The inconvenient truth about greenwashing
A discussion initiated by activist, author and filmmaker Naomi Klein has raised important questions for the environmental movement, from the character of mainstream groups to the strategies of the left. Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis and a participant in the ecosocialist coalition System Change Not Climate Change, responds to the debate in this first installment of a three-part article.
Tactics: the science and art of using a fighting force to the best advantage having regard to the immediate situation of combat.
Strategy: the science and art of conducting a military campaign in its large-scale and long-term aspects.
-- The New Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language
NAOMI KLEIN, in a recent interview for Salon.com titled "Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers," has sparked a furious debate among activists on the right and left of the North American environmental movement.
Thanks to Klein's article, the flames of controversy have been fanned and brought forth some fiery rhetoric around a dispute that has smoldered since the emergence of a more combative and distinctive left current within the movement--a current associated with the concept of climate justice, and one that has further expanded since Occupy burst onto the political scene in the fall of 2011.
Prominent climate blogger Joseph Romm, in a quite rancorous piece, labeled Klein's views as "filled with contrarian 'media bait' statements devoid of substance" and recommended that no one review or buy her upcoming book and film on climate change.
Klein responded that since neither her book nor her film have been released yet, offering a critique of them was "a new twist on old-school arrogance"--and that if anyone was guilty of "taking a sledge hammer to an ally," Romm should examine "what's in your (bloody) hand."
The rhetoric notwithstanding, the opening up of space for broader and deeper political discussion is to be welcomed in a movement that has, to its detriment, too often focused more on specific environmental battles and the activism needed to win them, than on an examination and discussion of the politics that underlie any particular course of action.
Given the environmental crisis, the urgent need for action and the conservatism of the mainstream of the movement, dominated by giant, top-down, well-funded NGOs such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, not only has the question of strategy often been given short shrift, but even a full discussion of appropriate tactics has been neglected.
Beyond the individual protagonists, the broader debate essentially boils down to a single and vitally important question: What is the most effective terrain, and with which combination of troops and allies, should the environmental movement engage with opposing forces in order to emerge victorious?
One suspects that, given the attempt of some of the more market-oriented environmental organizations to drown out Klein's arguments, what they are objecting to most isn't, in fact, the claim that they are worse than climate deniers. Rather, to them, Klein's larger sin lies elsewhere, in bringing out into the open a discussion that the big green NGOs would prefer to keep buried.
They fear antagonizing their funding sources and losing millions of dollars, should they become associated with more radical ideas--ones that center on discussing the nature of capitalism itself and the connection between our economic and social system and the ecological and climate crisis. This fearful prospect threatens not only specific tactics, but their entire raison d'Ítre.
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INVOKING THE word justice, as activists of color did when they formed organizations in the late 1970s and early '80s to tackle virulent and pervasive institutionalized environmental racism, this debate actually goes back, as Naomi Klein referenced, to controversies that first emerged with the rise to prominence of the modern U.S. environmental movement in the late 1960s.
The movement effectively split. On one side was a predominantly white, mainstream movement which dismissed or downplayed questions of race, class or gender and chiefly focused on wilderness issues, preservation and conservation. On the other was a more localized, and more often than not African American-led environmental justice movement focused on the human environment affected by environmental racism, poverty and inequality in urban and rural settings.
Rather than being able to work in partnership with the power structure, the concept of justice implies a power relationship and opposing sides with distinct interests.
To quote Van Jones in a Washington Post article earlier this year, "We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement...We're too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement."
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