This interview with Ife Kilimanjaro, Senior Network Engagement Director at the US Climate Action Network, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Could you start by introducing yourself and your work a little bit?
I am Ife Kilimanjaro and I work for a network called the US Climate Action Network. US Climate Action Network is a network of about 185 organizations that work on a variety of issues but come together around climate change. Ultimately, we are trying to meet and exceed the targets of the Paris Agreement as best as we can from a civil society position. We are striving to be a formidable force against the forces that are trying to destroy the planet in the ways that they are.
I came to climate work through environmental justice work. The two are intimately related. It's because of the environmental injustices that climate change is accelerated to the levels it is at right now. Arguably, we might not see the rapid warming of the planet that is happening right now if it were not for environmental injustices.
How do you define environmental justice and injustice?
The term environmental justice came out of a fight that took place in North Carolina. The state planned to dump soil laced with toxic chemicals in Warren County, a predominantly Black community. The people fought back, and though they were able to stall for years, the company was ultimately able to prevail.
This is a consistent pattern that constitutes environmental injustice. And it is only possible because Black and brown populations have fewer protections and power within the existing governance apparatus. It becomes common practice to locate toxic landfills, confined animal feeding operations, coal and ash dumping, and other harmful factories in vulnerable communities - namely native and Black communities.
Conversely, environmental justice means behaving in a way that is morally right towards mother earth and her children. It means embodying a commitment to co-creating a better world for all - one not stratified by race, economic class, and gender.
Environmental justice means righting wrongs of history and righting the wrongs in particular against those who have harmed by the policies and practices that have facilitated the contamination and the destruction of the earth.
How did we get to where we are today? What are the mechanisms that produce environmental injustice?
I tend to think and speak in broader historical processes because I think that it is important to paint the big picture. The origins of the environmental justice movement can be traced to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, as Black communities had been raising concerns about the threats from hazardous wastes and other toxic chemicals in their communities. The term “environmental racism” was coined by Rev. Ben Chavis in a 1987 report he wrote entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. Though the language of environmental justice and environmental racism emerged in the 1980s, the groundwork had been laid many, many generations before.
Even though we see environmental injustice operate as practice and policies, it is important to note that it is rooted in a broader cultural ideology.
There are a few mechanisms by which people are made vulnerable, and then exploited. The main ones within this country are settler colonialism, the system of chattel enslavement, and the formation of a government system whose policies and practices have reinforced systems of white supremacy and extraction of land, labor, and capital.
Can you expand on those a bit more - starting with settler colonialism and how we see that legacy today?
When the early invaders came to the shores of what we now call the United States they swept across the country, they took land and subjugated the early native populations into servitude. As they stole land, they established systems (legal, judicial, legislative) to support perpetual domination. They drafted laws that gave them grounds to say, well we can treat you this way or the right to push you off the land because our laws say so. And these laws were and continue to be enforced through a judicial-military system.
The Indigenous/native populations that survived were forced into reservations onto lands that were considered undesirable to the Europeans. But when coal and uranium were found on these lands, monied interests would go to their elected officials, who were representing their interests within the governing structure, and get policies changed to allow for them to go in and extract these raw materials. And the extraction is an incredibly toxic process that these populations are subject to. Because of the uranium mines, for example, cancer rates are still very high on some of the Navajo and Lakota lands.
We see the modern iteration of this with the fight against the pipelines. When the oil and gas industry wants to build pipelines to move natural gas into new places for processing, they send their lobbyists to Congress and the Senate. They work through these very well funded channels to change folks' minds and pass legislation that makes it possible for them to build their pipelines. Fortunately, the folks who have been fighting on the ground to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, have seen a couple of wins, at least temporarily. It's still an ongoing fight because there's a tremendous amount of money that is to be made by developing those pipelines.
We know that, if nothing else, folks who are determined to profit off of extraction and destruction will find a way to do so.
This leads me to the next mechanism...
Chattel slavery and it's legacy.
Yes, the system of chattel slavery and enslavement. The moment in history that gave rise to the financial infrastructure of capitalism locked in black folks to the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy. African people were stolen from Africa and at a certain point, bred as fuel for a brutal system of enslavement and later exploited under debt peonage and industrial systems of production.
It is also where markets, stocks, bonds, insurance, etc. were born. The buying and selling of stocks on an exchange, the insurance industry, all emerged to ensure that landowners would be compensated for any losses of their property (which were human beings - children, women, and men) along the way. We also see manufacturing emerge at this time, and begin to require a larger pool of labor than the working-class poor whites were able to provide. As the industrial revolution found its way to these shores, and enslavement proved unprofitable for the emerging class of capitalists, a war was waged to abolish the formal institution of slavery and make way for a new group of low wage earners. And at a certain point, enslaved African people fled southern plantations for growing cities in the north and south, directed by emerging housing practices and redlining into specific parts of town, often in the polluting footprint of factories.
