November 15, 2012

Recycle or Reimagine: Tracking the Direction of the U.S. Environmental Movement

Lara Skinner

With the dramatic deepening of the environmental crisis, new forms of resistance are emerging to combat the fossil fuel industry’s extreme agenda. Since the 1970s, the U.S. environmental movement has grown enormously in size and visibility. This has been particularly true of the movement’s mainstream segment, which has received the majority of private funding. However, growing membership and visibility have not consistently translated into concomitant growth in political power.

The professionalized, mainstream environmental movement has largely utilized top-down approaches to fight environmental degradation and climate change. Rooted in “ecological modernization” and “green capitalism,” these approaches focus on incremental changes within the current political-economic system. Notwithstanding some significant achievements, they fall short in the face of the current ecological challenges. This is in part because the mainstream movement has done little to inspire grassroots collective action and has been unable to adequately address—or shied away from addressing—the root causes of environmental degradation.

Since the 1980s, various grassroots and environmental justice organizations have been emerging and gaining strength in the U.S. These more radical movements have developed analyses linking the degradation of the environment to the social, political and economic marginalization of the working class, people of color, immigrants, women, and others. The environmental justice movement argues that a fundamental shift in power relations is necessary to prioritize the people’s social and environmental needs over corporate profits. In 2009, the climate justice movement, building on the work of these grassroots organizations, emerged on the international stage at the UN Conference of the Parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, where it presented a comprehensive anti-capitalist framework to address the current environmental, climate, social and economic crises.

Lara Skinner, Associate Director of Research at Cornell University’s Global Labor Institute, tracks the environmental movement’s history and demonstrates how the newly emerging sub-movements challenge the goals, strategies and tactics of mainstream environmental organizations. She argues that these environmental and climate justice organizations, together with like-minded allies, provide the best opportunity to build a participatory movement with real power to address our ecological crisis in a comprehensive way.

As the fight against the fossil fuel industry’s extremist energy agenda unfolds, the strength and ingenuity of these alternative organizations could very well determine whether or not the mainstream environmental movement will re-consider current strategies, break ties with fossil fuel corporations, and abandon institutional channels in favor of real systemic change. For one thing is clear: If the fossil fuel industry’s agenda continues to dominate as it has, we will all pay the price.