Joshua Frank is an environmental writer and author, who has recently co-edited a new book with Jeffrey St. Clair titled Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published this month by AK Press. He recently spoke with Adriana Kojeve about the elections and the current state of the environmental movement.
Adriana Kojeve: Joshua, the Barack Obama image is of a progressive candidate shaking up the two-party establishment. Now that environmental issues have moved to the forefront of public visibility, should environmentalists expect good news (especially in the wake of Bush)?
Joshua Frank: Well, first, I don’t think environmentalists should ever expect anything good from any particular candidate. Expectations usually negate reality. You are right, though, Obama is definitely seen as an outsider who is challenging the two-party stranglehold in Washington. But what exactly is Obama challenging other than the Clinton reign within the Democratic Party? It is clearly not the structure of our so-called democratic process, as you won’t see Obama calling on the Commission on Presidential Debates to allow Bob Barr or Ralph Nader into the TV foray next fall. We also aren’t likely to see him address all the legal barriers that independent candidates face as they attempt to attain ballot lines across the country. And for what it’s worth, Obama is not trying to get corporate cash out of the general elections. While he’s gathering a lot of small donations online, Obama looks to be the new Mr. Wall Street. Just take a look at his major campaign contributors if you don’t believe me. Employees of Goldman Sachs have given his campaign over $500,000. JP Morgan Chase over $350,000. Citigroup, $330,000. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Obama opposed a recent attempt to put a cap on credit card interest rates. Seems to me he’s in their back pocket.
When it comes to energy policy, he’s not much better. Employees of Exelon, the largest nuclear power plant operator in the country, and one of the largest employers in Obama’s home state of Illinois, have given Obama’s campaign nearly $230,000. And lo-and-behold, Obama thinks we should consider nuclear energy. It’s no matter that we haven’t figured out how to safely transport the toxic waste produced by nuclear reactors. No matter that we don’t know where to put it when we do. No matter that nuclear energy won’t actually cut down on CO2 emissions, that great climate changing menace. As you go up the nuclear fuel chain, you have carbon dioxide emissions at every single step — from uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction to the transportation of the radioactive waste. Even more frightening perhaps is that two of Obama’s largest campaign fundraisers, Frank Clark and John Rogers Jr., are both top Exelon officials. Even Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, has done consulting work for the company. So I don’t think we’re going to see Obama fairly assess the dangers of nuclear energy any time soon.
Kojeve: Wow, I didn’t know that. Why do you think that’s received relatively scant examination in debates and profiles?
Frank: For starters, I don’t think the mainstream media believes it is their job to examine these candidates or their proposed policies. They rarely follow the money trails. They are much more concerned with their “gotcha” ratings than with substance. It’s gotten so bad lately that I actually had a right-wing friend of mine tell me that I must be happy John McCain got the Republican nod, because, well, McCain is an environmentalist who opposes drilling in ANWAR and believes in global warming. Call it the Al Gore effect. But just because someone is sensible on a few issues doesn’t make them green.
For example, I certainly don’t think McCain or Obama are ever going to stop the pillage of our public lands that has all but ruined so many of our rivers and old-growth forests in the Northwest. They won’t end the brutal practices of mountain top removal in Appalachia or cyanide heap Ieaching mining on Western Shoshone land in Nevada and elsewhere. They both support the lie of “clean coal.” Neither will end the horribly disastrous and poisonous war inflicted upon Iraq. I also don’t believe for a second that any of the major candidates are going to get tough on corporate polluters or the Pentagon’s toxic habits. Obama may poke fun at SUV drivers while campaigning in a state like Oregon, but you won’t see the guy calling an end to subsidies that are handed out to oil companies. Yet, here we have Obama and McCain out-greening each other as they gallop along the campaign trail. It’s all for show. Environmental issues are becoming pretty popular these days, so the candidates are jumping on the green-washed bandwagon. How soon environmentalists forget what happened back in 1992 when Clinton and Gore stormed the White House. Many believed it was going to be a new day for the movement, overturning the twelve long years of Republican wrath. But instead we got NAFTA, which undermined so many of our environmental statutes, and the Salvage Rider, which opened our ancient forests to ravenous clear-cutting. That’s to name just two of the more egregious policies.
Kojeve: It’s easy for environmental activists to look at all this and fall into despair. How should they approach elections?
Frank: Greens should approach the election like they approach the environmental issues they are working on locally, by playing defense rather than offense, and with aspirations rather than despair. As a minority we are better able to exert our energies against our enemies than attempting to hold our alleged allies accountable. Just look at the last eight years of Bush. Perhaps there has been no greater organizer against obscene environmental policies than the Bush administration. During Clinton’s reign, even though his national forest policies were just as bad and his administration effectively gutted the Endangered Species Act, mainstream greens raised few qualms. My fear is that many environmental activists will breathe a sigh of relief if a Democrat takes office next year, simply because said candidate pays lip service to their cause. This is exactly what’s happened to the large green organizations like the Sierra Club and the NRDC. These aren’t your environmental activists of thirty years ago, who were militant and uncompromising in their approach to shaping public policy. Instead, today we have run of the mill eco-lobbyists with six-figure salaries, bonus packages, Ivy League degrees and timeshares. They are buddy-buddy with the Democrats on the Hill, and, unable, or worse, unwilling, to hold their feet to the fire on a range of issues. Partisanship marginalizes our movement. I’d say this is the natural progression of social movements when they become reliant on foundation cash and political access to bring about change.
