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Introduction from HealthWrights staff

HealthWrights believes that the health of the world’s peoples must be seen as inseparable from the movement to turn the tide against environmental planetary degradation. The struggle for a safe and healthy environment in poor and oppressed communities is the basis of the United States Environmental Justice movement.

In his challenging article, Bill Gallegos explains that the Environmental Justice (EJ) movement has no stake in altering its relationship to Earth Mother. Its vision is that of a world freed from the poisons that turn oppressed communities, such as in Los Ángeles, into toxic wastelands.

In the United States, the environmental movement is not a movement. Indeed, there are two environmental movements. Better expressed, there are two currents of environmental activism. One current is the collection of name-recognizable organizations. The other current is the Environmental Justice movement. This movement is rooted in working-class communities and communities of color in cities and rural areas throughout the country.

Gallegos explains that mainstream environmental organizations operate within the structure and ideology of capitalism, and that the history of racist oppression and the power of wealth effectively places the leaders of these overwhelmingly white organizations at odds with the Environmental Justice movement. The EJ movement has rarely had the funding and the political connections that mainstream organizations have. The lack of access of support from major funding organizations is one feature of this divide particularly, as Gallegos expresses, in this period of economic crisis.

Main article

As the world careens towards an uncertain future, this much is certain: if a genuine revolutionary alternative to capitalism is not realized, we may witness the emergence and dominance of a global regime of horrendous barbarism, the end-of-days festival heralding the death of Mother Earth.

We are already witness to portents of the ecological barbarism which an unrestrained capitalism inevitably produces: in unprecedented series of droughts, floods, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes -- all the inevitable result of an atmosphere choking on a geometrically-increasing carbon burden, of a systemic pollution and toxification of lakes, rivers, aquifers, waterways, and oceans destroying both the food and water supply necessary for the sustenance of all life, the erosion and pestilential chemical destruction of arable lands, or their conversion (a la China) into gated and militarized playgrounds for a hedonistic bourgeoisie; the apocalyptic species loss, greater than anything witnesses by our Earth Mother in 65 million years (most of the planet’s fisheries have been depleted by over-fishing or destroyed by pollution), the polar icecaps and other massive frozen water supplies are melting at a rate even the most highly-advanced computer systems have failed to predict.

This unprecedented and interconnected series of environmental events constitute what is referred to as the global ecological crisis, or what we might call the death throes of Mother Earth. The ecological crisis is itself intertwined with the global economic crisis, whose Marxist terms “stagnation due to the declining rate of profit” fails completely to capture the horror of a system that causes 24,000 children to die each day due to hunger or completely avoidable illness.

The United States is capitalism-central/headquarters for both the economic crisis and the ecological crisis. The United States is the hegemonic conductor for the global imperialist triad constituting Japan, Europe, and the US itself. This triad represents the vanguard of the Global North recognized as the principal oppressor and exploiter of the Global South (what we have called the Third World of the nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America). The US is the conductor for the triadic orchestra. It consumes one quarter of the world’s resources, although only accounts for 5% of the global population. It is the largest producer of Greenhouse gases in the world. Don’t bring up China. China has nothing like the empire of US imperialism, which analysts always fail to include in their accounting of US contributions to global warming. When the empire and all of its economic and military networks are taken into account, no other nation comes close to the US leadership of destroying the world’s ecology.

And, as the 2008 economic meltdown proved once again, it is the US capitalist economy which drives the planetary economic crisis. Again, the reach of US imperialism makes this inevitable.

As such, revolutionaries living in the United States have a special responsibility to organize and challenge our own ruling class, our own bourgeoisie (if we prefer the French terminology), to provide at least a coherent source of support for those who are on the frontlines of the anti-imperialist struggle – the peoples, movements, and nations of the Third World.

The Environmental Justice Movement in the US

It is within this context that we must assess the US environmental justice movement. The US environmental justice movement (EJ Movement) is one of the most important social movements in the country for meeting the challenge of the US-inspired ecological crisis, most clearly reflected in the terrifying increase in global warming. The US EJ Movement is a vital movement, a diverse movement, a highly successful movement, in at least holding the line against the predatory offensive of the fossil fuel industries. But like all social movements in the US, the EJ Movement is still trying to develop a vision, a program, and a strategy to guide its future work.

