What way forward for environmentalists?

September 20, 2013

Important article on political perspectives for the environmental movement by leading ecosocialist Chris Williams. --PG

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Strategy and tactics in the environmental movement
Climate & Capitalism

by Chris Williams

Posted on September 20, 2013

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, Green Group’s May be More Damaging than Climate Change Deniers, has sparked a furious debate amongst 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 which has smoldered since the emergence of a more combative and distinctive left current within the environmental 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 no-one review or buy her upcoming book and film on climate change.

Klein responded that, as 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 “taking a sledge hammer to an ally” Romm should examine “what’s in your (bloody) hand”.

Regardless of the rhetoric, the opening up of space for broader and deeper political discussion is to be welcomed in a movement that to its detriment, has too often focused more on specific environmental battles and the activism needed to win them, than it has on an examination and discussion of the politics that underlie any particular course of action.

Given the environmental crisis, the need for urgency of action, and the conservatism of the mainstream of the movement, dominated by giant, top-down, well-funded NGO’s, 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, in the military meaning of the term, even a full discussion of the 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 response of some of the more market-oriented environmental organizations to drown out Klein’s arguments, what they are objecting to the most isn’t in fact, the claim that they are worse than climate deniers. Rather, that Klein’s larger sin lies elsewhere, in bringing out into the open a discussion large Green NGO’s 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 relationship between our economic and social system to the ecological and climate crisis. A fearful prospect which threatens not only specific tactics, but their entire raison d’être.

Invoking the word justice, as activists of color did when they formed organizations in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s focused on environmental justice 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 US environmental movement in the late 1960’s.

The movement effectively split; on one side, 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, a more localized, 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.