Lessons from the History of Environmentalism

Swift, large-scale changes are needed, but they cannot be accomplished without a sober assessment of the history of environmental activism.

According to a recent but already well-known report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), human beings must rapidly transform the means of production or be at risk of mass global suffering. Swift, large-scale changes are needed, but they cannot be accomplished without a sober assessment of the history of environmental activism, so that we learn from and do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

The aim of this article is to provide the context needed for leftists to develop effective strategies to fight to prevent the worst of the climate disaster. It stops short of making specific strategy recommendations, but it does outline key lessons from the history of the politics of environmentalism that must inform any concrete program around environmental justice.

Environmental Politics: A Timeline

Though the history we present here is by no means complete, we believe it illustrates the need to forge more effective tactics and strategies. All critiques of existing organizations are made in that constructive spirit.

Conservation (1892-)

Conservation is the oldest and most common thread within environmentalism. Broadly speaking, conservation refers to ideas and practices that involve the demarcation and preservation of environmental space from certain types of human activity. The historical roots of conservation are two-fold, but each speaks to a shared origin in the history of colonial expansion and capitalism. The first is the system of forestry management instituted by European colonial powers to protect future timber resources, especially near coastal regions in Europe and elsewhere, for shipbuilding.

The second root is a loose movement from the late-19th century that, while at times inspired by a notion of radical egalitarianism, sought primarily the preservation of nature as an aesthetic adornment of economic growth. The Sierra Club, established in 1892, and the system of national parks which it helped produce, embodied this movement—seeking to set aside a miniscule percentage of pristine land while turning a blind eye to capitalist extraction everywhere else. Indeed, the undergirding philosophy of the conservation movement is one of obedience to the logic of capital, as can be seen  in the disenfranchisement and alienation of indigenous and other marginalized communities from the means of their material existence and the commodification of nature as a “luxury” good enjoyed by privileged families.

Today the Sierra Club has evolved beyond its conservationist roots: it now actively opposes NAFTA, promotes progressive immigration reform, and has endorsed #BlackLivesMatter. However, it has remained uncritical of capitalism, as demonstrated in the publication of Climate of Hope, a book co-written by billionaire mayor philanthropist Michael Bloomberg and former Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. Hand in hand, they proudly proclaim that “business will overcome climate change.”

Regulatory Victories (1962-1980)

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 and the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1963 marked the beginning of a period of close collaboration between environmentalists, scientists, and state actors that resulted in substantial legislative gains. The Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 was nominally the first Clean Air Act, but it really only allowed the federal government to conduct research and spread information about air pollution. Coming on the heels of Silent Spring, which brought the idea of environmental stewardship into public consciousness, the Clean Air Act of 1963 empowered the government to put real controls on air pollution, ushering in a wave of regulatory measures. Earth Day was created in 1970, as was the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Greenpeace started a year later. Also passed during this period were the Clean Water Act in 1972, the Endangered Species Act in 1973, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. CERCLA, otherwise known as the Superfund, was created to identify and finance remediation of toxic waste sites, a need made famous by the 1970s’ Love Canal disaster.

What accounts for this slew of victories? One important factor was the strength of unions and their investment in environmentalism. As Robert Gordon explains, “between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, workers, progressive union leaders, and environmental activists from across the country concluded that the spread of hazardous substances in the workplace and the spread of pollution in the environment represented two aspects of the same problem. During this period, unions and environmental organizations developed numerous alliances that helped secure passage of several important pieces of legislation.” The 1973 Shell Strike by the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers (OCAW), led by Tony Mazzocchi, testified to the power of collaboration between unions and environmentalists.

As demonstrated in the corporate backlash against this collaboration, embodied in “recycling movements” and Carter’s response to the energy “crisis,” a united labor and environmental front was perceived by some as a grave threat to the capitalist class at the time. Unfortunately, this threat began to erode in the 1970s under the pressure of their dogged propagation of the “jobs vs. the environment” narrative, which framed any effort to combat environmental degradation as costing jobs. With more recent images in mind of west coast loggers and environmental activists butting heads over saving the northern spotted owl, it is difficult to remember how powerful the collaboration between labor and environmentalists once was.

