Running for office as scientist and socialist

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“My name is Jess Spear.

I am a member of Socialist Alternative.

I am a climate scientist.

And I was the organizing director for 15Now.”

So Jess Spear, who is running for the Washington State Legislature, began her debate on October 7 with the mainstream Democratic and  20 year incumbent, Frank Chopp.

15Now was a successful charter amendment for a $15.00 minimum wage in Seattle, a success that is galvanizing similar initiatives all over the country. For, although she is a scientist, environmental and economic justice are her motivations, and science is a tool to address that activism.

Not that Spear doesn’t love science- but from the beginning, she saw the problems science could address. She was first inspired by Carl Sagan as a teenager to want to do something about climate change, way before it became a common concept. Thrilled by a biology class, Spear switched from anthropology to biology, and applied to work on a climate change problems for her senior year project- only to be told by her project advisor that climate change wasn’t a surety. As a student, Spear listened and worked on red tide- but a belief that authority, scientific or political, was necessarily correct did not take, and she found her way back to climate change as soon as possible.

It was not an end to her disappointment with scientists. Not with her mentor: while not as activist as Spear, he was civic-minded and involved and supportive of Spear. But her fellow students, even those working on climate change, were not engaged beyond their own work. Graduate students often have a laser focus only on their areas of study, but Spear thinks, sadly, that it was cynicism about the future that prevented students from working with the bigger picture.

Few senior climate scientists were speaking out, as speaking publicly led to questions about the scientists’ integrity and objectivity. Then, perhaps more than now, scientists in general were schooled to believe that their role is not to be part of policy, but only to provide the data for the policy, seeming to still believe that the research they are doing isn’t already influenced and caused by policy. Michael Mann and Jim Hanson have strongly acted and spoken out, and have written about the need for scientists to speak out, and public involvement is no longer completely damning.

Spear’s personal discontent with the approach to climate change and injustice took a big change in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, public protest in Wisconsin against the budget and restrictions on collective bargaining, and the Occupy Movement. Though Occupy! Seattle, she heard speakers from Socialist Alternative, with whom she then learned the links between climate change and the economic system.

Science and research are integrated into economics, but are generally seen only through the lens of capitalism in US training. Spear recommends that scientists read Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (2000) by John Bellamy Foster, who has written several books integrating ecology and economics, and who warns readers about the ineffectiveness of spiritual approaches to saving the environment. Frederick Engel’s The Dialectics of Nature, written in 1883  and published in 1939 with a forward by evolutionary biologist J.B.S. Haldane, analyzes the revolutions of science and their parallels with revolutions in society, a larger perspective useful for the scientist and activist.

Socialism provides the philosophical and practical links between science and environmental activism, and economics and social policy. For example, while many scientists and organizations agree that we must decrease reliance on fossil fuels to limit climate change, socialists are also concerned with the resulting human needs and in finding job alternatives for those in industries that might be abolished though activism or government regulation. A major mistake of environmentalists, believes Spear, is that they are coming head to head against ordinary working people. Socialism and Marxism have been very helpful to her in framing the issues, in putting problems in a social context, and have made her more more effective on a range of environmental issues.  Spear says, “I now understand how ludicrous it was for me to rail against individuals for their lifestyle choices. People shouldn’t be asked to choose the environment over their families.”

As a member of Socialist Alternative, Spears is not working as an individual, but as the member of a collective. Decisions about policy and actions are made collaboratively. There is a non-hierarchical perspective. This may be difficult for the scientists who believe in themselves purely as individuals to understand. But even with the inspiration of individuals, it is the power of an organization that creates social change.

After 2011, Spear spent more time on political campaigns, working first on the successful Seattle City Council election campaign of Kshama Sawant before leading the also successful 15Now minimum wage campaign. When she and Socialist Alternative decided that it made sense for her to run for Legislative office in 2014, she left behind for now her career as an oceanographer to focus on the election. She marches for political and environmental causes, has been arrested for stopping oil trains going through Seattle, gives interviews and talks, and leads a very different life, for now.

One of the biggest challenges for Spear has been learning a different way of public speaking than she had been trained in as a scientist. There was no effective formula for a political speech. It was usually not possible to use notes or other aids. Instead, Spear had to learn to make herself vulnerable, to listen and respond to the crowd, to improvise. Having let go of the notion of control that is drilled into science, she feels much better when giving a speech.

The election is November 4. Even without the corporate money poured into the campaign of the incumbent, Spear made a good showing in the primary, and well may win this election…if not this one, then the next. People may be shy about socialism, but are understanding that business-as-usual will not solve anything. As a person, scientist, and politician, Spear gives enormous hope that we have the capability to overcome fear and lassitude and make a better world.

The photograph used for the illustration found at the Vote Spear! website. http://www.votespear.org/jess_spear_arrested_protesting_oil_trains_in_seattle.

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