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Dead or Alive?

July 19, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Economy, Politics

Reflections on 30 Years of the Environmental Justice Movement 

by Devon G. Peña

I was having a very serious conversation this morning with a University of New Mexico graduate student preparing for her dissertation proposal defense when talk eventually turned to the question of the status of the environmental justice movement (EJM). My colleague — who is a highly respected activist in New Mexico — declared that the movement is largely dead. The EJM, she explained, is a casualty of defunding and especially the loss of financial support for the various national and regional networks. There is no national movement, she argued, because the funders abandoned their commitment to the EJ organizations.

I can vouch for at least aspects of this view in that sense that many of the larger, trend-setting grantmakers like the Ford Foundation refused to fund what would have been the Third Environmental Justice Summit we had planned for 2012; with the painful absence of Ford, no other funders stepped into the void to continue supporting an earth-shaking, history-making event.

The question of the death of modern-day environmentalism has been addressed more than once but the overwrought 2004 article by Nordhaus and Shellenberger was not the beginning or end of that particular diatribe. Unfortunately, that article did serve an apparent purpose which was to rationalize a set of incredibly destructive white liberal policies leading to the betrayal of the EJM through conscious retrenchment by most of the members of the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), but I’ll come back to this part of the story later. “A pox on all their liberal whitewashed houses,” a friend of mine recently remarked. I mostly agree with that sentiment, or at least understand the source, which I will try to examine in this extended analytical essay.

The recurring death(s) of environmentalism

Environmentalism has been declared dead plenty of times before. For example, in the 1930s many politicians and community organizers thought that the only thing that mattered to people was the economy, stupid. But the irrepressible Bob Marshall, who went on to create the Wilderness Society, was among a small but dedicated progressive cadre who believed environmentalism should and could evolve beyond its status as a zone of privilege and elite entertainment only if organizers took the message and opportunity of re-creation to the urban working class; read the fabulous account of Marshall’s activism in Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (1994).

After this brief spark of activism, the movement entered a presumably moribund state, which continued throughout the war years (1940s) and the atrocious conservative interregnum involving real and imagined assaults on all manner of Left political movements that defined the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s. By the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, environmental thinking and issues had indeed been eliminated from much of the policy debates and legislative agendas in Congress. Ecology was rendered largely obscure to the general public and only specialists with Defense Department contracts studying the effects of radiation appeared to be getting any funding (e.g., Eugene Odum and his cybernetic ecosystems ecology group).

Allow me an important and relevant digression:

The conventional view is that Rachel Carson nearly single-handedly revived American environmentalism but the fact is that people of color had been fighting environmental battles for at least a century or longer. Indeed, one can make a tenable case for the argument that some of the slave revolts in the antebellum South were mostly protests against early death in the cotton fields from overwork and heat stroke; that was an environmental workplace problem no matter what else you might call it and despite racist attempts to describe African slaves as uniquely well-adapted to toil without water, shade, or rest in semitropical heat. Nonsense: If people don’t have access to sufficient water to rehydrate, they die, regardless of their adaptability to some given climatic condition.

In similar fashion, Mexican mineworkers battled toxic threats in their workplaces by going on strike in Clifton-Morenci (1903) and Cananea (1906). The huelguistas in the Arizona copper mines also fought the racists inside the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), which was a radical labor organization by most other measures, but the union organizers opposed the hiring of immigrants at lower wages. Mexicans responded by demanding wage equality and the adoption of workplace safety rules to allow workers a quicker egress from the mineshafts in the event of a build-up of explosive gases. These were precursors of the environmental justice movement that unified labor and ecology concerns.

Likewise, from the vantage point of people of color, it was not Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring but rather theUnited Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) anti-pesticides campaign that revived environmental activism in North America in the mid-1960s. Oddly, while Carson’s eloquent critique of agro-industrial chemicals (biocides, she called them) championed a new style of science in the service of the public interest, and she wisely emphasized the health effects of DDT and other pesticides on women and children as well as wildlife, she never once mentioned farm workers in her beloved magnum opus. The farm workers, on the other hand, recognized that the threats to wildlife were the same as the threats to workers and their families. A pesticide does not end its poisonous trek in the reproductive guts of a bald eagle or its fragile eggs; it also follows the farm worker home and brings death and sickness to her children and other adults alike.