More generally, the still formidable power of organized labor at this time provided the state with a degree of “relative autonomy” from the capitalist class. It also provided popular movements with the ability to exact regulatory reforms. Thinking that scientific research was leading the way, and finding out more and more about the deleterious effects of capitalist production on the environment, environmental activists assumed regulation was only going to become more, rather than less, stringent. Little did they know that the political climate was rapidly changing.

The wins against ozone depletion in the late 1970s and 1980s paradoxically attest to the nature of the new political climate. CFCs in aerosol cans were able to be so swiftly banned because the capitalist class did not use their full power to oppose legislation. DuPont Chemical, the major manufacturer of Freon, was set to have its exclusive patent expire in 1979—and with it the drying up of most of their freon profits. DuPont embraced the CFC ban in large part because they had new, “superior” chemicals, like HCFCs in development. The path to banning CFCs illustrates the broader dynamic of climate change policy today. The only regulations that see the light of day are those allowed by the interests of capital.

Mainstream Environmentalism (1980-2007)

It became clear to environmental scientists and activists that greenhouse gases were indeed causing global warming at more or less the same time that those scientists and activists lost the ability to effect real policy change. The legislative victories of the 60s and 70s came to a swift halt with the presidential election of Ronald Reagan, who attacked the regulatory aspirations of environmentalism with an anti-communist zeal. In addition to being incapacitated in the face of a growing consensus on global warming, environmental activists also saw the gains of the Fordist period (post-WWII through the 1970s) eroded: Superfund cleanups slowed down, their costs were increasingly shifted from polluters to taxpayers, and conservation measures were rolled back or reversed.

One important exception to the general trend in mainstream environmentalism was the five-year complete ban on lead additives in gasoline through amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1995. This was a result of the long-term efforts of the socialist ecologist Barry Commoner, who fought for the implementation of “prevention, not control” of pollution in EPA policy. Commoner’s 1971 book The Closing Circle is arguably the first work of ecosocialism, and he was a major public intellectual who foregrounded the critique of capitalism at a time when others were blaming individual behavior or overpopulation. Commoner’s success against the neoliberal grain demonstrates the important gains that socialists can make even in a hostile political climate.

But Commoner was most assuredly the exception that proved the rule. Accustomed to top-down measures and close collaboration with the state, most environmental advocates were ill-prepared for the new political climate, with many simply accepting the new corporatist agenda. For instance, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), founded in 1967 on the heels of a major legal victory that put a nationwide ban on the use of DDT, began at this time to focus on “market-based solutions” to the climate crisis. Today Fred Krupp, EDF President for three decades, proudly lauds “EDF’s innovative corporate partnerships with FedEx, KKR, McDonald’s, Walmart and others.”

Those groups not ready to cozy up to big business were hesitant to learn a new skill—political organizing—and opted instead for renewed attempts at advocacy work. Hoping against hope for the creation of legitimate international agreements, a number of environmental groups came together to form the Climate Action Network (CAN) in 1987, which represented a network of nonprofits involved in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process and focused specifically on environmental interactions with climate change.

CAN suffered from its inception under the mistaken belief that the political force of the 60s and 70s could be rekindled with enough NGO participation, and their apolitical approach finally broke down in 2007 in the wake of the UNFCCC Conference of Parties in Bali. At this conference, CAN splintered into pro-market supporters of a program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which created carbon finance mechanisms that transferred forest land to large corporations hoping to acquire profitable “carbon credits,” and a new alliance called Climate Justice Now! (CJN!), a predecessor of the Climate Justice Alliance (see below).

Mainstream environmentalism from 1980-2007 embraced the idea that the capitalist state did not need to be challenged in order to address climate change. This idea should not have been taken seriously at the time, and cannot be taken seriously today. To truly  address environmental issues, we must dismantle the political-economic forces that drive widespread degradation, resource depletion, and climate change.

