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The State of the Environmental Movement

By Burkeley Herrman - August 17, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Recently, the Washington Post covered a 192-page study that struck to the heart of the big environmental organizations. As summarized by reporter Darryl Fears of the Post, who covers wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay, the study showed that the US's biggest environmental groups have “failed to keep pace with the nation's expanding minority populations—and remain overwhelmingly white.” Rather than going into the specifics of certain numbers in the article and the study, this article will be a reaction to what the Post wrote and my thoughts on the current state of the environmental movement.

As the article notes, the study, which was one of the first investigations “of diversity within green groups in years,” was supported financially by the Sierra Club, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Green 2.0. Through some further research I found that Green 2.0. is clearly a mainstream environmental organization since it has a working group composed of people from top environmental groups, academics, nine individuals from a lobbying and consulting group with clients including big foundations, big corporations and nonprofits (The Raben Group), governmental officials and other green activists. What about the study itself? The article talks not only about the lack of diversity in the environmental organizations, but why people of color don't join such organizations. This was part of the article I found most interesting since it noted that people of color who are employed at such organizations feel “alienated” and not welcome, while “recruitment for staff frequently occurs through word-of-mouth and informal networks...[which] makes it difficult for ethnic minorities, the working class” or anyone outside “traditional environmental networks” to know about job openings and then apply for such jobs.

This was only the first part of the article that made me realize the divide in the environmental movement. This divide is a racial one. As the article notes, during the civil rights movement, people of color joined big environmental organizations in an effort to “battle the power plants, petrochemical refineries, railroads, sewers, and other polluters operating in their communities,” but they were “unwelcome” in these organizations. Eventually, there was a summit of environmentalists who were people of color which condemned the big environmental organizations for not having diversity among their members and taking in a “lion's share of funding.” Recruiters from some of the groups responded, saying, in an almost a racist way, that “they tried to be more inclusive, but minorities lacked the education and skills needed to be effective advocates,” which implied that white advocates had the skills and education. While it is true that some people of color don't have such skills, others do. Additionally, the social environment certain people of color grow up in, especially in ghettos or slums in the inner-city areas, could result in not having these skills. As I wrote in a paper about the conditions inside prisons and the reasons for the rise of mass incarceration, that not only is the mass arrest of people within the US, the war on drugs, and the education system bias against people of color, but the hope for “a better world is to be in the 'next generation'” is greatly diminished when “when many of these people [of color] are these people are in jail or in prison.” Even so, it is still unacceptable that people would be excluded since all the environmental groups would have to do is teach someone skills if they did not know them already. It's not that hard. As a result of such opinions and the treatment of people of color inside such organizations, it is not a surprise that it's hard to retain people of color.

There were two lines in the article that really made me think about the state of the environmental movement which talked about the racial divide within the environmental movement itself: “the divide has resulted in two environmental movements. One is white and the other non-white, one rich and the other poor, one devoted largely to advocating on behalf of wilderness areas and the other for 'environmental justice' in core urban areas where minorities tend to live.” The best of example of this is in my home state of Maryland. Environmental groups like the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN),, anti-fracking groups, and others have been fighting against the expansion of Cove Point from just having a natural gas import facility to having a natural gas export facility. Yet, these same groups are not joining with community groups to stop the building of a dirty, waste-to-energy plant, supported by the political establishment, in the majority black city of Baltimore and is in the city's “most polluted neighborhood”. There are likely many more examples but this is the best one that I could come up with off hand. The racial divide is also present in the loosely organized hackitivist collective, Anonymous, and social movements such as Occupy and the feminist movement. The latter resulted in women of color feminists coming up with unique, critical thoughts about feminism including the idea of intersectionality which has to some extent been incorporated into feminism. The former came up with the people of color working group (seemingly defunct) and had offshoots such as Occupy Our Homes which attempts to stop foreclosures.

Many responses to the report, which I found on twitter, seemed to bring up not only the racial divide, but a divide between caring about urban issues and caring about the wilderness. One twitterer said that

“the farther you get from "environmentalists," the closer you get to the environment.” Another said that “white guys seem to rule the roost in liberal green groups.” Comments below the Post article echo some of these concerns as well, one saying that foundations that “a major source of funds for green groups...are even less racially diverse” and are “the last bastion of white, male, Ivy League privilege, staffed by people who have never had a real job in their lives” while another said that “green groups are dogmatic, biased and contrived.” Others also reflected these ideas. One person, who said they had worked in environmental groups for some time, confirmed that there was a lot of “'whiteness' in the environmental world” but that it is going too far to reflect any sort of “purposeful exclusion” of people of color. Another commenter said they had also been a member of an environmental group, specifically the Sierra Club, saying that they quit ater the late 1990s, because they claimed it had become “a homeowner association” since, in their view, “the wealthy would cut down wilderness at the edge of a city then get active in the Sierra Club and other groups as supposed environmentalists in order to protect their property values by not letting anyone else do what they did.”