The US EJ Movement is made up mostly of small, usually non-profit organizations, mainly rooted in working class oppressed nationality communities. These organizations are scattered from the oppressed nation of Hawaii, to the Native communities of Alaska, and throughout the continental US. They are rooted primarily in people of color communities, but in poor white communities, such as Appalachia, as well. Nearly all of their work is local, and collectively the EJ Movement represents a significant base among the most oppressed sectors of the working class and oppressed peoples. Women make up the largest percentage of the base of most EJ organizations.

I would like to share a couple of examples of local campaigns from Communities for a Better Environment (CBE)’s experience.

In 2007, CBE began a campaign against the Chevron Oil refinery in Richmond, California. Richmond is a city of 100,000, overwhelmingly working class and people of color. City politics and economy are dominated by Chevron and its 300-acre refinery, which is the largest industrial greenhouse gas emitter in the state, and which spews tons of more immediately toxic pollutants on the nearby mostly African American, Latino, and Laotian residents. When Chevron decided to expand its plant in 2008, CBE discovered that the company intended to start refining dirtier grades of crude oil. The refining process would not only release huge amounts of toxics, but nearly 1 million tons of GHGs annually. CBE and the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) began a campaign to stop the project (which was approved by the City Council on a very close vote). CBE and APEN were ultimately successful in stopping Chevron’s project. One of the most important victories along the way was helping to elect a pro-environmental justice majority to the Richmond City Council, despite Chevron spending more than $1 million to elect their slate of candidates. Richmond has been a company town for more than a century, so this victory was huge.

CBE led a similar campaign in 2008-2010 in Southeast Los Angeles, preventing the construction of a 943 megawatt fossil fuel power plant in the most densely populated and highly polluted area of the LA Basin. The plant would have emitted more than 1.5 pounds of pollutants annually, as well as 2.5 million tons of GHGs. This campaign was spearheaded mostly by Latina working class immigrant women, and Latino/a high school youth. Similar local campaigns have been organized by EJ organizations throughout the United States.

There are also a few relatively large EJ organizations with bigger and more diverse staffs (scientists/researchers, attorneys, as well as organizers) who are able to pursue regional, statewide, and sometimes even national campaigns. These include CBE, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), and the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) in California, the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) in New Mexico, and WEACT in New York. The Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) is the only larger EJ organization focused on organizing among API communities (primarily in Oakland and Richmond, California). The EJ Movement also includes the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) a highly-respected network of local tribal organizations from throughout the US, and with a very direct link to Indigenous organizations and networks in the Global South, especially in Latin America.

The EJ Movement also includes important intellectuals like Robert Bullard, Winona LaDuke, Cecilia Martinez, Beverly Wright, Michael Dorsey, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Manuel Pastor, and, more recently, Movement Generation, an environmental think tank in San Francisco. Politically, we can characterize the EJ Movement as a Left movement in the sense that many of its leaders are guided by an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist framework, and it is often self-identified with the larger liberation struggles of the oppressed nationality communities.

The EJ Movement is involved in an impressively broad range of struggles: against mountaintop removal, coal-fired power plants, diesel and rail traffic, pollution from shipping ports, airports, oil refineries, nuclear plants. More recently, many EJ organizations have become involved in alternative economic development issues, food justice, and electoral politics. The EJ movement has long taken up the issue of global warming and climate justice. Like all other social movements, the work of the EJ Movement is framed and impacted by the current economic crisis, which has not only devastated the already fragile economic infrastructures (loss of wealth, unemployment, and draconian cuts to funding for education, health care, and social services); but also created a pretext for the worst polluting industries to aggressively build infrastructure, while attempting to weaken or even eliminate environmental legislation.

One of the most important contradictions facing the US EJ movement (framed by the overarching contradiction with white racist monopoly capitalism) is with the larger, mostly white and petit-bourgeois “green groups” such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, The Sierra Club, The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and others. These green groups emerged mainly out of the conservation movement, a movement of privileged and wealthy elites focused primarily on maintaining pristine nature preserves. These groups prioritize their DC-focused lobbying efforts, and most recently devoted hundreds of millions of dollars and years of time and tremendous human resources to an unsuccessful effort to pass federal climate and energy legislation.

