A Planet Without Social Justice Is Not Worth Having

A planet without social justice is not worth having. I made this statement to someone, almost reflexively, in response to something they said to me. What they said and why requires a little background. I became involved in the newly formed Portland chapter of Extinction Rebellion in the Spring of 2019. As someone who has been active in climate and environmental issues to one degree or another for many years, watching Extinction Rebellion actions in the UK was very inspiring. It has been apparent to me for quite sometime that by themselves lobbying and electioneering through conventional channels were never going to by themselves bring about the abrupt changes in our politics, economy and personal lifestyles that are going to be necessary if we are going to avert a global ecological death spiral. History shows us examples of how mostly non-violent tactics that start small at first can snowball into fundamental societal change. Given that capital controls our government, media, and personal lives to the extent that it does in order to serve its agenda to the detriment of all life on the planet, and without regard to the needs or the will of most of humanity, pressing our grievances through non-violent civil disobedience has seemed to me to be the only logical course. 

Hence, I was very excited to know that someone was trying to establish an XR presence in Portland that spring, and was delighted to be invited to a planning meeting. In those first meetings I attended, there were not much more than a dozen of us present.  Some of us were already friends who had worked closely with each other in other fossil fuel resistance efforts over the last several years. I felt privileged to be working with such a committed and talented group of activists. 

The group had already organized and executed an action at the Zenith Energy oil storage facility in Portland about the time I joined. The action gained some media attention. Several of my cohorts were arrested on charges that were eventually dismissed in a trial that sought to use the necessity defense

During this early period we began to have discussions around capacity and about whether we should focus our energy on building infrastructure—getting all of the systems established that are required to organize a lot of people for the purpose of disrupting business as usual—or plan in the short-term for a larger action using what we already had in place, which at that time was not much. We opted for the latter. This is a climate emergency after all. Let’s get moving. So, we threw open the doors. We put out a call. Every meeting we had from that point on for several months was packed with dozens of people.

The enthusiastic turnout that we experienced at that time reflects the impact that Extinction Rebellion actions in the UK had on people here in the US who have been alarmed about our climate predicament getting ever worse as the culture at-large carries on as though nothing is happening. Not only did XR shutdown London but they did it artistically with color, pageantry and beauty. It inspired many activists here in Portland (including me) and around the world to emulate it to the best of their ability. 

As an activist and sometimes organizer, those couple of months in which we had so much energy and involvement seemed like a dream come true. It was such a joy to be working with a large group of people committed to working side-by-side to create change, at least while it lasted. We made tons of art. We acted in street theatre. We wrote songs intended to incite the masses. We were dreaming big there for a few weeks. 

What happened though as summer 2019 progressed was that our failure to establish the infrastructure, processes, and mutually accepted group norms necessary to coordinate work in a large group came back to haunt us. I suppose I should have felt some reservations about bringing on so many people at once based on my experience with past efforts in which I had been involved. My experience has been that when radical people here in Portland, OR are incited by something they will show up with excitement and enthusiasm, but then, because there is such a diversity of opinion about things within the larger community, discord sets in quite rapidly. From these types of situations, I have learned that a surefire recipe for disaster is: 1) throw any random bunch of humans from the Left—the more the merrier—into a large group; 2) mix well; 3) close the door; 4) run like hell. You don’t want to be around for the explosion. If your aim is to actually accomplish something more significant and beneficial than a fireworks display, then establish some ground rules and chat at length with new people coming in to make sure they share the same general goals and values as the organization. We did not do that, at least not to the extent that we should have. 

By fall of 2019, the intra-group strife bubbled up like a plugged toilet. People were still enthusiastic more or less, but there was a bad smell coming from somewhere. I could not believe the way some people were talking to each other in meetings and in on-line discussions. Our weekly general assemblies were like rutting season. It got bitter. Key activists, some of them founding members of the group, stopped showing up. 

Without firmly establishing agreed upon group norms and values and ensuring that each new person joining our group understood and accepted them, and putting in place the systems required to coordinate work between dozens of people, Extinction Rebellion PDX was bound to fracture. I believe that this was the root cause for all the various kinds of disagreements and conflicts we experienced in our group. 

