The American Left's Next and Last Opportunity

by Lorna Salzman

tarting around Earth Day 1970, the American Left had the opportunity to challenge capitalism but dropped the ball. Instead of developing a critique of economic growth, technocracy, political centralization and consumerism - all of which have contributed to inequality and environmental degradation - it chose to attack those who DID make such a critique: environmentalists.

Instead of trying to understand the roots of social and economic injustice, it chose to unfairly accuse environmentalists of racism, elitism, indifference to social injustice, and of ignoring poverty by focusing on the natural environment. In so doing, it ignored the fact that environmentalism WAS a social justice movement that directly addressed the roots of poverty and inequality by revealing the political and economic roots of the environmental crisis.

In so doing, it was diverted from any meaningful analysis of the full ramifications of capitalism; in fact, by failing to take environmentalism seriously, it became part of the capitalist system in that it supported the system's own objectives, believing that continued economic growth and industrial production would eventually benefit the poor. This adherence to the ideology of Economism - that economic relations determine all other relations in society - has marginalized the Left even today.

What were the reasons for the Left's antagonism to environmentalism? Here is a partial list:

  • environmentalism did not fit neatly into a class analysis;
  • the environmental constituency appeared to be only the white bourgeoisie;
  • technology and industrialism were seen, as per Barry Commoner, as the problemsand the solutions;
  • economic growth was considered the remedy for poverty (an argument supported by capitalists too)
  • it saw social injustice as tied to imperialism, not capitalism;
  • it failed to understand the profound socio-political implications of
    environmental reform or of environmentalism's deep threat to capitalism;
  • it was and is hostile to conventional electoral and party politics, preferring to regard social movements as the best path to change;
  • it resisted association or affiliation with liberals and Democrats;
  • it adhered to an outdated belief in a proletariat class that no longer exists;
  • it regarded science and nature only as instrumental in remedying inequity, believing science to be "socially determined" rather than as an objective sound source of public policy.

Why should the Left be pro-environment?

  • it can no longer deny or ignore the excesses of capitalism and corporations and their adverse impact on the poor and powerless;
  • industrialism and consumerism cement the public into the unsustainable system of growth which itself furthers inequality;
  • economic industrial growth tends to undermine democratic decision- and policy-making processes and diminish citizen participation;
  • it failed to understand that the right wing hate of environmentalism was grounded in the (correct) understanding that environmentalism was the greatest threat to capitalism;
  • it failed to see that placing limits on economic growth necessitates the redistribution of wealth.

The climate change crisis has now clarified the direct connection of economic growth and energy policy to social and economic injustice. The consumer-capitalist economy now threatens the very basis of the earth's natural systems and resources on which hundreds of millions of people outside the developed world depend. Now is the time for the left to abandon its shopworn ideologies and join the environmental community in a battle that addresses both social and ecological justice.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.