We Need a Working-Class Environmental Movement

C.F. Daubigny, “Steamboats,” from Voyage en Bateau, 1878. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Rock the boat

My wife, Harriet is a professional environmentalist. She has a degree from the University of London, worked in the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and then for the future King Charles. After moving to the U.S., she set up her own non-profit, Anthropocene Alliance in 2017. I’m A2’s co-founder and Director of Strategy. But my degrees are in all the wrong fields, I have no prior experience with environmental justice, and I only work on projects that suit me. In short, I’m an amateur.

To call somebody an amateur is to say they are unprofessional and lacking the skills required for the job. But the word has another meaning, too, which derives from the original Latin amare (to love) and the French cognate amateur (15th C.) which means lover. Amateurs are people who do things out of love, whereas professionals act according to rules and to earn their pay. The urban theorist Andy Merrifield has described amateurs as people who “question professional authority [and] express concerns professionals don’t consider, don’t see, don’t care about. Thus, an amateur might likely be somebody who rocks the boat, who stirs up trouble, because he or she isn’t on anybody’s payroll—never will be on the payroll because of the critical things they say.”

To be fair, Harriet often questions authority, but she does so in a professional manner. I’m an amateur and unpaid, so my job (and my joy) is to ask unprofessional questions and make discomforting observations, without however undermining our whole enterprise. The dialectic is well expressed in the disco classic, “Rock the Boat”:

So I’d like to know where, you got the notion
Said I’d like to know where, you got the notion
To rock the boat (don’t rock the boat, baby)
Rock the boat (don’t tip the boat over)
Rock the boat (don’t rock the boat, baby)
Rock the boat”

The Hues Corporation, 1973

The following is an amateur’s observations about the U.S environmental movement intended to rock the boat while not completely tipping it over. I’ll proceed by: 1) briefly describing past and present movements; 2) discussing one of the chief weaknesses of the current environmental movement – excessive inward directedness or “prefiguration”; and 3) concluding with some ideas about how to build a new, working-class movement grounded in politics and nourished by “necessity and desire.”

Past movements

Movements are collective drives for large-scale social or political change. Examples are the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-(Vietnam) war movement, and the anti-nuclear (or nuclear freeze) movement. They engaged vast numbers of people, lasted many years, and had significant impacts, though none was fully successful according to their own measures or in retrospect. The abolitionist movement, for example, (combined with slave uprisings), ultimately ended chattel slavery globally, but the system of capitalist wage-labor that replaced it left most former slaves – and other laborers — powerless in the workplace and subject to the profit-maximizing behavior (greed) of employers.

The nuclear freeze movement in the 1980s (sometimes called a “campaign”), led to the signing of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (1987) and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties I (1991) and II (1993), but these and other agreements have been violated by the U.S. and Russia, and the threat of nuclear conflict once again looms. Nevertheless, it was a remarkable success in its time, the result of a set of well-organized and ever-larger protests. I remember the thrill of being among more than a million people at the anti-nuclear rally in Central Park, NYC on June 12, 1982. One episode stands out: The 11-minute peroration by Orson Welles. Inspired by Marc Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” Welles alternately buried and praised then-President Ronald Reagan. He first condemned him as a “far-right” radical whose bellicosity cast a shadow over the whole planet but then praised him for recognizing the strength of the anti-nuclear movement and responding to it. Soon after that, Reagan undertook serious nuclear arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets. Welles’s speech helped me recognize the absolute necessity of nuclear disarmament for sheer survival, but his soaring rhetoric also stirred something closer to desire. I imagined how delightful would be a future without fear.

Global warming and environmental devastation are threats as terrifying as nuclear war, but there is today nothing comparable to the nuclear freeze movement. April 22, 1970, marked the first Earth Day, bringing hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of major U.S. cities. Nearly every successive Earth Day rally, however, has been smaller than the one before, and none had a significant impact on national politics. The emergence of the crisis of global warming, however, changed public perceptions of environmental vulnerability and seemed to ramp up organizational and grassroots activism.

The environmental industry

On September 20, 2019, days before the annual UN Climate Summit, some 5 million people in 150 countries – inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg — rallied to protest climate change. Many of the young participants in the Global Climate Strike also participated in school walkouts. But the very geographic breadth and diversity of the rallies and their lack of a leader (except for young Greta), made them hard to replicate. No follow-up was planned.

