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Ecological Lens: An Activist Forum

Gopal Dayaneni & Mateo Nube
Date Published: 
June 01, 2008

Left Turn recently interviewed organizers from different areas of the movement to find out how they thought the notion of ecology fits into their work. Some of them have a storied history as ecological warriors, others have just begun to explore the intersection of ecology with racial and economic justice organizing.

Claire TranAsian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) Tran is the Director of Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL). She participated in the 2007 Movement Generation retreats. Claire’s on the far left holding her portable coffee mug. There are no plastic bottles in this picture.Left Turn: What were the first steps you took toward integrating an ecological lens into your youth organizing work?Claire Tran: The organizers at AYPAL have in no way been stellar examples of ecological warriors. But hey, hard-headed community organizers can change! We began with a staff study on the ecological crisis. And then we mourned. We dried our eyes and started to strategize organizational solutions. We felt strongly that as we give youth the facts on the crisis we also need to process collectively on how to move forward— to dream of a more sustainable system and concrete ways we can work toward this vision.

So far, we have been able to make small changes—incorporating a new workshop, adding a point of unity on ecological justice, a water taste test to show that tap water tastes the same or better than water in plastic bottles, bicycle carting our water in a big jug during the marches, and adding a new criteria for campaign identification: that our demands cannot lead to harmful impacts on the environment. José Bravo Just Transitions Alliance www.jtalliance.orgJosé Bravo is the Executive Director of the Just Transitions Alliance. JTA is a coalition of labor, economic and environmental justice activists, Indigenous people and working-class people of color looking to build a just transition from unsafe workplaces and environments to healthy, viable communities with a sustainable economy.LT: What does a green economy look like?José Bravo: What a “green economy” looks like is not yet certain, and everything rests on who gets to decide how green is green enough. Is it the government? Is it corporations? Is it workers? Or is it mainstream environmentalists? And beyond green we have to decide what kind of an economy we are talking about. We must tackle environmental challenges and social justice challenges at the same time with the same tools. We must also make sure that a “green economy” for the US isn’t at the expense of communities in the Global South. There can be no exportation of exploitation-—even if it brings “green jobs” to the US.

I think the answer to “What is a green economy?” is that we all need to take our cues from those that will be most impacted by the current economy and from the shift to a green economy. If green economies do not include and are not lead by those at the grassroots then it becomes a different type of capitalism with a tinge of green in which those that have resources will in turn be the ones that benefit the most. LT: What does the transition towards this new economy look like?JB: For us, the key elements of a “just transition” for workers and communities to a true green economy will address all aspects of production, from resource extraction to waste and will unite workers and communities around the world in the fight for more regional economies modeled on the systems in nature: living wages for all workers, clean production, and zero waste. We will include the ecological and social costs all along the production cycle such as energy, water, transportation, exploitation, displacement, etc.LT: How are you connecting questions of ecology to your broader political vision?CT: Understanding how to build collective action and people’s power in times of crisis is at the core of our work as we address the root causes of violence and high rates of homicides here in Oakland, CA. We are working to develop a new generation of youth organizers by training youth to come up with solutions to community issues and learn the importance of collective action.

The key to truly addressing ecological crisis will not be by buying more hybrid cars but through collective action toward systematic change. Young people will be left having to deal with the continuingly harsher impacts of this ecological crisis. The ability to engage in collective action will mean the difference between a world of survivalists and a world of revolutionaries... Brahm Ahmadi People’s Grocery www.peoplesgrocery.orgBrahm is co-founder and Executive Director of People’s Grocery, a community-based nonprofit organization that has attracted local and national attention for its effort to transform inner city food systems and advance food justice in communities of color.LT: How are you framing food system activism and sustainable agriculture activism as urban justice issues? Brahm Ahmadi: The growing movement in the United States to create sustainable food and farming systems has achieved notable success through farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and an exploding organic food industry. Yet this progress in transforming the food system has, by and large, not engendered substantive improvement for low-income urban communities of color that are often the most disenfranchised from the food system, most vulnerable to its inequities, and most in need of benefiting from its reforms. LT: What are some of the concrete steps you have taken to establish food sovereignty within urban low-income and people of color communities?BA: Organizations such as People’s Grocery have arisen to take a stand for “food justice”—the belief that all people, regardless of social and economic constraints, have the right to healthy and high quality foods. People’s Grocery and its allies work to advocate for and develop local food systems that centralize the needs of the urban poor and develop programs and enterprises that increase access to fresh foods, provide nutrition education, promote urban agriculture, and create local jobs. Additionally, we work to increase the leadership, voice, and perspective of low-income urban communities of color in shaping a food system that meets their needs for healthy food, jobs, and economic development.

In 2009, we will be opening a grocery store to close the gap in food retail in West Oakland. Our store will provide a community-oriented and culturally diverse shopping experience in which local, fresh, and high quality foods can be conveniently purchased at affordable prices and where healthy lifestyle choices are promoted through education programs, social events, and engaging customer service. Born out of a community consultation process that specified what the store should entail, People’s Grocery’s store will be staffed by locally-hired workers, operate as a worker-run cooperative and prioritize local sourcing practices to support regional producers and farmers.Faith Gemmill Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL)

Faith Gemmill is the Program Director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands (REDOIL), a network of Alaskan Native tribes engaged in strategic action and organizing in resistance to unsustainable fossil fuel development.LT: What is the relationship between indigenous sovereignty and ecological justice?Faith Gemmill: Indigenous subsistence lifestyles, cultures, and traditional social systems form a way of life that maintains the identity, physical health, spirituality, and survival of indigenous peoples around the world. The economic, social, and cultural rights of indigenous peoples remain inseparable and interdependent of our ancestral lands, territories and resources.