And of course, these are the folks in the neighborhoods and communities where the wealthy classes would consider it okay to dump in those neighborhoods, or even to form new neighborhoods and communities in the footprint polluting manufacturing centers. Over time, Black communities became the preferred locations for the siting of landfills, coal ash ponds, CAFOs, etc. I'm drawing all of this out because it is important to understand how we got to where we are today.
Political power and who has it seems to be the underlying question throughout all of this. What does it look like when these decisions are made, and what role does political power play?
So while I was living in North Carolina, there were efforts to construct the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I remember attending an environmental justice summit, and I remember people in that meeting were arguing that based on the behavior of the corporation it was evident that the pipeline route was to go particularly through Black and Native communities and rural areas. These were the areas where, supposedly, folks would be expected to resist the least.
And a few years back, Paul Mohai and Robin Saha found that people of color and low-income neighborhoods and communities in transition are disproportionately targeted by industries that follow the path of least resistance when deciding where to locate hazardous waste sites and other polluting facilities.
In other words, corporations deliberately selected these low-income communities and communities of color to locate their polluting facilities.
It often seems, that though people can fight back, and garner political power on the ground, rarely does it translate into financial risk for corporations to the point where they decide not to proceed. How do you think about political power and trying to harness it within communities that have been excluded from traditional mechanisms of power?
Yeah, I think you've named the two major kinds of power. Of course there is the political power of the group, the ruling class, those who have the greatest influence of the elected officials. And then there's the power of the people, which can be far more powerful.
We've seen the power of the people in the civil rights movement, and we see it with the Black Lives Matter movement - people are coming out in mass to demand change. In response, you see companies changing their brands, shifting their language, and perhaps becoming more sustainable. There is a tremendous amount of power in people to do things like that, and perhaps even more power if the progressive wing wasn't as fractured as it is now.
Then there is also the political power that's held by moneyed interests. And this is a group where it seems, in some ways almost impossible to defeat. They have the military and the police on their side, they have got a tremendous amount of money on their side, and they have representatives in the political structure advocating for their interests.
But there are always weaknesses in something so big. The work of those seeking radical change toward a more just society requires that we continue to find those weaknesses and drill away at them. Ultimately the power of the people to demand accountability and change can organize in the face of that. At best, we can topple the existing power structure, and at the very least we can challenge and reform it. That happens through elections, boycotting, engaging in nonviolent direct action, and so forth. So there is power on all sides. From what I've studied in history, the most determined and the best-equipped win. So I think that justice can be on our side, we just have a series of fights and battles ahead of us.
I want to talk a little bit about solutions. Do you often think about solutions within an existing market-based framework? For example, cap and trade policies.
Well in terms of carbon pricing, one of our working groups developed a policy platform that took on the question of greenhouse gas pricing. They laid out some requirements that policy must have to work within to be equitable. For example, a carbon price should be progressive and must not be regressive, it must not create pollution hotspots or perpetuate environmental injustice, and it must not be a primary source of revenue for climate funding. Within that framework, a market-based pricing system is essentially nullified. So, we answered the question, “well what about pricing.” One, we haven't seen that it works. Two, it is not possible to commodify pollution in a way that is equitable.
When you think about who's advancing these solutions, it makes sense that the people who benefit from the market economy would advance market solutions even if they continue to contaminate and cause harm.
There's a concept called "Just Transition" that began in the labor movement but has been picked up by a number of climate and environmental justice organizations in exploring what just transition looks like more broadly than in the labor movement. A regenerative economy is characterized by the sacredness of earth, ecological and social wellbeing, and democracy; it is about not taking more from the planet and one another than we're able to regenerate and recreate together. How do we move from an extractive economy to one that is regenerative, how do we do that? It requires divestment from extractive systems. It requires keeping oil in the ground, halting any new drilling, investing in creating the systems that support wellbeing, promoting a more locally based economy, and becoming less reliant on the oil and gas industry while becoming more dependent on what we can regenerate.
Shifting our entire framework.
Right. And those who argue for the market-based solutions, argue that it is impossible to live off of renewable energy and maintain the lifestyle that we have now. That's not completely true, but even if it was, do we need to live at a level of consumption that is endless and wasteful? This gets at the heart of our culture.
So many of our practices, our rituals, our ceremonies are incredibly wasteful. A transition requires us to re-envision what our families, cultures, and communities look like on a much deeper level.