Death by stroke of professionalization?

That said the conventional view of the death of environmentalism keeps rearing up. The epic revival of the environmental movement is presumed to have experienced a boom and bust cycle between the 1960s and roughly 1980. This period, which has been thoroughly studied by academics, involved the rise and growth of the so-called Group of Ten — consisting of the ten largest national organizations with massive membership bases, huge budgets, and an army of lawyers, scientists, and lobbyists ready to ploy their expertise and rewards as influence-peddlers in Washington DC able to compete with the best of the K Street pros.

The Group of Ten included such stalwarts as the old Sierra Club (founded by John Muir in 1891) and Wilderness Society (founded by Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall in 1935) as well as younger upstarts like the Nature Conservancy (founded in 1951 and described by critics as an organization created to make environmentalism safe for Republicans) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (founded in 1970 by John Adams and Gus Speth with a large group of like-minded expert scientists, lawyers, and other professionals).

These mainstream environmental organizations accomplished a lot of significant legislation and policy regulations that have had a lasting impact and for a long time did improve our air and water quality while protecting biodiversity and other ecological values: the Wilderness Act (1964), National Environmental Policy Act (1970), Endangered Species Act (1973), Clean Air Act (1963, expansion in 1967, and major amendments in 1970, 1977, and 1990), Clean Water Act (1972, 1977), Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (a.k.a. Superfund; 1980), and much more.

However, by 1980 and the dawn of the Reagan Revolution and its first steps toward the neoliberal reorganization of market-state-civil society relationships, the environmental movement seem spent and stagnant. It was an odd time: There were pretty much record amounts of money in these organizations since they had, over the period since the 1970s, taken to aligning themselves with corporate sponsors who joined their boards in droves. While the donations from corporate America poured in, the membership base started to dwindle and grassroots donations shrunk. More people than ever claimed they were environmentalists but this was not reflected in the membership base of the G10. Many pundits and organizers applauded this as a sign of maturity while others lamented the decline of the grassroots base and the professionalization, and corporate takeover, of the movement.

Not surprisingly, this was also the beginning of the era of the ‘greenwashing’ of high crimes by capitalist corporations: A near meltdown at Three Mile Island (1979); the Ixtoc blowout in the Gulf of Mexico (1979); the toxic crisis and disease clusters at Love Canal (1981); the Union Carbide catastrophe at Bhopal (1984); the Chernobyl meltdown (1986); and the Exxon Valdez spill (1989) – the list is actually much longer. One could argue that the second wave of the environmental movement actually died in 1979-80 since the corporatist Group of Ten may have had plenty of past legislative victories to crow about but little capacity to actually transform the system by preventing capitalism from engaging in a frontal assault forcing the planet and its indigenous cultures and workers to freefall through the second contradiction – the deliberate and wanton destruction of the environmental and labor conditions of capital’s very existence.

EJ to the rescue!?

The second major denouement of American environmentalism was reversed with the rise of the ‘official’ environmental justice movement (EJM) in the early to mid 1980s. This grassroots people of color movement revitalized environmentalism because it radically transformed it. There is a famous EJ slogan that defines a good part of the quality of this transformative impact: “The environment is the place where we live, work, play, pray, and eat.” The EJM did affect to some extent the Group of Ten and some of the groups responded to demands for true diversity in their organizational structure and agenda setting.

Prior to this eloquent and simple assertion, a pervasive split existed between two dominant tendencies – natural resource conservation and wilderness preservation. Oddly, these modern movements were actually rooted in 19th century ideals as expressed by the original conflict between John Muir, the wilderness advocate, and Gifford Pinchot, a proponent of scientific management of natural resources by means of experts for the sake of sustained yield and maximum human benefit. But all along there was an indigenous third way – what I call the (home)land ethic – that was overlooked in most accounts of this history that set the stage as a battle between wilderness protectors and proponents of conservation for sustained exploitation.