Radical Environmentalism (1980-)

There were exceptions to the pro-business orientation of mainstream environmentalism, including many groups influenced by the civil disobedience of anti-nuclear activists. One such organization was Earth First! Influenced by anarchist environmentalist Edward Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, and by Malthusian theories of overpopulation, the group engaged in radical direct action tactics. Some were media stunts—like faking a crack in the Glen Canyon Dam to act out the unrealized dream of Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang—and some were so dangerous that they brought the FBI—like blowing up electrical transformers and spiking timber trees.

Much ink has been spilled on the efficacy and inefficacy of these tactics, and there was also fierce debate within the group about tactics like tree-spiking, which tended to put workers in danger more than threaten the owners of the means of production. Some members, like Judi Bari, were exploring a synthesis of working-class environmentalism and radical ecological direct action, but it’s primarily the latter that comprised Earth First’s legacy, as seen in organizations like the Earth Liberation Front and the Rising Tide Network.

Radical environmentalism has played an important role in challenging the false pretensions of mainstream environmentalism, but, ironically, both tend to share a belief  that a relatively small group of committed actors—NGO executives in the case of the former, direct action provocateurs in the case of the latter—can challenge the machinations of the capitalist class. A real working-class environmentalism requires moving beyond both positions to develop roots in organized labor and the broader working-class supermajority.

Environmental and Global Justice (1991-)

In the 1970s and 1980s, just as mainstream environmentalism was hitting the wall, many local and statewide organizations with bases of power in frontline and fenceline communities were organizing against disparities like unmanaged Superfund sites in Black communities, and toxic/waste dumping in many other “invisible” neighborhoods in major cities. In doing so, they framed environmental concerns as concerns about justice to highlight the ways in which POC communities suffer disproportionately from pollution due to systemic racism and other structural oppressions. In late 1991, leaders came together for the first People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and created a set of 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, widely considered to be one of the key founding documents of the Environmental Justice movement, along with the Jemez Principles on Democratic Organizing created in 1996.

The 90s also saw the creation of a variety of new organizations, like the Indigenous Environmental Network and La Via Campesina, that would expand the environmental justice movement and tie it more closely to the emergent global justice movement. This larger movement erupted in December 1999 at the Battle of Seattle, which featured cross-movement solidarity (like the infamous “Teamsters & Turtles” blockade) and militant direct action. New global networks for the sharing of tactics like black blocs and summit-hopping emerged from this event, as did the World Social Forums and Workers Rights Consortium, but the anti-/alter-globalization movement bears an ambivalent legacy.

In 2009, after the collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, the Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), which brought together environmental justice, indigenous sovereignty, and global justice groups, was formed. CJA is a key member of the It Takes Roots Alliance, a self-described “alliance of networks and coalitions representing over 200 organizations and affiliates in over 50 states, provinces, territories and Native lands in the U.S. and Canada, and led by women, gender nonconforming people, people of color, and Indigenous Peoples.” CJA is a major hub of left climate organizing and recently responded to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal proposal with a call for a Green New Deal “rooted in just transition for workers and communities most impacted by climate change.”

Contemporary Developments (2007-)

2007 was a notable year for environmentalism in many regards. The bi-annual Power Shift conferences kicked off then, and ever since has served as a hub of an emerging “youth climate movement,” articulated most recently and visibly in the Sunrise Movement (see below). In addition, 2007 saw the founding of the Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) and perhaps the largest organization known outside of the climate movement, 350.org. CCL launched with the goal of passing the Carbon Fee and Dividend Act, which sought an 80-95% emissions reduction below 1990 levels by 2050, but CCL’s decentralized, “grassroots lobbying” approach worked explicitly for “financial solutions” to the climate crisis.

