The Inconvenient Truth About Greenwashing

Chris Williams Oct 2, 2013

A discussion initiated by activist, author and filmmaker Naomi Klein has raised important questions for the environmental movement, from the character of mainstream groups to the strategies of the left. Chris Williams, author of Ecology and Socialism: Solutions to Capitalist Ecological Crisis and a participant in the ecosocialist coalition System Change Not Climate Change, responds to the debate in this first installment of a three-part article. See the other two installments here and here.

Tactics: the science and art of using a fighting force to the best advantage having regard to the immediate situation of combat.
Strategy: the science and art of conducting a military campaign in its large-scale and long-term aspects.
— The New Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language

Naomi Klein, in a recent interview for titled "Green groups may be more damaging than climate change deniers," has sparked a furious debate among activists on the right and left of the North American environmental movement.

Thanks to Klein's article, the flames of controversy have been fanned and brought forth some fiery rhetoric around a dispute that has smoldered since the emergence of a more combative and distinctive left current within the movement–a current associated with the concept of climate justice, and one that has further expanded since Occupy burst onto the political scene in the fall of 2011.

Prominent climate blogger Joseph Romm, in a quite rancorous piece, labeled Klein's views as "filled with contrarian 'media bait' statements devoid of substance" and recommended that no one review or buy her upcoming book and film on climate change.

Klein responded that since neither her book nor her film have been released yet, offering a critique of them was "a new twist on old-school arrogance"–and that if anyone was guilty of "taking a sledge hammer to an ally," Romm should examine "what's in your (bloody) hand."

The rhetoric notwithstanding, the opening up of space for broader and deeper political discussion is to be welcomed in a movement that has, to its detriment, too often focused more on specific environmental battles and the activism needed to win them, than on an examination and discussion of the politics that underlie any particular course of action.

Given the environmental crisis, the urgent need for action and the conservatism of the mainstream of the movement, dominated by giant, top-down, well-funded NGOs such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and others, not only has the question of strategy often been given short shrift, but even a full discussion of appropriate tactics has been neglected.

Beyond the individual protagonists, the broader debate essentially boils down to a single and vitally important question: What is the most effective terrain, and with which combination of troops and allies, should the environmental movement engage with opposing forces in order to emerge victorious?

One suspects that, given the attempt of some of the more market-oriented environmental organizations to drown out Klein's arguments, what they are objecting to most isn't, in fact, the claim that they are worse than climate deniers. Rather, to them, Klein's larger sin lies elsewhere, in bringing out into the open a discussion that the big green NGOs would prefer to keep buried.

They fear antagonizing their funding sources and losing millions of dollars, should they become associated with more radical ideas–ones that center on discussing the nature of capitalism itself and the connection between our economic and social system and the ecological and climate crisis. This fearful prospect threatens not only specific tactics, but their entire raison d'être.

Invoking the word justice, as activists of color did when they formed organizations in the late 1970s and early '80s to tackle virulent and pervasive institutionalized environmental racism, this debate actually goes back, as Naomi Klein referenced, to controversies that first emerged with the rise to prominence of the modern U.S. environmental movement in the late 1960s.

The movement effectively split. On one side was a predominantly white, mainstream movement which dismissed or downplayed questions of race, class or gender and chiefly focused on wilderness issues, preservation and conservation. On the other was a more localized, and more often than not African American-led environmental justice movement focused on the human environment affected by environmental racism, poverty and inequality in urban and rural settings.

Rather than being able to work in partnership with the power structure, the concept of justice implies a power relationship and opposing sides with distinct interests.

To quote Van Jones in a Washington Post article earlier this year, "We essentially have a racially segregated environmental movement…We're too polite to say that. Instead, we say we have an environmental justice movement and a mainstream movement."