The environmental justice movement put an end to this dichotomy largely because both shared something in common: The Western schizoid separation of culture from nature. EJ activists, rooted in Native American epistemologies, rejected the concept of wilderness as a Eurocentric ideology since the so-called wilderness was a familiar home. They also rejected the ‘progressive’ capitalist ideology of the environment as a natural resource and mere commodity – exploitable merchandise up for sale to the best expert managers and developers.

The success of the EJ movement — which rejected the K Street model of the G10 and focused instead on building regional and national networks – was entirely the result of the massive number of local, regional, and state-wide grassroots groups that mobilized into the 7 or 8 principal “nets that worked”, to borrow a phrase from the inimitable Richard Moore, formerly with the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ).

This massive mobilization resulted in two hugely successful, and controversial, environmental justice summits in 1991 and 2002, both held in Washington, DC. The 1st Summit led to the adoption of the renowned “Principles of Environmental Justice” among other notable accomplishments while the 2nd Summit was noteworthy for a prophetic focus on issues related to climate change, food security and sustainable agriculture, and the rise of commercial agricultural biotechnology (qua GMOs).

Between the summits the EJ movement gained a strong foothold in federal public policymaking when, in March of 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, establishing a federal environmental justice policy for all Cabinet level agencies and the EPA. The movement had arrived in DC without spending a dime on lobbyists. It was a remarkable accomplishment.

This was a period of tremendous organizational and strategic innovation and great success through direct action campaigns launched nationwide. One of the key developments was the widespread and mostly effective use by EJ activists of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This led to some serious challenges against environmental polluters when the movement made use of the anti-discrimination provisions of the landmark civil rights law.

Death redux: Trounced by the Supremes, endowment hysteria, and Katrina

However, shortly before and after the 2002 Summit, three events transpired that led to the third “death” of American environmentalism: First, in March of 2002, six months before the 2nd Summit, the U.S. Supreme Court made a devastating decision in the case of Alexander v Sandoval, which ended the use of Title VI in the manner adapted by the EJM. A second factor was the 2004 meeting of the Environmental Grantwriters’ Association (EGA), which was apparently held spellbound by Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s paper. The third factor contributing to movement denouement was the philanthropic response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina disaster — as much a social disaster as it was one born of natural causes. These two events in many ways spelled doom for the environmental justice movement’s principal organizational form invested in the regional networks.

Tragically, the Nordhaus and Shellenberger paper, which I indirectly critique below, was given undue gravitas not just by opponents of environmentalism but by the now increasingly fickle environmental grantmakers as well.

When many of us in the EJ grassroots organizations approached the big funders for a new round of grants after 2004-05 we were soundly rejected with the message that the Katrina disaster was so huge, and the climate issue so unresolved after hundreds of millions spent, that the grantmakers were going to have to prioritize the Deep South and the Global South. EJ was no longer viewed as an investment yielding the big results the big guys wanted. Climate change had to be the new game in town. The EJM had been working on climate justice issues since the mid 1990s, but somehow the big [mostly white] boys and girls in the EGA affiliates deemed us not expert or relevant enough to warrant further support in the post-Katrina environment.

Then came another blow, undoubtedly the most decisive one: The beginning of the current Derivatives Depression in 2007-08 when all of a sudden the environmental grantmakers saw their endowment portfolios lose 30 to as much as 80 percent of market value. The capitalist crisis was now a philanthropy crisis and an even more profound one than the climate change fiasco foreshadowed in New Orleans. The effects of the Double-D will last at least a generation or more.

Of course, Nordhaus and Shellenberger explain little of this in their distorted, white privileged manner of presenting such a selective account of the death of environmentalism; but it sure suited the changing priorities of the biggest and most trend-setting grantmakers. Ten years after Nordhaus and Shellenberger, we can again take stock of the state of and resurgence of environmentalism, this time largely without the regional networks, but with a revived sense of purpose and agency in the form of still growing food and climate justice movements.