Instead of an environmental movement, we have an environmental industry. There are roughly 28,000 environmental organizations in the U.S. alone, employing 127,000 people with total assets of $68 billion. That’s a lot of turf to protect. The largest group is the National Wildlife Federation, with 5 million dues-paying members and an annual income of about $120 million. The NWF promotes hunting and fishing, activities that are incompatible with wildlife conservation and ecological restoration. It’s funded by members as well as large corporations including General Motors, Alcoa, and PSEG. System change is not part of NWF’s DNA.

The Nature Conservancy is the richest environmental organization in the world. It has a million members, over $7 billion in assets, and an annual income of about a $1 billion. Some of that wealth derives from selling bogus climate offsets to corporations including Disney, Blackrock, and J.P. Morgan Chase. TNC’s board of directors is drawn, unsurprisingly, from some of the same multinational corporations with which it does business, including Alcoa, Bank of America, Dow Chemical, General Mills, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Shell. Other large environmental non-profits with dubious corporate associations and shady dealings include the Audubon Society (national and state affiliates) and World Wildlife Fund. None of them are likely movement builders because they are so entrenched in the current economic and social order.

350.org, Sierra Club and the Sunrise Movement are just three of the dozens of other big players. 350 is a global organization founded in 2007, dedicated to reducing atmospheric carbon to 350 parts per million, the amount beyond which global warming is potentially cataclysmic. (We are now well past that threshold.) It’s been active in campaigns to pressure institutions to divest from fossil fuels and was engaged in the successful effort to halt the Keystone XL oil pipeline. In 2019, it was a sponsor of the Global Climate Strike. Like the Sierra Club and Sunrise Movement, however, 350 doesn’t have a very good record of movement building. Whereas successful movements – Civil Rights, Anti-War, Nuclear Freeze – proceed from success to success and from smaller to larger actions – these groups have lurched from action to inaction, and from triumph to quiescence.

The past summer of record heat and fires, following previous years of record heat and fires, would seem to offer enormous opportunities for organized protest. The hunger of young people – the foundation for any mass movement — is palpable. Yet the organizations with the biggest budgets, largest membership, and greatest potential for outreach, seem to be AWOL. None of them were involved, for example, in organizing or coordinating the September 17 March to End Fossil Fuels in New York City, which attracted a crowd of 75,000 that included progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The U.S. Climate Action Network (USCAN) has almost 200 organizational members and seems well poised to exercise national leadership. But its activist Arm in Arm campaign has been suspended and the organization itself is undergoing retrenchment and restructuring.

Environmental groups have become too internally focused.

There’s a well-known Aesop fable called “The Fox and the Frog” about a frog who declares himself to be a talented doctor able to cure sick animals. All the beasts of the forest are seduced by his claims except one, the fox. How, the fox demands, can one so pale, thin, slack-jawed, weak, and spotty claim to heal anybody? “Physician, heal thyself!” he says.

A group of animals in a field Description automatically generated

Francis Barlow, “The Fox and the Frog,” The Fables of Aesop, London: Stockdale, 1793. (Photo: The author)

For the past decade, but especially since the national, racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, many educational, corporate, and non-profit organizations, including environmental ones, have undertaken self-reviews – sometimes under duress — to ensure they uphold principles of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusiveness (JEDI). Their motto appears to be: “Before helping others, heal thyself!” The problem with this principle, and with the fable, is that even imperfect organizations or physicians, can perform exemplary services. 350.org, the Sunrise Movement and the Sierra Club, three of the largest, intermittently effective environmental groups, have been roiled and even paralyzed by internal conflict over racial justice and other praiseworthy goals. The disputes in each case are too complicated to summarize, but generally entail charges of failure to recruit and hire non-white staff, tokenism, and lack of effective outreach to poor or marginalized communities. To avoid similar experiences, many businesses, universities, and non-profits have enlisted the help of professional diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultants.

Investment in DEI reached $8 billion in 2020, though those numbers have lately begun to decline. Apart from any impact on equity, DEI programs – many institutions believe — pay public relations dividends. When Starbucks was accused of racism after an incident in 2018 in which police were called to a Philadelphia store after two Black men attempted to use the bathroom, the corporation immediately announced it would close all branches and conduct a one-afternoon course of racial bias training. In the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd, DEI training was claimed to enhance “changeability,” according to the Harvard Business Review, meaning the capacity of a business to “be more dynamic, adapt in the moment, and sequence its actions.”