The centerpiece of the green group climate and energy program is pollution trading, called cap and trade, which would allow industrial polluters to buy and sell permits giving them the “right” to pollute, or to buy their way out of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions by buying “offset” projects, mainly in the Global South. Cap and trade is a market-based program that has been a major failure nearly everywhere it has been tried – including local programs like the RECLAIM program in Los Angeles, or the European Union’s disastrous cap and trade program that embraced nearly all of Europe. Of course, as a market-driven program, cap and trade schemes have been plagued by fraud, market manipulation, and huge speculative profits. It has also been characterized by increased greenhouse gas emissions, the creation of toxic “hotspots” in the Global South, and higher energy rates for ordinary consumers.

The underlying reason for the backward positions of the green groups is a complete acceptance of the capitalist framework, that is, a belief that the focus of environmentalism should be on reaching an accommodation with capitalism and never fundamentally challenging its imperative of endless accumulation (or its white supremacy for that matter). The green groups pin all of their hopes for solving the global ecological crisis on the emergence of a “green capitalism” which will somehow, (through what Van Jones refers to as “Ideas and Inventions”), achieve a technological fix for the problem.

The EJ Movement has had to confront the green groups on a local level, at regional levels, and at the national level (where the EJ Leadership Forum attempted to win support for a regulatory and tax alternative to cap and trade in the climate and energy legislation), and at the international level, where the green groups have been nearly unanimous in promoting cap and trade as the centerpiece of any international treaty on global warming.

These recent conflicts between a mostly working class and oppressed nationality EJ movement and a white and mostly middle and upper class mainstream environmental movement have a fairly long and depressingly-consistent history of betrayal and sell-outs to corporate power. This was all called out more than twenty years ago, at The First National Environmental Justice Summit, when the EJ Movement exposed the environmental racism of the green groups (as well as US society in general) and called for a radical transformation in the perspectives, leadership, and programmatic focus of the green groups. This call was largely ignored. The EJ-Green Groups contradiction is has been further exacerbated by competition for funding. EJ groups get no more than 1% of all foundation grant monies allocated for environmental causes. The Green Groups grab most of the funding, since funders are comfortable with the pro-capitalist ideology of the green groups, and with their focus on acceptable policy change, using the more docile channels of lobbying, mainstream media campaigns, and electoral politics.

The conflict between the EJ Groups and the Green Groups around the issue of climate justice is mostly centered around the struggle over cap-and-trade programs, at the local level, such as Los Angeles, at the statewide level in California and New Jersey, and at the national level in US capitalism’s Babylonian political headquarters. Except for rare exceptions, such as Friends of the Earth, the green groups are nearly unanimous in their willingness to ignore the concerns and evidence of the EJ Movement around cap-and-trade, as well as that movement’s genuine solutions to rapidly, directly, and transparently reducing greenhouse gas emissions and the toxic co-pollutants that accompany them and which are most immediately harmful to the health of so-called “fence line communities”.

The Current State of the EJ Movement

The EJ movement has taken a tremendous hit because of the recession. As a mostly non-profit based movement, it has lost significant funding, forcing some organizations to close down or merge with others, or to cut staff and programs. This economic crisis has compelled many EJ groups to devote more time and effort to fundraising, making it extremely difficult to take on new work and struggles, even as the fossil fuel industry mounts its horrifying offensive.

The economic crisis has also made it difficult to sustain larger EJ networks. The Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) has had to close its doors, and the African American Environmental Network also no longer exists. The New Jersey Environmental Justice Network is desperately searching for funds for its one staff person and may be unable to keep that person on board. In California, the broad EJ movement that briefly united around an effort to develop an effective implementation plan for that state’s pioneering greenhouse gas legislation, scattered to the winds after the Air Resources Board rejected virtually all of their recommendations, and after the recession hit in 2008. California had one of the more united and effective EJ movements, but it was recently unable to come together around an opportunity to get rid of the state’s cap-and-trade program (an opportunity created by a legal victory led by Communities for a Better Environment and the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment), or to defeat statewide legislation that seriously weakens the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Things are also challenging at the national level for the EJ Movement. Four years ago, WE ACT convened a national meeting of EJ organizations and academics from throughout the US to form the EJ Leadership Forum on Climate Change (EJ Forum). The Forum was the first serious and viable effort to re-group and re-build a national EJ Movement since the disastrous second EJ National Summit in 2005. The focus of the Forum was on federal climate and energy policy, a focus affirmed by the election of Barack Obama, which created political space for such legislation. The Forum was successful in articulating a strong program of proposals around climate, energy and green economic development policy, as well as in developing a powerful critique of bogus climate solutions like carbon coal sequestration. The Forum also played an active role in building a unified North American EJ delegation that participated in both the Copenhagen and Cancun international climate treaty conferences.

