for other companies and CEOs (Walmart immediately comes to mind).
Let’s now frame this problem of emissions inequality from the bottom-up: the hardships that Amazon’s employees suffer on a day-to-day basis–scraping together money for rent, food, childcare, electricity bills, water bills; getting adequate health care for themselves and their children; sending their kids to underfunded and segregated schools; and, working under conditions that are often harsh, stressful and even dangerous–are the conditions upon which Bezos and Amazon’s other executives depend, at least in part, in order to live lifestyles through which they emit more greenhouse gases than most people on Earth will emit in their lifetimes.
These same conditions–produced in part by Amazon’s labor practices–ultimately make Amazon’s workers, and their workers’ families and communities, increasingly more vulnerable to our unfolding climate crisis.
“Over the past three decades,” reported Steve Reilly in a June 2016 USA Today article, Donald Trump “has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits.” Many of these lawsuits, Reilly notes, “involve ordinary Americans…who say Trump or his companies have refused to pay them.” Dishwashers, plumbers, bartenders, painters, waiters, real estate brokers, lawyers–this broad swath of workers Trump routinely relied on to build his wealth, and yet he didn’t see fit (it is alleged) to compensate them for the work that they had done. Trump, it seems, thought he was entitled to their unpaid labor.
But that’s not all.
“Trump’s companies,” Reilly continues, “have also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage.”
While, admittedly, all of this is old news, Donald Trump’s anti-labor practices are actually instructive regarding the current #TrumpShutDown. Like his refusal to pay his former employees, for example, Trump’s shutdown is his willingness to sacrifice working women and men for his own personal gain. The shutdown also expresses his sense of entitlement–to which the lawsuits attest–to the unpaid labor of others, as well as his disregard for the fact that the workers upon whom he relies need to pay their rent, their gas and electric bills, their water bills, their student loan debts–even their transportation to the local food bank. And like his treatment of his former employees, Trump’s shutdown reveals an inability on his part to “relate” to any workers struggling to make ends meet.
It is fair to say, then, that Trump’s anti-labor practices are guiding principles of his partial shutdown of the federal government.
Reilly concludes that the lawsuits filed against Donald Trump “in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years. In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources. Some just give up the fight, or settle for less; some have ended up in bankruptcy or out of business altogether.”
What was it, precisely, that Trump recently boasted to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer about the federal government shutdown? Oh, yes: it could go on for “months or even years.”
Just like his former employees’ lawsuits.
Steeped in Trump’s anti-labor practices, this shutdown must be seen for what it is: a war on working people, executed from the Oval Office. Indeed, it is one of many acts of class war that include the attempted evisceration of ObamaCare, environmental deregulation that specifically injures poor and working class frontline communities, Trump tax cuts for the rich, and a host of other odious policies intended to discipline and control everyday people.
In this regard, the #TrumpShutDown is in truth a #OnePercentShutDown. Though Trump the billionaire is of course directly responsible for it, he is not the only billionaire (and the Trump entities are not the only corporations) who believes he should suffer no consequences, ever, for how he treats workers or for his expropriation of their wealth. He is not the only billionaire who claims as his right and privilege the benefits of your unpaid work. He is not the only one-percenter aided and abetted by members of Congress as well as state politicians, at the expense of us all.
This shutdown, then, is a wake-up call for all working women and men–whether organized or unorganized, government or private sector. It is a wake-up call that tells us not only that we must shut down this anti-worker government shutdown; but also that we must assert our power as workers everywhere–in the workplace, in the courts, and on the streets–because it is the only way we can win the class war of which the #TrumpShutDown is so much a part.
Though Donald Trump’s Black Friday release of the Fourth National Climate Assessment (FNCA) completely backfired–the media relentlessly covered the report, and with devastating detail–Trump nevertheless managed to escape being held to account for what is (arguably) the Assessment’s most damning observation:
“Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP8.5.”
What does this mean?
RCPs, or “Representative Concentration Pathways,” are “possible scenarios” scientists use to “evaluate the implications of different climate outcomes and associated impacts throughout the 21st century,” as the FNCA notes. RCP8.5 is the highest scenario, meaning that it “represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100.”
In other words, RCP8.5 is the worst possible scenario. It describes a world in which the global annual temperature will be, by the end of this century, 9°F higher (or more) than it is today.
We cannot survive such a world.
Trump was not held to account for the FNCA’s claim–or, rather, for what the claim suggests about his pro-fossil fuel environmental policies–because it was widely overlooked in news reports and FNCA “take-aways.” Consequently, when the White House bemoaned the fact that the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario,” the media, the administration’s critics, and even scientists typically offered the retort that the Assessment addresses other scenarios; that it was properly vetted; and, that RCP8.5 was just one possible future we are facing.
In other words, not one mention of the fact that current trends are consistent with the worst case scenario, trends to which we are contributing significantly.
