“It’s not about getting a medal. I don’t look back at what I won and what I lost. You did your best. It’s ok to get tired and step away. I’m here for you. And it’s not about the next step because the next step will present itself. I care about you. Just show up. You don’t have to win. We just have to be together. In the end, the only ones losing will be the ones who never stood up in the first place.”
The 6th Extreme Energy Extraction Summit was held May 13th - 16th at the Laurelville Retreat Center in southwestern Pennsylvania, where the Northern Appalachian coalfields overlap with the Marcellus Shale. This Summit marked another turning point for the Collaborative—for the first time, returning participants outnumbered newcomers, and we came armed with a firm understanding of what our Summits do and how they do it. With the help of our returning superb facilitators, Adrienne Maree Brown and Ananda Lee Tan, we dug deep into frank conversations—about the stark realities in front-line communities and organizations; the ways in which the institutions, messages, and strategies of the environmental movement are failing us; and the need to develop a new shared vision. In the face of these challenges, we also worked hard on exchanging crucial knowledge, building relationships across difference and finding ways all of our diverse participants can directly support front-line struggles.
You could really feel the growing sense of collective ownership over the Collaborative. We responded to previous calls for more youth leadership by inviting our younger participants to plan and lead a session on challenges in youth organizing. (See notes on youth organizing breakout). We had lively discussions about locations for the next several Summits, and thought carefully about how the space can be improved and how we can better share our discussions with the movement. Unprecedented numbers of participants volunteered with critical tasks like collecting feedback from this Summit, planning the next one, and finding ways to fund it.
Another exciting development is that we expanded the team of people documenting the Summit. As a result, this report is more detailed than in the past, and the notes from individual breakout sessions have been edited and organized to make them more accessible. Special care was taken to compile lists of resources, existing initiatives, and information on policies, people, and organizations. We hope the notes – which come complete with subject headings and an easy-to-navigate table of contents – are more useful in sharing insights from the Summit, and can serve as a reference point for future discussions.
A Powerful Environmental Justice Tour
We began with a deeply powerful Environmental Justice Tour organized by our host Veronica Coptis of the Center for Coalfield Justice. Our day-long journey highlighted the wide range of impacts from over 100 years of gas and coal extraction in Northern Appalachia. Piling into two full-sized school buses, we trucked out to see a perpetual treatment system for acid mine drainage from old mines (maintained by the Mountain Watershed Association). An endless parade of wells and pipelines dotted the landscape as we traveled across the region. After visiting a cemetery sitting in the shadow of the country's largest coal processing plant, we stopped for lunch at Ryerson State Park and heard stories from community members about the longwall mining that has destroyed their lake. After driving through a massive gas processing facility just over the state line in even-less-regulated West Virginia, we arrived at our last stop – the community of LaBelle where a massive coal ash dump sits above the town and next to a state prison. We heard harrowing stories of illness and agency neglect from an amazing, multi-racial group of community members and families of the incarcerated. Participants have shared these stories with communities across the country, and they helped ground our discussions throughout the weekend.
Deep Discussions - New Directions
Frontline organizers from Texas and North Dakota to Pennsylvania and West Virginia echoed the pain, the frustration, the desperation, the grim determination we heard in the voices of LaBelle locals. We listened to stories of intimidation and death threats, of great campaigns whose victories were ultimately undone, of folks struggling to make ends meet organizationally and personally, and of grassroots work undercut by agencies, “Big Greens”, and funders. Participants were extremely honest and clear about the toll these challenges take on them and the need for direct support of frontline communities. One regional organizer nearly broke down telling us about watching millions be spent opposing fracking, while community members whose stories galvanized that movement cannot pay their mortgages.
But no one was ready to give up. People discussed the need for frontlines to support each other on an individual and community-to-community level, the need for spiritual grounding and counseling support to address trauma in our work, and the need for a collective response to intimidation. (see notes on Supporting Frontlines). The “Science and Renewables” discussion was a great example of the creative collaboration we saw all weekend—when two proposed breakouts on fracking and renewables were too small to be worthwhile, participants joined with a breakout on “Incorporating Science into the Movement”, resulting in an information-packed session in which concrete community needs were matched with available research and other resources (see notes on Science and Renewables). Through the weekend, folks worked at improving collaboration. There were breakouts for states or regions to discuss better collaboration and a dinner discussion on how to work in solidarity with indigenous struggles (see State Breakout and Indigenous Solidarity notes).