EJ: dead or transformed?

As I write this post I am heading to a meeting with some colleagues to discuss the establishment of a new Graduate Certificate in Environmental Justice Studies at the University of Washington. We are undertaking this effort because many of the old hands, the veterans of the movement, are approaching retirement and we will soon no longer be available to provide technical assistance and expert testimony on behalf of communities seeking to critique and challenge environmental impact studies and other decision-making tools used by the professional risk assessment cadres — usually now consisting of highly paid private contractors working for cities, counties, states, and corporations in need of some lip service attention to the required environmental justice or social impact assessments.

These are interesting times. Just as environmental justice studies enters a period of great florescence in academia – with a record-breaking number of courses including thematic minors and programs like our graduate certificate, a steady rise in the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications including a new flagship journal, exciting new research initiatives, a renewal of commitment to EJ by states and the EPA, and a growth in the number of local grassroots community-based organizations — we are also witnessing a harmful retrenchment within much of the EGA community. What gives?

The environmental justice movement is not dead; it is actually undergoing a profound transformation that is not at all unusual considered in the context of what we know about the “life history” of social movements. Most movements have a “life cycle” and pass through discernible stages including emergence, consolidation (and legitimation), mass mobilization (and direct action), maturation through institutionalization and codification (in law, regulations, political reforms, etc.), and finally denouement, dissolution and/or transformation.

Social movements go through cycles of struggle with low points and high points — certainly, and the EJM has had its share with high points marked by the two Summits, the aftermath of the signing of 12898 and the activities of the early years of the NEJAC, and the proliferation of lawsuits using the Title VI framework.  The low point involved the exodus of EJ activists and advocates from the EPA during the Bush II administration (2001-09), which was clearly attenuated by the decline of Title VI actions after the 2002 Alexander v. Sandoval ruling. The funding crisis after Katrina was another period of denouement.

But movements do not always decline because they fulfill their mission. The EJM has accomplished a lot but it has an even larger agenda of unfinished business – including the passage of an Environmental Justice Act, the continuous work of transforming the Group of Ten, and new alliances and activities with the globalization of the movement. Ironically, as the EJ movement flourishes globally, it remains moribund in the U.S. — at least as measured by the health of the regional and national networks. Undeniably, the withdrawal of support from the affiliated foundations of the EGA has been a determining factor in stripping the still vibrant local movements of the capacity to maintain a decisive national organizational presence in the U.S. This is a narrow-minded and shortsighted mistake on the part of the grantmaker community and it comes with quite brutal consequences for the urban and rural poor as well as the rest of the 99%.

As a (small) grantmaker through the Acequia Institute, I am privy to the views of other funders and I must be honest about my disgust with the attitudes I constantly encounter among my colleagues in philanthropy. I have heard or received emails with the following statements:

1. “EJ now has a good federal presence so the movement no longer needs our help.”
2. “This [EJ] is no longer important because larger more pressing issues face us including especially global environmental change such as we see in global warming.”
3. “We invested millions in EJ already, what more can we do?”
4. “There was [too much] conflict and division at the last [EJ] Summit. No one wants to support organizational dysfunction.”

These statements reflect quite a litany of neocolonial and even racist micro-aggressiveness that my EJ colleagues and I have faced for decades and so I am compelled — as a matter of public and philanthropic service — to deconstruct these paternalistic assertions and their biased double standards; for example, grassroots organizations are too often held to a higher bar of efficacy.  I wish to present an indirect rejoinder to the arguments posed by Nordhaus and Shellenberger. But as a member of environmental justice and grantmaker communities — albeit with a small operation dedicated to acequia farmers and other producers of ‘first foods’ – I will address what I understand are the roots of these ultimately condescending and paternalistic perspectives.

I trust my colleagues in the grantmaker community will see this as a critical but robust learning opportunity to promote deeper understandings of the nature of social movements and processes of social change in a manner thoroughly engaged with the desire of the multitude of disenfranchised and alienated communities to attain ecological and economic justice through the renewal of the moral economy of land-based peoples.

