A beautiful thing is happening: Advocates for racial justice and for environmental protection—too often, movements quite distant from each other—are coming together in a new way. One can see it in the campaign of National People’s Action and the Climate Justice Alliance to push for a just and locally empowering transition to clean energy; in the New Economy Coalition’s inclusive membership and commitment to front-line communities; and in the projects of the Evergreen Cooperatives, in inner-city Cleveland. These new efforts (may they multiply!) are grounded on a strong foundation. When one explores the roots of both the environmental and civil-rights movements, one finds a strikingly similar radical critique. Both movements have called for a deep restructuring of society and the economy; in both cases, that call is based on an affirmation of life and the devoted care that life requires of us.
There is urgency in this fusing. Environmentalists must confront a haunting paradox. Our environmental organizations have grown ever stronger, more sophisticated, and better funded, winning many battles along the way. Yet, 46 years after the first Earth Day, we find ourselves on the cusp of a ruined planet. Climate change is bearing down on us, with dire consequences that disproportionately impact the poor. Around the world, we are losing biodiversity, forests, fisheries, and agricultural soils at a frightening rate. Fresh-water shortages multiply. Toxins accumulate in ecosystems and in our bodies. Something is terribly wrong, and more of the same cannot be the answer. It’s time for environmentalists to reassess and reboot. It’s time for a new environmentalism.
One can begin by asking: What is an environmental issue? We’d say that an environmental issue is any issue that affects environmental performance. When answered that way, environmental issues must include our failing political system and the erosion of democracy; the pervasive economic insecurity that paralyzes political action; and the materialistic, racially divisive, and completely anthropocentric values that dominate our culture. Environmental degradation is also driven by the triple imperatives of GDP growth at almost any cost, sustained corporate profits, and the projection of national power around the world.
These are among the root causes of our environmental decline, and if American environmentalists ever hope to succeed, we must find ways to address these systemic issues, which our movement has largely ignored. Environmentalists must revive our legacy of radical critique. In the movement’s early days in the 1960s and ’70s, those at the forefront asserted the need for a radical restructuring of the economy and society. Ecologist Barry Commoner was not alone in asking, in his 1971 best seller The Closing Circle, whether the operational requirements of the capitalist system are compatible with ecological imperatives. Commoner’s answer was no: If we do the right things for the environment, he argued, it’s difficult to see how today’s economic system could continue to operate, as dependent as it is on accumulation and growth.
Ideas like these motivated many of us as we set out to build the modern environmental movement. Reviving these ideas will require a new democratic politics, one that reasserts the ascendancy of people power over money power and moves us far away from the plutocracy and corporatocracy we see today. Rebuilding people power requires a fusion of progressive efforts, which means that progressives of all stripes must come out of our individual silos to build an unprecedented social movement.