An Interview with Jeffrey St. Clair


Jeffrey St. Clair is an environmentalist and author of Been Brown So Long it Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature. He is also the co-editor with Alexander Cockburn of several new books including Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, and Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yugoslavia. He currently resides in Oregon City, Oregon.

JOSHUA FRANK: Jeff, thanks for agreeing to this interview. So many progressives I’ve talked to, who admit John Kerry offers no alternative to the Bush Administration on almost every issue — often justify their support for the Kerry ticket by saying that there is at least a stark difference between Bush and Kerry on the environmental front. They point out such things as Bush’s disregard for science, his horrible forest plan, his roll-back of Bill Clinton’s roadless rule — while they see Kerry as an environmental crusader who has received ringing endorsements from all the major environmental groups. Having covered environmental politics since the early 1990s, how do you respond to this rationale? Do you agree that indeed there are major differences between Bush and Kerry regarding the environment?

Jeffrey St. Clair: Let’s get some things straight up front. The environmental movement bears very little relationship to the “major environmental groups.” The big groups, aka Gang Green, function politically as little more than green front for the Democratic Party. Of course, they inflate Kerry as an environmental crusader. They would say, and indeed have said, the same thing about any Democratic nominee. That’s their job. They do it very well, indeed. They should, because the Beltway Greens aren’t really environmentalists any more in the way we used to think of enviros 15 or 20 years ago. These aren’t activists, but lawyers and lobbyists, mainly from Ivy League schools, overwhelmingly white and liberal, who could (and perhaps will) just as easily be lobbying on health care, abortion rights, trade policy. They come packing with a PhD in deal making. There’s no driving commitment to wilderness or burning rage about cancer alley or passionate concern about the fate of the grizzly. It’s all very congenial, nicely compensated, prefabricated and totally uninspired.

The irony, of course, is that the better this new breed of eco-lobbyist do their job (i.e., act as a kind of mercenary force against the Republicans), the less seriously most rational people (except the perenniably gullible) take them. With good reason. There’s more threat inflation being waged by the Big Greens, than by the Bush administration in the run-up to the Iraq war. Does Bush want to pursue corporate-driven environmentally hostile policies? Of course. Is Kerry an environmental crusader? Of course, not. And there’s the lie. In it’s zeal to become a Beltway player, the Big Greens have ceased to be truth-tellers. For example, the Greens say Bush has turned his back on the Kyoto protocols. True enough. But they neglect to say that Kerry turned his back first, voting against Kyoto while he was a senator and Clinton was president. This is to say that Bush was tight with Ken Lay and covered for Enron. Right on. We all know Bush, the inveterate nick-name dropper, dubbed Lay “Kenny Boy.” But they over look the fact that Lay and the Kerry’s are also very good friends and frequent dining companions. Moreover, Ken Lay was recruited by Teresa Heinz Kerry for a seat on the board of her environmental foundation, where he was assigned the task of heading the foundation’s global warming task force. They charge that Bush, fully marinated in crude oil, wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Horrible, but true. They say that Kerry opposes this. And that’s true, too. But they elide the fact that Kerry told Teamster’s president Jimmy Hoffa that while he won’t drill in ANWR, he does plan to drill “everywhere else like never before.” Where would everywhere else include? The coastal plain of Alaska, offshore waters of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico, the Rocky Mountain Front, the red rock country of Utah, the deserts of New Mexico, the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. There’s more. Kerry met with the American Gas Association a few weeks ago and pledged his support for a Trans-Alaska-Canada Natural Gas Pipeline that will cut across some of the most incredible tundra and taiga on Earth — a project that will dwarf the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. No one among the Beltway Greens even squeaked. This amounts to a grand and debilitating hypocrisy.

JF: Does this perpetual hypocrisy of the Big Greens go any deeper? Such endorsements seem to carry a lot of weight with potential voters. Larry Fahn, the Sierra Club’s current president, said following their endorsement of John Kerry, “Now, thousands of Sierra Club members in every state will be volunteering their efforts to tell voters about the clear choice in this election [We are] encouraging all Americans who care about the environment to vote for John Kerry in November.” This is an enviro organization that boasts of having over 700,000 members. That’s a huge number of potential Kerry supporters. What are the reasons the Club blatantly turns its back on its radical John Muir roots? What are their motivations for being a “green-front” for the Democratic Party as you say?

JSC: Yes, it goes much deeper than just hypocrisy. It involves big money, an obscene craving for political access, ego enlargement and a kind of political paternalism that I (and many others) find revolting. I don’t think the environment will play that much of a factor in the election. Nobody listens to environmentalists anymore, except their own captive members. That’s my point. The Big Greens have marginalized the environmental movement through their blatant partisanship. The environment isn’t an election issue any more, because there’s no viable green candidate — a fact that is apparent to the average teenager in Lincoln, Nebraska. Essentially, Fahn and the others play the role of cattle drivers, keeping their own herd in line, lest it stampede over into Nader’s greener pastures. Yes, the Club has 700,000 members. But these aren’t activists. The Club doesn’t want activists, indeed they run them out of the organization. Activists have an unwelcome tendency to think and act for themselves. They aren’t great at following marching orders, especially when it means marching over a cliff.

JF: Speaking of “no viable green candidate,” David Cobb, the Green Party Presidential candidate, is currently polling at 0%. If that is even possible. His support apparently isn’t even a blip on the electoral radar screen. What do you think the ramifications will be for the Greens who, like the Sierra Club, were founded on radical environmental ideals, but have apparently sidelined any radical tendencies, and opted to run a “smart-state” campaign which basically endorses John Kerry for president?

