The Environmental Movement And Class Struggle

category international | environment | debate author Tuesday August 16, 2005 20:49author by Prole cat and Arthur J Millar - NAF

How Do They Intersect?

A debate on how anarchist communists should address environmental issues. Should we work within an existing movement or seek to build a new one. But why should poor and working people always make the sacrifices for middle-class environmental solutions?

Introducing a Working Class Sensibility to the Environmental Movement - letter from prole cat,

I read the inaugural issue of Unfinished Business with great pleasure. The fact of the NAF's formation and ongoing constructive work was cause enough for celebration. But as an anarchist communist who has long worked within an Earth First! collective, I was especially gratified to note that the Federation's Perspectives prominently address the "massive ecological catastrophe that is on our doorstep".

In addition to the Perspectives article, Arthur J. Miller's essay Developing Working Class Environmentalism contained some valid criticisms of the ecology movement. However, after detailing several of that movement's more glaring weaknesses (and also commenting on humans as integral to ecosystems, and the greed of bosses as the source of despoliation) he prescribes a solution that involves building "our own form of environmentalism" based on the interests of "the working class and other oppressed groups." He seems to be calling for an as-yet-to-be-created movement, a new thing apart from the existing movement. Why this, rather than agitate within the existing structures to introduce a working class sensibility?

The point of contention regarding whether to work within an existing movement or seek to build a new one, mirrors a long running debate within anarchism regarding unions. There has been a long and rich debate within anarchist circles as to whether we should restrict our activities to working within revolutionary unions (the purist position), or whether we should also agitate within the business unions.

I lean towards the latter position. I think we should agitate within the business unions, because "that is where the workers are." And, that we should work within the existing environmental movement, because that is where the people most acutely aware of the impending ecological catastrophe are. If the interests of oppressed communities are not being addressed, or if workers are being bullied by middle class elements within these organizations, we should be there (as elsewhere) demanding freedom and equality.

But the problem seems to be, not so much that middle class people and interests tend to dominate within green circles (as elsewhere), but these green circles tend mostly to consist of middle class types. (Not the bourgeoisie, mind you, who reap windfall dividends from profit-focused extraction, production and consumption. Instead I am referring to college- educated folks, who are not filthy-rich.)

Just as the richest layers of society are not found among the ranks of the greens, so too there has not been a lot of worker participation within this movement. Whose fault is that, that workers have not found their way into these circles? We can blame the elitist behavior of well-heeled greens, to be sure, but what does that accomplish? Our task is to fight such domination, not to complain about it.

There are many reasons why workers tend not to join environmental groups, aside from the behavior of middle-class people. Our work schedules often don't allow it, for one thing. And, people with less education tend to be more easily bamboozled by the lies of the government and the corporate media. When workers do see through these lies, it tends to follow from personal experience, rather than from analysis or having read a book. For that reason, workers are more apt to be involved in workplace or community struggles which immediately affect them, rather than in ecological campaigns. Though they are impacted by environmental degradation, it is a less direct impact. (At least for now!) How would new, explicitly working-class environmental organizations change any of these factors?

Does all this mean that we should abandon the environmental movement as hopelessly compromised, to sneer at it as so much petty bourgeois self- indulgence? I think not. Rather, I think the aforementioned scarcity of working class participants in the movement for ecology is just a hurdle that we have to be aware of, and either change or adapt to. No one ever said being a revolutionary was going to be easy!

I contend that the ills of the environmental movement follow from the fact that workers have not participated in it. And I contend that the failure of class struggle anarchists to bring our theory and practice into the modern era by taking account of ecological concerns, has contributed to this dearth of workers in green ranks.

What should we, as anarchist communists be doing to bring a working class perspective (and more working class participants) into the environmental movement? That, I think, is the question to be addressed. Before we strike out in search of answers, it is crucial that we frame the question correctly.