According to research recently published by the Global Carbon Project, the world “is on pace to release a record 37.1 gigatons of planet-warming emissions in 2018, led in large part by China, the United States and India.” Moreover, our nation’s emissions “are expected to rise 2.5 percent this year.”
The environmental policies of the Trump administration–as well as those championed by many state governments–are nothing less than RCP8.5 in the making. In fact, given that these policies have been formulated in the context of an overwhelming scientific consensus concerning climate change, they are an intentional production of accelerating species extinction, extreme weather, climate migration, climate-related social and economic inequalities, water and food scarcity, sea level rise, ecosystem collapse, climate change related illnesses, disease, and death, ocean dead zones, and polluted air.
They are policies at war with all life on earth.
We could say, then, that RCP8.5 is here and now.
And why not? After all, that “extreme scenario” the White House complained about is not something that will appear suddenly, out of thin air, in the year 2100. No, it will unfold, inexorably, through one deregulation after another, one fossil fuel tax break and subsidy after another, one pro-coal conference and promotion after another, until the water inundates our coastal cities, the pollinators die off, the aquifers dry up, and our food supply runs out.
Of course, even as we are in the process of creating a RCP8.5 world, that world is not inevitable. It is not our fate because we can change course.
But for that to be true, not only must we resist and organize; we must also do both like its 2099.
This article was originally published in Common Dreams.
As panic starts to set in about what little time we have to avert catastrophic climate change, elites have begun in earnest to drum up support for geoengineering fixes – including the fix of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere.
The basic idea behind this relatively cheap, “cost effective” technique is that we could replicate the cooling effect of volcanic disruptions. Like the sulfur emitted by volcanoes, the aerosols would reflect sunlight back into space, and thus briefly spare us from the disastrous effects of rising temperatures caused by our fossil fuel emissions. This “last resort,” advocates say, could ultimately “save the planet” and thus “save humanity” while we figure out how to effectively and cheaply remove carbon from the atmosphere.
One could take great comfort in this aspiration to “save humanity.” After all, it seems we will not, in the time required, rise to the occasion of shutting down petrocapitalists.
However, advocates’ unspoken presumption that all humans would (of course!) want to pursue this “last resort” indicates that a more cynical aspiration is at work, for it is precisely the kind of presumption one makes when one is steeped in the colonial logic that produced our climate crisis.
Indeed, we should pay attention to how freely the champions of sulfur injections (and other equally radical geoengineering fixes) speak the language of the Universal Subject, that creature of colonialism whose benevolent claims about what was best for “humanity” – often framed in the discourse of economic as well as scientific objectivity and rationality – masked His exercise of brute power over non-western people and over Earth herself.
He is speaking to us again now, promising to save “us all” while intending primarily to safeguard western civilization, because western civilization is what He really means when He speaks about “humanity.”
In fact, He believes that saving western civilization is the same as saving Earth, and that Earth is not, in and of itself, worth saving if we are forced to leave fossil fuels in the ground.
That’s the implication, anyway, of His insisting that we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels up to the point where “we” will eventually have to turn to the last resort for “our” survival.
It goes without saying that Others will need to be sacrificed to this greater good.
Indeed, it almost always goes without saying.
The men and women who are trying to sell us the solution of sulfur injections tend to be strangely silent on the fact that these injections would “disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people,” as Alan Robock and other scientists reported in a 2008 paper published the Journal of Geophysical Research (the authors of a more recent study published in Nature Geoscience indicate that while sulfur injections would likely cool the earth, they would also reduce global rainfall).
The effort to resolve our climate crisis in this manner is itself an extension of colonial logic. After all, as Heather Davis and Zoe Todd explain, “colonialism, especially settler colonialism – which in the Americas simultaneously employed the twinned processes of dispossession and chattel slavery – was always about changing the land, transforming the earth itself, including the creatures, the plants, the soil composition and the atmosphere. It was about moving and unearthing rocks and minerals. All of these acts were intimately tied to the project of erasure that is the imperative of settler colonialism.” If history is any indication, the last resort might very well be western civilization’s final act of colonial violence, exclusion and erasure – first, of the peoples and sentient beings it has always exploited and disregarded; then – and no doubt unintentionally – of western civilization itself.
Earth will survive this madness. It will rend and swallow and churn into fossils bridges and buildings and books and bunkers. It will heal and balance and produce new life forms. Hardly a trace of western civilization will remain, and what will remain, won’t matter at all.
To save ourselves, we cannot resort to technologies that are steeped in the logic of coloniality. Instead, decolonization – along with attendant Earth-healing technologies – must be both our first and last resort. We must be determined to live for one another, not at one another’s expense. We must let go of “humanity” altogether, and refuse to accept as well as live by the premise that western civilization must survive at all costs.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2014): p. 270.
This piece was originally published on 11/9/18 in Counterpunch.