Started by Bill McKibben and other university activists, 350.org derives its name from the figure 350 parts per million, which is cited by scientists as the highest safe level of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere for humans (we’ve now surpassed 400 parts per million). Like liberal environmentalist organizations before it, 350.org works to influence meetings of the UNFCCC, but it also prioritizes mass mobilization and has succeeded in organizing large demonstrations like the International Day of Climate Action and the People’s Climate March. While 350.org has been successful in attracting big names and organizing big marches, they lack a critical analysis of capitalism’s role in climate change, relying instead on fear tactics to motivate individual lifestyle changes.  

Finally, 2007 marked the founding of the BlueGreen Alliance (BGA), a coalition of thirteen unions and several environmental groups led by the United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club. BGA got large unions like SEIU and CWA engaged in the struggle for environmental justice, but it was also centered on a “green growth” agenda that did not demand systemic change. That agenda was immediately dealt a series of decisive blows, including the defeat of the Waxman-Markey bill in 2009 (thanks to the alliance of “coal state” Democratic Senators with Republicans), and most relevantly the partnership of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department with the oil and gas industry in 2009.

More promising developments on the labor/just transition front included the founding of the Labor Network for Sustainability (LNS) in 2010 and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) in 2012. LNS focuses on getting rank-and-file union members to force changes in the labor movement’s position on climate destruction, recognizing that historically change has come from the bottom up. TUED is a group of 29 unions, based in the U.S. and abroad, that reject market-based approaches to renewable energy promotion as totally inadequate to dramatically reduce emissions. Both LNS and TUED are making slow but steady progress in rebuilding bridges between labor and the environmentalists; bridges that will be essential for the climate justice movement to succeed.

The overall rhetoric of the current-day movement is well-encapsulated in the name of climate groups like Zero Hour and Extinction Rebellion, which convey a similar message as the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock. It is a message of an imminent threat with no recourse but immediate and large-scale action. The Climate Mobilization, founded in 2014, has perhaps best articulated the scale of mobilization needed, arguing in their foundational strategy document that we need to “lead the public into emergency mode” as we did in World War II. Most recently, the doomsday message had been taken up by international youth. A young Swedish teen, Greta Thunberg, lead an online hashtag movement that has inspired thousands of teens to walk out of their schools around the world in protest of inadequate climate change policy.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration continues to unravel environmental regulations, and the precedent set by the United States’ withdraw from the Paris Accord has given implicit permission to other newly elected leaders—e.g., Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro—to threaten the same. The ascendance of neo-fascist ideologies around the globe only makes more urgent the gap between what Sam Gindin has aptly described as “the urgency of ecological time and the inherently extended epoch of revolutionary time.”

Lessons for the Present

Environmentalism of all stripes has suffered within the larger political onslaught of neoliberalism, as indicated by the reports of the United Nations’ IPCC, which periodically summarizes the growing body of scientific knowledge of climate change and its social and economic impacts. In addition to laying out the increasingly dire consequences of climate change, these reports implicitly indict the politics of environmentalism: though important victories have been won on the state and local levels, environmental activists have failed to slow climate change over the past thirty years. In fact, the problem is only getting worse.

We must soberly assess the history of the politics of environmentalism and the shortcomings and successes of existing organizations in order to strategically enter the fight as socialists. The following five points are intended as broad, orienting lessons for DSA’s environmental and climate activism.

  1. Avoid the trap of idealism

Bill McKibben, reflecting on his and James Hansen’s shortcomings, said “I think he thought, as did I, if we get this set of facts out in front of everybody, they’re so powerful—overwhelming—that people will do what needs to be done.” From the socialist perspective, this is the classic trap of idealism or “Left Hegelianism”: thinking ideas alone can accomplish what can only be achieved through political organizing. Communications scholars call this the “deficit model” of risk communication. According to this model, the public doesn’t know the risks it is facing (it has a “deficit” of understanding), and thus experts simply need to provide the public with the right information in order to get it to make the “right” choices.