Profit is the exact point at which worker exploitation and environmental degradation intersect. The green faction of the middle class has a common enemy with ourselves, the corporate owners. Certainly we should recognize and oppose the hierarchal nature of the green movement from within, even as we do within the business unions. But we should support the larger aims of that social movement, even as we do the larger aims of the workers organizations, the unions and grassroots community groups.

prole cat,
The Capital Terminus Collective, Atlanta, GA (in personal capacity)

Response from Arthur J. Miller

First let me say I have been a working class environmentalist for over 35 years and I have tried many times to work within environmental groups. The only such groups I ever found that I could work in were smaller community based groups made up of people in a community that was faced with some type of direct threat. In most of the mainstream and even more radical groups I found that the classism and class privilege were such that I could not do anything but be a camp follower. A few examples.

I lived for a while in a town where development of undeveloped land was a big issue. I agreed that such development should be slowed or stopped altogether so I went to a meeting. I expressed the point of view that such movements need to be concerned about the effects they have on oppressed and exploited people because that was the only way such a movement could make a real difference. In this case the problem for poor and working people was that if development stopped in undeveloped areas then the capitalists would turn to poor neighborhoods to redevelop homes and condos for rich and middle class people. So along with a campaign against development of undeveloped areas there needed to be a part of that campaign that worked to protect poor and working people's communities. I was told very strongly that those issues could not be combined. I asked why poor and working people had to always make the sacrifices for middle-class environmental solutions? It should be noted that all the organizations of people of color in that town came out against the campaign.

When a large oil spill from a tanker took place up in Alaska I went to an environmental meeting of people who wanted to do something about it. After listening to folk's talk and come up with solutions based upon a lack of understanding of ships, I spoke up. I have worked on ships for many years including tankers. I tried to explain to them what the problems were with tankers and how to make them no longer be the threat that they were. They advocated the double-bottom solution and I tried to explain to them that most all tankers leak a little oil and that without forced ventilation of the double-bottoms they would be like having bombs at the bottom of a tanker. If you know anything about tankers you know that it is the fumes that are the most dangerous and are a greater threat than full tanks and thus the fumes from the small leakage made double-bottoms very dangerous if they are not vented out and double-bottoms are not ventilated. I also pointed out that tankers don't carry spill containment equipment like booms and have to sit there spilling oil until booms are brought in from elsewhere. I wanted to tell them about other things that could be done. But the folks at that meeting did not want to hear what I had to say; rather they acted like I was the enemy because I worked on ships.

The point in all this is that in most cases in order for a working person who is not of the cultural middle-class scene, they most face a struggle just to be heard. Why go through that? Why not organize among other working class folks and too hell with those that have class privilege and use it against them?

One good example of the attitude of class superiority is expressed in the letter. "people with less education (I believe this person speaks of the education of the statist schools) tend to be more easily bamboozled by the lies of the government and the corporate media." Let me be very clear about this, I am not of the intelligentsia, I have never gone to college, I never even finished high school, so I am to the writer one on the "less educated". But does that mean I don't know what I am talking about? Maybe to the class supremacy of the intelligentsia I know nothing and must be led around by my nose by the better people. But in reality I, like many other working people, have a direct education from the point of production. Are we more easily bamboozled than the intelligentsia? I think not. As the writer shows a bamboozling in the thinking that the intelligentsia is so smart and working people are just sheep even though the greatest rebellions against the capitalist bosses, both in history and today, come out of the working class and not the intelligentsia..

I am a working person, I have worked on ships for near 30 years, worked on oil rigs, worked in the hard rock mining industry, drove a long haul truck and worked as an environmental technician. I see the problems of the threats to the environment first hand at the point where the problems are created. I am interested in organizing among others like me. I see no reason why working people need to struggle in organizations that are based upon class privilege, don't see the problems and solutions at the point that they exist and will always rely upon their class privilege by making working people make sacrifices that they don't have to make. I believe in a working class environmental movement.

From Unfinished Buisness No2 July 2005: Agitational publication of the NORTHWEST ANARCHIST FEDERATION - NAF U..B.. B U P.o. Box 112 Portland, O R 97232

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