Greens and the Left Abandon Climate Change Issue

by Lorna Salzman

Note to greens and the left: It's Too Late for the Revolution

If you doubt this, you aren't breathing. All credible scientific studies on climate change point to the imminent tipping point of no return within the next few years. When this happens, all your hopes and dreams for social justice and economic democracy will fall by the wayside, making way for panicked populations in the developed world stampeding to defend themselves from floods, droughts, heat waves, epidemics.

Is my assessment of the climate activist movement wrong? No, I do not believe so. In the past few weeks I have received communications from two greens, one with Climate SOS, a group that stood apart from the crowd in demanding tough science-based legislation and energy policy. They are worth quoting:

From a green formerly active in the Nader presidential campaign, commenting on my promotion of a campaign driven by energy and environmental issues:

"I don't think a movement can be created/built on those issues.....It is important to include energy and the environment as one of the key issues in a campaign because so much stems from those issues, but there are so many other concerns that people have from Wall Street to war to secure jobs that also have to fit".

"The theme I am getting more and more comfortable with is democratizing the economy....this obviously has major impacts on energy and the environment..."

"A democratized economy is more than energy and environment..."democratize the economy and give people control of their futures. That is a theme that people can get. It uses American language of democracy and allows for every important issue to be discussed with that as a central theme".

I marvel at how this reasonable intelligent person has gotten everything totally backwards. The well-informed and serious climate change activists have long known that a focus on energy and environment raises and subsumes every issue of concern to social justice activists. But even more significant is the fact that only this kind of a campaign has the potential for success. Why?

The answer is simple but perhaps not obvious: a movement for economic democracy has, first of all, to be sold to a lot more people, as a broad general theme without specific applications. What can citizens do to democratize the economy? Any answers out there? Oh, you say we need a revolution? Where have I heard that before?

A campaign based on environment and energy can be sold to every citizen and every group in this country that is already fighting a local environmental battle, whether against a nuclear power plant, mountaintop removal, industrial pollution, dams or superhighways, or whether for things like public transportation, wind energy, supporting local farms and food supplies, protecting water supplies, and saving wildlife habitat. Everyone fighting in one of these battles is already a built-in constituent, the "natural allies" that the left has sought vainly for decades because they had nothing to offer but rants, rhetoric and revolutions. But many of these are not Politically Correct enough for the left, and as such are not fodder for leftist propaganda about "economic democracy".

But let's go in a different direction, where I will argue, as I have repeatedly, that a movement centered on environment and energy subsumes all the concerns of the social justice movements. With a bit of imagination, it becomes clear that a redefined society, a Conserver society based on relocalization of economies, renewable energy, small scale and locally focused production of goods and food supplies, etc, necessarily involves its own kind of revolution, a revolution of diminished consumption and waste, of no sprawl, of decentralized decision-making, of reinvestment strategies, and of self-reliance that even the Tea Party and conservatives would applaud. The replacement of fossil fuel plants relying on filthy coal and disappearing oil and dangerous nuclear power by renewable energy alone has the potential to bring about massive social, political and economic change that will resemble the "economic democracy" this writer seeks. Yet the left is still unable to see the radical threat of environmentalism to capitalism and Business As Usual.

The lesson is clear: An ecological society has the inherent potential to democratize. An economic democracy has no guarantee that people, workers and the government will adopt an ecological way of life. An economic democracy can easily continue to exploit and destroy the earth. Without a broad ecological sensibility, ethic and paradigm, no society will long survive. And this is why we are presently headed to extinction. All the social and economic reforms in the world can't save us. Time has run out for the revolution. We are already in Defense Mode.

Here are the next quotes from the Climate SOS member, based on her claim that it is pointless to work on energy legislation at all:

"Why do we need to be concerned with anything other than energy policy? Because we can't get any action on energy policy (better talk about climate policy as energy is only part of it) unless we show that the root causes of all the destruction are the same, and therefore everyone appalled for one reason or the other must unite with us to change the system, take it down or overhaul it..."

"Without getting rid of corporate control, your dream climate bill will remain a dream, as corporate interests trump planetary interests. That's why I've now put more time into forming alliances with other social movements..."

