Occupy LSX and the dangers of activist antipathy towards environmental racism and ecocide

NB: If you haven't yet read Naomi Klein's article "Capitalism vs. the Climate", I recommend that you do!

Xstrata and Occupy LSX

From an environmental perspective, Xstrata, one of the world's largest mining corporations, was an excellent target for the OccupyLSX activists to target on November 30. The most obvious reason for this is the company's aggressive pursuit of expanding its coal operations. In Australia, Xstrata is planning to build the largest opencast coal mine in the southern hemisphere. Xstrata also has a very poor record in dealing with indigenous peoples who live on or near the lands that are being mined, and a number of local activists who oppose Xstrata's operations have been assassinated. You can find a good overview of most of the reports coming out about Xstrata from the London Mining Network.

So when Occupy LSX 'occupied' the Xstrata headquarters, my first thought was "Great! They're finally doing something significant on climate justice". Actually, that couldn't be farther from the case, if OccupLSX's press release is anything to go by. There isn't a single mention of environmental issues whatsoever. From the people I know who attended the action, I have no doubts that many of those who went share my concerns about Xstrata's dismal environmental record. But the Occupy LSX press release wipes climate change and environmental racism off the agenda. Here's the bit where it talks about Xstrata:

The protesters today are making the connection between the slashing of private and public sector pensions, while supposed 'top' executives cash in by increasing their own pay levels, leaving many without pensions. These CEOs like Mick Davis lavishly secure their own futures while ignoring the security and wellbeing of their workers... Mines have closed in Australia, South Africa and Spain within the last decade resulting in hundreds of workers in the last decade being laid off... Karen Lincoln, supporter of Occupy London said: "Mick Davis is a prime example of the greedy 1 per cent lining their own pockets while denying workers pensions." 

From the time I've spent studying and working on anti-mountaintop removal campaigns in West Virginia, I have a pretty good idea of the shoddy way that mining companies treat workers. In Appalachia, Big Coal has done a good job at eroding the power of the United Mineworkers and at corrupting state and US politicians to the extent that it can get away with crimes like the Upper Big Branch Disaster, which was an explosion that killed 29 miners last year. One of the methods that the coal companies have used to increase their profits has been a massive expansion in opencast (or strip if you're in the USA) mines over the last thirty or forty years. Mechanization has meant that less workers are needed to get the job done, more coal is extracted and a mine's resources are exhausted more quickly than it would be if it were underground. This means that a miner's job lasts as long as the mine (s)he works on (around 10-14 years in the case of MTR in West Virginia), making him/her more reliant on the coal company's favour for future employment. Every time they build a new mine in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, Scottish Coal announces the creation of around 100 jobs - but neglects to mention the closure of other mines in the area that has resulted in the loss of similar numbers of jobs.

If you want to start talking about the assault by coal companies on workers' rights, you need to analyze their whole business model, and that means the very act of extracting coal itself. Coal is not a renewable resource, and in many parts of the industrialized world the easy or clean ways of extracting it have run out. For the retired union miners I worked with this summer in West Virginia, "sustainability" is about providing permanent jobs for workers as well as reducing our impact on the environment. Many of them have been reluctant to work with some of the larger environmental organizations like Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, fearing (perhaps with good reason) that the big NGOs do not always have the interests of workers at heart. But at a grassroots level, union members and environmentalists have been doing a lot of talking to each other in the US. As a result, the environmental movement there has gained momentum from the Occupy protests.

Climate Justice in the UK

Here in the UK, things are a bit different. Many of the veterans from the global justice and climate movement have participated in the student, anticuts and occupy movements, but we have not seen their participation translate into action on climate change. After years of denouncing capitalism through environmental action, we were presented with a new political climate where we no longer needed to explain that the economic status quo is unsustainable. All of a sudden, anti-capitalism wasn't as radical as it had been at the past, and it made (and still makes) sense to take a more direct approach in targeting the power structures that support capitalism. Viewing climate change as a product of capitalism meant that it was OK to put climate on the back burner for a while and try something new.

Having said all this, I don't want to imply that the veterans of the climate movement were directing the evolution of the anticuts movement. In reality, the new generation of activists has little interest in climate justice at all. Yes, there's acknowledgement that climate change is happening and something needs to be done by it, but by somebody else. Meanwhile, if you type #cop17 into twitter right now, the results are often separated by hours, not seconds (as it was during the Copenhagen summit in 2009). I bet many people reading this don't even know that there's an important UN climate summit going on in South Africa.

And here's the danger in this lack of interest: we forget that in this country, the working class is still far better off than their counterparts in the Global South, especially those in countries like Bangladesh and the Philippines, which are highly vulnerable to climate change and likely to produce millions of refugees in the coming years. And if you're just solely focused on "workers' rights" - as important as they are - you risk overlooking that the industries that workers earn their livelihoods from can have a very damaging effect on vulnerable people. A good example of this would be to look at the thousands of white Canadians who have migrated to work for the oil industry in Alberta and compare their experience to that of the First Nations people who are adversely affected by it. Like the anti-MTR movement in Appalachia has done, we need to look at both and to try and create a more just society by bringing the two into harmony. Surely it isn't too much to ask for a world where people can support their families in a way that sustains the health of the people on this planet and the creatures living on it (if we are the 99%, what are they?).

There's more to "solidarity" than liking a link on somebody's Facebook wall or spending a few hours writing a blog post to try and enforce your views on others (guilty!!). Workers' rights are important (I'm consistently impressed by the London Living Wage campaign), but then again, so is the planet. It is possible to become an advocate for both.


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