When we address ecological justice, we address it from the foundation of sovereignty. I’ve heard an elder state, “Sovereignty is inherent, it cannot be given to you, nor can it be taken away, it is inherent.” When we practice the culture, traditions, language, spirituality, and ancestral way of life of our indigenous nations we are living as sovereign nations, with our whole self-governance intact, which many of our inherent values and way of life are derived from and have been for generations untold. LT: How is that playing out in Alaska?FG: In Alaska, there have been long fought efforts for recognition of Alaska Native subsistence rights, which would ensure our right to live our way of life, of traditional hunting, fishing, and gathering. Currently, fossil fuel development threatens the ecological integrity of our homelands and is one of the main threats to our sovereignty. In fact the federal government claims the need to steal our resources for “homeland security.”

Attempts to access the remaining lands that Alaska Natives rely on for subsistence needs are an example of ecocide, part of an unjust US energy and economic development policy which basically undermines our subsistence rights as well as our sovereignty over our resources. How can a community be sovereign if a multi-national oil company is dictating the uses of their own lands, and the terms of their relationship to those lands?

The worst part of Indigenous history in relation to the United States is that we have been entrapped into land claims models that basically propagate expropriation of our lands from our control to benefit extractive industries, like oil companies.

When we are defending our homelands, and standing up for ecological justice, we are maintaining and breathing life into sovereignty. Indigenous peoples within the US and abroad are now more endangered than ever by national energy development policy. What purpose would recognition of subsistence or sovereign rights serve if your land is not intact? Indigenous peoples have to maintain our ancestral lands, territories, and resources so that we can be sovereign and self determining. It is as simple as that. Sovereignty is the root of our struggle and what we are standing up for.Van Jones Green For Allwww.greenforall.orgVan Jones is the President and Founder of Green For All. Green For All is a national organization that aims to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.LT: How do you think the Left should strategically approach the ecological reality we are in? How did you land on this concept of “Green for All”? Van Jones : The day after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, civil rights leaders could have demanded (1) reparations for slavery, (2) inter-racial marriages and (3) a massive redistribution of wealth.

Such demands would have been justifiable but foolish. “Maximum demands” like those would have created more resistance than support.

Thus early civil rights champions instead pressed “minimum demands” for integrated buses, kindergartens, and lunch counters. Malcolm X attacked this approach as too timid. But those modest demands knocked over the first dominoes, sparking mass movements that tore apartheid from US law books, led to the war on poverty, and helped stop a US war.

Alright: now with Earth itself imperiled, let’s be as savvy as our grandparents.

It’s fine for our “Malcolms” to directly challenge the paradigm of growth and consumption or attack US militarism.

But to move large numbers, we also need smart, minimum demands, like the call for “green-collar jobs,” “green jobs, not jails,” and “greening the ghetto first.” Such slogans do not challenge everything that is wrong. But they can inspire pragmatic, working folks to take notice and get involved.

A family-friendly “eco-populism” can mobilize and unite millions who, at this point, won’t be mobilized or united by a more extreme set of demands. Such appeals can get the country taking the first practical steps (hard, dramatic, and inadequate as they will be) toward ecological sanity. And I trust that the momentum will build, through those collective efforts for more comprehensive economic solutions.Annie Leonard GAIA (Global Anti-Incineration Alliance) & The Story Of

Annie Leonard recently produced The Story of Stuff (, a 20-minute film that takes viewers on a provocative and eye-opening tour of the real costs of our consumer driven culture—from resource extraction to iPod incineration. A longtime environmental activist, Annie currently serves on the boards of the Global Anti-Incineration Alliance, the International Forum for Globalization and the Environmental Health Fund.LT: How should we take on consumer culture and consumerism as organizers? Annie Leonard: I worry when I see campaigns aiming to inspire individuals to make environmental change primarily as consumers. At best, these campaigns may achieve marginal improvements; at worst, they subtly undermine our role as engaged citizens in an active democracy.

“Green” consumer campaigns fail to recognize that consumption patterns in the US are a structural problem. The choices available to us in the shopping mall or grocery story are limited and pre-determined by forces outside the store: by product designers, marketers, corporate officials, governments, and international institutions such as the World Trade Organization.

Because we face a structural problem, we need a systemic solution. We need policies and programs that prioritize sustainability, equity, community health, and economic justice and we can only obtain these by coming together for collective political action. The leverage points to make systemic change are in the political arena, not the shopping mall.

We’ve got a problem with shopping in this country. The amount of time we spend shopping is increasing while time spent building community and engaging in civil society is decreasing. The result is that we’re buried in stuff, while our communities and civil society are eroding. I worry that programs that seek to make social change through shopping perpetuate our over-identification as consumers, while subtly undermining our power as engaged citizens and community members. For these reasons, I believe that moving beyond individual consumer-based campaigns to organizing for stronger collective action is the single most important thing we can do achieve real, lasting, transformative solutions to the many interconnected environmental, social, and economic issues of the day.