Strategy and Tactics in the Environmental Movement

Part 1

Tactics: the science and art of using a fighting force to the best advantage having regard to the immediate situation of combat.

Strategy: the science and art of conducting a military campaign in its large-scale and long-term aspects.

— The New Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language

Naomi Klein, in a recent interview, Green Group’s May be More Damaging than Climate Change Deniers, has sparked a furious debate amongst activists on the right and left of the North American environmental movement.  Thanks to Klein’s article, the flames of controversy have been fanned and brought forth some fiery rhetoric around a dispute which has smoldered since the emergence of a more combative and distinctive left current within the environmental movement.  A current associated with the concept of climate justice, and one that has further expanded since Occupy burst onto the political scene in the fall of 2011.

Prominent climate blogger Joseph Romm, in a quite rancorous piece, labeled Klein’s views as “filled with contrarian ‘media bait’ statements devoid of substance” and recommended no-one review or buy her upcoming book and film on climate change.

Klein responded that, as neither her book nor her film have been released yet, offering a critique of them was “a new twist on old-school arrogance” and that if anyone was  “taking a sledge hammer to an ally” Romm should examine “what’s in your (bloody) hand.”

Regardless of the rhetoric, the opening up of space for broader and deeper political discussion is to be welcomed in a movement that to its detriment, has too often focused more on specific environmental battles and the activism needed to win them, than it has on an examination and discussion of the politics that underlie any particular course of action.

Given the environmental crisis, the need for urgency of action, and the conservatism of the mainstream of the movement, dominated by giant, top-down, well-funded NGO’s, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, not only has the question of strategy often been given short shrift, but, in the military meaning of the term, even a full discussion of the appropriate tactics has been neglected.

Beyond the individual protagonists, the broader debate essentially boils down to a single and vitally important question:  what is the most effective terrain, and with which combination of troops and allies, should the environmental movement engage with opposing forces in order to emerge victorious?

One suspects that, given the response of some of the more market-oriented environmental organizations to drown out Klein’s arguments, what they are objecting to the most isn’t in fact, the claim that they are worse than climate deniers.  Rather, that Klein’s larger sin lies elsewhere, in bringing out into the open a discussion large Green NGO’s would prefer to keep buried.

They fear antagonizing their funding sources and losing millions of dollars, should they become associated with more radical ideas, ones that center on discussing the nature of capitalism itself and the relationship between our economic and social system to the ecological and climate crisis.  A fearful prospect which threatens not only specific tactics, but their entire raison d’être.

Invoking the word justice, as activists of color did when they formed organizations in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s focused on environmental justice to tackle virulent and pervasive institutionalized environmental racism, this debate actually goes back, as Naomi Klein referenced, to controversies that first emerged with the rise to prominence of the modern US environmental movement in the late 1960’s.

The movement effectively split; on one side, a predominantly white mainstream movement which dismissed or downplayed questions of race, class or gender and chiefly focused on wilderness issues, preservation and conservation. On the other, a more localized, more often than not African-American-led environmental justice movement focused on the human environment affected by environmental racism, poverty and inequality in urban and rural settings.  Rather than being able to work in partnership with the power structure, the concept of justice implies a power relationship and opposing sides with distinct interests.

To quote Van Jones, in a Washington Post article earlier this year, “We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement…We’re too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement.”  Without being specific about which groups were being criticized, the NAACP’s report on the disproportionate racial and class impacts of coal plants in the United States noted that,

This problem [of separation between grassroots environmental justice organizations and large Green NGO’s] reflects a shortcoming of many mainstream environmental advocates: while denouncing the fact that the climate change will disproportionately impact poor people and people of color in the Global South, many climate advocates have often failed to highlight the ongoing, disproportionate impact of carbon-intensive industries on poor people and people of color in the United States. Campaign energy tends to be focused on coal plants that are geographically proximate to (mostly white, middle-class) climate campaigners — such as coal plants on college campuses — rather than targeting those coal-fired power plants that most heavily impact poor people and people of color.

When Jacqui Patterson, Director of Climate Justice for the NAACP, was asked to comment in an interview for Yale’s environmental site, e360, on the dearth of leadership and representation from people of color in major environmental organizations she responded, “There’s been a historic failure to articulate the impacts of these issues on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States.”

While environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are seeking to change and become more cognizant of the disproportionate racial impacts of pollution in the North, as well as become more representative, inclusive, and involved, as long as there is a focus on a corporate strategy of lobbying, fund-raising and high-profile publicity stunts which lack a strong element of social justice, member democracy or community involvement, change will be incremental and painfully slow.