We need to move away from systems that are based on extraction and exploitation and towards those that are based on regeneration.
Do you think we can get there? Are you hopeful?
Yes. And what makes me hopeful is that it seems this moment has triggered something that was already kind of itching at people. People and communities are tired of extreme injustice, and they want to do something about it.
We are also seeing the connection between the divisions that already exist within communities and climate change. Climate change is a threat multiplier; as the climate continues to warm, those divisions will worsen. If we see this as like the tip of an iceberg for more struggles to come, what I see and what I hope for, is that this time is used to get their teeth sharpened in these fights. People are learning in the process of participating in these fights, learning how to be strategic in the struggle moving forward, and seeing the ways that all of these fights converge.
And lastly, there are many who - in their efforts to reconnect with the cultural traditions of their ancestors - are relearning and regrounding in the “old ways.” This is incredibly important and promising as Indigenous people around the world lived in a generative relationship with the planet for millennia. There is much to learn from our ancestors. And that people are doing this is incredibly promising.
This interview with Sanford Schram, professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, was conducted and condensed by franknews.
Sanford Schram | My name is Sanford Schram. I focus on American politics and public policy, particularly regarding the politics of policies that affect people in subordinate positions in our society, especially as stratified by issues of class, race, and gender.
frank | Can you explain poverty governance?
I write about this a lot in our book, Disciplining the Poor. Poverty governance is a question of state management of the poor. Social welfare policy in the United States has historically been not about helping the poor, but managing them.
Largely we see poverty governance as an issue of how the state decides to manage the poor so that they become less of a challenge to the established order in our society.
And less about eradicating poverty.
The US government periodically has said that it wants to abolish poverty, but it really never does much to pursue that goal. Instead, most money goes towards disciplining the poor and getting them to be compliant with standard norms of work and family, so as to make them less of a threat to the established order. When they fail to adhere to that order, the government punishes them.
Over time, especially over the last 30 years, social policy has become more aligned with criminal justice policy. Historically they were seen as at opposite ends of the continuum - as the left and right hands of the state. Social policy is theoretically seen as more maternalistic and caring, while criminal justice is more paternalistic and punitive. Over time, however, I think they've become integrated.
TWO LATIN GIRLS POSE IN FRONT OF A WALL OF GRAFFITI IN LYNCH PARK IN BROOKLYN, NEW YORK CITY, THIS PROJECT IS A PORTRAIT OF THE INNER CITY ENVIRONMENT, IT CONTAINS LIFE, GREAT MURALS ON THE WALLS OF BUILDINGS AND PEOPLE ENJOYING THEMSELVES, TODAY’S INNER CITY IS A CONTRADICTION TO MAIN STREAM AMERICA’S GAS STATIONS EXPRESSWAYS SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES, BLACKS, LATINS, AND POOR WHITES LIVE THERE. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES
When did you see that integration start to really take place?
Well, that's an interesting debate that people have. Some people argue that it begins with the War on Poverty, ironically, in the sixties. When Johnson decided to pick up the challenge of addressing poverty that had been left to Kennedy, he declared a war on poverty. There were a lot of initiatives to try and help people at the bottom of the socioeconomic order, but he also started to pour more money into criminal justice, policing in particular. We started to see the rise of mass incarceration, even in the early 1970s. And then you get the famous 1994 Crime Bill where Clinton, another Democrat, feels obligated to say that in exchange for helping the poor, we are also going to discipline them. I think that the two, social policy and criminal justice, have been hand and glove.
Do you think that convergence is understood?
No, not widely.
The public tends to hold contradictory views about what the government should be doing to help low-income individuals and families. According to the polls, most people feel that the government doesn't help the poor enough and that we should be way more generous. On the other hand, people tend to believe that only those who are trying to be self-sufficient through paid employment are deserving of help. They want to help them more, but only if they play by the rules. And of course, a lot of people on the bottom really can't afford the play by the rules.
For example, if you want to have a family, very often, you have to do it outside of marriage. Or if you want a decent paying job, you often have to work off the books. So right there work and family are being “violated” from the very beginning. It is out of necessity, given how we've structured our society so that a lot of people live in the shadow of the legitimate economy, culture, society. And then the state deems them to not be seen as deserving of the generosity that people claim they want to heap on them.
How does paternalism play a role?
Paternalism is very much in play here in a contradictory way. At one level paternalistic behavior means the patriarch dictates what should be done. The state often takes on that role when families or individuals don't conform to the standards of society. That's the negative side of paternalism. The positive side is that the patriarch wants to do this in the name of tough love, or caring for people so that they'll do what's right. A lot of charity, for instance, I think is caught up in this contradiction between the negative and positive pulls of paternalism. A lot of charity is conducted by people of privilege who have resources to help uplift those in their community, or around the world, to better comply with the standards that they have.