Re: (1) The environmental justice movement may have a federal presence under the current Obama administration but the lessons of the past twelve years show us that the EJ presence in the Executive branch depends entirely on the occupant of the White House. Environmental justice is too important to be left to the vagaries of electoral politics and the priorities and the whims of the two political parties that increasingly adopt many of the same neoliberal policies.

Moreover, even the Democrats, when occupying the White House, can adopt problematic policies that fail to advance the values of the movement and instead blunt, co-opt, and even neglect or block our struggles. This has been the case ever since Clinton co-opted the hard-edged and largely anti-capitalist struggle against environmental racism into a softer campaign for environmental “equity”. The mass of social movement tendencies that comprise the EJ movement is about the quest for more radical transformative demands: We don’t want an equal slice of the same rotten carcinogenic pie.

We want a “just sustainability” — with equal access to the conditions for right livelihood in each and every ecosystem — and not some empty pledge of equity within a corrupt path that is only willing to mitigate rather than prevent pollution, toxicity, and all other forms of damage to cultural and biological diversity and thus ecosystem robustness. We are grown tired of mitigation while the planet crumbles and overheats all around us. If the environmental movement as a whole has failed it is because it has not beenanti-capitalist enough.

To move in this direction, social movements require the creation of a permanent space for autonomy to take root. One approach ventures that the spaces of autonomy might better take hold if we have a definitively progressive Environmental Justice Act, rather than some minimalist (and increasingly neoliberal) executive order that can be twisted or ignored.

Re: (2) The grantmaker community appears to have forgotten that the EJM was largely responsible for placing climate change on the radar screen of elected officials and the larger public. Bunyan Bryant, movement elder and professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, was one of the first scholar activists to insist on the profundity of climate justice; he literally popularized that term.

Interestingly, a growing number of climate scientists are recognizing the need to address the social and cultural dimensions of processes of global environmental change problem and many have even adopted the EJ concepts underlying the struggle for “climate justice”. My own colleague at the University of Washington, the preeminent atmospheric scientist, Dr. David Battisti, is among those who, while visiting my environmental justice class, agreed that the social, cultural, and political economic dimensions of the climate change struggle often befuddles the scientific community and for this reason, scientists need to collaborate with environmental justice activists and scholars to better understand these interconnected challenges.

I was part of the Blue River Quorum, a group of climate scientists, ecosystem scientists, conservation biologists, social scientists, Humanities scholars, and writers, poets, and artists that issued theBlue River Declaration — An Ethic of the Earth in November 2011. That declaration is the first to bring climate scientists and environmental justice scholar activists together to adopt a statement that is explicitly anti-capitalist and for environmental and social justice through alternative economics. EJM activists — including Dr. Robert D. Bullard – played a pivotal role promoting global awareness of climate justices issues while in attendance at the UN Racism and Public Policy Conference in Durban, South Africa September 3-5, 2001. A new global mass-based climate justice movementadopted the principles and theoretical concepts championed for decades by environmental justice activists and scholars from the U.S. These accomplishments and vital roles have gone largely unacknowledged by the affiliates of the EGA as revealed by any cursory review of the association’s homepage.

The larger challenges overlooked by the EGA foundations and other grantmakers are related to the largely unexamined connection between neoliberal capitalism and global and local processes of environmental change involving large-scale complex systems like the climate. Until the EGA community has a serious discussion of the second contradiction of capitalism, I personally do not see how any grantmaking initiatives or priorities will represent an investment in the widest form of systemic transformation toward a more democratic and cooperative moral economy.

Re: (3) The $10-15 million invested in the EJM, roughly between 1992-2002, accomplished a lot. It got us the faulty but ultimately potent EO 12898; two productive and historic summits; seven or eight robust regional and group networks spanning more than a thousand local organizations; a Washington D.C, presence; and a record of constant innovation in applied environmental justice law and science in the public interest. The EJM would have continued to thrive in all these areas had the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a more liberal interpretation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Instead, the grantmakers watched passively while the juridical order expanded the zone of exclusion and suspended the rule of environmental and civil rights law for a sizeable portion of the population, primarily low-income white, people of color, and indigenous communities.