Unfortunately, the Forum has fallen on hard times, and has barely functioned for the last two years. This is primarily due to the fact that the Forum never developed a truly collective leadership and its initiative was largely driven solely by WE ACT, which had raised all the money for the Forum. When that money dried up and WE ACT could dedicate no full-time staff to the Forum it stopped communicating, meeting or advancing any work (with the exception of a somewhat autonomous project called the EJ and Science Initiative, formed to provide scientific and research support to the EJ community). The Forum never played to its real strength, which was in significant local bases of power to try and advance its federal efforts. Given its weak lobbying capacity at the national level, its voice was largely ignored or overwhelmed by the shameless sell-out to cap and trade by the green groups. WE ACT is now attempting to revive the Forum, calling for a national meeting on November 17-18 in DC. But it remains sadly uncertain whether this effort will be successful. It certainly will not be successful unless a true collective leadership is formed, that represents the diversity of the EJ community, and if the Forum is unable to raise the money necessary to create an effective infrastructure.

Fortunately, there is a more recent effort to regroup a national EJ Movement, around the focus of climate justice which seems to have some legs. This emerging North American climate justice network is composed of a loose network of mostly EJ organizations convened by the IEN and Movement Generation in 2010 to create a Left pole that could advocate effectively for genuine solutions to climate change, and seriously challenge false solutions such as pollution trading or the REDD program. There were nearly twenty organizations at the initial convening, including IEN, ACE from Boston, The Black Mesa Water Coalition, APEN, SWOP, CBE, the Labor Community Strategy Center and others. This loose network is also in communication and attempting to coordinate efforts with the Global Well-Being Working Group of Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ), the network that has organized the last two US Social Forums. The GGJ network consists of around 15-20 EJ organizations, most of whom are also affiliated with the Climate Justice Network. The Climate Justice Network has adopted a very progressive, mostly left manifesto that expresses its views on the global ecology crisis, while the recent GGJ Congress has developed a national campaign around the slogan of No Wars, No Warming, Build an Economy for the People and the Planet. This new national EJ network holds considerable promise, but it is still in the process of formation and lacks sufficient resources. It remains to be seen whether it can actually mount an effective grassroots campaign around its perspectives and developing climate and energy program. It is important to note that members of the Road are active and respected leaders in both the EJ Forum and the Climate Justice Network.

Where is the EJ Movement Headed?

The US EJ Movement has some important strengths, including a deep reservoir of mass support at the local level throughout the country, as well as significant networks of allies. Another strength is fairly strong left leadership, at the local level in many parts of the country (Chicago, New Mexico, IEN, California), and at the national level in both the EJ Forum and the Climate Justice Network. It is beginning to develop a strong and comprehensive program around climate justice, including important perspectives on the development of green economies. The movement is also building stronger ties with states and movements in the Global South, such as the government of Bolivia, and La Via Campesina.

The Movement also faces significant challenges, including a lack of funding (and greater competition for decreasing foundation resources), a strong regional or national infrastructure (one important exception being the California Environment Justice Alliance in California, composed of six of the major base building EJ organizations, located in important urban and rural centers throughout the state), and I would say a failure to appreciate the importance of addressing the current economic crisis, especially around concrete demands for jobs or income now. It will likely continue to face seemingly intransigent resistance from the Green Groups many of whom -- in the face of their catastrophic failure to achieve federal climate legislation – claim to have “gotten religion” and are promising the foundation world that they now see the importance of community organizing. It would be horribly ironic if these groups, rather than EJ organizations, begin to garner most of the meager funds still available for organizing.

Despite all of these challenges, the EJ Movement will continue to be at the forefront of important local struggles and on the frontline of the struggle for climate justice. As long as oppressed peoples are being poisoned and killed by polluters, people will resist them, and increasingly connect their local struggles to their larger efforts to achieve equality and self-determination.