Check out my Patreon podcast, The Wretched of Mother Earth, where I decolonize climate change.
“What arrived in the Americas in the late fifteenth century was not only an economic system of capital and labor for the production of commodities …From the structural location of an indigenous woman in the Americas, what arrived was a more complex world system…A European /capitalist /military /Christian /patriarchal /white/ heterosexual/male arrived in the Americas and established simultaneously in time and space several entangled global hierarchies.”
– Ramón Grosfoguel
Lately I’ve been struck by a picture of Melinda Tillies, a Louisiana homeowner recently featured in an article by Julie Dermansky in DeSmogBlog.* Tillies is standing in front of her house. In the background (not more than “25 feet away”) is a crane, its arm lifted, ready to plunge into the earth.
Tillies looks into the camera. She appears at once angry, fed-up, resigned, and defiant.
From Dermansky we learn that Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC (BBP), a joint venture between Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) and Phillips 66, is building a pipeline that “will serve as the last leg of a transportation network to move oil fracked in North Dakota (and potentially Canadian tar sands) via the Dakota Access pipeline to Louisiana’s coast for export.”
The crane behind Tillies is digging a trench for that pipeline, and it is BBP’s invasion of Tillies’ neighborhood, as well as the structural damage the company is doing to Tillies’ home, that explains the pained expression we see on her face.
Though one could view a moment like this – the way many often do – as yet another instance in which “capitalism” trumps the urgent need to address climate change, UC Berkeley Professor Ramón Grosfoguel’s critique should give us pause (in his work, Grosfoguel takes issue with a Eurocentric world system perspective that treats social relations as merely “additive elements” to the “capitalist world-system”). It should make us look a bit more deeply at what, exactly, has “arrived” in Tillies’ community and practically on her front porch.
When we do this, a “more complex world system” comes into focus, one that we can describe using a frame similar to the one Grosfoguel employs to frame European colonization of the Americas. That is, we can say that what have arrived in Tillies’ community are primarily “capitalist / [law enforcement] / Christian / patriarchal / white / heterosexual / male[s].” And they are all quite easy to identify.
In particular, they are the officers, shareholders, workforce and contractors of ETP and Phillips 66; the Louisiana state representatives who have facilitated BBP construction; the executives and employees of the banks that extended credit for BBP; the faculty and Advisory Council members of Louisiana State University’s Center for Energy Studies; Louisiana’s law enforcement apparatus; members of the U.S. Congress who serve fossil fuel interests; and, of course, the President himself, with his “DRILL BABY DRILL” energy policy.
These men (as well as the women and people of color who accompany them) have descended upon communities all along the pipeline’s path, carrying with them the entangled “hierarchies of power” in which they are, to varying degrees, collectively invested.
Tracking Grosfoguel’s analysis, these hierarchies (listed separately for convenience) include:
A class hierarchy that privileges the wealthy.
BBP will add significantly to the coffers of an already wealthy elite while it will disproportionately burden Louisiana’s poor and working class people and their communities. Unlike the latter, the more affluent are not subject to the kind of spatial invasion Tillies’ suffers – which means they don’t have to live in fear of emissions leaks close to their homes, eminent domain, property damage, and other harms to which BBP feels entirely at ease subjecting poor and working class people.
A racial hierarchy that privileges whites.
It should come as no surprise that the pipeline not only disproportionately burdens poor and working class people, but also Louisiana’s communities of color. If completed, it “will carve up 11 parishes in Louisiana and cross 700 bodies of water, including Bayou LaFourche, a critical reservoir that supplies the United Houma Nation and 300,000 residents with drinking water.” Moreover, the pipeline passes “near the historic and predominately black community of St. James,” which is already exposed to myriad environmental harms perpetrated by various toxic industries deliberately sited in this area (the BBP was itself able to secure from the state a coastal use permit without having to consider the environmental impact of the pipeline on St. James parish).
A gender hierarchy that privileges males.
Not only are ETP and Philips 66 dominated by white men, but so also are the other institutions that are backing the pipeline. For example, of Louisiana’s elected officials, 67% are white men, who make up only 29% of Louisiana’s population (in contrast, women of color, who make up 21% of the population, constitute only 5% of Louisiana’s elected officials). Many of these elected officials are recipients of fossil fuel industry largess.
A “media /informational hierarchy” where the primarily white male power structure has control over the means of “media production and information technology” to make its point of view “enter media networks,” which then privilege that point of view.
The mainstream media have generally failed to cover pipeline resistance, the environmental hazards of fossil fuel production, environmental racism, and climate change. This is no less true of mainstream media in Louisiana, the effect of which is to shield fossil fuel interests, and their apologists, from scrutiny and critique.
Though Tillies’ fight with BBP to get compensation for the damage done to her home did receive local media attention, the media presented that fight as primarily an individual struggle disconnected from the wider harms (mentioned only briefly) caused by pipeline construction in Louisiana – including climate change.