All of these observations are even more accurate with the rise of so-called “neogreens.” Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth recently wrote in The Guardian about this new phenomenon, writing that “hope is certainly in short supply in environmental circles these days...[and after all,] green activism has achieved a lot in five decades, but it has been unable to prevent the global industrial machine from continuing to destroy wild nature and replace it with human culture.” In response to this, there is a new group called neo-environmentalists, which like neoliberals, “speak the language of money and power” and cluster around certain thinktanks like “the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Cato Institute and the Adam Smith Institute.” Kingsnorth continued, writing that this new type of environmentalism is “a progressive, business-friendly, postmodern take on the environmental dilemma” that not only “dismisses traditional green thinking” but it embraces “new technologies, global capitalism and western-style development” with examples including “biotechnology, synthetic biology, nuclear power, nanotechnology, [and] geo-engineering.” Scarily, for such people the Earth is only for people and the “value of nature is measured by what we can do with it.” In response to this, Kingsnorth says that the mainstream environmental movement's “single-minded obsession with climate change and technological solutions to it” are part of the problem, as are campaigns which avoid “acknowledging our intuitive, emotional relationship” with the Earth. His solution? That we need to go back “to the basics” by stepping back, getting “our hands dirty and our feet wet, to smell the rain when it comes and get a feel for where we are on this Earth and what, at the root of it all, we can still usefully do.”

Still, there is something that the report misses and it isn't the effects of the gender gap between men and women in big environmental organizations, which seemed to be mostly closed, or the minimal recommendations given by the report's author. Instead, it is the advent of corporate environmentalism. Since last year, I've written about this topic numerous times, noting that corporations corrupt organizations through sponsorship and about the big environmental groups themselves, which can be called “Gang Green.” In my first big article on the subject, I wrote that such groups that have “huge staffs...a good number of lobbyists, and bring in millions each year,” are influenced by foundation money which makes them less radical, and take in corporate funding which means that some groups serve as “corporate leeches in the the environmental movement.” Hence, Gang Green serves the corporate-state nexus as they focus on Keystone XL and not other worse pipelines such as the Northern Gateway pipeline built by Enbridge, the Kinder Morgan and the Spectra pipeline. Such views of Gang Green could also be seeping into environmental groups on college campuses as I experienced with a supposed radical environmental group on my college campus. The views of these groups really came to light when I went to Power Shift, the “conference of environmental youth” as my wanna-be anarchist friend once said. There was not only uniformity that barely challenged President Obama and mainly focused on stopping the Keystone pipeline in the opening and final plenaries, but there were similar feelings among many of the panels at the conference which towed the liberal line. These are all aspects the study nor the article even mentions.

The study itself may be flawed not only because it does not recognize the “two environmental movements” as argued in the Washington Post article which is the basis for this piece, but it does not realize the division between radicals and non-radicals in the environmental movement. This was present right in front of my eyes during the mic-check at last year's Power Shift which not only brought up an important issue, but challenged the liberal environmentalists in the room as well. This was also present during the huge march in February 2013 where the speakers almost tried to merge the actions of liberals protesting Keystone XL in the cities with those resisting it on the ground in the Midwest. This is utterly absurd because those on the ground are grassroots organizations, indigenous peoples, farmers and concerned citizens across the spectrum. They don't have figures who basically act as celebrities or “godlike” like Bill McKibben, Al Gore and Tim DeChristopher, among others, who can't dare be questioned because they magically are “always right.” Additionally, those on the ground in the Midwest are fighting against the Keystone XL pipeline regardless of political affiliation, while the mainstream movement is liberal and favors the Democratic Party. Such liberals would probably favor someone like Super PAC funder Tom Steyer who opposes the Keystone XL pipeline, but is also a multi-billionaire hedge fund manager who is only looking out for his bottom line and not much else. Maybe it is these reasons rather than just those listed in the study and the Washington Post article that people of color leave big environmental organizations.

The world is in crisis thanks to war, climate change and capitalism, with armed conflicts brewing and exploding across the world. In such a world, it is dangerous and destructive to humanity itself to embrace corporate environmentalism, which advocates “market-based solutions” to climate change such as: cap and trade or more accurately cap and giveaway; the UN program called REDD++ which claims to reduce deforestation; and the carbon tax. These “solutions” will not put in place the sustainable “depletion of nature” and the equitable distribution of resources, both of which would allow the human population to reach “a steady state at maximum carrying capacity,” in order to stop societal collapse, as argued in a controversial study. Instead, community-centered radical approaches, that challenge capitalism while conceptualizing alternatives in the real world and in the mind, are what is needed going forward. Such approaches must just save our little blue planet and everything that lives on it from an even worse climate catastrophe years down the road.

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