In the case of environmentalism, this trap is especially alluring, given the magnitude of the terror invoked by the basic facts of climate science. But we have learned from recent decades that no amount of bludgeoning the public with facts is going to move the needle on climate justice, or any other environmental issue. As communication scholars Nick Pidgeon and Baruch Fischhoff have argued, we can move beyond the “deficit model” of risk communication through strategic listening and strategic organizing.  

We of course need to continue countering the decades of misinformation around climate change, and we also need to critique the well-intentioned articles projecting timelines of collapse that fail to speak to the urgency of acting now in order to avoid catastrophe. But we also need to move from climate truth-telling to climate organizing.

  1. Build power from the local to the international

Environmental activism must not shy away from building power at all levels because addressing climate change means deploying a multi-scalar solution. As Marxist geographer David Harvey writes, “What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold at another scale. Even worse, good solutions at one scale (say, the local) do not necessarily aggregate up, or cascade down, to make for good solutions at another scale (say, the global).” For this reason, we must be smart and adaptable enough to think holistically about environmental and climate justice strategy, pursuing energy democracy strategies at the local level while building towards national and international planning and coordination at the global level.

Environmental activists have often shown a preference for the local and the decentralized, though it is clear that there are limits to this preference. Take, for instance, the burgeoning “Energy Democracy” movement, which is one iteration of this localism: Denise Fairchild and Al Weinrub claim, for instance, that we must abandon the “centralized renewable energy model,” which they argue is an “extension of the legacy model of fossil fuel electrical energy production to renewable energy,” for a “decentralized renewable energy model” that “allows for control and ownership of renewable energy resources to reside in the community, rather than in remote corporate boardrooms.” As socialists, however, we should not fear making transformational demands on the state so that centralized decisions might be made not in corporate boardrooms based on quarterly profits but in democratically accountable political bodies based on mass empowerment and social well-being.

Climate change and ecological breakdown are planet-scale problems driven by a global political-economic system. To build durable, institutional power at the scale required, we should prioritize international solidarity, organizing, and communication with working people and organizations everywhere. Even IPCC scientists, in their recent report, bucked capitalist consensus by calling for “historically unprecedented” international economic planning and coordination. International climate work is an opportunity to build solidarity with working people and oppressed classes around the world.

It is clear that environmental degradation must be confronted from local to global scales if we are to have a chance to avoid and reverse the extensive human suffering currently underway and forthcoming. Environmentalists were most powerful when they were working “in and against the state,” and this is a position we should aspire toward again.

  1. Build organizational structures on the Left

The modern environmental movement began just as the labor-based left entered a period of rapid political decline. It is only natural given this concurrence that the environmental movement took on bad habits and developed a skewed view of organizing. Many demonstrations of civil disobedience, direct action, and mass mobilization have been planned and executed without much regard for the building of durable structures ready to see climate justice legislation into its endgame. Instead, there has been a celebration of tactics for the tactics’ own sake, as well as of loose organizational structure. For instance, 350.org argues that “decentralized networking” is “exactly what we need to fight global warming, that is, a sustained and lively social movement.” They further advise activists: “Don’t fret about structure. Far more than we need new organizations, we need nimble, relevant, strategic, and often temporary groups of people who can come together to do what needs to be done at the moment—and then do it again, with a whole different bunch of people, a few months later.”

After nearly forty years of continued failure to slow the impending climate disaster—and only moderate success battling broader environmental degradation—it is time to question this spontaneous approach to organizing which eschews structure in favor of “flexibility,” that illusory neoliberal buzzword. A great deal of this organizational reorientation can be accomplished by embedding the fight for environmental justice in resurgent leftist organizations more broadly, and concerning ourselves first and foremost with building the kind of structures which wield real power. Slowing environmental destruction and rebuilding the institutions of the organized left are one and the same process.

  1. Frame environmental justice as a jobs creator

Perhaps the best way we can help build these structures is by appealing to and working with organized labor. Environmentalists have done a poor job of this historically, remaining wedded to abstract, academic explanations and to tactics and rhetoric that ares alienating to workers. As a result, organized labor has been at best ambivalent toward environmentalism, and at worst hostile to what they see as the negative economic consequences of environmental protection.