"What we in Climate SOS are trying to do is to be catalysts for the climate movement to turn in the bolder direction....We are also now trying to build a much wider coalition, not just within the climate movement, but across all progressive social movements, as we see that the root causes for the problems concerned by all these movements is the same - corporate greed and unfettered capitalism..."

"I think engaging with other progressive social movements and trying to effect more fundamental changes to the system is required to bring about any climate action of the magnitude that is necessary"

One is reminded here of the famous St. Augustine quote, paraphrased for our time: "Lord, make me an environmentalist, but not yet".

Her platform for this overthrow of capitalism does not include any actual strategy or tactics. It consists of the usual laundry list:
"invest in peace and human needs; protect homeowners against predatory mortgage practices; invest in conservation, efficiency and REAL renewable energy; protect small farmers and public health; massive job creation in a green sustainable economy; universal Medicare for all; strengthen public education; make corporations pay fair taxes; lifting poor people out of poverty through education and job training; REAL solutions to save livelihoods and our home planet;"

Before I address this fatuous pipe dream, let me point out what she left out: economic growth. Capitalism depends on economic growth, on access to natural resources, labor, land, markets, and above all CONSUMERS. Yet this laundry list of pies in the sky makes no mention of the fact that economic growth and overconsumption are the root causes of the global crisis....those "root causes" she purports to address but which she has in fact left out. A campaign or movement that does not put the curbing of economic growth at its center is a dishonest one and a failed one by definition. A society that theoretically adopted her program might be a more democratic and equitable society....but not an ecological society. Any society that relies for its survival on continued economic growth and consumption is doomed to extinction, whether it uses renewable energy or not. This is the first lesson to be learned by the left.

Next let me address the issue of this alliance with other "social movements". What are these movements if they are not the Usual Suspects who turn up at rallies and demonstrations? These are the groups and movements who pay lip service to environmental issues and graciously allow an environmental activist three minutes at the podium to speak out and be promptly forgotten. Let's take a look to see if we really have allies who share our concerns and understand their urgency.

Union workers: tied to economic growth, industrial production and capitalism.

Low-income families and consumers: fighting for cheap energy and goods.

Minorities and immigrants: aspiring to the American dream of a home, two cars and credit cards.

Liberals: indifferent as always to environmentalism, comfortable within the present system and resistant to any change that smells like sacrifice.

Leftists: hostile as always to environmentalism, transfixed by Political Correctness, Identity Politics, radical Islam and anti-Semitism, with a bit of anti-war rhetoric on the side.

Upper middle class: intricately woven into the system, with steady jobs, investments, status, wanting to protect their privilege, wary of radical change.

Identity groups: women, gays, etc. Disinterested. Clueless about climate change and the environment.

Unemployed: looking to survive another day.

Blue collar non-union workers: want growth and jobs.

Intellectuals: ignorant about science and ecology and thus unqualified to conduct discourse on the environment much less ask appropriate questions.

These are what the greens and social justice activists call "natural allies". But first you have to get them to listen. Then you have to assuage their doubts. Then you have to reassure them that they will be able to go on living and working as they always have. If you tell them this, you will be lying.

In fact there are no progressive movements out there; there are only special interest groups. They are the mirror image of corporations. They are vested and invested in the capitalist system. The Climate SOS writer has failed to provide them with a concrete action plan and set of objectives that will satisfy them...because they will NOT be satisfied. In any case I am not sure how she plans to go about organizing the whole country, that is, each and every individual she says is unhappy with the present state of things. Who is doing the organizing? Who decides on the objectives? What is the game plan? What are the tools? Where will this campaign be conducted and where will it be focused?

It's time to speak out the simple truth: the only movement that has the capacity to bring about the type and scale of societal change we need is the environmental movement. In fact it is the only movement that has ALREADY brought out some of these changes. With the exception of the movement for women's and gay's rights, none of the other movements has achieved any of its goals. There was no group or movement that was able to stop the Wall St. bailouts, force withdrawal from Afghanistan, end poverty, achieve decent health care reform or loosen the corporate grip on congress. The peace movement has never prevented wars. Unions and workers have lost out to corporations. Liberals have scoffed at real reform, as witness their antagonism to Ralph Nader, the only candidate who has ever proposed serious political change. And the Democratic Party retains its death grip on many liberals, such as those were angered by Nader's statements about the trivial differences between the two major parties.