Without being specific about which groups were being criticized, the NAACP's report on the disproportionate racial and class impacts of coal plants in the U.S. noted:

This problem [of separation between grassroots environmental justice organizations and large Green NGOs] reflects a shortcoming of many mainstream environmental advocates: while denouncing the fact that the climate change will disproportionately impact poor people and people of color in the Global South, many climate advocates have often failed to highlight the ongoing, disproportionate impact of carbon-intensive industries on poor people and people of color in the United States. Campaign energy tends to be focused on coal plants that are geographically proximate to (mostly white, middle-class) climate campaigners–such as coal plants on college campuses–rather than targeting those coal-fired power plants that most heavily impact poor people and people of color.

When Jacqui Patterson, director of climate justice for the NAACP, was asked to comment in an interview for Yale's environmental site e360 on the dearth of leadership and representation from people of color in major environmental organizations, she responded, "There's been a historic failure to articulate the impacts of these issues on communities of color and low-income communities in the United States."

While environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are seeking to change and become more cognizant of the disproportionate racial impacts of pollution in the North, as well as become more representative, inclusive and involved, as long as there is a focus on a corporate strategy of lobbying, fundraising and high-profile publicity stunts which lack a strong element of social justice, member democracy or community involvement, change will be incremental and painfully slow.

To raise these difficulties and different political outlooks within the environmental movement is not to be "divisive" or to "weaken" the movement, as is so often the charge from those trying to close down political discussion. Rather, it is absolutely essential if we are to move forward in these desperate times.

As such, there is a level of importance to the debate that should encourage everyone concerned with the future of our planet to consider, analyze and discuss, because it relates directly to the future of the movement. And as building a successful, mass, independent movement and democratic, militant organization for social and ecological justice is the only thing that will prevent runaway climate change and mass extinctions that call into question the future of human civilization, it is critical that activists engage with the blossoming, much needed and very healthy debate on strategy and tactics.

The debate has erupted across environmental blogs and websites once more because, just as the environmental justice movement originally emerged from activists and communities of color 30 years ago, a more radical wing of the movement is growing, becoming more assertive, asking new questions and seeking to overcome previous political weaknesses and omissions. The new questions are not just about how to marshal our forces to win individual battles, but how to string those victories together into a campaign that has an identifiable objective and grand vision.

Strategically speaking, over the large scale and longer term, what kind of society are we fighting for? Are we seeking merely to sand off some of the ever-expanding, rougher edges of capitalism, while keeping the system somewhat contained and at least a few small areas sacrosanct from the profit motive?

Or are we fighting for a completely different kind of world? One free of commodities, fast food, agribusiness, carbon markets, warfare over key resources, poverty, racism and sexism–and for a truly objective science and technology that is no longer twisted and disfigured by the priorities of financial accumulation.

How can we both fight for meaningful change right now (tactics) that simultaneously helps build the movement and brings us closer to our larger, more long-term goals (strategy)? How do we differentiate between effective tactics that supplement our overall strategy, versus those that lead us up blind alleys?

How one answers these political questions determines how and with whom one organizes. In reality, this is a very old debate and surfaces whenever a social movement reaches an impasse. The question of strategy and tactics grows out of the concrete situation which confronts new activists drawn into the struggle.

Very often, it results in the emergence of new organizations which are more responsive to the increased demands and broader world views of those newly radicalized participants, such as we are beginning to see with the formation of national groups such as, Rising Tide, the left-wing coalition System Change not Climate Changeand, most importantly, the newly emerging indigenous organization Idle No More.

Such was the case in the civil rights movement, as newer, young activists, desirous of swifter and more thoroughgoing change, became disillusioned with the go-slow and legalistic route pursued by venerable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP (despite its radical roots). They agitated and formed organizations that were independent and open to new tactics with larger goals.

Instead of an emphasis on experts, lobbying, moral suasion and lawsuits in the courts, tactics were redirected toward mobilizing the Black population as a whole–through mass, nonviolent, direct action, set within a strategy of escalating activism and involvement from wider and wider layers of society.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was formed in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr. after the success of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Three years later, as the lunch-counter sit-in movement was taking off, students formed the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Having won political rights in 1964 and 1965, the movement radicalized further, and King switched his focus toward economic rights. In the North, another new organization formed in 1966: The Black Panther Party.