In order to counter the oil and gas industry’s “jobs blackmail” (the threat that any real attempt to stop climate change is going to hurt the economy), socialists must assert that climate change legislation today be framed as the employment boon that it is, and contain a just jobs transition plan for those currently working in fossil fuel and other environmentally exploitive industries. Achieving a habitable world will take work, which means providing people with jobs, and this message should be at the forefront of socialists’ vision.

The emphasis on the work that needs to be done in order to address climate change is but one of the many virtues of the Green New Deal (GND), most recently brought to public consciousness by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement, a youth-driven climate group that came out of disillusionment with campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns. The GND has been a staple of the Green Party’s vision, who see it involving a substantial cut in military spending tied to a shift in foreign policy towards peace and cooperation, rather than imperial intervention. Arguably, the primary obstacle to the implementation of the GND is thus the military-industrial complex, whose global expenditures total $1.7 trillion. The hope with a GND strategy, as in all socialist strategy, is that “a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift”—in this case, that the renewable sector of capital turns against the fossil fuel industry to help force demilitarization.

Of course, as socialists we strive for a world where work is not a prerequisite for equitable shelter, food, healthcare, and dignity. Embracing climate justice as a jobs issue does not mean participating in the age-old glorification of work for work’s sake. Framing environmental justice as a jobs creator is above all about overcoming the fossil fuel industry’s wedge strategy that keeps environmentalists and unions in opposition. Collaboration between labor unions and environmentalists, where it has existed, has been “short-lived and episodic.” In order to win, it must be durable and persistent.

  1. Frame environmental justice as a material problem

It has been well documented over decades and across geographies that working-class communities are considerably more likely to be exposed to environmental dangers like air or water pollution, and are far more likely to live in areas at the most risk of damage from natural hazards like floods or mudslides. Individuals and households who do not have the political or material means to adapt, and who often have to work or walk to transit outside, suffer the greatest harm from increasingly frequent and intense heat waves. Across ethnicities and incomes, children and the elderly are more susceptible to falling ill from climate change related hazards and environmental pollution, as are community members experiencing homelessness, who are more exposed not only to the elements, but to vector borne diseases, which are increasing in geographic range.

A mobilization of the scope and scale required to engage climate change presents a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty, to address historic oppressions in marginalized communities, and make environmental health and economic security available to all in the transformation. Organizing to win—and win big—means building a coalition that includes leftists, progressive Democrats, activists based in typically marginalized populations, union members, and people who are not politically active but who stand to gain a great deal from reversing environmental destruction.

Demands like Medicare for All and Free Public College for All are surging in popularity because working-class households see their healthcare and their children’s college tuition as urgent material problems that need to be addressed immediately. Environmental justice has not been framed in the same way vis-a-vis everyday needs and the result is a marked lack of “working-class environmentalism,” something that is fundamentally needed to create real sustainable change. For this to change, environmentalists will need to talk less about ice caps and atmospheric CO2 and more about asthma in urban centers, rising numbers of heat-related deaths in summer, and increasing threats to everyday American families from floods, storms, and fires.

Perhaps the best way to make this material case is with the Green New Deal, which clearly spells out the direct material benefits of addressing climate change to everyday people. The only way to save ourselves from catastrophic climate change and irreversible environmental degradation is by building a mass, multi-racial, working-class insurgency that makes environmentalism and climate justice one of its central demands, and the Green New Deal presents a unique vehicle for this work.


Authors and Contributors: Paul Michael Chakalian (Phoenix), Sean Estelle (Chicago), Benjamin Y. Fong (Phoenix), Ted Franklin (East Bay), Jeff Glass (Austin), Andrew Dana Hudson (Phoenix), Taylor Hynes (NYC), David Jones (Western Montana), David Schwartzman (Metro DC), Hannah Ruth Tabler (Wichita), Sus Sunhee Volz (Philadelphia)