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  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
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#744 - The Environmental Movement -- Part 4: Rebuilding The Movement To Win, 13-Feb-2002

The environmental movement is a huge, powerful political force
that would appear to be unstoppable. In 30 short years it has (1)
passed a dozen pieces of national legislation, creating a
government regulatory system that its adversaries dubbed "command
and control;" (2) forced corporations to reveal each year that
they routinely dump millions of tons of cancer-causing chemicals
into our common property (our air and water); (3) launched a very
fundamental critique of the entire industrial enterprise, that it
is not "sustainable;" and even (4) challenged the bedrock idea
that all human activities add up to "progress."

Furthermore, by publicizing evidence of environmental damage, the
environmental movement has gained the support of most of the
public. Large majorities of the public -- at least two thirds --when
asked, say they want the environment protected, even at
considerable expense.[1]

Yet despite these phenomenal successes and the political power of
these issues, in recent years anti-environment forces have gained
the upper hand. Progress toward environmental protection has
stalled and in some instances slid backward. In Washington, the
environmental movement has been on the defensive, really, since
Ronald Reagan took office in 1980. Things improved only
marginally during the Clinton/Gore years.

How did anti-environmental forces become so powerful? During 30
years of hard work, self-styled "conservatives" have mobilized a
huge constituency that accepts a corporate-driven
anti-environment agenda. Most such "conservatives" tend to hold
traditional European beliefs: that nature was created, in a
primitive and unfinished state, by a Christian God who also put
humans on Earth, separate from nature and superior to it, with a
sacred duty to improve the environment by dominating and
controlling it. In this view, humans are entitled -- even obliged
-- to exploit nature because God put them on Earth for that
purpose. (The alternate view, that humans are the appointed
stewards of God's creation, is a distinctly minor strain in
Christian and secular European thinking.)[2]

This "conservative" constituency includes various groups that
share one or more of the following goals:

(a) to reduce taxes to make government smaller (and as a
consequence, intended or not, to reduce the number of government
jobs, which tend to be union jobs and which tend to be available
to non-white people);

(b) to increase U.S. military power, and to avoid entangling
alliances (such as the U.N.) so that the U.S. can remain free to
pressure any country, as needed, to protect access to foreign
supplies of cheap labor and raw materials;

(c) through "free trade" agreements, to give U.S. corporations
freedom and power to maneuver abroad, to evade taxes, to bribe
public officials, to support private armies, to exploit
indigenous labor, to extract natural resources and to dump
toxicants, as needed to improve profitability;

(d) to stamp out abortion and homosexuality, to return women to
their early 20th-century roles, and to enforce overt allegiance
to selected Christian slogans in our public institutions;

(e) to keep the economic "playing field" tilted to the advantage
of white people by denying the existence of white privilege,
which gives unearned advantages to whites from birth onward (a
subject to be explored in some detail in our next issue);[3]

(f) to imprison non-whites in numbers far out of proportion to
their rates of involvement in various criminal behaviors,
applying a different standard of justice to whites;[4]

(g) to punish the poor by making their lives difficult;

(h) to routinely violate international human rights agreements
and standards by making it difficult or impossible for U.S.
workers to form unions, bargain collectively and, if all else
fails, to strike;

(i) to create and sustain an enormous industry devoted to
distorting, ignoring and, in some cases, fabricating scientific
"facts" without any basis, as needed to retain political

(j) to retain and expand the influence of private wealth in
public elections;

(k) to slowly replace popular democracy with control by corporate

Naturally few or no "conservatives" hold every one of these
views, and some "conservatives" find some of these ideas utterly
repugnant. Still the "conservative" movement is a huge tent
holding many different people, some of whom hold each of these
views, and because they can work together they create a potent
political force that promotes the corporate anti-environment
agenda in return for support on other "conservative" agenda

Today the traditional environmental movement is not
well-positioned to prevail against these pro-corporate
anti-environmental forces because the traditional environmental
movement was founded on the assumption that legal and scientific
expertise, and rational debate, would suffice to protect the
environment. Without detracting from the very substantial
legislative accomplishments of the traditional environmental
movement -- achieved through years of dedication, personal
sacrifice and extraordinary effort -- it nevertheless remains
true that the "traditional strategies and policy solutions being
employed are proving to be increasingly limited," notes Professor
Daniel Faber at Northeastern University.[6] This is something of
an understatement. Traditional approaches have relied on
lawsuits and on lobbying, and neither tactic is presently very
effective. Legislatures and the courts are dominated by
"conservative" activists who see the environment as something God
intended us to exploit and who tend to believe that, since the
corporate agenda works for them, it's good for us all.

In sum, to build on the successes of the traditional
environmental movement and overcome the anti-environment forces
now arrayed in Washington and in statehouses across the country,
some new approaches will be needed.

Since 1980, an alternative to the traditional environmental
movement has been slowly forming in the U.S., though so far it
has gained little national visibility. It is called the
"environmental justice" movement, and though it has some problems
of its own, it represents a different approach to environmental
protection, one that speaks to people about protecting the places
where they live, work, and play.