It’s a bargain - we will help you, if you promise to be like the kind of people we think you should be.
You speak of a new wave of neoliberal paternalism. How do you feel like this differs from other modes of paternalism?
After I wrote Disciplining The Poor, I wrote The Return of Ordinary Capitalism, where I discuss the idea of neoliberalism in more depth – and the role of corporations in particular - and the idea of uplifting the poor.
Neoliberal paternalism often involves the private sector - economic actors are incentivized to try and get involved in helping those on the bottom and promote the collective wellbeing of society overall. Once the private sector and the public sector boundaries are blurred, paternalism can take many different forms. It often takes the form of charity. It can also take the form of corporate social responsibility, as they call it, where corporations don't just try to make money but try to do so in a way that engages and uplifts the poor. It can take the form of taking on state responsibilities through privatization or contracting out.
At its core, neoliberalism involves a blurring of the boundary between the market and the state.
It involves getting the state enlisting market actors to try and create a public good, but to create it according to the market logic that they are most accustomed to pursuing. The risk of trying to fulfill a public purpose by private means, according to private logic, is that that can often lead to people trying to make money off these endeavors and defeat the public purpose of it all in the end.
PUERTO RICAN BOY PLAYING BALL IN HILAND PARK OF BROOKLYN NEW YORK CITY. THE INNER CITY TODAY IS AN ABSOLUTE CONTRADICTION TO THE MAIN STREAM AMERICA OF GAS STATIONS, EXPRESSWAYS, SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES. IT IS POPULATED BY BLACKS, LATINS AND THE WHITE POOR. THIS PROJECT IS A PORTRAIT OF THE INNER CITY ENVIRONMENT IT CONTAINS ARCHITECTURE AND THE RESIDENTS ENJOYING THEMSELVES - NATIONAL ARCHIVES
That feels like a really easy way to distract a lot of people at once. Corporate entities that can afford the PR to be constantly in our face, who are in our face anyways, taking on social issues.
Distraction is an interesting term. It’s not only distracting but it also obscures public initiatives.
Torture is an extreme example of this. At one point in the War On Terror, we found out that the RAND corporation and other actors were involved in the torture program of the Bush administration. And we wanted to know more about it and they say, well, you can't, that is proprietary information of our corporation, and we're not allowed to share trade secrets with you. They say this even though they were torturing our enemy combatants, as they were called, in our name.
A more moderate example is when the government contracts for-profit providers for welfare to work programs. There’s the risk that they'll just funnel a bunch of people into dead-end jobs so that they can make money as cheaply as possible while claiming to fulfill the objective of helping poor people become self-sufficient and take personal responsibility. There is also the risk that they will do it in a way where we don't know what they're actually doing. They fudge their books, their bookkeeping is suspect, we have to sue them sometimes, some people go to jail for the fraud that's committed in these operations. Neoliberalism blurs the boundary between the market and the state, and there are many challenges associated with that. One of them is that it obscures public activity by sheltering it in the private sector so that we don't really know what's going on.
Military contracting certainly feels like a deliberate effort in obscuring. Do you think the state using corporations to support domestic social issues is an intentional choice, made specifically to hide information?
We wrote a book that comes out this week, entitled Hard White, the Mainstreaming of Racism in American Politics. In it, we argue that elites have been stoking what we call out-group hostility in the mass. They do so in order to put someone like Trump in office so that they continue to get their tax cuts by claiming that they're going to stand up for white people and assuage their anxiety, the anxiety that they helped agitate.
The question there is, what's the intention? Are they just cynically trying to manipulate people, or are they true believers? Are they mobilizing people because they feel there is a real need to be concerned about immigrants or people on the bottom of the socioeconomic order, those who are seen as a threat to the established way of life, a threat to white middle-class people? We don't really know.
The same question exists about social welfare programs. Did the government make the welfare reform bill in 1996, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, intentionally so complicated that we can't understand it still all these years later? Did they make it harder for people to get assistance intentionally? Maybe. Did they make it complicated because they didn't really care about poor people and whether they would be able to get assistance? Maybe. Or is it just complicated because they are legitimately concerned about making sure nobody gets benefits when they don't deserve them? We don't really know.
I don't think they know, they just did it. We'd have to ask them, but they don't like to talk to us.
When you say elites, who do you mean?
There are multiple ways of understanding the elite.
