Organizing where we are:
Environmentalism in an era of green capitalism
By Kate Zaidan
This December, fifteen years after the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, world leaders will converge in Copenhagen to renegotiate a global solution to the most pressing environmental issue of our time. Barack Obama will undoubtedly tout his efforts to bring the United States on board after decades of climate change denial and congressional cowardice, and most of the world, including mainstream environmental organizations, will likely fawn over his rhetorical and ideological prowess.
President Obama, Congress, and the U.N glorify emissions trading as if it is the only realistic solution to climate change catastrophe. The invisible hand of the market, the same invisible hand that conjured subprime mortgages and debt trading, will somehow right the wrongs of 150 years of industrialization. Polluting industries can and will continue to pollute and simply move their pollution around for a fee, and poor communities of color will continue to bear the brunt of hazardous living conditions as a result. Environmental justice organizations, along with a few courageous traditional environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, have issued statements and letters opposing the cap and trade strategy, but were largely silenced behind large and moneyed environmental coalitions.
Cap and trade is but one example of the market system's answer to environmental devastation. The last five years have seen an unprecedented era of public, government and corporate consciousness around environmental issues. Big business has stealthily maneuvered growing public dissent and funneled legitimate concern into high-margin consumer products like eco-friendly bleach and reusable shopping bags. The public, painfully aware that buying power is the only power that won't get you arrested or killed, follows suit, and the green investment bubble is born.
The environmental movement has been hugely successful in getting the message across: it's either green or die. The earth cannot sustain this level of exploitation and resource extraction and furthermore, there is money to be made in adapting the economy to cope with the reality of finite resources. The environmental movement has adapted as well, and in an effort to ensure continued funding and close relationships to legislators, regularly adopts politically safe positions that fall short of addressing the root of environmental problems. This is not a new dynamic, but one that is increasingly visible given the primacy of sustainability within business and government.
Those of us that find ourselves within the ranks of the mainstream environmental movement, be it in non-profits or other institutions that have latched on to the sustainability trend, are faced with a formidable challenge. On one hand, our mouthpiece and degree of influence is louder and larger than ever before. Groups that were once maligned and marginal have the ear of media and government in ways that we never thought possible. It is fair to stay that this is a “win” for the environmental movement; however, it is not enough to ride the wave of success without offering a coherent, unified response to the profit-driven greening efforts that continue to exploit labor, gentrify neighborhoods, militarize society, and otherwise assign dollar values to human beings.
This is a familiar position for social movements. Radical resistance is harshly criminalized, as is the case with the “green scare” defendants, and the mainstream elements are co-opted so as to not offend the status quo. Despite historical precedent, co-optation does not have to be a movement death sentence. It is possible to harness this moment in political history and keep social justice on the environmental agenda. While the tendency toward personal environmental responsibility, like living off the grid, is tempting given the political inanity of most environmental organizations, a hands-off approach opens the door for conformists to railroad a corporate-friendly agenda.
The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement has seen some success in countering the moderate answer to environmental degradation. Twenty years ago, the very notion environmental injustice, that poor people and people of color are subject to disproportionate degrees of environmental harm, was not considered a legitimate point of contention, even among environmentalists. However, thanks to the hard work of activists, environmental justice concerns are now within the realm of planning agencies and government. The EPA dedicates funds and staff to EJ, and policies that manage those disproportionate realities are included in the canon of US law.
The language and efforts of environmental justice have been successfully co-opted by the state, but the work is not done. The movement continues to challenge the limited efforts of the government, creating the forward momentum that only a people-powered movement can generate. However, the environmental justice movement, having always been on the fringes, is better positioned to exert a counter-argument to co-optation than the mainstream environmental movement. The networks, relationships and common language have been developing for years, and it is not difficult to mobilize quickly to respond and act against greenwashing and myopic conservationism.
The mainstream environmental movement, perhaps even more than the environmental justice movement, is skilled at consolidating power to push an agenda, but that agenda is generally short-sighted and business friendly. There are, undoubtedly, countless individuals within these institutions that reject the corporate takeover of the environmental movement, but find themselves to be lone voices among the pragmatists. Influencing the mainstream environmental movement in this era of opportunity demands a united and organized answer to the capitulating forces. This is best accomplished from within the movement itself. Now that “the movement” has seeped into all levels of society, we are all movement activists, and we all have the opportunity to grab the microphone and voice our dissent to green capitalism.
Social movements are most effective when people heed the call for a renewed society and work towards it from wherever they fall within the social stratosphere. Whether we are living off consumer society’s leftovers, or surviving as food service workers, child care providers, professional activists, teachers, trade workers, health care professionals, scientists, or social service workers, all of us inhabit social, familial and functional networks of people in which ideas can germinate and grow. Now that environmentalism is widespread, everyone has an opportunity to push the lowest common denominator of recycled shopping bags toward a higher degree of eco-consciousness. In order to fundamentally shift the course of the environmental movement we must unite around common political goals, not as professional organizers, but as regular people who want to change society. We do this by establishing networks, lines of communication, and tools to sharpen our political clarity. The environmental movement is not dead; on the contrary, the real work has just begun.