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After the BP Oil Spill —- What Kind of Environmental Movement is Needed?

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The disaster in the Gulf of Mexico has proven that BP will gamble with people’s lives and the environment to get more oil and profits. The U.S. Government attempted to politically gain from the crisis by adopting tough posturing in the aftermath of the spill, but in reality they were the ones that allowed BP’s reckless drilling to go ahead.

The world became furious as tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day came gushing into the Gulf of Mexico after BP’s Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20.

This was a rare moment when mass anger could have been channeled into mass action and education. The way was paved for the environmental movement to strike a serious blow against the wild profit-seeking excesses of big business and the complicity of their political allies.

Yet the response from the main environmental organizations was woefully inadequate. The groups with the resources to mobilize millions confined themselves to a few token protests, and their demands trailed far behind the popular support for drastic and immediate government action against the oil industry. For instance, a USA Today/Gallup poll from June showed that 59% of Americans thought BP should be forced to pay for all costs associated with the spill, even if it meant putting them out of business.

A Line in the Sand

The Hands Across the Sand campaign, organized by the Sierra Club and Greenpeace among others, calls for “NO to offshore drilling, YES to clean energy!” However, its strategy for achieving these goals is totally inadequate.

The campaign’s website insists that “[t]his movement is not about politics,” and states that its mission is to “convince” the world’s politicians to stop the expansion of offshore drilling and “encourage” clean energy. The entire scope of their campaigning activity is a series of events where people stand on beaches holding hands, supplemented by letter-writing to Obama and Congress.

While all this potentially has its place, the overall strategy lacks any attempt to build mass actions or an ongoing mass movement. Building a mass movement would put the maximum pressure on the politicians by demonstrating popular support for key demands like making BP pay for the entire cleanup, ending offshore drilling, and developing renewable energy on a large scale. Simultaneously, it would increase the confidence of participants and trains new layers of people in activism.

There is an urgent need for a rapid, systematic transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. Nothing short of a planned, full-scale overhaul of the methods by which our society’s goods are produced, distributed and powered will be sufficient to reverse the damage being done to the Earth under capitalism.

Doing this will require a massive public investment of hundreds of billions of dollars to quickly develop and implement solar, wind and tidal power, as well as affordable, accessible mass transit. This would create millions of jobs to combat rampant unemployment and would enjoy massive popular support. Such a program could be paid for by a major increase in taxes on the rich, banks and big business while slashing the bloated military budget.

Hands Across the Sand unfortunately has been unwilling to raise these necessary demands. Nothing is said about the politicians’ current subservience to Big Oil. BP is not mentioned on the website. Anywhere.

Far from drawing a “line in the sand,” this approach fails to give effective expression to mass anger, to expose the capitalist profiteering at the root of the environmental crisis, or to lead the way forward towards a sustainable future. Quite the opposite, it misleads and miseducates by painting big business politicians – like Obama, who proposed expanding offshore drilling just weeks before the BP disaster – as potential allies.

Even before the BP disaster it was clear that the world needs to stop its oil dependency. Scientists already know how to do it, too. For instance, in November 2009, Scientific American published “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables,” showing that it’s possible to meet humanity’s energy needs from renewable sources, but the main obstacle is the lack of political will. The best way to overcome the political obstacles is a mass campaign for renewable energy.

The activist resources were there to begin building such a movement following the BP disaster. Sierra Club alone has a paid staff of approximately 500, not counting their legions of volunteers. Tens of thousands could potentially have been brought into political activism if a lead had been given and the resources of these eco-titans had been wielded in a real campaign.

Proof of this potential can be found in ANSWER’s initiative to launch a “Seize BP” campaign. As a small left-wing group with no previous base in the environmental movement, they were able to have a bigger impact on the popular debate and secure more media coverage than the whole array of well-funded eco-groups with exponentially greater staff. This shows the crucial importance of developing a left campaigning approach and a powerful socialist presence within the environmental movement.

Political Weaknesses

The main environmental organizations’ anemic response and failure to mobilize was no one-time misstep. It was a product of systemic political weaknesses in their leadership. Environmental groups’ narrow focus on lobbying efforts and cultivating Congressional allies leads to a trap of trying to appear “reasonable” by Washington’s standards. The other side of this is not orienting themselves to the working-class majority in society or linking environmental issues to social issues. Over the years they have often failed to support low-income communities and communities of color in their struggles for environmental justice—including, most recently, the communities on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

As Andrew Rowell argued nearly 15 years ago in his book Green Backlash, focusing on lobbying and ignoring environmental justice issues has weakened environmentalists’ grassroots support, and has made them appear to be part of the establishment.

Aside from lobbying, much of the environmental movement remains mired in green consumerism as a core strategy. While we support lowering one’s own ecological footprint and eschewing the emptiness of corporate consumerism, it is no substitute for building a mass-based movement that fights for structural change.

Consumer and lifestyle politics are mainly for the better-off who can afford environmentally-friendly products, which are often expensive. Many working-class families are struggling just to put food on their table. Thus, an emphasis on individuals’ shopping habits or participation in a certain sub-culture allows big business to drive a wedge between activists and regular working people, limiting the movement’s power.

All this helps to explain why the main eco-groups didn’t call for mass protests in the aftermath of the BP spill. When politicians from the two corporate parties are seen as allies, and when responsibility for the environment appears to fall on individual consumers, there is no real reason to do so.

A Sustainable World Is Possible; Real Struggle Is Necessary

Despite these serious limitations within the established environmental movement, there are promising signs in the U.S. and worldwide. Environmental consciousness has dramatically increased over the past few decades as issues like global warming and peak oil have entered into the public discussion. This has led to successful mass demonstrations like the one at the Copenhagen Climate Summit last December, which was the largest climate protest ever, drawing over 100,000 participants, with 3,000 other environmental protests taking place simultaneously around the globe.

If the environmental movement effectively mobilizes for mass struggle, it can win major victories that will bring significant improvements for the Earth and its inhabitants. Massive government investment in renewable energy and mass transit through a huge green jobs program, for example, would provide much-needed relief to both workers and the environment, especially if workers in polluting industries are retrained for sustainable jobs with no loss in pay or benefits.

Demands like this can only be won, however, by fighting against the staunch opposition of the big energy companies, whose only concern is for their profitability, irrespective of any human or environmental harm.

Ultimately, this will also mean fighting to put BP and the rest of the energy industry, along with other polluting industries, into public ownership under democratic control. This would remove the financial incentive to pollute, and put the vast economic resources currently in the hands of these corporate giants into a democratically-determined plan of production designed for a sustainable world.

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