NYC Ecosocialist Conference: Two Reports on a Resounding Success

by John Riddell and Louis Proyect on April 24, 2013

Louis Proyect writes:

Last Saturday’s conference was a success beyond the organizer’s expectations and mine. They would have been happy with a hundred attendees but 240 showed up. Before offering my own thoughts, let me start off with what Bard College composition professor and long time Green activist John Halle had to say on Facebook:

Some off-the-cuff reactions to the Ecosocialist Conference at Barnard on Saturday:

1) Much larger, focussed, informed and energetic than I, and I would imagine others, were expecting. (Plenaries filled a large lecture hall.)

2) Clustering of ages-most were between 20-30 or 65 and 80. (My age cohort seemed conspicuously underrepresented).

3) Impressively ecumenical: ISO, it appears, were the initiators, but in no way dominated the panels or the proceedings . e.g. substantial representation of the Green Party, labor (e.g. Bruce Hamilton head of Amalgamated Transit Workers) and academics (Cornell’s Sean Sweeney, Nancy Romer)

4) Joel Kovel’s talk brought in an absolutely necessary, albeit uncomfortable recognition that the ultimate stakes of climate change are meta-economic, meta-social, and meta-political, which is to say they are transcendental or, to use his vocabulary, spiritual.

5) Capitalists were described on several occasions as “blood suckers”, a term I quite like, most notably by TWU leader Marty Goodman.

In short, great conference-provided a small emission of light after a fairly dark week.

I concur with John’s observations but would add this one.

As I sat through the various workshops and plenary Q&A’s, I fully expected someone to announce themselves as a member of the Bolshevik League and launch into a speech about the need to abolish the capitalist system on the basis of the Transitional Program or some such thing. Instead, the comments were universally cogent and to the point. And, more importantly, reflected the difficulties that many were having in figuring out how to deal with the environmental crisis that brought us together. For example, in the Q&A on “Both Red & Green”, I spoke to a point about the dangers of neo-Malthusianism that had been raised in the discussion. I said that I could understand the racist uses of the overpopulation argument, but can we really expect a world’s population to have all the Bluefin tuna it wants to eat. Isn’t the idea of ecological limits true no matter what social system we live in?

After reflecting on the seriousness of the discussion for a day or so, it dawned on me that the environmental movement, unlike those that the disorganized left traditionally “intervenes” in does not lend itself to pat answers. What is there in Lenin or Trotsky that can serve as an off-the-shelf solution to climate change?

Indeed, we are dealing with the problem of being in uncharted territory. This makes it difficult for activists to recite dogmatic mantras of the kind that are usually heard around issues of war and peace or labor struggles, etc. And this is not to speak of the inadequacy of the Great Men of Marxism when their productivist formulas are applied to a world in which productivism—either capitalist or “socialist”—have cast a shadow over our futures. Take, for example, what Trotsky wrote in 1934:

“It is the task of your communist statesmen to make the system deliver the concrete goods that the average man desires: his food, cigars, amusements, his freedom to choose his own neckties, his own house and his own automobile. It will be easy to give him these comforts in Soviet America.”

A few highlights:

Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate in 2012, spoke at the morning plenary. She is really dynamite, using Powerpoint slides to illustrate how fucked the system was. I am not sure how well organized her campaign was but she is capable of turning around the minds of millions of people given the chance. No wonder she was prevented from taking part in debates. She really knows how to speak to working people using concrete examples like people and loaves of bread. With the current income disparities in the USA, there is one person at the top with fifty loaves of bread and at the bottom fifty people to share one loaf. That’s the kind of talk that Ralph Nader used to give and that Green candidates need to develop.

In the morning workshop I attended, I got a chance to hear John Ridell who wears two hats. In addition to being a scholar of the early Comintern, he is also an ecosocialist. He spoke about the resistance to the Canadian Tar Sands project that the ruling class hopes would turn the country into the next Saudi Arabia. Christ, just what Canadians need…

John started out as a Latin America solidarity activist but moved into environmental activism after Hugo Morales told a group that the best way to show solidarity was to fight global warming. John is a terrific speaker, by the way. What a waste of cadre—all the talented people who went through the revolving door of the Trotskyist movement.

