Occupy Earth: Humans are the 1 percent

Chico State professor Mark Stemen and the environmental movement to Occupy Earth

Dr. Mark Stemen, who teaches Environmental Issues at Chico State, believes that the true 99 percent is all of the nonhuman life forms on Earth that are struggling because of humans’ harmful actions.

Dr. Mark Stemen, who teaches Environmental Issues at Chico State, believes that the true 99 percent is all of the nonhuman life forms on Earth that are struggling because of humans’ harmful actions.

Photo By Claire Hutkins Seda

Learn more about the issues:
Go to climate-crisis activism website www.350.org.

Chico State professor of geography and planning Mark Stemen admits it: He’s part of the 1 percent. And, he says, so are you: “In the context of the biotic community, we [humans] are the 1 percent.” The true 99 percent—the rest of life on Earth—is struggling because of humans, said Stemen.

Stemen recently conducted his Environmental Issues class at the Occupy Chico headquarters in the downtown City Plaza. The idea was to discuss the relationship between the environmental movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement, which focuses primarily on the unfair influence of the richest 1 percent of Americans on the United States’ economy and government.

As it turns out, in terms of biomass, “humans are a completely trivial fraction. In fact, [all] animals are a very small fraction—most of the world’s biomass is plants, trees,” offered Gordon Wolfe, microbial ecologist and Chico State professor of biological studies. “It’s very uncertain, but microbes might constitute as much biomass as all the animals and plants of the world, because they’re everywhere, including underground,” he added.

But despite humans’ negligible position among the life on Earth, our impact has been startling and “completely nontrivial,” Wolfe said. “We’re tremendously affecting every other organism.” Wolfe went on to describe our current situation as “a period of mass extinction caused by humans.”

Many prominent environmentalists, such as climate-crisis activism website 350.org’s Bill McKibben and filmmaker Josh Fox, are concerned with this human-induced impact and have turned to the Occupy movement to widen the focus of the protests to include the environment. “The same corporations that are doing all these things to the workers, the economy and such, are the same that lay waste to the environment,” said Stemen.

The inclusiveness of the Occupy movement—its General Assembly has not yet approved an official list of demands—has proven helpful for environmentalists, who have found a welcoming stage for their own take on the Occupy concept, which some have dubbed Occupy Earth. Occupy Wall Street protesters at New York City’s Zuccotti Park recently hosted workshops in honor of Climate Justice Day, aimed at educating protesters on the myriad environmental issues connected to the same corporate cronies their movement aims to upset, such as mountain-top removal for coal extraction, and fracking, the controversial method of using chemicals to extract petroleum from rocks.

Stemen admits the addition of the environmental element into the Occupy movement makes some people nervous. “There is some tension in the Occupy movement,” Stemen noted. “While it’s been really good at capturing dissatisfaction, I think that the people looking at it from the outside are asking how far are we really going to go down the road to solutions.”

Biology professor Dr. Gordon Wolfe ponders environmentalism from his Chico State office.

Photo By Claire Hutkins Seda

Several lists of demands floating around on the Internet, including one drawn up by Occupy Wall Street’s Demands Working Group, have not been approved by the movement’s New York General Assembly. However, the assembly has approved the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City (www.nycga.net/resources/declaration). The document features a long list of grievances against the largest corporations, which, they contend, run the U.S. government. Largely focused on U.S. political and economic woes such as “illegal foreclosures” of homes and “exorbitant bonuses” for corporate executives, the document addresses the environment as well, noting that “corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth.” It also objects to cruelty to animals, factory farming, oil-spill cover-ups, and dependency on oil. The document does not specify how corporations or other involved parties could respond or remedy the list of grievances.

Occupy Chico protester Quentin Colgan agrees with the declaration but believes the environmental movement should wait its turn. “We’ll fix the environment [after] we fix America,” said Colgan recently from City Plaza, while other occupiers mulled around the main group tent. He emphasizes the importance of focusing on the elimination of corporate personhood and electing new politicians who do not have a close relationship with corporations before broadening the movement to include the environment, going so far as to pose the question, “Do we really want to waste time fixing the environment?”

But can the ecological system wait for the economic system to catch up?

“There’s a real feeling among ecologists and biologists that we’re in a crisis that’s caused by our activities, our societies,” said Wolfe. “And, most people are completely ignoring it and it’s going to come back and bite us because it’s going to affect our ability to grow food, or do our economy.”

Colgan’s perspective does not appear to resonate with many Occupy protesters, including others at Occupy Chico. Butte College biology student Crystal Neuenschwander, for one, believes the economy and the environment are too closely aligned to act on one without affecting the other.

“It takes natural resources …to drive the economy,” Neuenschwander pointed out, “and the way that our system’s set up, it has to have infinite growth. And we live on a finite planet, where we cannot have infinite growth. Economics is the environment. We cannot remove the environment from our lives.”

Stemen finds fellow environmentalists frustrated at the inaction of the majority toward increasingly looming ecological disaster. Recent pre-Occupy demonstrations—such as the August White House protest against the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast that resulted in 1,252 arrests—indicate that environmentalists are poised for a fight. In a post-Arab Spring world, however, environmentalists find themselves to be just one of many frustrated parties, and “the 99 percent [concept] has resonated” with people across the country, said Stemen.

The Occupy timeline that Colgan supports—in which the environment comes second—misses the point, a somber Stemen said. “The caution on all of this, is that this is going to focus just on humanity. It’s a real concern that we’re all starting to think that we can actually solve this problem without worrying about the planet.”

“Most people don’t care about [environmental devastation]. They’re focused on their own lives and making a living,” Wolfe said. But, he warned, “because we’re not doing things that are sustainable …we’re going to undermine our ability to continue life as usual.”