Since the end of October (and my first arrest on November 3), I've been involved in civil disobedience actions at the gates of Texas-based oil and gas company Crestwood-Midstream to stop the company from storing methane gas in the fragile salt caverns of Seneca Lake. The facility is at the south end of the lake; I live at the north end. The lake supplies the drinking water for about a hundred thousand people. Seneca Lake is fragile, higher in salinity than the other Finger Lakes, likely because of LPG storage in the sixties through the eighties. I've been on the line six times, arrested four of those times, and in a support role three additional times.
The issue is complicated and layered, not one I would have chosen. It chose me.
I wonder if politics works this way a lot of the time. I wonder if there is or will be something about climate politics that makes the way it will choose us to engage different from other political matters. What makes this seem likely is the largeness and seeming intractability of the problem: it is already happening. Binding global agreements seem unlikely and already like too little too late. We get trapped into the worst sorts of individualizing approaches that reduce action to one's consumer choices or ethical stance, feeling responsible.
The expanded storage facility would be part of the fracking infrastructure. Allowing it to be built undermines efforts to ban fracking (or maintain the ban in NY), adding to the ability of the industry to say things like "well, X is already in place." Methane in particular has an even greater warming effect than carbon. So this isn't a NIMBY issue. The point is no fracking here, no fracking anywhere.
We have to insist on no fracking anywhere as a necessary component of climate politics: fossil fuels must stay in the ground (which would be helped by not calling them "fuel" anymore or even "fossils" since "fossils" seem to be things that are out of the ground and within human containers, generally, museums).
One divides into two -- in this case, the struggle over protecting one lake divides into that plus another struggle against fracking. The struggle against fracking divides into itself plus the struggle to mitigate rather than compound climate change. And this struggle, to be the struggle it is, is a struggle against capitalism. If there is to be any mitigation of global climate change, a massive sector of the capitalist economy -- the oil and gas industry, which includes, then, petro-chemicals, shipping and transport, the financial markets associated with speculating on oil and gas as commodities as well as other stocks and investments, automobiles, roads, the component industries of all of these -- has to be shut down. This means lots of job loss: in a sense the dismantling of the carbon-combustion complex is akin to the de-industrialization of the seventies and eighties. Instead of jobs and processes being moved elsewhere, though, they would be eliminated. Yes, renewables, thought broadly in ways that connect with renewing the capacities and resources of workers who have had to make their livings in the industry threatening us all.
The array of pipeline, storage, and water struggles are salvos against the oil and gas sector of the capitalist economy, attacks on its base, the energy system that supports it. It makes me wonder about the fruitfulness of an analogy with the early days of organized working class struggle as Marx and Engels describe in the Communist Manifesto, the days when workers are beginning to form combinations (Trades' Unions) against the bourgeoisie. Marx and Engels write: "The real fruit of their battle lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever-expanding union of the workers."
In addition to learning a lot about propane, butane, and methane, the economics of the oil and gas industry, the dangers associated with the storage and transport of methane and LPGs, I've learned more about engaged collective action, maybe even the way in which an "ever-expanding union" may produce itself in practices of comradeship where one finds oneself acting in solidarity with a whole slew of people one barely knows and may not have much in common with outside the action (which itself grows to become the focus of life rather than what is added in when one 'has time' -- really, none of us have time, individually or collectively).
I say 'engaged collective action' because I am reluctant to say "activism," feeling uneasy about the term (although, interestingly, the local paper, covering a rally I helped organize last weekend, called the over 300 people who came out in 17 degree weather to march in Geneva, many for the first time, 'activists'). I am also reluctant to say "grassroots," in part because it starts to suggest to me a chain of associations that leads to unrooted cosmopolitan intellectuals, an environment that I also inhabit, but again not in those terms.
Since I am in this vein of saying what I am not saying, I'll add that I don't think of the actions of the group We Are Seneca Lake via the binary of 'local' versus 'global,' a binary into which some of my friends and comrades want to assimilate it. Problems with the local/global binary include the rendering of sacrifice zones into localities while the global persists as a realm of functioning success, the production of some eyes, opinions, and attention at what needs to be "gotten" for something to matter (and here plays into the worse tendencies of communicative capitalism), and the utter failure to take seriously the material interconnections of infrastructure, capitalism, state, and climate that intellectuals in particular have claimed to be focusing on for over a decade.
A few lessons:
1. Footwear matters.
2. Wear sunscreen.
3. Wear layers.
4. There are divisions of labor that make people happy: people like making contributions that matter, such as providing care and sustenance by bringing food, providing technical, legal, and creative services, providing good humor, energy, calm, information. Many of us like being foot-soldiers, banner holders, reliable cadre. "Just tell me where to go and I will be there. You can count on me." Being one of many -- of the 40 arrested on the big day, of the 15 who stood in the cold and wind the whole fucking day, of the 12 from the first arrests, of the 6 who went to jail -- gives us a sense of purpose that we can't give ourselves by ourselves: "how do I help?"
5. Leadership gives people the confidence to do more than they thought they could. Organizers channel and reinforce this confidence, letting it intensify and spread.
6. It makes sense to look for allies. (Honestly, this is where the insane politics of outrage of the typing left leaves me cold, much colder than 12 degrees and wind on the west side of Seneca Lake. In the name of a rejection of norms, the politics of outrage incites the expression of rhetorical alliance within media networks, reinforcing the primacy of these networks and these expressions. That this is in the name of the rejection of norms makes sense: in replace of these norms is a super-ego injunction that we can never satisfy and that gets stronger with every attempt to satisfy it.)
7. Comradeship is a general sensibility cultivated out of commitment to a common end. Arising out repeated practices, comradeship traverses and transcends specific motives for engagement.