In the afternoon, I attended a workshop on Hurricane Sandy that was basically a discussion of its impact on the Rockaways, a topic close to my heart since I have been going out there to play chess with an old friend from Bard College for 25 years or so. I made a video about the hurricane that some Rockaway folks think is the best they have seen:

One of the panelists was Josmar Trujillo, who works with a group called Wildfire that is geared to the needs of the predominantly Black and Latino housing project residents on the east side of the peninsula. When you look at Josmar, your immediate reaction is that he must be a Con Ed or UPS worker. Working class to the bone. That being said, he was really political and sharp. When I used to be in the Trotskyist movement in the 60s and 70s, we used to talk a lot about how the working class would radicalize. I suspect that it will be the environmental crisis as much as the economic crisis that gets working people moving.

The last workshop was on the history of the green left that included Richard Greeman as a speaker. Greeman has been around forever and writes many interesting things, especially about Victor Serge. I was a little bit skeptical about his tendency to view the state as an unqualified evil—almost in Hardt-Negri terms. Commenting on the failure of the city government to get involved with hurricane relief and the people’s need to rely on Occupy Sandy, he said that this was a good thing. This made me uncomfortable since it reminded me of the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” that said just about the same thing. Ugh.

The evening plenary featured Joel Kovel, whose remarks John Halle summed up admirably. The other speaker was Chris Williams, who I knew by reputation as someone who Pham Binh admires greatly. That’s good enough for me.

John Riddell writes:

The Ecosocialist Conference, a broad and enthusiastic all-day meeting in New York April 20, took a big step toward creating an anti-capitalist wing of the environmental movement.

The conference was arranged in just six weeks by organizers of the Ecosocialist Contingent in the mass demonstration against the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in Washington February 17. It was supported by 29 groups who subscribed to the Ecosocialist Contingent statement for “system change, not climate change.”

The 240 attendees ― more than double the number organizers originally expected ― included members of several socialist currents and many unaffiliated socialists, but the real strength of the conference lay in participation by a great number of young climate-change and ecological activists. Most participants were from the New York region, but a few came from as far away as Maine, Oregon, Texas, and Vancouver, B.C.

Break with Democratic Party

The range of opinion was wide. Many participants, including spokespersons for the Green Party, did not term themselves anti-capitalists, but agreed on the need for ‘system change’ and a break from the corporate-dominated Democratic Party.

Among them was the first featured speaker, Jill Stein, the Greens’ presidential candidate in 2012. “This is an incredible outpouring of support of those not going forward with Obama but forward with the 99% for system change and fundamental justice,” she said. “Capitalism is trying to kill the planet, but the people are rising up.”

Her remarks reflected the view of many participants that organizers of the February 17 mass demonstration had weakened the protest’s impact by presenting it as an expression of support for Obama, echoing his  “forward” and “clean energy” slogans, for example. As several speakers noted, the Democratic administration now seems very likely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.

The February 17 action thus showed both the power of environmental protest and the futility of relying on the Democrats. As Jill Stein said, “the demonstration told Obama, ‘we’ve got your back,’ and then he stabbed us in the back.”

The road to system changeEcosocialist-Conference-NYC-2013

The conference brought together a wide range of viewpoints in a fruitful exchange.

For example, the panel on “Carbon taxes and market approaches” heard Teamster and Green Party activist Howie Hawkins’ reasoned defense of carbon taxes as an immediate measure to alleviate climate change that enjoys “solid support.”

The second presenter in this session, Dan Piper of Socialist Action, counterposed the need for working people to “seize command of the productive apparatus.” There is no way to end environmental destruction through reforms, he argued. For example, cities based on cars or on public transit are mutually exclusive alternatives.

But how can we link immediate concerns like Keystone XL to the need for system change? Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism, addressed this point in the closing session by calling for the building of a movement through which “we change our relationship to each other and the planet. We need to shift the pendulum of power – and, ultimately, get rid of it.”