To raise these difficulties and different political outlooks within the environmental movement is not to be ‘divisive’, or ‘weaken’ the movement, as is so often the charge from those trying to foreclose on political discussion, rather it is absolutely essential if we are to move forward in these desperate times.

As such, there is a level of importance to the debate that should encourage everyone concerned with the future of our planet to consider, analyze and discuss, because it relates directly to the future of the movement.  And as building a successful, mass, independent movement and democratic, militant organization for social and ecological justice is the only thing that will prevent runaway climate change and mass extinctions that call into question the future of human civilization, it is critical that activists engage with the blossoming, much needed and very healthy debate on strategy and tactics.

The debate has erupted across environmental blogs and websites once more because, just as the environmental justice movement originally emerged from activists and communities of color 30 years ago, a more radical wing of the movement is growing, becoming more assertive, asking new questions and seeking to overcome previous political weaknesses and omissions.  Questions which are not just about how to marshal our forces to win individual battles, but broader questions that are about how to string those victories together into a campaign that has an identifiable objective and grand vision.

Strategically speaking, over the large scale and longer term, what kind of society are we fighting for?  Are we seeking merely to sand off some of the ever-expanding, rougher edges of capitalism, keep the system somewhat contained and at least a few small areas sacrosanct from the profit motive?

Or are we fighting for a completely different kind of world?  One free of commodities, fast food, agribusiness, carbon markets, warfare over key resources, poverty, racism, sexism and a truly objective science and technology that is no longer twisted and disfigured by the priorities of financial accumulation.

How can we both fight for meaningful change right now (tactics) that simultaneously helps build the movement and brings us closer to our larger, more long-term goals (strategy)?  How do we differentiate between effective tactics that supplement our overall strategy, versus those that lead us up blind alleys?

Depending on how one answers these political questions, determines how and with whom one organizes.  In reality, this is very old debate and surfaces whenever a social movement reaches an impasse.  The question of strategy and tactics grows out of the concrete situation which confronts new activists drawn into the struggle.

Very often, it results in the emergence of new organizations which are more responsive to the increased demands and broader world views of those newly radicalized participants, such as we are beginning to see with the formation of national groups 350.orgRising Tide, the leftwing coalition System Change not Climate Change and, most importantly, the newly emerging indigenous organization, Idle No More.

Such was the case in the Civil Rights movement, as newer, young activists became disillusioned with the go-slow and legalistic route pursued by venerable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP (despite its radical roots), desirous of swifter and more thorough-going change.  They agitated and formed organizations that were independent, and open to new tactics with larger goals.

Instead of an emphasis on experts, lobbying, moral suasion and lawsuits in the courts, tactics were redirected toward mobilizing the Black population as a whole; through mass non-violent direct action, set within a strategy of escalating activism and involvement from wider and wider layers of society.  The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. after the success of the Montgomery bus boycott.  Three years later, after the success of the sit-in movement, students formed SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.  Having won political rights in 1964 and 1965, the movement radicalized further as King switched his focus toward economic rights and another new organization formed in 1966: The Black Panther Party.

In the contemporary environmental movement, there are large, well-funded NGO’s that consider partnership with the corporations and a strategy based on lobbying politicians and court battles as the most effective way to moderate the behavior of corporations and place limits on their polluting and anti-environmental activities.

As Klein commented, in an age of neoliberalism, the process has gone even further, with large, nominally Green, environmental NGO’s (ENGO’s) operating under the paradigm of, “It’s not, ‘sue the bastards’; it’s, ‘work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.’”

Conversely, organizations such as EDF, while no doubt eschewing a description of their corporate partners as illegitimate offspring, cite in their defense the many lawsuits that have been won, the changed corporate behavior and the adoption of codes of corporate sustainability as evidence that their approach works.

In responding to Klein, Senior VP of Strategy and Communications for EDF, Eric Pooley, prefers that when “faced with the choice of making real progress in our fight against climate change or waging ideological warfare, we will always choose the former” – as if it is self-evident that the two things are mutually exclusive. He noted how EDF-backed policies,

In 1991, we helped McDonald’s phase out foam “clamshell” sandwich containers. In 2004, EDF and FedEx launched the first “street-ready” hybrid trucks ever built. Today, hybrids are in hundreds of corporate fleets, from UPS to Coca-Cola to the U.S. Postal Service. And since 2008, EDF’s Climate Corps program has placed hundreds of MBAs at some of the biggest corporations in the world to both increase energy efficiency today and train them as business leaders of tomorrow. To date, our Climate Corps fellows have identified $1.2 billion in potential energy savings, with greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road.