It’s to be expected that many corporations and non-profits undertake DEI initiatives with cynical motives. Nevertheless, most of us would be satisfied if they did the right thing for the wrong reason. In this case, however, there is little evidence that DEI training leads to better hiring and promotion practices, greater pay equity, a more diverse workforce, or improved delivery of programs and services. A recent meta-analysis concluded that: “While the small number of experimental studies provide encouraging average effects, details of these studies reveal that the effects shrink when the training is conducted in real-world workplace settings, when the outcomes are measured at a greater time distance… and, most importantly, when the sample size is large enough to produce reliable results.” Of even more dubious value are short-duration, intensive training sessions like the online courses now mandated by many businesses and universities.

The last time I participated in a DEI training was during my final year teaching at Northwestern University in 2021. The course was mandated by our dean as collective punishment for an un-named faculty member’s verbal indiscretion in a graduate seminar. The course was led by a pair of humorless young DEI trainers outfitted with the latest jargon. The consequences for department morale were nearly disastrous: faculty animosities blossomed into viral hatreds during and after the sessions. But university departments are resilient: A few retirements, relocations, raises, and new hires restored basic amity. The same resilience doesn’t characterize environmental non-profits that are dependent upon membership dues and foundation grants. Internal dissension and bad publicity can quickly prove fatal. That was nearly the case with 350.org, Sierra Club and Sunrise. And even in the absence of actual conflict, excessive internal directedness can be paralyzing. USCAN was so focused on prefiguration – establishing an internal order of justice that models the world it wants to create — that it has done little else for the last two years than draft new membership requirements and a “JEDI blueprint.” Now it must quickly devise a concrete strategy and funding mechanism to achieve its ambitious goal: accelerating the U.S. transition to a fossil-free future.

Recently, non-profits have edged away from DEI training and instead embraced “trauma-informed practice”. The purpose of TIP is to support individuals – whether clients or staff – who have experienced trauma, including accidents, disasters, violence, abuse, war, illness, racism, and discrimination. (A recent scholarly survey indicates that 82.7% of people in the U.S. have experienced some kind of trauma.) According to the National Institute of Health, trauma-informed practice is based on “the assumption that every person seeking services is a trauma survivor who designs his or her own path to healing, facilitated by support and mentoring from the service provider.” That means that organizations must shift from a “top-down, hierarchical clinical model to a psychosocial empowerment partnership that embraces all possible tools and paths to healing.”

Environmental justice organizations like the Anthropocene Alliance frequently partner with people who have experienced trauma. Homelessness, injury, and illness are often the consequences of floods, fires, toxics, and extreme heat. In addition, poverty is a co-indicator of trauma; it’s well-recognized that the poor and marginalized are more likely to experience climate and environmental disasters. (Surprisingly, racism is not predictive of trauma. 83.7% of white Americans report trauma exposure, while only 76.4% of Blacks, and 68.2% of Latinos do.) Contact with people exposed to trauma can itself be traumatizing, staff at environmental justice organizations report. Research indicates, however, that trauma-informed practice is no guarantee of successful community outreach or staff health.

More effective than DEI or TIP in building and maintaining a successful environmental justice organization and conducting useful outreach is simply the hard work of ensuring equitable workloads and salaries, and conscientiously seeking a large and diverse applicant pool for open positions. In addition, when working with community members or staff who have experienced trauma, patience, kindness, and compassion are the most important skills. If someone wishes to discuss personal, psychological, physical, or other trauma, staff must listen with attention and care, and be prepared to refer the person to clinical or social service providers, or therapists specially attuned to the environmental crisis.