However, when societies both tiny and large are in crisis, there are always those who will see it as an opportunity to advance their own agenda by calling out scapegoats of one kind or another as the cause of every last problem. The scapegoat identified as the culprit for group strife in XR chapters across the US was something XR US members know as the 4th Demand

Extinction Rebellion in the UK is organized around three demands. They compel government to: 

Not being involved in the establishment of XR in the US, I am not privy to all of the details but from already having identified as a climate justice activist before joining XR, it made perfect sense to me that in the US that these demands be amended with one more that embodies the idea of just transition. Just transition was conceived in the labor movement in the 1990s and was based on the idea that workers losing their jobs because of the implementation of an environmental policy were due compensation in the form of retraining or whatever is necessary to ensure their economic security. The concept has since expanded to recognize that: 1) the historic injustices of colonialism and white supremacy, and the climate crisis are intimately linked; 2) a just transition to a clean and renewable economy is one that recognizes that those least responsible for the climate crisis are those bearing the disproportionate brunt of it and that a green transition must repair the damage that has been done, and then moving forward, avoid the same moral failures that lead to the situation in the first place. Just transition has been fundamental to the climate movement in the US for over a decade. The expression of it in the XR US 4th demand is as follows:

We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.

As someone who has been active in the climate justice movement, the 4th demand did not seem controversial. But at our meetings in the late autumn of 2019, I started overhearing conversations in which the 4th demand was discussed as being a problem somehow. It took months for me to fully understand what was happening and I still don’t have all the details. But, the gist of these conversations was that the 4th demand was the cause of all of the conflict within XR chapters. 

From what I have perceived, opposition to the 4th demand may have been motivated partially by a kind of “XR fundamentalism” which can be summed up in the statement, “We must do things the way they do them in the UK or we will fail in the US.” It is also my understanding that some founders of XR in the US were opposed to the inclusion of the 4th demand from the start but were overruled. Hence, when poorly organized chapters started crashing on the rocks, these same organizers scapegoated the 4th demand and exploited the situation to justify actions which, if not egregious from an ethical standpoint, were simply poor organizing. Once so many climate activists became involved and understood the four demands, they became part of the contract under which we did our work. To repeal any of one of them unilaterally would be a breach of that contract.  But, that is exactly what the “XR 3D” proponents did.  

If changing any of the demands made sense to some XR organizers then it was up to them to make the case to the rest of us. Knowing that they would face resistance in repealing a plank in the XR US platform deemed so essential by the climate justice community at large, they endeavored to do it behind our backs by working to establish a separate XR entity in the US that did not promote the 4th demand as defined by XR US. 

Naturally, this undermined our work and effectiveness. The initial discovery that XR was being “rebooted” without the pesky 4th demand was upsetting to all of us who believed it to be essential. Once the word got out among the wider climate justice community that an XR group that excluded the 4th demand was to be started, our local chapter, XR PDX, was censured by some of our allies. The number of people involved in our group diminished rapidly. This situation was exacerbated by the larger community becoming aware of alleged racist remarks and behavior on the part of some of those opposing the 4th demand.

The end result: currently we have two XR entities organizing here in Portland and around the US—one which organizes around the concept of just transition, XR US, and one, XR America, that does not.

For me personally, the organization of XRA and its chapter in Portland was a betrayal. The founders of XRA are people for whom I have had some respect. They have done good work that should be acknowledged but as far as I am concerned their organizing skills leave much to be desired. Basically, what they did was to help establish an organization that drew in hundreds of activists around the US and then subsequently went off behind their backs to form another that scrapped a fundamental and essential principle on which the original group was founded. If successful movements are nothing more than lots of relationships, the formation of XRA probably broke many more of them than it created. 

While XRA was being established unbeknownst to most of us in XR PDX, I started to hear about quasi-secret meetings that were being held about some kind of XR reboot. This is about the same time I started overhearing discussions about how the 4th demand was the source of all of our problems. Then I started hearing rumors about how the 4th demand was going to be somehow done away with. Personally, I was very upset and depressed about this for weeks. 