In other words, compromise and working with forces as they exist is the way to make measureable progress toward goals that all environmentalists can agree on.

Against this, one could surely argue that making Coca Cola, McDonalds, FedEx and UPS more efficient at making money, while giving them a patina of green street-cred for their modified business practices, misses the point.  In a rational society that measured itself against its ability to care for all of its citizens, which by extension would include the living and non-living world upon which it was based, none of those organizations would exist in the first place; they produce products and services of no genuine use to society and, in the case of Coke and McDonalds, are actively detrimental to human and animal health.

But EDF, along with the NRDC and the Nature Conservancy, are some of the most conservative of all environmental organizations.  Though they wield enormous influence by virtue of the millions of dollars they can deploy for a given campaign, and the positive coverage they obtain from the corporate media, many grassroots environmentalists are aware that their highly conservative political outlook is shaped by their financial and political connections.  Therefore, they make an easy target for dismissing the efficacy of their supposed solutions.

After all, NRDC, Nature Conservancy and EDF not only advocate natural gas as a “bridge fuel” and “responsible” fracking to get it, they are all part of USCAP, the United States Climate Action Partnership.  This is a group which includes such environmental stalwarts as Shell, Rio Tinto, Dow, Exelon and PepsiCo amongst its collection of giant energy, pharmaceutical and automobile multinationals.  If that doesn’t qualify as Greenwashing, I don’t know what does.

Furthermore, as Klein has previously pointed out, many of the largest Green NGO’s not only have tens and in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars, invested in the corporate casino otherwise known as the stock market, many don’t even screen for weapons manufacturers or fossil fuel stocks, in the midst of a burgeoning student-led divestment campaign.

While the Sierra Club has since repudiated donations from Clorox and the $26 million dollars it received from one sector of the fossil fuel industry, Cheasapeake Energy Corp, which fracks for natural gas, in order to see off one of its competitors, the coal industry, the Club’s leaders had no problem swapping donors by accepting double that amount from multi-billionaire stop-and-frisk advocate Mike Bloomberg – the mayor who boasts of turning New York City into a value-added commodity and “high end product.”

Though of course, the prize for greenwashing par excellence must surely go either to the Pentagon, for their highly imaginative concept of sailing “the Great Green Fleet” or, in a tight race for first spot, the Environmental Protection Agency, which awarded a Climate Leadership Award this year to Raytheon, a company which specializes in being “the world’s premier missile maker, providing defensive and offensive weapons for air, land, sea and space.”

However, prominent activists such as Romm, who publishes a lot of excellent information and analysis on his blog, deploy another common argument.   Rather than partnering with major corporations to change corporate behavior, many environmentalists cite the inability of passing anything remotely radical in Congress as reason to trim their demands to what might feasibly garner enough votes to pass in a conservative and dysfunctional Congress awash with corporate cash.

Indeed, the first four reasons Romm gives for supporting cap-and-trade legislation in Congress all revolve around accepting the severe limitations of what’s deemed possible by Congress, business and the general public. This is of course standard fare for apologists of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party and their complete inability to deliver any substantive progressive change.

It is a line of argument premised, not only on the demonstrably false basis that the Democratic Party would do those things if it could, but more generally, on the notion that these are static things and simple facts of life we have to accept, rather than the malleable thoughts of people, subject to change based on the balance of social forces and the impact of activism.

Responding to this line of argumentation based on “the politics of the possible”, not letting “the perfect be the enemy of the good” and other such banalities, one could reasonably reply that limiting our horizons for change to what members of Congress will find acceptable, when a significant percentage don’t believe in science, let alone climate change, is a recipe for stagnation and deep disappointment.

Moreover, as the re-election rate of incumbents to the United States Congress has only dipped below 90% twice since 1964, and is often above 95% due to systematic gerrymandering by both major parties and the money, power and influence that comes with an incumbent’s position, focusing on Congress seems a highly unpropitious avenue for activist attention.  Unless a Member of Congress is so blatantly incompetent or so brazenly corrupt they manage the difficult task of standing out from their peers, it is essentially a job for life.

Subsequent to the 2010 Citizens United decision, deeming that corporations are people, and therefore legally able to anonymously contribute unlimited campaign cash, it would seem likely that re-election rates in the United States will approach levels that would make even old Soviet bureaucrats blush.  In scouting one possible location for combat, it would appear decidedly improbable that a focus on lobbying Congress, in the absence of a movement trying to occupy Congress, will result in victory.