Kojeve: What are the limits of local grassroots pressure? One could argue that fundamental changes in environmental policy ultimately DO have to come from the government (and at a national level).
Frank: If you look at the most landmark federal environmental legislation, they were all born out of the grassroots. They never began at the top. President Nixon didn’t one morning awaken having dreamed up the EPA, deciding he wanted to clean the filthy air of Los Angeles and monitor and protect species that were sliding toward extinction. He was forced to do so by grassroots movements that had permeated their ideas into the culture of mainstream America. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped launch this awareness. But she wasn’t alone. Decades prior, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and others worked tirelessly to protect America’s wilderness areas — making sure that they remained in the public domain. But it took the deadly effects of DDT to organize communities and change societal behaviors, however marginal they may have been. Today many environmental issues are doing the same thing, and they cut across political ideologies. We’re talking about the health of our planet here, which affects every living thing. I’ve spoken with organic farmers in Montana and North Dakota, who by no means are left-leaning environmentalists, but are committed to protecting their landbase for future generations and aren’t afraid to take on Monsanto. You also don’t have to be a radical to step up and fight a mining company from dumping poisonous debris in your local waterways. Just look at Ed Wiley’s good fight against mountaintop removal in West Virginia.
I guess I’d say that the only real limit to grassroots pressure that I see is when we allow our concerns to be corralled into mainstream political debate. We have to work hard to keep pushing the envelope of discourse by exerting whatever pressure we can. We have to be critical at every turn. For example, great environmental thinkers like Bill McKibben often critique our consumptive patterns, but you’ll rarely hear them blame capitalism directly, which at its very core is based on the exploitation of labor and natural resources. That framing of the message effectively changes the debate from societal norms and financial structure to personal action and behavior. This is exactly what the whole guilt-laden carbon offset market is about: blame the individual not our economic system. I think ultimately this has a negative effect on the grassroots. We can’t sideline our critiques and concerns simply to appease the powers that be. Likewise we can’t put all our hopes and aspirations into the hands of a few powerful people, for we’re bound to get burned in the end. So why not instead continue to keep the torch aflame under the arses of the clowns in Washington and within our own state capitals? To me this seems to be a much more reasonable approach, by pulling them in our direction instead of playing the Russian Roulette of lesser-evil politicking and letting them pull us into their firey pit.
Kojeve: But doesn’t grassroots pressure, vibrant as it may be in certain local pockets, eventually need to translate into seizure of state power (which involves elections)? I’m not advocating the course the NRDC and Sierra Club have taken thus far, of course, but I do worry that some environmentalists (particularly of anarchist stripe) are too dismissive of the state’s role altogether.
Frank: Well, I can’t speak for all environmentalists, but I certainly do not dismiss the power or role of the state. I just think we should challenge it through varied avenues. I believe the only way to truly dismantle consolidated power is to give it back to the citizenry, not transfer it over to other figure heads, left-leaning or otherwise. I see this transition of power to be more localized, participatory, and less bureaucratic than the mess in Washington today. I think from an environmental perspective, working at the local and state levels is an effective route to take in order to move in this direction, and can often reflect the needs of the people far better than the feds ever could, especially given the influence of big business in Washington. They aren’t connected to the plight of regular folks. In California, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and elsewhere, people are pushing for far greater environmental statutes, but it’s the feds that are halting their progress.
Would we really be that much better off if we had a state run oil company? What if the guy running it was Dick Cheney? Until power is taken out of the hands of the few, and given to the many, we’ll continue on our current crash course. As Edward Abbey once wrote, “We cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals and county commissioners.”
I’d add executives to that list as well. Like Abbey, I’d like to see our militarized government dismantled. Unfortunately a whole bloc of the left believes otherwise. I’ll give you an example: President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. I visited the country a few years ago, just before his reelection. I believe he’s doing an amazing job of reallocating money to the poor and less fortunate, who have been forgotten for far too long. He is attempting to make the country more localized, and less reliant on imported goods, such as food and water. These are all fantastic, necessary goals. But what’s driving it? Where’s this wealth coming from to implement all his social programs? Oil. A non-renewable natural resource. He’s most certainly not transforming the country’s economy into a sustainable one. While it might be giving him great leverage on the international playing field, threatening the US along the way, eventually that power is going to run its course, and the oil will stop fueling the revolution. From an environmental perspective, this is not all that great of an alternative to the neoliberal model we are still employing today. At least not in the long run. In the end, it won’t sustain Venezuela’s economy, or the ecology of the region, as it is still fundamentally based the exploitation of a non-renewable resource. And Chavez, if he’s to sustain this transformation over the long haul, should be working hard to wean his country off the oil spigot. He inherited the mess, sure, but he must work fast to change the course of Venezuela’s inevitable future. I guess this is partially why I’m skeptical of the top-down statism in general, be it capitalist or socialist.