A system of political-law enforcement-private security organizations controlled by white men.
The primarily white male Louisiana House of Representatives this past spring introduced and then passed legislation that criminalizes the activities of groups that protest the extraction, transport, and burning of oil and gas. This legislation they adopted specifically to quash BBP resistance. Three anti-BBP activists have just been chargedunder this law. While protesting in Louisiana’s public waterways, they were “abducted” by ETP’s private security, which then turned the activists over to police.
Lest the gravity of this isn’t clear: the company’s private security abducted citizens who were lawfully exercising their First Amendment rights in a public space. Rather than questioning the abduction, the police charged the activists with violating Louisiana’s new anti-First Amendment rights law.
This abduction should remind us of the fact that ETP used TigerSwan, a private security firm, to oversee protection of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Employing “military-style counterterrorism tactics”against the Water Protectors, TigerSwan infiltrated the Water Protectors’ camps, conducted aerial surveillance, and used social media to execute a “counterinformation campaign” against those protesting the pipeline – all with the blessing of the state.
Established “simultaneously in time and space” throughout the pipeline project, these and other entangled global hierarchies (e.g., sexual, ecological, spiritual, pedagogical) are what everyone in the pipeline’s path – from Louisiana to North Dakota – is up against. They are what all of us are up against in our fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, the fact of which a focus solely or primarily on capitalism does not fully capture because, as Grosfoguel makes clear, capitalism is “only one…constellation of power” entangled “with other power relations.” Indeed, it does not fully capture how critical are these pipelines to these other hierarchies of power, or just how much the reification of these hierarchies are part of what produced climate change.
What we need, then, is “a new language” (again, Grosfoguel) to account for what we see from Tillies’ front yard, a language that does not reduce the struggle before us to a solely anti-capitalist struggle. Of course, with this new language must come new models and methods of resistance. These must be able to recognize, name, and then dismantle, the more complex world system that the pipelines, and ultimately climate change itself, both embody and express.
*Photograph is copyrighted by, and reprinted with permission from, Julie Dermansky.
This article was originally published in Counterpunch.
“By passing a resolution grounded in the just transition framework, the DNC can cynically present itself as speaking for all workers even as it embraces the companies responsible for the conditions that have harmed a broad swath of working people unattached to the fossil fuel industry. At the same time, it can ignore the urgency of transition for a whole range of workers who are in need of a just and accelerated response to climate change.”
Read my newest article now at Common Dreams.
Every “extreme weather event” that occurs without a powerful, on-the-ground climate activist response is a lost opportunity. In particular, it is a failure to seize the event as a moment to drive home the insanity of our representatives’ inadequate response (or lack thereof) to climate change.
In “Hurricane Mobilizations and ‘the Fierce Urgency’ of Climate Change,” I argued that we should “answer – with orchestrated national mobilizations unsurpassed in growth, force and intensity – the call of every record-breaking hurricane that forms in the Gulf and the Atlantic Ocean.”
We should do no less for other extreme weather events, like the recent scorching heat wave that brought record-setting temperatures across the globe, from Siberia to Los Angeles, and that killed 70 people in Quebec alone.
These extreme weather events are telling us, in no uncertain terms, that we are in a state of crisis. We are gradually approaching, and will likely exceed, a 1.5°C increase in global temperatures. In fact, we will likely exceed the 2°C warming limit championed in the Paris Accord. And given the Trump Administration’s commitment to the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels, we will likely pass crucial tipping points that will result in runaway climate change.
Truly, these extreme weather events are calls to radical action.
Why, then, aren’t we overwhelming “our cities, our state capitols, our federal agencies, our Congress, our White House, our corporations, our highways, our railroad tracks, our refineries with increasing waves of marches, canvassing, teach-ins, sit-ins, blockades, strikes, die-ins, occupations” – every single time a record-setting event occurs?
Why just the single march, the grand event, disconnected from the now-regular occasion of a one-hundred year flood, a triple-hurricane, a ravaging wildfire, a 117° day in Los Angeles – all of which, by the way, the press deliriously covers (unlike the grand event)?
Why aren’t we treating the radical nihilism of our climate denying representatives and economic elites with the resistance it deserves?
What tipping point are we waiting for?
(This article originally appeared in Counterpunch).
Though a federal judge has just thrown out the climate change lawsuits filed by Oakland and San Francisco against the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, the fight is not yet over. As John Coté of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office stated after the court’s ruling, “our belief remains that these companies are liable for the harm they’ve caused.” Though the decision was “not the ruling we wanted,” Coté said, “this doesn’t mean the case is over.”
