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Wednesday, Jan 9, 2013, 1:42 pm

Environmentalisms of the Poor

By Rebecca Burns

For the environmental movement, 2013 is shaping up to be a touchstone year. It's one that will test whether the wake-up call issued by Hurricane Sandy will rouse us into action—and whether 2012's wave of environmental uprisings, aimed at doing just that, can be sustained. A series of unconventional mobilizations has put direct action back on the table for a movement that has sometimes subsisted without, but the new year has brought a fresh round of debates on how to continue growing what's been termed a “national uprising against extraction.”

This week, the Tar Sands Blockade, which launched last summer with the aim of halting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline's southern leg, announced a new emphasis on corporate accountability. On Monday, activists staged nationwide actions at the offices of oil company TransCanada. More than 50 people held a die-in inside the company’s U.S. headquarters in Houston, leading to two arrests. In a statement, the group said that the action “kicks off a new phase of the Tar Sands Blockade targeting the corporate and financial infrastructure behind the Keystone XL pipeline.”

This focus echoes the campaign for fossil fuel divestment, spearheaded by, that has been gaining momentum at colleges and universities around the country. Nearly 200 campuses have initiated divestment efforts. Two, Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts, have already divested their endowments.

In a recent article published at the Huffington Post, Christian Parenti outlines several critiques of the push for fossil fuel divestment. A discussion between Parenti founder Bill McKibben on Democracy Now last week revolved around the role of the state in confronting the fossil fuel industry’s power. McKibben has cautioned that climate change activists can’t wait for the feds; Parenti asserts that climate efforts ultimate can’t be effective without them. In his article, Parenti also paints divestment as a symbolic move that misunderstands where the fossil fuel industry’s “bottom line” is located: Not, he says, in the stock market, which in reality is more important to distributing risk than to creating wealth.

The practical effect of South Africa’s divestment campaign, one of the more heavily analogized endavors in Left history, is still a subject of debate. What may be more important than the technical functioning of the stock market in this instance, however, is that university divestment from South Africa was undertaken at the behest of a mass movement, for which isolating the apartheid regime internationally was one component of a sustained strategy.

Alongside the push for fossil fuel divestment, what could a mass politics of climate justice look like?

In 2007, Alex Gourevitch wrote in a polemic for n + 1 that the fight against global warming is waged through a totalizing “politics of fear” that attempts to substitute science for politics, and transcend contestation through moral compulsion. More recently, he’s argued elsewhere that environmentalism has consistently failed to link up to a base of impacted people.

There's yet an important debate to be had on this subject. This kind of argument, of course, disregards the vibrant environmental movements in the Global South such as Wangari Maathai's Greenbelt Movement, or Nigeria's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People—described by founder Ken Saro-Wiwa, before his eventual execution by the Nigerian government, as the fight against “ecological genocide.” The landmark case against Royal Dutch Shell for its role in suppressing resistance to oil extraction, brought by Ogoni activists and expected to be decided in the Hague early this year, is in many ways an important locus of the fight against climate change. Casting American environmentalism as an entirely elite affair also obscures that actions such as the occupation of a strip mine in West Virginia this summer reprise a history of radical opposition to surface mining in the region that predates the rise of green lifestyle politics. But in order to grow beyond a core of committed activists, the contemporary movement against global warming will have to build stronger connections with what have been termed “environmentalisms of the poor”--and contend with the thorny question of how to mobilize for environmental justice while also demanding economic justice for communities that have been made dependent on extraction.

The past year has brought hopeful signs that the climate justice movement is broadening its base. Where major environmental organizations have partially retreated, high-risk actions have been joined—albeit in small numers—by people whose land and livelihoods are at stake. People such as Eleanor Fairchild, a 78-year-old great-grandmother who was arrested twice protesting construction on her farm in East Texas, have become the new face of the anti-pipeline movement. And Canada's massive October “Defend Our Coast” actions, staged in opposition to construction of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, showcased a moment of unity between labor, indigenous activists and environmentalists on the question of tar sands extraction.

But while more radical tactics have resurfaced among both the labor and environmental movements in the U.S. in 2012, this has taken place in separate quarters, as Alyssa Battistoni observes in the current issue of Jacobin. There's thus little guarantee, even given the lessons of Sandy, that a more class-conscious environmentalism is on the horizon. As author Rob Nixon puts it, "the fate of the environment … will be shaped significantly in decades to come by the relationship between the environmentalisms of the rich and poor.”

Rebecca Burns, In These Times Assistant Editor, holds an M.A. from the University of Notre Dame's Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where her research focused on global land and housing rights. A former editorial intern at the magazine, Burns also works as a research assistant for a project examining violence against humanitarian aid workers.

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