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Even the Liberal New Republic

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I make my debut in The New Republic by examining the increasing political irrelevance of environmentalism as a movement and urging it to embrace struggles based upon the lived experience of everyday people, pouring money into environmental justice movements and demanding union jobs in creating a green infrastructure, as a fix. Of course there’s a lot of history in it too.

This began to change after 1973. The postwar economic boom came to a crashing halt. Globalization began to make itself felt, with the outsourcing of American jobs. As a result, working class support for environmentalism began to wane. Employers began blackmailing unions into opposing environmental legislation, claiming they would close their factories and move to Mexico if a given law passed. The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan brought a new hostility to environmentalism in the White House. Greens responded to Reagan’s radical agenda by turning to wealthy liberal donors who could fund their lawsuits against the administration, and these donors were more ready to open their wallets with appeals to cute charismatic animals and deforestation in the Amazon, rather than reports of how pollution was affecting people of color or working class whites in Appalachia.

At the same time, environmentalists did not take strong positions on the issues affecting working class Americans. Automation and outsourcing, both of which have decimated the American working class, did not concern the movement. When industrial production left the United States for Mexico and Asia, greens largely celebrated the cleaner air and water Americans were able to enjoy. But the environmental impact of that production shifted overseas, with horrifying pollution exposure in China, India, and Mexico.

By the late 1980s, when environmentalists sought the end of logging in the Northwest’s ancient forests, many activists had open contempt for the loggers who feared for their jobs, telling them to work at Walmart. Radical greens affiliated with groups such as Earth First! drove metal spikes into trees, nearly killing one millworker, which only reinforced the opinion among the loggers that environmentalists did not care about them. Contemporary unions have reinforced this belief among the working class, with Laborers International Union of America (LIUNA) president Terry O’Sullivan notoriously condemning environmentalists for their opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline and other dirty energy projects his members would build. O’Sullivan is wrong here—a planet where humans can’t live won’t have union jobs either. But at the same time, with high-paying working class jobs disappearing in this country, who can blame O’Sullivan for grasping at any job he can get for his underemployed members?

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