This pause in the legal proceedings presents a great opportunity to examine an important yet widely overlooked climate justice claim that the City of Oakland included in its lawsuit and that deserves more attention. It reads:
“Many of the Oakland residents who are likely to be most affected by climate change are low-income and/or people of color. As the U.S. government has pointed out, people of color, low-income groups, and certain immigrant groups are (e.g., because of poverty, chronic health conditions, and social isolation) potentially more ‘vulnerable’ to climate change impacts, including heat waves, flooding, and degraded air quality. This is true in Oakland, where ‘socially vulnerable’ individuals such as African Americans, Hispanics and other people of color tend to live at lower elevations most affected by sea level rise and higher storm surges. These populations also face challenges due to the legacies of slavery, such as redlining, predatory mortgage and other lending, systemic racism and discrimination in securing insurance and other assets that would protect them from the consequences of global warming and the ensuing climate change. More affluent residents live farther from the Bay and at higher elevations. For example, of the City of Oakland population that lives on land within three vertical feet of the current local high tide line, more than 70% have been categorized as having high ‘social vulnerability.’ This makes it all the more imperative for the People to act now to prevent harm, as those most vulnerable have the fewest resources to protect themselves.”
This claim, a version of which appears in San Francisco’s lawsuit, is crucial for a number of reasons. First, it indicates the City of Oakland recognizes that climate change impacts will reflect and even reinforce fundamental inequalities in Oakland. Second, it shows that the City is at least willing to say, as it has done in other contexts, that it is committed to addressing the needs of its most vulnerable residents in the face of catastrophic sea level rise. Finally, it suggests that the City considers fossil fuel companies’ distortions, cover-ups, and outright lies about the risks of fossil fuel use, acts that will further harm “socially vulnerable” communities, at least inasmuch as the deceptions will exacerbate existing inequalities. With this claim, then, the City of Oakland has litigated climate change as inextricable from social justice concerns.
As laudable as it is, however, the claim is nevertheless deeply unsettling. While the City of Oakland rightly underscores the social and climate vulnerability of its low income “and/or” residents of color, as well as the “legacies of slavery,” it subtly sets itself apart from the vulnerabilities and legacies of which it speaks. This then frees the City to claim – in spite of developments in Oakland that suggest otherwise, and in which the City is implicated – that the benefits of sea walls and other “protective infrastructure” will actually accrue to low income and/or communities of color. At the same time, it also enables the City to use its shared status as climate victim to frame implicitly the construction of protective infrastructure as climate justice.
To be sure, given the trajectory of climate change, Oakland will suffer “serious climate change injuries that will require billions in expenditures to abate the global warming nuisance,” as the City rightly claims in its lawsuit. It is especially on track for “catastrophic” flooding, storm surges, and coastal erosion, for “global warming has caused and continues to cause accelerated sea level rise in San Francisco Bay and the adjacent ocean.” Thus, by the year 2050, Oakland can expect to experience a 100-year flood “on average once every 2.3 years.” By the year 2100, “Oakland is projected to experience up to 66 inches of sea level rise.” If these predictions prove correct, Oakland will surely need those sea walls, and to the degree that the fossil fuel companies are responsible for climate change and the ensuing nuisance of rising seas (they are), they should certainly have to cough up the “abatement fund remedy” Oakland (and other cities) hopes to collect.
Yet, we need to ask ourselves whether and to what degree Oakland’s “socially vulnerable communities” will actually benefit from sea walls and other protective infrastructure. After all, right now, these communities are experiencing relentless gentrification and displacement, processes due in part to many of the urban development policies and practices forged by city officials, the business community, and wealthy residents, as well as by the state of California. In other words, the City is increasingly becoming a playground for the affluent who can afford to purchase (and who are driving up the price of) homes in Oakland or to pay the City’s astronomical rents (between 2012 and 2017, Oakland rents have increased by as much as 51.1 percent and are, consequently, among the highest in the nation).
In its Urban Displacement Project study, the University of California (Berkeley) reported that in the year 2015, “more than half” of the Bay area’s low-income households lived in “neighborhoods at risk of,” or were “already experiencing displacement and gentrification pressures.” Moreover, between 2013 and 2015, the rate of gentrification and displacement “accelerated most quickly in Oakland’s neighborhoods.” While gentrification and displacement in Oakland have been in process for decades, they have accelerated since the turn of the century and especially during the recent Great Recession. Since 2000, for example, the City “lost 30 percent of its black population,” and between the years 2010 and 2014, “28 percent of those leaving Oakland made less” than $30,000 a year. These processes have not let up. Many of the people displaced moved further inland to less affluent areas, where in the future they will face not rising seas, but instead punishing waves of heat.
It is entirely conceivable, then, that by the time the seas rise to a catastrophic level, a significant number of Oakland’s socially vulnerable residents will be long gone. (While “Oakland has already begun to feel injury from sea level rise,” the City claims, “its most severe injuries by far are the injuries that will occur in the future if prompt action is not taken to protect Oakland and its residents”). Consequently, the more affluent (primarily white) who will have taken their place will likely be the main beneficiaries of the City’s sea walls and other protective infrastructure. This is not to argue, of course, that the City should not protect the affluent; instead, it is simply to point out that the realities of gentrification and displacement trouble the City’s climate justice claim.