JSC: I think the Greens are kaput, a kind of group political suicide on the order of Jonestown or that strange cult in Rancho Santa Fe who neutered themselves, donned their black sweat suits and Nikes, & poisoned themselves while waiting for the Hale-Bopp Comet. David Cobb is either Jim Jones or Hale-Bopp. Take your pick. A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, the founding purpose of the Green party was to be a party of resistance. It was never about party building, or getting school board candidates elected, or anything but being a monkeywrench against a corrupt political system. Once the Greens decided to play nice, they ceased to exist as a force of opposition. Why be a Green when you can be a Dem? Why be a Dem when you can be a Republican? The only choice now is not to vote. Staying home on Election Day under these circumstances isn’t apathy or laziness or political mopery (as much as I admire all of those things) but an act of supreme resistance, particularly against those hysterical Dems who yelp that this is the most important election of our lifetime. Bunk.

JF: Would you say that Ralph Nader is playing nice this election season? Is there reason to stay home with him in the race? Or is he just playing by the rules, much like the Greens, unwilling to monkeywrench against the political system?

JSC: I think Ralph played coy for too long. Then he was baited into running by the very smear artists who spent three years mugging him. They really underestimated what Ralph is made of — which just shows that they are as stupid as they are politically corrupt. He wasn’t going to stand by and allow a bunch of political thugs and liars to besmirch his character. Then he was betrayed by his own political progenies, including the Green Party, which he almost single-handedly built into a national force. Ralph is a lawyer and a good one. He lives by rules and plays by them. He’s not a monkeywrencher or revolutionary or even a radical. He believes in ethical government, despite all the odds. If Nader makes the Oregon ballot — a long shot given the slimy tactics used against him by Democrats and some Greens — I will happily vote for him. I take Foucault seriously. Politics is really about power. The only power the Left (loosely speaking) enjoys these days is the power of negation. We can’t elect Nader or Camejo or Jackson. But we can defeat bad Democrats, like Gore and Kerry. Until the Democrats bend in our direction or a new political party rises to challenge them. And it doesn’t take much, other then courage, to make this happen — an all out anti-war & anti-free trade campaign waged in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Oregon, New Hampshire, Maine and New Mexico. Those are the states that matter. Those are the states that will force the power elite to deal with the Left. Until that happens, the Democratic Party will continue to move to the right, outpacing the Repubs on several issues.

JF: On what issues have the Democrats outpaced the Republicans?

JSC: It’s a long list, Josh. NAFTA, welfare deform, evisceration of the Endangered Species Act, the drug war, logging the national forests (the ANNUAL cut under Clinton was three to four times the TOTAL cut under Bush for his first 3 years) and, most recently, their ridiculous objections to the Bush plan for withdrawal of US from Europe, which signals the end of NATO.

JF: We heard so much about the rampages of Bush’s “Healthy Forest Initiative” from Big Greens, who cried foul as the horrible legislation floated through congress. It seemed that under Bush some of these green lobbyists were actually invigorated, where as under Clinton they seemed to sit back and idly watch the salvage rider clear-cut ancient forests, while NAFTA blatantly undermined environmental regulations. Do you think that having Bush in office another four years will energize these big enviros to do some good? How about the radical environmental movement on the ground? For many, it seems like dire times indeed, with little hope for environmental salvation.

JSC: As a general rule, environmentalists, like other social movements, are better playing defense than offense; better at organizing against something than for something; better at attacking enemies than holding purported allies accountable for their actions. This has borne itself out again and again. At the legislative level, much of Bush’s most insane policies have been stymied or sunk. The problem, naturally, comes at the administrative level, where there’s often little recourse beyond litigation followed by direct action. And the Big Green groups don’t DO direct action. And for the past 30 years, the federal courts have drifted steadily to the right. The “right” is probably the wrong term since true conservatives are supposedly suspicious of unbridled executive authority. This judiciary is exceptionally tolerant of almost any decision made by the executive branch. So the courts are becoming a much tougher venue to wage these battles. Yes, the environmental movement is “invigorated” under Bush, but for the wrong reasons.

The foot soldiers of the environmental movement have been conditioned to hate Bush — and I mean hate — and all his minions — fair enough, they are a hateful bunch. What’s missing, of course, is any admission that it’s the political system which is aligned with the corporations against the environment; what’s missing is any acknowledgment that Bush — from forests to water policy, from oil leasing to power plants, from salmon to toxic emissions — is merely openly pursuing policies which Clinton (with the aid of many Democrats in congress) quietly established. And that’s the fatal flaw of the Big Greens. They have refused to act as honest brokers, as non-partisan defenders of the planet. Instead, they seduced their own members into believing that a change in the White House will lead to a change of direction in environmental policy. That’s the crucial lie. And it’s a big one and a dangerous one. On paper, Kerry is marginally better than Bush on the environment. But where a unified resistance has confounded many of Bush’s plans, Kerry will face little resistance. In fact, the Big Greens are likely to be complicit, as they were during Clinton time. The press will play along. And that’s when the real damage will be done. Then we will be left once again with that thin green line of defenders, Earth First!, people in neighborhoods fighting power plants and landfills (the dreaded NIMBYS) and the like, who put the needs of the earth & the lives of their children above the niceties of two party politics. Cherish those people: they are our only hope.

JOSHUA FRANK, a contributor to CounterPunch’s forthcoming book, A Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, is putting the finishing touches on Left Out: How Liberals did Bush’s Work for Him, to be published by Common Courage Press. He welcomes comments at frank_joshua@hotmail.com.


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JOSHUA FRANK is managing editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book, co-authored with Jeffrey St. Clair, is Big Heat: Earth on the Brink, to be published by AK Press next month. He can be reached at joshua@counterpunch.org. You can troll him on Twitter @joshua__frank

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