Building a working-class environmental movement

The environmental crisis isn’t only climate change. It’s also species extinction, ocean acidification, loss of ecological diversity (including deforestation), depletion of fresh water, destruction of the ozone layer, nuclear contamination, microplastic poisoning, and disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles. Regulatory tinkering by the EPA or state agencies won’t be enough to solve these, and neither will technological fixes such as carbon capture and storage – time is too short, and the crisis is too large. What’s needed instead is a fundamental reallocation of U.S. productive capacity and wealth from the richest and most powerful corporations and individuals to everybody else, with the goal of establishing a just and sustainable society. The names for this proposed new order are unimportant: degrowth, un-growth, low-energy society, de-accumulation, or ecological socialism. What matters is that they are political initiatives – interventions into the domain of power — that can only be accomplished by the collective action of the American working class. That class, consisting of people who have no other assets (excluding homes) than their labor power, comprises at least 70% of the U.S. population.

The American working class has long been deeply divided. A liberal and multicultural segment, about 40% of the total, aligns itself with professionals, educators, scientists, and entrepreneurs. These workers seek and sometimes achieve a lifestyle of relative comfort, even if they remain vulnerable to economic shocks. Another, generally less educated group, also about 40% of the total, staggers under repeated economic blows, but maintains sufficient equilibrium to attack immigrants, non-whites, women, queers, and liberals. Their status and security, they believe, are based upon the subjugation of others. It isn’t so much that they are racist – though that’s a fair characterization in some cases — as that they have decided that racial justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are antithetical to their practical interests.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have tried to unite these two halves or encouraged them to become a self-conscious class “for itself.” Doing so would weaken the capitalist order that empowers them. There are of course, exceptions, including a small number of “democratic socialist” U.S. senators and representatives who sometimes pursue unification, including Bernie Sanders, AOC and “the Squad”. That they fail to do so indicates the real divergence of interest between class factions; it can’t be overcome simply by rhetoric. But the climate and environmental crisis has the potential to lead to a fundamental restructuring of U.S. class and power if activists seize the opportunity.

Classic revolutionary theory by Marx and Engels and their 20th Century followers, envisaged an industrial working class (“proletariat”) as the vanguard of revolution. Their congregation in factories, cities, and eventually union halls, meant they would grow to understand their commonality and begin to challenge the system of capital that exploited them. But because of changes in labor practices, concessions by capital, enrichment of a subset of workers, and the racial embitterment of others, that unity was not achieved in the U.S., except partially during the 1930s and 1960s. Today, however, that vanguard class is on the cusp of regeneration as what I would call an “environmental working class” unified by the shared necessity of protection from environmental calamity, and antagonism to corporations and wealthy individuals (“the billionaires”) responsible for their circumstances.

In the course of my work with the Anthropocene Alliance, I’ve learned that divisions in this new working class are not as great as those in the old one. Educated white people in Pensacola, Florida, for example, are just as concerned about rising sea levels, flooding, crushing insurance costs and possible displacement, as uneducated whites in southern Louisiana subject to the same threats. White folks living near a Chevron refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi are as worried about elevated cancer rates as Black people in Port Arthur, Texas, residing in the shadow of the nation’s largest oil refinery run by Motiva (a subsidiary of Saudi Aramco). Though the science-loving, semi-professionals among the American working-class embrace the science of climate change, and the uneducated white working class sometimes question it, both recognize that the weather is getting warmer, pollution is dangerous to their health, and that something must be done.

What the new, environmental movement needs therefore is relentless and skillful organizing of grassroots, working-class communities impacted by climate change and environmental abuse. That means helping existing community-based organizations and leaders acquire the means (practical and financial) to expand and establish partnerships with allied groups nearby and at a distance. It also means that non-profit organizations should not shy away from providing leadership to grassroots groups, while at the same time gratefully accepting from them the lessons and leadership they offer, based upon direct experience with environmental injustice and on-the-ground organizing.

Communities impacted by global warming and other environmental crises, already know the necessity of change. The wound of insecurity – for example, that a home may be flooded by a storm or burned by wildfire, and that a child may be damaged by airborne toxins or polluted water — is an everyday experience for millions of working-class Americans, and the numbers are growing. What’s less apparent to them, and what a vital environmental movement can help make clear, is that dismantling the fossil fuel, pro-growth economy, means enrichment as well as safety. Better housing, more satisfying employment, and greater opportunities for leisure, recreation and education are some of the benefits that will accrue from a de-growth, lower energy, ecologically resilient, economy and society. The work of organizing a new, working-class environmental movement, must therefore include the cultivating of desire, as much as responding to the sting of necessity.

Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at s-eisenman@northwestern.edu