The relentless transformation of Oakland into a playground for the affluent reminds us that the City has always played a role in creating the social, economic and political conditions that have rendered its low income and/or communities of color vulnerable, and because the City has played a role, it has had a hand in creating these communities’ climate vulnerabilities.
For example, the “low-lying” West Oakland community is “historically black” not only because African Americans migrated there in search of jobs during the World War II era; but also because, in the past, white city officials, businesses, and residents adopted and implemented racist policies and practices designed to exclude African Americans from the rest of the city. What this means, of course, is that black people do not “tend to live” in this flood zone area (by using the phrase “tend to live” in its lawsuit, the City suggests that segregation, of all things, is a matter of happenstance). Instead, for decades white city officials and residents actively prevented black people from living in other parts of the city – especially the flood-safe, higher-elevation Oakland hills. The fact that “more affluent residents” live in the hills is itself a consequence of, and testament to, decades of racist and anti-poor urban planning. The City’s obfuscation of this history should give us pause and compel us to look more critically at the climate justice it purports to pursue.
Ironically, the City’s past unjust policies and practices, coupled with those of the federal government, arguably made low income and/or communities of color less culpable regarding greenhouse gas emissions. After all, for decades they limited vulnerable communities’ mobility and labor opportunities. For example, federal, state, and local real estate and lending practices, such as redlining, high interest lending, and the outright refusal by banks to offer loans, operated to exclude people of color in great measure from the Bay area suburbs while they simultaneously facilitated white relocation. Consequently, for many years socially vulnerable communities were not a significant a part of the commuting public that burned large quantities of fossil fuels to get to work, to air condition their homes, to recreate, and to shop.
As whites took advantage of Federal Housing Administration and other loans to move to the suburbs, the City sought to recoup the consequent loss of revenue by, among other things, encouraging and facilitating the further expansion of industrial development in West Oakland. This development not only increased the burning and transportation of fossil fuels in the Bay area; it also increased the exposure of the primarily black and poor residents who resided in West Oakland to environmental harms.
Even now, the City continues to adopt and advance development plans in West Oakland that will burden residents even more with fossil fuel exposure, as the environmental law firm Earthjustice claims in a recent lawsuit it filed against the City and the Port of Oakland. According to Earthjustice, both entities have been “forcing through freight expansion projects that disproportionately subject the communities of color that surround both the Port” and Oakland Army Base properties “to air pollution and other serious health threats on the basis of their race.” Not only have the City and the Port failed “to ensure adequate health and safety protections,” Earthjustice claims; they have also expanded “maritime, shipping, and transport activities” in ways that expose residents “to severe air pollution emissions without adequate mitigation.” (Of all communities in Oakland, Earthjustice notes, “West Oakland has one of the lowest life expectancies” – a fact partially attributable to its toxic environment).
None of these facts should keep us from appreciating the City’s inclusion of a climate justice claim in its lawsuit, and we should assume that it likely did so both in good faith and with the intention to address honorably our evolving climate crisis. Indeed, many of Oakland’s city officials are deeply concerned about climate change as well as equity and social justice, as the City’s Energy and Climate Action Plan shows. Adopted by the City Council in 2012, this ten year plan maps out actions the City will take to “achieve a 36% reduction” in greenhouse gas emissions. In recognition of the fact that the risks of severe climate impacts “are magnified for economically disadvantaged communities,” the plan also details actions the City will take to “increase community resilience” and “minimize vulnerabilities.”
Additionally, in 2015 the City Council unanimously approved its “Housing Action Plan and Policy Framework,” which addresses the affordable housing crisis and displacement of long-time residents. The Framework “establishes more than a dozen strategies to prevent tenant displacement.” It commits Oakland to “weigh in with the U.S. Congress and the Administration to supplement dwindling federal investments in affordable housing.” Finally, it charges Oakland to address “bad faith evictions” as well as evictions “of long-term residents”; to develop “a standard city tenant relocation policy”; and, to “fund city program operations.”
Yet, it matters that the City obfuscates in its lawsuit (and even, I would add, in its climate and housing plans) the role it has played in creating its residents’ vulnerabilities. It matters because it tells us that the climate justice to which Oakland is committed might itself be an obfuscation. That is, it indicates that the City’s notions of climate justice might not be justice at all since the City does not reckon with its own historic role in producing the “legacies of slavery” and, consequently, climate vulnerabilities. “Framing structural inequalities only in terms of susceptibility to harms,” writes feminist scholar Chris Cuomo, “focuses attention on the supposed weaknesses or limitations of those who are in harm’s way, but says little about whether injustices or other harms have put them in such precarious positions.”