The climate change movement showed its potential by delaying Keystone XL, Williams said, “and when it is approved, we should demonstrate again.”

Electoral action

Widely different approaches were also evident in discussions of participation in elections. “We are in uncharted waters,” said Joel Kovel of EcoSocialist Horizons. “There are no market solutions, and no electoral solutions either…. Ecosocialism is a spiritual question; our organizing aims to direct spiritual forces to the Earth and nature,” he said.

Gloria Mattera of the Green Party agreed that “the market system has failed,” but stressed the need for “electoral expression in order to engage the broader population,” calling for “a broad electoral alliance to challenge the power of the corporations.”

Environmental justice

Speaking in the opening plenary, Richard Smith stressed the need for wholesale economic transformation to save the planet. “Drastic retrenchment is required. Three-quarters of goods produced are not needed at all.” The argument for this view is strong, but as stated it doesn’t seem to recognize the need to overcome global inequality, in particular the increasingly desperate needs of billions of people who lack even the most basic requirements of life.

Other presentations focused more explicitly on the impact of environmental crimes on victims of oppression. David Galarza, a Puerto Rican ecological activist, portrayed encouraging gains by environmental struggles in his country; Firewolf Bizahaloni-Wong of the Native Resistance Project discussed Idle No More and the fight for indigenous rights.

Ecosocialist bannerA well-attended panel addressed the broader issue of “Race, Gender, and Environmental Justice.” The first victims of climate change are the peoples of poor countries, and “we have a lot to learn from environmental movements in the Global South,” said Heather Kangas, a Baltimore-based members of the International Socialist Organization. Moreover, “the environment is not just the natural world but also where we work, live and play – it is urban and suburban as well as rural,” she said, advocating that the ecosocialist movement link up with Environmental Justice groups found among peoples of colour.

Amity Page, a journalist with the Amsterdam News, described the systematic racism of the U.S. emergency management agency (FEMA) and other authorities after the Hurricane Sandy disaster. People of colour were regarded simply as “looters,” she said. FEMA and police did not enter subsidized public housing to help those in need and kept other assistance workers from going in, saying it was too dangerous. “A disaster heightens the inequalities that are already there,” she said.

Abbie Bakan, head of gender studies at Queen’s University, Ontario, took up a case study: the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. They have undergone an “indigenous experience, enduring environmental racism,” in which slogans like “make the desert bloom” promote the notion that “the good earth comes only from the colonial project.”

Some comments from the audience in that session:

  • “There has been an environmental justice movement all along among indigenous peoples, people of colour, and in the Global South, but you have to have anti-imperialist eyes to see it.”
  • “Every climate change activist must also be an antiwar activist.”
  • “We will learn much more about racism and how it is manifested through our activity in the environmental movement.”

Next steps

The event’s program was well-run and varied, with 43 speakers and facilitators. Aside from the panels discussed here, there were sessions on agriculture/food, fossil fuel divestment, Hurricane Sandy, labour, and Green Left history.

No discussion was scheduled on ecosocialist activities going forward, but it was generally felt that the conference created a strong foundation for future activities. Alongside Chris Williams’ call for another Keystone XL protest, there was talk of holding another ecosocialist conference down the road. The Ecosocialist Contingent will hold a teleconference May 6 to discuss next steps. For information, write ecosocialistconference [at]

Also published by Climate and Capitalism, along with two other reports of the New York conference by Louis Proyect and Ben Silverman. Climate and Capitalism offers an extensive library of relevant articles and reports, indexed as:

Ecosocialist Groups
Ecosocialist Resources

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Arthur April 26, 2013 at 9:19 am

I am delighted to see the vigorous absence of discussion or interest in this “resounding success”.


Pham Binh April 26, 2013 at 9:27 am

Usually that’s a sign of consensus.


Richard Estes April 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm

I was pleased what what I learned from this article. I didn’t comment because I had nothing futher to say. I am happy to hear about the spirit of collaboration that characterized this event.


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