In the contemporary environmental movement, there are large, well-funded NGOs that consider partnership with the corporations and a strategy based on lobbying politicians and court battles as the most effective way to moderate the behavior of corporations and place limits on their polluting and anti-environmental activities.

As Klein commented, in an age of neoliberalism, the process has gone even further, with large, nominally Green, environmental NGOs (ENGOs) operating under a paradigm not of "Sue the bastards," but of "work through corporate partnerships with the bastards."

Conversely, as evidence that their approach works, organizations such as the EDF cite in their defense the many lawsuits they have been won, the changed corporate behavior and adoption of codes of corporate sustainability. In responding to Klein, the EDF's senior vice president of strategy and communications Eric Pooley said that when "faced with the choice of making real progress in our fight against climate change or waging ideological warfare, we will always choose the former"–as if it is self-evident that the two things are mutually exclusive. In tooting the industry's horn, Pooley wrote:

In 1991, we helped McDonald's phase out foam "clamshell" sandwich containers. In 2004, EDF and FedEx launched the first "street-ready" hybrid trucks ever built. Today, hybrids are in hundreds of corporate fleets, from UPS to Coca-Cola to the U.S. Postal Service. And since 2008, EDF's Climate Corps program has placed hundreds of MBAs at some of the biggest corporations in the world to both increase energy efficiency today and train them as business leaders of tomorrow. To date, our Climate Corps fellows have identified $1.2 billion in potential energy savings, with greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to taking 200,000 cars off the road.

In other words, compromise and working with forces as they exist is the way to make measureable progress toward goals that all environmentalists can agree on.

Against this, one could surely argue that making Coca Cola, McDonald's, FedEx and UPS more efficient at making money, while giving them a patina of green street cred for their modified business practices, misses the point.

In a rational society that measured itself against its ability to care for all of its citizens–which, by extension, would include the living and non-living world upon which it was based–none of those organizations would exist in the first place. They produce products and services that are of no genuine use to society and, in the case of Coke and McDonalds, that are actively detrimental to human and animal health.

But EDF, along with the NRDC and the Nature Conservancy, are some of the most conservative of all environmental organizations. Though they wield enormous influence by virtue of the millions of dollars they can deploy for a given campaign, and the positive coverage they obtain from the corporate media, many grassroots environmentalists are aware that their highly conservative political outlook is shaped by their financial and political connections. Therefore, they make an easy target for dismissing the efficacy of their supposed solutions.

After all, NRDC, Nature Conservancy and the EDF not only advocate natural gas as a "bridge fuel," and "responsible" fracking to get it–they are all part of USCAP, the United States Climate Action Partnership. This is a group that includes such environmental stalwarts as Shell, Rio Tinto, Dow, Exelon and PepsiCo among its collection of giant energy, pharmaceutical and automobile multinationals. If that doesn't qualify as "greenwashing," I don't know what does.

Furthermore, as Klein has previously pointed out, many of the largest Green NGOs not only have tens of millions of dollars–and in some cases, hundreds of millions–invested in the corporate casino otherwise known as the stock market, many don't even screen for weapons manufacturers or fossil fuel stocks, in the midst of a burgeoning student-led divestment campaign.

While the Sierra Club has since repudiated donations from Clorox and the $26 million dollars it received from Chesapeake Energy Corp.–which fracks for natural gas and apparently donated in the hopes of seeing off its competitors in the coal industry–the Club's leaders had no problem swapping donors and accepting double that amountfrom multibillionaire stop-and-frisk advocate Michael Bloomberg, the mayor who boasts of turning New York City into a value-added commodity and "high end product."

But in the prize for greenwashing par excellence, there is a tight race for top spot between either the Pentagon, for its highly imaginative concept of sailing "the Great Green Fleet"–or the Environmental Protection Agency, which gave a Climate Leadership Award this year to Raytheon, a company which specializes in being "the world's premier missile maker, providing defensive and offensive weapons for air, land, sea and space."

First published at

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