Hence, the future that the City ultimately imagines in its lawsuit, and even in its climate plans, is one marked by the persistence of social vulnerability. That is, the City looks at the year 2100 and sees its sea walls protecting communities still suffering fundamental social and economic inequalities, rather than protecting communities no longer burdened by the legacies of slavery. While one could argue that this merely reflects Oakland’s realistic recognition of just how entrenched are social and economic injustices, one could also say that it constitutes a surrender of sorts, a surrender that casts our ability to survive catastrophic climate change as more realistic than our ability to create a just Oakland. At any rate, the effect of Oakland’s limited imagination is that it effectively reduces climate justice to building walls, rather than (for example) to building walls as a means to upend what created climate vulnerabilities and the climate crisis in the first instance.
Which brings us to one other thing that makes the City’s climate justice claim so unsettling.
Oakland sits squarely within the United States, a country that owes to other nations – island nations, nations of the Global South, and Native nations of the northern hemisphere, to name a few – a long overdue, unpaid climate debt. These nations did not cause the climate crisis. We did. Consequently, Oakland, too, is a debtor.
Nevertheless, Oakland – and San Francisco, and other U.S. cities, and other western nation cities – appropriates the climate debt framework by which these other nations have been holding the U.S. and other western states accountable. By so doing, it cloaks itself in a shroud of innocence – innocence regarding the political and economic plunder, powered by fossil fuels, from which Oakland has surely benefitted. Hence, the City has proceeded in court, and in the public sphere, as if it is not complicit in the production of climate changes that are beginning now to devastate other nations. Just as problematically, the City has proceeded as if it has nothing to do with how western nations have protected and empowered fossil fuel companies to secure western plunder and hegemony.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
None of this means that Oakland – or other U.S. cities, for that matter – should drop its suit against fossil fuel companies. Nor does it mean that Oakland should drop its social justice claim. The seas are coming, and these fossil fuel companies – which have deceived us all, regardless of the costs – must pay. Moreover, so long as they remain in Oakland and segregated within the City’s low elevation areas, Oakland’s vulnerable communities will need the protection that the sea walls will afford.
However, Oakland must contend with its lack of innocence. All of the California cities as well as others that are suing fossil fuel companies must contend with their lack of innocence. They must rethink the climate reparations they seek as a means to both protect and make whole the communities they have harmed and endangered, both here and abroad. When they build up their walls and other infrastructure to guard against rising waters, they can – and must – tear down the walls that are their own legacies of slavery.
That is the climate justice their vulnerable communities need.
Barbecuing while black. Attending a college tour while Mohawk. White people so frequently call the police on people of color who are merely exercising or enjoying their rights that perhaps we need to think of these calls as hate crimes. Clearly, the women and men who are so quick to dial 911 are not only motivated by bigotry; they are also, I would argue, driven by a hateful desire to use police as their proxy both to oppress and to injure – physically, legally, and spiritually – the men, women and children whom they report.
With this in mind, then, I offer below suggested changes (in bold) to California’s “Hate Crime” laws (thank you, Becky). May it inspire the passage of state legislation throughout the country to end this abuse once and for all.
PENAL CODE – PEN
PART 1. OF CRIMES AND PUNISHMENTS
TITLE: BARBECUE BECKY ACT OF 2018
CHAPTER 1. Definitions
422.55. For purposes of this title, the following shall apply:
(a) “Hate crime” means a criminal act committed, in whole or in part, because of one or more of the following actual or perceived characteristics of the victim:
(4) Race or ethnicity.
(6) Sexual orientation.
(7) Association with a person or group with one or more of these actual or perceived characteristics.
(b) “Hate crime” includes, but is not limited to, a violation of Section 422.6.
CHAPTER 2. Crimes and Penalties
(a) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall by force or threat of force, willfully injure, intimidate, interfere with, oppress, or threaten any other person in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him or her by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(b) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall knowingly deface, damage, or destroy the real or personal property of any other person for the purpose of intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(c) No person, whether or not acting under color of law, shall report to the police any other person for the purpose of oppressing, intimidating or interfering with the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to the other person by the Constitution or laws of this state or by the Constitution or laws of the United States, in whole or in part because of one or more of the actual or perceived characteristics of the victim listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.*
(d) Any person convicted of violating subdivision (a), (b) or (c) shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail not to exceed one year, or by a fine not to exceed five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both the above imprisonment and fine, and the court shall order the defendant to perform a minimum of community service, not to exceed 400 hours, to be performed over a period not to exceed 350 days, during a time other than his or her hours of employment or school attendance. However, no person may be convicted of violating subdivision (a) based upon speech alone, except upon a showing that the speech itself threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat. No person may be convicted of violating subdivision (c) based alone upon a threat to call the police, except upon a showing that the defendant who issued the threat also 1) threatened violence against a specific person or group of persons and that the defendant had the apparent ability to carry out the threat; 2) knowingly defaced, damaged, or destroyed the real or personal property of a specific person or group of persons; and/or 3) previously called the police, is known to have called the police, or has a record of calling police for the reasons described in subdivision (c).
