Radicalizing Earth Day’s Managed Mobilization

Against the Current, No. 25, March/April 1990

Bill Resnick

EARTH DAY 1990 will be one extravagant moment—a managed though not entirely empty mobilization—in an intensifying and protracted struggle.

Environmental degradation is threatening life on this planet, and will force transformation of systems of production and social relations. But in what direction? Towards technocratic solutions controlled by ever bigger corporate conglomerates, with accompanying expansion of police and regulatory apparatuses? Or towards an ecological society managed democratically by associated producers living harmoniously with nature in human scale communities?

Earth Day’s national organizers do not pose these alternatives, though the programming they recommend advances the technocratic. Not that they’re corporate or government hacks. They’re in fact the visionary wing of mainstream environmentalism, with ambitious goals for new membership and legislation.

Their statements have a ’60s ring; they talk of broadening agendas, organizing coalitions, generating citizen activism to take on the polluters, building movements. They want to reach out to labor, minorities and the poor, with an agenda including “issues of social justice,” and they have enlisted Jesse Jackson to tour the country urging support for Earth day in minority communities.

But the understandings and tactics that official Earth Day intends to employ will not inform, activate, nor build durable movements Corporate and foundation donations have underwritten the national and local committees, and are being eagerly solicited to fund events. Earth Day’s major spectacles and suggested activities do not transgress corporate limits.

Earth Day’s basic thrust is to personal action and sacrifice, getting people to ask what one can do to heal the planet; implying that people have to change their habits. School lesson plans being distributed nationwide have students audit their homes to determine more ecologically sound practices—like energy saving, weatherization, water conservation.

Recycling and precycling (avoiding unnecessary packaging and disposable products) are being pushed. So is tree planting, as is a “green pledge” committing signers to “buy and use only products least harmful to the environment.” Corporations can participate and affirm their ecological virtues by adopting the “Valdez Principles,” a code of environmental ethics.

To build attendance local committees are planning rallies, parades, eco-fairs, with considerable involvement (funding and participation) of local business including the big utilities, all proclaiming their devotion to the environment.

The central event on the mall in Washington, D.C., featuring rock stars and celebrities, is designed for sound bites on national TV. And the central office has hired a full house of public relations types, advertising agencies, pollsters, direct mailers, and the rest of the apparatus of ideological management and controlled mobilization—the liberal end—to hype the spectacle.

Spectacle or Struggle?

For all people would know from Earth Day 1990, the root of environmental problems is bad personal decisions. The change process suggested involves writing Congress, supporting national organizations, and “ecological” consumption—little about corporate behavior and nothing about the system of required profit expansion that drives it.

Citizenship is projected in the most degraded way, as a matter of “lifestyles” and consumption choices. Collective action is projected as parades and dues paying to national organizations. For potential recruits to real environmental awareness and political action, Earth Day offers recycling and clean living, deflecting them from meaningful work, but giving an illusory sense of action, control, and contribution.

Can and should the left respond and have a presence? Left Greens and other cooperating groups are proposing a series of local direct actions (demonstrations, street fairs, educational campaigns, tree plantings, and others) culminating Monday, April 23, in “a major national action to shut down Wall Street for the day.” Through the actions, a handbook, and materials, they hope to project the political message that the “entire global system of corporate and state control is incompatible with ecological sustainability and human survival.”

The Left Greens’ alternative solution to environmental crisis involves “social and ecological reconstruction,” including direct grassroots democracy, decentralization, cooperative organization, community ownership of productive resources, and workers control. They call for independent politics, outside the establishment political parties, based on locally rooted grassroots groups.

Could this vision and politics appeal to the American people? Yes, over time. Official Earth Day activities and ideology will not succeed in solving problems, allaying fears, or permanently misdirect-log people. For the foreseeable future, as throughout the past twenty-five years, environmental degradation will spur tremendous worry, protest, and organizing. Even in managed mobilizations under elite sponsorship, like Earth Day, people confront real problems and can be reached.

Most environmental struggles are wide open, like most local Earth Day committees. Radical and socialist voices can be both outside official Earth Day, as in the Wall Street action, and also inside, providing continuous challenge.

When the utilities showcase their grand plans for gigantic solar cell plantations and vast space stations beaming power back to earth, we can offer a critique of current practices, feasible alternatives, and a countervision of small-scale solar installations appropriate to decentralized democratic communities.

When Earth Day and associated establishment environmental organizations push recycling, pledges, and ecological consumption, we can support some of it; call attention to its limits, and organize for collective action and group study. When elite environmentalists propose their solutions to saving old growth forests, we can demand recognition for and organize around the needs of working and unemployed people, and build coalitions from below that can preserve both resources and jobs.

Even in determinedly reformist organizations, we can push for positive reforms in way that are non-reformist, that bring people to radical understandings and commitments In the events of this Earth Day season, and in every struggle, even if often for limited reforms, a left presence can ask hard questions, challenge conventional logic, help people understand the roots of environmental crisis and its links to other troubles, and give a sense of liberatory democratic alternatives.

March-April 1990, ATC 25

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