But a look at the accomplishments of the environmental movement reveals the enormity of change that it has produced since the 1970s, across the board: in legislation and regulation involving wildlife, endangered species, ancient forests, overfishing, wetlands protection, worker health and safety, stopping nuclear power, controlling toxic chemicals (to a degree), cleaning up freshwater bodies and rivers, cleaning up air pollutants, restricting industrial emissions, and on and on and on. It oversaw the creation of local and state bodies to make local laws and enforce state and federal standards. This is a movement whose heyday lasted little more than ten years, during which period the left and social justice activists routinely attacked them as elitists only interested in protecting their back yards, as white middle class citizens who cared nothing about poverty and other social issues. During this whole period of the 1970s, a broad collection of activists from all walks of life and classes and professions put their heart, souls and pocketbooks into a whole range of environmental issues, making our country safer, cleaner and more productive. They didn't just march and shout. They busted their guts in organizing, educating, pressuring, demanding, resisting. There was no central authority telling them what to do. They went up against huge odds: government agencies, corporations, business interests. And across a wide swatch of our country, they succeeded. Except for the anti-nuclear movement, there was barely a leftist in their ranks.

No other movement except that of civil rights comes near this record of achievement. Yet greens and the left are now saying - after recusing themselves from all of these battles all these years - that there is no purpose in environmental activism any more because the deck is stacked against it. Of course the deck was always stacked against it, but the growth of the movement into every community and everyone's consciousness allowed a movement whose objectives were the exact opposite of the rest of America's growth economy to succeed and pass on the fruits of its success to us today. No leftist or social justice group can make this claim.

Interestingly, government and corporations recognize the radical threat of environmentalism to capitalism and growth and have consequently spent lots of money and time in discrediting (or co-opting) environmental groups. Today all of the major environmental groups based in Washington DC as well as groups like and 1 Sky all receive corporate funding...not because they are fighting for fundamental change but because they are NOT...because they are quite content to toe the line and behave themselves. These groups have become enemies of environmentalism as well as allies of the Democratic Party that is enthralled with and dependent on corporate donations.

What the new anti-climate greens and left are doing is ignoring the proximate causes of the ecological crisis and instead focusing on the ultimate causes, the resolving of which would take decades were there world enough and time. But there is no time. The climate emergency is being compounded daily by inaction as well as by denial and by numerous positive feedback mechanisms that are speeding up the day of reckoning. Every week that passes without action or resistance only makes the situation worse. It is therefore indefensible that climate activists have chosen to deliberately declare the game lost and to move to another arena where they have no allies and no prospect of success.

One does not build a movement by preaching only to the disenfranchised and the disempowered. Decisions, policies and choices will be made by the "permanent government", but they must be legitimized by important sectors of society, and not just business. The media, the political pundits, the intellectual elites, academia, at least one or two major special interest groups apart from lobbyists, economists, lawyers, all must sign on the dotted line. Where there is an influential (and not necessarily large) dissenting group, a hole can be punched in the establishment's best laid plans. Examples of this are the anti-nuclear movement, the anti-cap and trade campaign, and, nearly but not near enough, the anti-bailout movement, which was overcome by outlandish bribes of recalcitrant congressmen. We may yet witness another one as the anti-coal groups in Appalachia expand their influence; indeed one may well ask where the left and the greens are on this most pressing of issues, one that will be a determinant in our future energy policy, for better or worse.

Some years ago the late political theorist Murray Bookchin mused on nature and ecology, and concluded that the exploitation of nature would not end until the exploitation of man ended. Today's greens and left have picked up this totally false and backward theory. Looking for an excuse for their ineptness at educating and organizing the general public (which they scorn for the most part), they are now busy inventing rationalizations for abandoning the most urgent issue humankind has ever faced, for abandoning the political process, for abandoning all pretenses at active citizenship. Their first excuse is indefensible: that it is impossible to influence congress and the legislative process. The second excuse is the Bookchin Excuse: if we abolish capitalism and create an economic democracy, then and only then will we be in a position to promote our environmental agenda. This is the excuse of cowards, cowards willing to allow our death march to the edge of precipice. And cowards who are just plain ignorant. No climate denier or doubter could do more to damage the cause.

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