(e) Any person who commits a felony that is a hate crime, or attempts to commit a felony that is a hate crime, and who voluntarily acted in concert with another person, either personally or by aiding and abetting another person, shall receive an additional two, three, or four years in the state prison, at the court’s discretion.
(a) It is the public policy of this state that the principal goals of sentencing for hate crimes, are the following:
(1) Punishment for the hate crimes committed.
(2) Crime and violence prevention, including prevention of recidivism and prevention of crimes and violence in prisons and jails.
(3) Prevention of the routine use of police to oppress, intimidate, injure and terrorize the classes of persons listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55.
(4) Restorative justice for the immediate victims of the hate crimes and for the classes of persons terrorized by the hate crimes.
(b) The Judicial Council shall develop a rule of court guiding hate crime sentencing to implement the policy in subdivision (a). In developing the rule of court, the council shall consult experts including organizations representing hate crime victims.
*Examples of the violation of this law include, but are not limited to, calling police on a specific person or group of persons (listed in subdivision (a) of Section 422.55) who are merely peaceably engaged in such mundane activities as 1) barbecuing at public parks, 2) attending a college tour, 3) waiting peaceably for friends at a café, 4) napping in a dorm common room, 5) golfing, 6) shopping, and 8) inspecting repairs to a home.
“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963,” explained the Venerable monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his June 1, 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., “is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand.”
To King’s “Western Christian conscience,” the practice of self-immolation was indeed incomprehensible. Therefore, King “turned to” Thich Nhat Hanh (whom he considered a friend) for help in understanding this practice, which to King appeared to be suicide driven by despair about our nation’s war on Vietnam. “The Press spoke then of suicide,” Hanh continued in his letter, “but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” Steeped in their Buddhist practices, the nuns and monks who burned themselves thus performed an “act of construction” rather than “an act of destruction,” Hanh wrote, because to die in this way is “to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
This letter came to my mind when I heard that David S. Buckel had doused himself in gasoline and then set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last Saturday. Like the Buddhist monks and nuns about whom Hanh wrote, Buckel, too, wrote letters in which he explained why he self-immolated, letters he sent to the press and to the police. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Though he fought so ardently in the courts for what seemed, just two decades ago, impossible to achieve–the right of LGBTQ people, like me, to marry–David Buckel looked upon our climate politics and determined that, unlike the case of LGBTQ rights, litigating climate change would not be enough. It would not be enough, that is, to save us from climate catastrophe. Given his choice of protest, Buckel clearly believed as well that nothing we are doing now will save us from catastrophe.
So like the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Vietnam War era (Buckel actually likened his protest to that of Tibetans who self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation of their country), Buckel set himself on fire. He set himself on fire to alarm us, to awaken us, to move our hearts, and to call our attention to the suffering we are causing because we continue to burn fossil fuels. He set himself on fire so that we would see ourselves, and our planet, on fire.
Yet, Buckel also set himself on fire because he held us in hope–hope that, as witnesses to his death, we would take action that actually reflects the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. “This is not new,” Buckel said of his protest, “as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
After he explained to King the meaning of the nuns and monks’ self-immolation, Thich Nhat Hanh turned his full attention on King himself. “I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent…You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action.”
Speaking to his friend, Hanh made clear to King that ultimately what he needed to grapple with was not the fact that the monks and nuns burned themselves. Instead, King needed to come to terms with the fact that he and other well-meaning people looked upon the suffering our government inflicted upon the Vietnamese people and nevertheless remained silent. Though King had been “engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” he was relatively quiet concerning the war on Vietnam, and so Hanh’s words were a gentle rebuke. Two years would pass before King would finally stand up and, in his own words, “break the betrayal” of his “own silences and…speak from the burnings” of his “own heart” regarding our nation’s war on Vietnam.
And speak he did.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King declared in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
David Buckel decided on the protest that best suited his convictions. While we might declare, in spite of Buckel’s explanation, that his act is incomprehensible; and while we might get caught up in debates about whether or not his self-immolation was wrong-headed or dangerous or crazy or ineffective or brilliant, all of that is of no matter. In the end, we have to look at ourselves. We have to attend to our own silences or, rather, our relative quiescence in the face of what we are doing to one another, to other beings, and to our planet–silences that equal death, as Buckel’s burning body proclaimed. Moreover, if we are to survive our own folly–if we are to avoid setting ourselves on fire–then we will need to break, finally and decisively, the betrayal of our own silences. We will need to protest with as much conviction as our climate crisis demands.
This post originally appeared in Counterpunch.