Finally, I was invited to a meeting about what was happening by those involved in the “reboot” or whatever they were calling it. XR3D was one proposed name. Personally, I liked XRHE–Extinction Rebellion, The Honky Edition. They tried to explain to me and a few other skeptics that the reason they were forming a new group around only the first three demands was because the 4th demand would prevent XR from reaching the magical “3.5 percent”. That supposedly is the percentage of the population that must be involved in a non-violent movement for that movement to create change. As Nafeez Ahmed had recently made the case that very fall, this theory of change as it was being applied by XR was for quite a few reasons flawed. At the time, XRA organizers were perhaps not aware of that, and maybe still are not. Regardless, their assertion was that in order to reach 3.5 percent, it would be necessary to engage white people in suburban and rural areas and that these potential white activists would be put off by the 4th demand. I would agree that they probably would be. However, there is no evidence that simply dropping the 4th demand would be enough to cause suburban and rural rednecks to join XR protests in droves. This group has been totally indifferent and in denial about the climate crisis from the start. Does XRA think that day-glo flags are somehow going to succeed when all other efforts have failed for decades? When I asked people at this meeting if they had data—let’s say some market research in the form of a well-crafted survey—on which to base their assumptions, I got some anecdotal bullshit and the topic of discussion moved on to something else. 

The pattern here is recognizable: in any movement primarily organized by and attended to by mostly white people, the rights of non-white people are always somehow made a lower priority. In discussing the 4th demand with one XRA organizer, I was told that it was based on a “tired old social justice narrative.” We’re sorry Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Your grievances are tired and old. We will try to get to them when we have time (i.e. never).

Over the last few years, I have heard climate activists using a guilt-based strategy to compel others to show up at an event or action. It goes like this: 

Melissa: I’m sorry but I can’t go help block intersections which will keep working parents from picking their kids up from day care on-time, hence inspiring them to join us. My daughter is in a school play. 

Roger (in a deep scornful voice): There are no school plays on a dead planet! 

And so, an XRA member once said to me after I declined participation in one of their actions: there is no social justice on a dead planet. My reflexive reply was: a planet without social justice is not worth having. 

And it isn’t. Not only is it not worth having, it is not possible. A planet without social justice will soon die. That is the planet that we have and it is certainly dying. Does XRA think that we can somehow save the global environment for white people while leaving one in five people (probably not white people) in the world to die in poverty, while wealth and income inequality get worse, while militarized police forces murder Black people, while weapons manufactured in the US are used to kill Brown people, many of them children, in Yemen and Gaza? I think the word you would use to describe such a world would be eco-fascist.  

As Nafeez Ahmed has so thoroughly argued, the theory of change on which XR was established is mistaken. Those of us still involved in XR PDX locally understand that and are trying to align the organization with the larger struggle for equality and human dignity. At this point, I see the success of the climate justice movement being dependent on the extent to which it understands the global ecological crisis as being another symptom of an inherently white supremacist system—capitalism—which values wealth over life. We have absolutely no chance of defeating that system, and saving life as we know it in the process, unless we join our natural allies, those who have been, and still are, the most victimized by it, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people in the US and around the world. 

This quote from a James Baldwin essay titled The American Dream and the American Negro seems relevant:

It is a terrible thing for an entire people to surrender to the notion that one-ninth of its population is beneath them. Until the moment comes when we, the Americans, are able to accept the fact that my ancestors are both black and white, that on that continent we are trying to forge a new identity, that we need each other, that I am not a ward of America, I am not an object of missionary charity, I am one of the people who built the country–until this moment comes there is scarcely any hope for the American dream. If the people are denied participation in it, by their very presence they will wreck it.

Though the quote was in reference to the American dream, a concept that itself requires some radical rethinking, the same applies to any dream of an ecological balanced world. It must include everyone. Otherwise, those left out will justifiably wreck it.

No justice. No peace. No planet.

About Wendy Emerson

I ride my bike. I roller skate. Don't drive no car.


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