Some see the relationship between the elite and the masses as largely top-down with the elites cynically stoking out-group hostility. Richard Fording and I argue that there is a dialectical relationship between the elites and mass reflective of the power dynamics implicit in their relationship. We think that while the elite stoke fear among the mass, the elites are also responding to the mass and the mass’ growing anxieties.
Trump is very racist, but you kind of get the feeling that he feels obligated because that's the base he ended up getting, and he can't betray them. He wants to always stay popular with them. So he keeps going back to the well of racism to stay popular, which he might not do if they weren't so racist. It’s kind of like a death spiral that's occurring in the United States and in other parts of the world. The elite feel obligated to throw more red meat to the mass that wants it.
There's a lot of blood on a lot of different people's hands in terms of how white society ends up perpetuating the system of subordination in our country.
Do you think discomfort with poor people is uniquely American?
It certainly relates to this idea about American exceptionalism, which for a long time held that the United States is this special, different, better city on the Hill. Of course, historians have spent decades pointing out that that's a crock. The United States is not a special, different city on the hill. And in fact, if we are special and different, it’s in negative ways, it’s because of the legacy of slavery. We need to appreciate how that history is distinctive to the United States, and how that might encourage the United States then to be more reluctant to talk about class differences in inequality and the subordination of the poor, because it's often so often racialized, and becomes all the more fraught.
And of course, one of the reasons social welfare has worked better in European countries than here was race. We are racially divided and white people were and are more reluctant to want to give their resources to other non-white people. The racialization of welfare politics is an ongoing struggle in the United States and really has held us back.
Europe had a set of racial relations, a different set of politics, and a different set of state market relations that enabled European countries to have something closer to a social democracy. It gave them a more robust welfare state based on a stronger sense of inclusion and made them more willing to focus on poverty reduction. Now that immigration is becoming a big issue in Europe, there have been fractures in that line of thinking, and you start to see the Americanization of the welfare state in Europe. If it keeps up, there is not going to be much of a difference.
YOUNGSTERS ON THE JULY 4TH HOLIDAY AT THE KOSCIUSKO SWIMMING POOL IN BROOKLYN'S BEDFORD-STUYVESANT DISTRICT, NEW YORK CITY. INNER CITY RESIDENTS ENJOY USING THIS INTELLIGENTLY LOCATED POOL. THE INNER CITY TODAY IS AN ABSOLUTE CONTRADICTION TO THE MAIN STREAM AMERICA OF GAS STATIONS, EXPRESSWAYS, SHOPPING CENTERS AND TRACT HOMES. IT IS POPULATED BY BLACKS, LATINS AND THE WHITE POOR. - NATIONAL ARCHIVES
We tend to tie poverty to morality, rooted in this white Protestant culture. Do you think this makes poverty more difficult to discuss or solve? When dictating a sense of morals to the oppressed controls the conversation?
Well, no, it's a great question. All these countries have morals and values, they are just a bit different. And we get our Christianity, our Protestantism, the Protestant work ethic, and notions of personal responsibility from Europe.
But I think our morals are so hard and fast. As in, if you don't play by the rules, we'll put you in jail or we will cut you off with no benefits and you'll have to go beg for charity at the homeless shelter or the food pantry. European countries are actually more moralistic in the sense that they feel a greater sense of social obligation than we do. We have a more hellfire and brimstone approach to morals, in a way that I personally consider to be immoral. The right in the United States has kidnapped the idea of morality and made it its own, and everything else is immoral.
The hypocrisy is so obvious on the right, but do you feel like the left has also adopted an aggressive moral code and hierarchy recently?
So, I wasn't asked to sign “the letter”, but I would have signed it. I talked to several people who did sign. Of course, they are all over 75 years of age - I have to keep reminding myself that I am old - but the old left, we used to be the new left, is concerned about this.
He was fired based on the idea that what he was sharing was criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew about the Wassow article before it was published in the APSR. I thought his research was really interesting, not that I necessarily agree with everything in it, but I shared it with people the same week that David Shor shared it and was fired. So I’m like, Oh man, I almost lost my job. What's going on here? The young people are going to come and take away my job because I shared the Omar Wassow article with people!
Like what's wrong with the left? We're supposed to hide good research because it might complicate how we think about Black Lives Matter? My God. I would have signed the letter for that reason alone.
Race relations can be very fraught, and the only thing you can do is be honest about it and try to work through it. Like, I haven't thought of everything. I have bought into the culture unreflectively. I have reproduced patriarchy. But we have to deal with it, instead of, especially in a cancel culture, just calling someone out, we have to open it up somehow. So yeah, I would have signed the letter.