Although people worked hard to figure out constructive ways to collaborate, discussions about harsh realities on the ground led us again and again to the deep and difficult challenges surrounding equity in our movement. In PA, for example, volunteer organizations in rural areas are fighting seven pipelines on $35 a week while tens of thousands of dollars are spent to fight pipelines in Pittsburgh. At a community level, the inequalities and their impacts can be even more stark. The Funding discussion went into detail about the challenging disparities in resources between big greens and grassroots, rural and urban contexts, etc. Participants talked about ways to improve access to funding and change the current landscape of funders. While these steps are important, people seemed to agree they are never going to meet the enormous need for resources at the grassroots. Recognizing this reality, people brainstormed a number of possibilities and new models for meeting the material needs of frontline folks and groups: grassroots-controlled endowed funds, restructuring movements so organizers can have day jobs, social entrepreneurship, mutual aid, marketing our skills to friendly governments and NGOs, and sending resources directly to front-line communities instead of into campaigns. (see notes on Funding)
Of course, we all know issues of equity are not just economic, but also include the political power to control national messages, to access decision-makers and to set the agenda. Some of the most heated conversations were about the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which has been touted by many on the Left as a success for climate activism. Participants held a wide range of opinions about the value of this policy and how we should engage with it—from believing the CPP is so flawed we should advocate against it, to seeing real opportunities to create strategic choke-points on fossil fuels. Many grassroots participants (especially those opposing biofuels and natural gas) were frustrated by CPP’s top-down nature, insufficient environmental justice protections, inclusion of dirty fuels and carbon markets, and reliance on state implementation plans that will fail in industry-dominated states. Others, especially those working closer to political power and policy-making, were quick to point out the challenging context that Big Greens and the EPA are working under, and the potential of bringing data to bear on the policy to push for more just outcomes (for example using CPP’s EJ language). While its deep flaws were widely acknowledged, a diverse group of participants saw it as a critical moment to bring together the grassroots and “Big Greens” to push for accountability and highlight the need for changes within our movement. (see notes on CPP)
The disconnect between the “National Climate Movement” and grassroots, front-line communities, particularly in industry-dominated areas, was a theme throughout the weekend. People spoke about coming from places where the funding isn't reaching, where no one has heard of 350 and “Keep It in the Ground” gets you more death threats than rally attendees, where the agencies are too corrupt for regulations to mean much, where the threat of police violence and deportation are as immediate as any pipeline. Serious questions were raised as to whether regulatory approaches like CPP work at all for front-line communities (see notes from Climate & Energy Organizing). During final report-backs, one group went so far as to suggest all environmental groups should stop signing on to comment letters on national regulations that we all know are failing communities. Even the framework of “Just Transition” was pointed out as problematic. Transitions away from fossil fuels often are framed simply as issues of jobs and economics. But unless we see deep changes in political power and control over land, and unless social issues like education and drug addiction are considered as important as environmental issues like public health and climate change, “Just Transition” will not guarantee justice—it will be just another transition to a new kind of exploitative economy (see notes on Just Transition).
In all these conversations, the need for new sets of strategies, structures, and messages that actually work for front-line and marginalized communities was clear. We may not know what it looks like yet, but we are already starting to build that better movement together. Future Summits will be critical spaces for developing those new models. Much of the discussions at this Summit centered on brainstorming various ways to: stay in communication between Summits; exchange information, technical resources, and wisdom; pursue shared funding; and mobilize direct support for communities. In addition to these big ideas, all sorts of concrete collaborations were sparked, such as: a black/indigenous cultural exchange between Navajo Nation and Detriot; connecting the LaBelle and Uniontown, AL communities; broadening an interstate campaign against Spectra Energy; creating a shared movement center in Pennsylvania; PSE-Healthy Energy providing scientific and technical support to Frack Free Denton, and more (see notes from the Harvesting Session). Many of the more ambitious, national projects may not actually happen. What we have learned, though, is that the relationships we form with each other end up achieving many of the same goals (such as increasing front-line community exchanges) without having a central structure. As Cherri said, “We just have to be together.”