As Daniel Faber has documented[6], the fabric of the
environmental justice movement is woven from six strands:

(1) The civil rights movement. Apartheid officially ended in the
U.S. in 1964, but environmental racism is still all too common.
The environmental regulatory system created during the 1970s and
1980s had the unintended effect of funneling pollutants into
communities of color. Well-off white people can usually buy their
way out of polluted neighborhoods, but people of color and the
poor often cannot. Pollution trading schemes, being promoted by
some traditional environmentalists, may be economically efficient
but they tend to heap additional burdens and injustices on the
poor and people of color.

(2) The occupational safety and health movement. The U.S. passed
its first national job safety law in 1970, but since then
enforcement has been lax or nonexistent. Furthermore, the law
excludes tens of millions of workers, such as farmworkers. At
least 60,000 workers die each year as a result of injuries and
illnesses related to dangerous working conditions. Another
850,000 are made sick. (See REHN #578.) At least 35 million
non-union workers say they would join a union if they could, to
protect themselves, but U.S. laws violate international human
rights standards by making unionization an uphill battle. Added
to existing unions, those 35 million would create the largest
union movement the U.S. has ever known, effectively shifting the
balance of power between the corporate elite and wage earners.

(3) The indigenous peoples' and native land rights movements,
made up of Native Americans, Chicanos, African Americans, and
other marginalized indigenous communities struggling to retain
and protect their traditional lands. Partly these groups are
fighting to control land resources, and partly they are trying to
retain cultural lifeways that are threatened with extinction by
the dominant society.

(4) The toxics movement (also known as the environmental health
movement) has been fighting for the clean-up of thousands of
contaminated waste sites across the country since 1978. The
toxics movement has also taken the initiative in discouraging
toxic technologies such as municipal garbage incinerators,
pesticides, so-called "low level" radioactive waste dumps,
coal-burning power plants, buried gasoline tanks, toxicants
dumped by the military, and more.

(5) Solidarity movements, human rights movements, and
environmental activists in the Third World are providing powerful
allies and examples of extraordinary, fearless activism. In South
Africa, Mexico, Burma, Indonesia, Nigeria, Central America, in
the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere local groups are fighting
the same fights being fought in the U.S. but with fewer resources
and against greater odds -- sometimes sacrificing their lives in
their persistent demand for environmental protection,
sustainability, self-determination, and justice.

(6) Community-based activists working for social and economic
justice have traditionally focused on issues of housing, public
transportation, crime and police conduct, access to jobs, a
living wage, redlining and lender practices, affordable daycare,
deteriorating schools, and dozens of other neighborhood issues.
They have not traditionally viewed their work as "environmental"
but now when they work on lead poisoning, cleaning up abandoned
toxic sites ("brownfields"), poor air quality, childhood asthma,
and other issues with an environmental component, they are
indisputably a part of the "environmental justice" movement.

In addition to these six strands, we see a powerful, burgeoning
seventh -- people whose health has been affected by multiple
chemical sensitivities, birth defects, breast cancer,
endometriosis, lymphoma, diabetes, chronic fatigue, veterans
affected by Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome, and many others.

An eighth strand includes the international "zero waste" and
"clean production" movements, which are quietly revolutionizing
the material basis of the industrial enterprise.

This powerful environmental justice movement -- which clearly has
the potential to become a new political mass movement -- is still
in its infancy. To grow to its potential it will need to be fed,
nurtured, cared for. It will need resources. In their report,
GREEN OF ANOTHER COLOR, Daniel Faber and Deborah McCarthy show
that, of all funds available for environmental work during the
period 1996 to 1999, some 96% went to the lawyers and scientists
of the traditional environmental movement, and only 4% went to
all the thousands of groups working to build the "environmental
justice" movement.[6] To really protect the environment (and
overcome the political power of the anti-environment
"conservatives"), these funding priorities would have to change

--Peter Montague


[1] U.S. attitudes toward many environment-related questions can
be found at

[2] Clive Ponting, A GREEN HISTORY OF THE WORLD (New York:
Penguin Books, 1993; ISBN 140176608). See Chapter 8.

[3] See, for example, Peggy McIntosh, "White Privilege: Unpacking
the Invisible Knapsack (1990). Available on the web at

The same essay has appeared under different titles in a number of
places, among them RACE, CLASS, AND GENDER: AN ANTHOLOGY, edited
by Margaret L. Andersen and Patricia Hill Collins (Belmont,
Calif: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1992), pgs. 70-81.

See also: Rinku Sen and others, THE PERSISTENCE OF WHITE
Calif.: Applied Research Center [3781 Broadway, Oakland, CA
94611; Tel. (510) 653-3415], 2001). Available at:

[4] See

[5] See Jean Hardisty, MOBILIZING RESENTMENT (Boston: Beacon
Press, 2000; ISBN 0807043176) and Godfrey Hodgson, THE WORLD
TURNED RIGHT SIDE UP (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997; ISBN

[6] Daniel R. Faber and Deborah McCarthy, GREEN OF ANOTHER COLOR
(Boston, Mass.: Northeastern University, 2001), pg. 2. Available

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