What Kind of Environmentalism? Socialism and Environmental Justice

By Steve D'Arcy

There are a lot of bad ideas circulating among environmentalists today: 
there are the pro-business ideas of groups like Friends of the Earth; there is 
the incredibly racist anti-immigrant ideology which is influential among some 
(not all!) members of the Sierra Club; there are even some environmentalists 
who explicitly come out against human beings altogether, such as the 
reactionary who argued in the EarthFirst! Journal that AIDS was a good thing, 
since it would help reduce the human population and thereby supposedly 
benefit other lifeforms on earth.

Fortunately, there are also lots of good ideas out there!  First and foremost, 
there are two important political currents that should be welcomed by 
socialists: eco-socialism and environmental justice.  Of course, by mentioning 
them individually, I don't mean to suggest that either one excludes the other.  
On the contrary, their arguments and activism are mutually supportive, and 
there is reason to hope that they will continue to learn from and help develop 
each other.  Nevertheless, each has arisen in response to its own set of issues.

We can divide "environmental issues" into six rough categories, recognizing 
that there will be overlap among them in many cases:

1. ecosystem imbalances (e.g., global warming; desertification; "acid rain");
2. wilderness and wildlife conservation (e.g., endangered species; rainforest
3. animal welfare (e.g., animal testing; factory farming);
4. public health risks (e.g., toxic waste disposal; nuclear power)
5. occupational hazards (e.g., unsafe or unhealthy 	working conditions)
6. environmental inequities (e.g., environmental racism; undemocratic 
   production decisions)

Of these, the mainstream organizations of the environmental movement 
(from the mid-1960s on) have placed overwhelming emphasis on the first 
three categories, and to a lesser extent the fourth.  They have ignored 
almost completely the fifth and sixth types of issue.  This emphasis is linked 
to their political strategy: a strategy of winning popular financial support for 
a lobbying effort aiming at getting regulatory legislation passed by 
governments and accepted by businesses.  Ordinary people serve as donors 
or voters, but not as direct agents of political change, in this approach to 
politics.  As a result, there is no need to emphasize issues which affect 
people so directly that they can be mobilized to struggle on behalf of 
themselves, their communities and their co-workers.  Issues of protection 
and preservation (categories 1 to 3), which appeal to potential donors on a
sentimental/emotional level, inevitably attract the most attention.

But from the beginning of the modern environmental movement, it has 
been clear that the kind of issues around which it is easiest to mobilize 
masses of people to take action demanding change have been those 
falling under categories 4 through 6: issues of public health, workplace 
health and safety, and environmental inequities.

Inevitably, eco-socialists and environmental justice activists (socialist or 
not) have placed considerably more attention on these issues, than on 
issues of conservation.  Crucial to the development of eco-socialism has 
been the participation of socialists in grassroots struggles against public 
health risks (such as toxic waste and nuclear power) and struggles around 
the world for indigenous rights.  And the environmental justice movement 
initially arose as a response to the pattern of governments locating 
polluting industries and dumps disproportionately in neighbourhoods 
populated primarily by people of colour.

The distinctive sort of environmentalism that has arisen from these 
struggles has begun to take shape as a real alternative to the familiar 
fundraise-and-lobby approach which has spent countless millions of 
dollars but accomplished comparatively little.  This new-style radical 
environmentalism holds out the promise of building a new mass 
movement based on the self-organization of the people most directly 
affected by capitalism's ruthless exploitation of both the natural 
environment and the people who live in it.

In the meantime, a number of key points of political difference have 
emerged that distinguish eco-socialism and environmental justice from 
mainstream environmentalism.  In particular, the former currents have 

(1) a strategy of grassroots action, rather than a narrow lobbying and 
    education strategy; 
(2) demanding pollution and hazard prevention, rather than regulation 
    or cleanup after the damage is already done; 
(3) a defense of vital human needs, such as for safety or for clean air 
    and water, rather than identifying human needs as the fundamental 
(4) an emphasis on the destructive impact of methods and priorities in 
    production (and decisions about consumption options made at the 
    point of production), rather than on the symptom of consumption 
    patterns themselves; 
(5) an analysis of ecosystemic imbalances that relates them to the 
    privatization of economic power in the hands of unaccountable 
    firms, rather than an analysis that scapegoats the poor, immigrants 
    or the abstract idea of "modernity" or technology as such;
(6) above all, an attempt to integrate a critical analysis of class rule, 
    racism, sexism and imperialism into an enriched radical 
    environmentalism, rather than dismissing these "human-centred" 
    issues as peripheral to the supposedly more pressing questions of 
    the health of "the planet."

None of this means that socialist environmentalists should ignore 
issues of type 1, 2, or 3.  On the contrary, issues like soil erosion or 
global warming are far too important -- both for human welfare and 
for the long-range viability of the socialist project -- to be ignored.  
What it means is that the starting-point of a socialist environmentalism 
must be a determination to link together (both in theory and practice) 
struggles to defend our environment and struggles for social justice -- 
struggles against class rule, racism, sexism and imperialism.  This 
means that environmentalism needs to change; but it also means 
that environmentalism can help to change and renew the socialist 
critique of capitalism and the socialist strategy for eradicating it.  
This pamphlet is an attempt to contribute to this process.

(Steve D'Arcy is a member of the Resistance Collective)

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