And with the Supreme Court invalidating key sections of the Voting Rights Act; and the criminal justice system making it systematically impossible to account for the existence of institutionalized racism, despite its glaringly obvious and pervasive impact, extensively documented in Michelle Alexander’s excellent The New Jim Crow and the easily-absorbed legal and financial obligations imposed on BP in the wake of Deepwater Horizon, it should be clear that the courts are unlikely to be our most fertile terrain for waging a pitched battle with the forces of the corporatocracy.

To be clear, this is not to say activists should completely ignore Congress or legal skirmishes, but they can only play a secondary role to larger, more decisive battles fought elsewhere, with more resolute allies, on more favorable political topography.  Campaigns that focus on mobilizing the population en masse, which help prepare the path for successful changes to the law through Congress and the courts, as our forces change people’s perceptions of what’s possible and march closer to the citadels of power.

Klein was also taken to task by Romm and others for failing to appreciate the benefits of market-driven solutions to climate change, such as cap and trade schemes and carbon offsetting schemes administered through the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM).  This despite the well-documented abuses and comprehensive resistance from indigenous groups to the UN’s REDD scheme of forest offsets (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

However, this is the basis for Klein’s claim that green NGO’s are worse than climate deniers because they fail to grasp the revolutionary corollary of the science behind climate change in the way that corporate climate change deniers clearly have.

Namely, that capitalism is incapable of effectively addressing the crisis because it cuts against the most revered of capitalist directives: to make money at all costs.  And that therefore, the attempts of politicians in thrall to capitalist entities, busily devising market-based solutions such as cap and trade, will never work because they are trying to jam a very dollar-shaped peg into a distinctly earth-shaped hole.

While Romm cites evidence to substantiate his rather desperate claims that the largest carbon trading system, the European Union’s Emissions Trading System (ETS), is working just as intended, many others disagree.

According to the rabidly free market magazine The Economist, the EU’s ETS, which has “long been a mess”, and is now “holed below the waterline” as the price for carbon credits has plunged to junk bond status, due to a huge oversupply of allowances (close to two billion tonnes, or a year’s supply of emissions).

Even the European Commission itself admits that, “In the short term this surplus risks undermining the orderly functioning of the carbon market; in the longer term it could affect the ability of the EU ETS to meet more demanding emission reduction targets cost-effectively.”  Time magazine recently posed the question, “If Carbon Markets Can’t Work in Europe, Can They Work Anywhere?”

In fact, as reported by Roger Pielke Jr., Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Colorado, the US has achieved the same reductions in carbon emissions as the EU with no cap and trade program, or indeed any discernible climate policy of any kind.  As he concludes,

With the US and the EU averaging ~2% [carbon emissions reduction] per year since 1990, it is ironic indeed to see otherwise committed environmentalists acting as apologists for the EU ETS. The uncomfortable reality is that no policies have been put in place anywhere in the world that have indicated an ability to accelerate rates of decarbonisation to levels approaching [the necessary minimum of] 5% per year. That includes the EU ETS. If greater progress is to be made, debate will have to move beyond carbon pricing and the relative success or shortfalls of the EU ETS.

Unfortunately, even as European politicians scramble to cobble together yet another reform of the ETS to salvage the “green” flagship of EU environmental policy from ignominious collapse, many other countries around the world, driven by the same nostrums of neoliberal orthodoxy, are seeking to emulate the exact same system.  A system ripe for corporate abuse, fraud and all manner of financial scams, without doing anything about carbon emissions.  This is the denialism that Klein is talking about, as well as the danger represented by having people believe that something is being accomplished when the exact opposite is the case.

For more on how major financial institutions play the carbon credits system, the New York Times recently looked into the latest “hot new game on Wall Street.” The big US banks have reportedly been stockpiling ethanol credits from biofuel production in order to artificially drive up the price and reap windfall profits, at the expense of motorists forced to buy gasoline mixed with ethanol from corn fermentation.

  • In Part 2, Williams examines further carbon trading, NGOs, Keystone XL, Obama, the Left, TransCanada and the Canadian government, divestment from fossil fuels, and the future political direction in environmentalism.
  • Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist and author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis (Haymarket, 2011). He is chair of the science dept at Packer Collegiate Institute and adjunct professor at Pace University in the Dept of Chemistry and Physical Science. Read other articles by Chris.