Joshua Galperin has a good essay arguing that we need an aggressive environmentalism that seeks transformative solutions to environmental problems instead of what he sees as the piecemeal corporate-friendly environmentalism his students favor today. This is a useful counterpoint to the unexamined cliche that apocalyptic environmentalism turns people away from doing anything at all. People say this all the time but I have never seen a single study that suggests this is actually true.
The need for an aggressive environmentalism that demands widespread corporate behavioral change is threefold. First, the planet and the people who live upon it face enormous challenges, especially climate change. Tweaking corporate behavior around the edges won’t solve that problem. Second, any study of social change in American history strongly suggests that only calls for radical change lead to the struggles that create even moderate change. Third, if you want to create the mass political movement that moves politicians to pass the legislation that encodes these, even relatively moderate demands, you have to touch people’s hearts and get them working for a goal. Moderate environmentalism fails on all three of these levels. Richard Nixon was no environmentalist (and I hate, hate, hate that Galperin cites him as one, not to mention a person who cared about nature, which is just untrue but the cliche that Nixon was a great environmental president has become so widespread that it’s more useful to use him as a rhetorical device to claim environmentalism can become bipartisan than to swim against the current) but he faced a desire for environmental legislation so widespread that transformative legislation was passing the House by votes like 372-15, in the case of the National Environmental Policy Act that there was no point in a veto.
Galperin’s characterization of environmentalist students is not true of all but does largely vibe with my experiences over the past decade:
My students are extraordinary, but many see themselves as “corporate social responsibility consultants,” “ecosystem service managers,” “sustainability leaders,” “industrial efficiency experts,” maybe “clean energy entrepreneurs” — not environmentalists. They avoid that label because they associate it with stalled progress on the issues they care about. But this reinvention is a losing strategy.
I think this is partially a result of the emphasis on apolitical “service” and “leadership” at both the high school and college levels that actually serves to channel potential activism into working with corporations or service organizations in ways that don’t challenge the status quo, an emphasis that becomes stronger when the potential for a job at the end of college in a weak employment market for good jobs is out there. But there are real problems with this kind of thinking, as I stated above. He states this is a “desperate environmentalism,” one that assumes corporate power over the world and hopes that maybe we can work with them to make changes since we can’t challenge them.
What do we need instead?
The environmentalists of old insisted on transformation not marginal gains. The Clean Water Act aimed to restore the integrity of all the nation’s waters by eliminating water pollution. Now we quantify whether such improvement is economically efficient, and we politely ask whether an industrial facility might consider reducing its discharge. Perhaps, desperate environmentalists suggest, such a reduction would improve the bottom line by reducing some costs. Suddenly, economic efficiency moves from being one in a collection of cultural values that drive decisions to the only relevant value.
And the ratchet turns in only one direction. Having conceded so much to conservative approaches, desperate environmentalists cannot advocate what is now a radical idea of the past: Government should force polluters to reduce pollution for the sake of healthy natural systems and human enjoyment.
The problem is, desperate environmentalists strive for a mythical conservative embrace but cooperation from the right is unrealistic. As they move right in an attempt to meet their opponents, the opponents will not, at some undefined threshold of compromise, consent to new policies of protection. Rather, desperate environmentalists could continue to erode their position until environmentalism grows unrecognizable.
He then cites the once-Republican idea for cap and trade that today is hated by Republicans as an example of this bait and switch. What we really need is largely what we need for violations of labor rights–demands for corporate accountability, new laws that create that accountability, and an aggressive regulatory state that assumes corporations are probably guilty and seeks to catch them rather than becoming subject to regulatory capture. We need legislation that puts hands in the power of citizens and workers to hold these corporations accountable and we need to use the tools we have now and the tools we can create to hold the corporations accountable wherever they operate, including outside U.S. borders. And while this sounds utopian, note that the Investor State Dispute Settlement courts already provide a framework that we can build from, even if they exist to promote strictly corporate interests at the present and that we have successfully regulated corporations before and we can do so again. There’s plenty of historical evidence to suggest that these are attainable goals. But we have to stop thinking we are going to work with corporations to make those changes, especially on environmental issues. Because they are not our friends and will fight it the whole way.