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Liberal vs. Radical Enviros, Redux


Every few years the question of selling out comes up again, most recently it has been in the circles of the environmental movements. First it was Shellenberger and Nordhaus in their Grist Magazine article, the “Death of Environmentalism.” This cogent argument was countered nicely by Michel Gelobter and his numerous co-authors in their “Soul of Environmentalism.” All of this felt alarmingly similar to the raging debate between the Sierra Club directors and the insurgent environmental racism activists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Now Jeffrey St. Clair has brought it up again, and rightly so! The Sierra Club, the NRDC, EDF, and WWF are more sclerotic than athletic, more myopically interested in failing reformist policy than in listening to their base constituency.

But all of this should sound familiar. It is the old debate between the liberals and the radicals, between the reformists and the revolutionaries. From the Knights of Labor being sold out by the combination of the AFL and the CIO, to the socialists selling out the anarchists, there is a rich history of battles fought amongst those on the Left. And these battles are important, especially when formerly oppositional groups grow a little to comfortable with their fancy new digs near the seat of power. St. Clair is absolutely right to call “foul!” on the mainstream environmental groups, ensconced on K street in DC, collecting checks from their members via mass-mailings, but remaining otherwise insulated. But the Sierra Club and the other mass membership organizations are but one dimension of environmentalism: there is no such thing as the environmental movement. Instead there is a collection of many groups, movements, strategies and approaches that represent the full panoply of environmental movements. And it is here that St. Clair misses the most vivacious and thrilling part of the contemporary environmental movement: the continued work of the environmental justice activists and the rise of the anarchists.

By far the most vibrant, exciting, and successful set of movements in environmentalism today surround issues of environmental justice. Combining the strengths of race-based and class-based and gender-based movements, activists organizing under the banner of environmental justice have done what the Sierra Club could not: bring honor, integrity, and clean air and water to many out of the way, ignored, poor communities of color.

These movements have been gaining power for many years. Some date the beginning at Love Canal, others say that the Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta’s farm worker unionization movement was in large part about exposure to toxics, and thus about environmental justice. However you date the origins, it took many years for the mainstream groups to take note of these truly grassroots environmental and labor movements. They were organized in large part by poor women of color, those very folks who are the most shut out of the corridors of power that Nature Conservancy lobbyists walk through daily. It is no wonder that the reaction of mainstream environmentalists was at first to be defensive and hostile. But these movements-for environmental justice, against environmental racism and classism-are precisely the most thrilling and vibrant parts of the set of environmental movements today. The thrill hasn’t disappeared, as St. Clair argues, it has just moved to different locations, across the tracks to the low-rent district, into the agricultural fields, downstream from the chemical plant.

And what about those young folks who are pioneering new forms of activism? No more Kumbaya, no more business as usual: these folks are against all authority, whether that is the boss, the governor, or the highly-paid environmental lobbyist. Many folks today are so frustrated by the same sell-out that St. Clair points to that they see the mainstream environmental movements as illegitimate. No one, it seems, really speaks for the environment. Who can? Who will put their bodies on the line to save the trees from being cut, to send a message to the makers and buyers of SUVs? These new activists, following the earth first! model are monkey-wrenching the ecologically destructive practices of modernity. Many of these political actions engage in or flirt with property destruction, and are often based in a political philosophy of anarchism.

Actions on behalf of the environment that have involved property destruction or trespassing have been widespread-from California to Colorado to Indiana to New York-by people acting on their own and those associated with groups such as the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), Earth First!, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), among others. Some have targeted new housing developments, others have opposed commercial projects. The activists have ranged from the 23 year old Julia Butterfly Hill who sat in an old-growth redwood tree for two years to keep it from being harvested for timber to the 42 year old John Quigley who quietly sat in 200 year old oak tree in Los Angeles County for 70 days to protect it from being cut down for a housing development.

Trespassing in a tree is one thing. Tossing a garbage can through a Starbucks window in the Seattle WTO protests is another. And then there are people like Jeff “Free” Luers, who is serving a 22 year sentence for torching an SUV on a new car lot in Oregon as a form of protest against global warming. The mainstream media has been quick to judge such activists, calling them “eco-terrorists” and denigrating their actions as selfish, violent, and sociopathic. And many environmentalists decry the destruction of property as detrimental to the movement-after a ski lodge was burned down in Aspen, Colorado local environmentalists felt that they had to distance themselves from such “extremism.”

But of course, as the famous phrase goes, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and tolerance in the face of tyranny is no virtue. We should not be afraid of young people who feel strongly that the destruction of the earth in the name of “development” or “progress” is wrong, and attempt take action to draw attention to perceived abuses of the environment in the only way they know how. When people feel strongly enough about a political issue to destroy property, they clearly are not being heard-they feel that they have no voice through normal, approved channels like their governmental representative or the Sierra Club. So while one might disagree with the strategy of property destruction (and we have yet to see a healthy debate on this), there are certainly still “thrilling” elements to the environmental movements.

And so we have the radicals torching SUVs, and the liberals trying to pass tax credits for investing in solar panels. Who is right? Which is the correct path to the goal of a sustainable future? Of course it is a diversity of tactics that makes a movement successful. Without Malcolm X banging on the back door, Martin Luther King Jr. wouldn’t ever have been let in the front door.

KEVIN WEHR is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the California State University at Sacramento, and can be reached at


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