Despite this setback, the EJM continued to flourish and many sectors and networks evolved into new organizational forms and foci. Many of us made a quick and easy transition to embrace the food justice movement as the iteration of longstanding EJ principles and struggles dating back to the farm workers campaigns of the 1960s.

Hunger; malnutrition; food deserts; nutrition genocide; destruction of traditional agroecosystems; loss of food self-sufficiency; loss of land and water rights; lack of support from government agencies; policies that reward large corporate growers over the real and substantive investments of traditional and native farmers in cultural, social, ecological services.  All these have been part of the EJM from the start.

Given the multi-billion dollar investments in commercial agricultural biotechnology by private and public trusts, the single-digit million investments in EJ seem not even close to paltry by comparison. I recently sat in with a very dedicated and passionate group of food justice workers to mull over how to recommend distribution of a paltry $4 million in community food security grants for 2013-14. Innovative grassroots programs are limited by the tragic misallocation of national priorities and resources that has always plagued the environmental and food justice movements — that much seems clear.

Re: (4) It is a pitiful moral offense to suggest that EJM organizations are/were more “dysfunctional” than any other kind of formal association with the same diverse minds, talents, ambitions, backgrounds, and values. All organizations face tensions and ambiguities that can become full-blown conflicts but the idea that the EJM was especially ill-adjusted and conflictive is largely the result of the deployment of a colonial gaze that sees other cultures as poor imitations of the position of the would-be ‘hegemon’.

The liveliness of debate and policy-making in indigenous organizations is not the same as the dead end of irreconcilable differences. Consensus building is a very noisy and tortuously long practice but a necessary component of our increasingly ‘indigenized’ social movement organizations.

The stereotype of the ‘unruly Other’ underlies many assessments of Native American, Chicana/o and Latina/o, and African American, grassroots organizations and networks. This is largely a destructive projection that finds noisy heated discourse as indicative of some broader organizational pathology. Grantmakers must change their lens, take the parallax view and undertake more serious efforts to recognize and understand the moral economy and ‘civic’ and discourse culture of grassroots communities of resistance.

This could result in the renewal of a commitment to make larger and more effective investments in the transformative anti-capitalist cause of the Environmental Justice Movement. We must end all this nonsense about the death of environmentalism: As long as this little blue-green planet remains our life-support system, and as long as it is threatened by capitalist greed, we will need to organize in defense of Earth and all human and other-than-human life.

We can do this by turning to the moral economy that nurtures local place-based right livelihoods and which includes, always, the principal obligation to follow Original Instructions. This means pursuing modest right livelihoods and inhabiting rather than plundering the Earth for the sake of maldevelopment rights.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

1 Comments to “Dead or Alive?”


  1. This article reminds me of the dangers of any movement becoming too dependent upon sources of money.
    Environmentalism is about conserving and protecting the biosphere, and requires constant action. For example, we must stop driving cars and lorries. We must stop polluting the biosphere. We must change our ways of living. It is beyond me how an environmental movement can depend upon FORD, once the biggest maker of cars and lorries in the world. Environmentalists have come to realise that their movement is a social movement, demanding social change, and leading to social revolution as we see in Spain, Portugal, Greece. It involves the rejection of capitalism and the assertion of social justice. In Europe, environmentalism continues to develop as part of social ecology taking account of the consequences of human behaviour upon the Garden Earth. Its objectives and goals are expressed in the actions of political parties, parliamentary enactments, as well as social movements. It is the subject of constant debate and research.
    It involves many people coming to terms with the consequences of capitalist enterprise, and struggling with the demands of social change.
    If we carry on as we are, striving for growth and profit, we will destroy the biosphere and the earth’s surface, along with all the resources. Our search for growth and profit will lead to our deaths.
    The success of a social movement expresses the significance of action, of praxis. It has little to do with lobbying, conferences, and grants! It has everything to do with social action.

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