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The New Environmentalism Must Demand Systemic Change

Our most serious environmental problems and the climate emergency are rooted in our current political economy.

New environmentalism should be seeking to build a new system that routinely produces good results for people and the planet.

Fifty years ago, my young daughter and I were on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for the first Earth Day. A group of us were then launching the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Since then, the NRDC and other U.S. environmental groups have racked up more victories and accomplishments than one can count.

But here’s the deeply troubling rub: As our environmental organizations have grown stronger, more sophisticated and more global in reach, the environment has continued to slide downhill. And not just slightly downhill.

Climate change is coming at us very hard. Worldwide, we are losing biodiversity, forests, fisheries and agricultural soils at frightening rates. Fresh water shortages multiply. Toxics accumulate in ecosystems, and in us. Here in the U.S., half of the freshwater bodies still do not meet the “fishable and swimmable” goal set for 1983 in the 1972 Clean Water Act. And about half of Americans live with unhealthy levels of air pollutants at least part of each year. Between 1982 and 2012, we lost an area roughly the size of Oklahoma to urban and industrial sprawl, much of it spreading into prime agricultural land. Thirty percent of U.S. plant species and 18 percent of animal species are now threatened with extinction.

An annual country-by-country environmental performance review by Yale and Columbia universities for the World Economic Forum (reflecting results, not level of effort) ranks the U.S. in 2020 as 24th overall. No other advanced economy looks worse. We ranked 25th in environmental health, 23rd in drinking water, 67th in biodiversity protection, 62nd in wetland loss, 122nd in fisheries management and 15th on climate change. We are at the bottom among advanced countries in our ecological footprint per capita, too.

So, something is terribly wrong. And it’s something that more of the same cannot fix. We’ve now had decades of more of the same, but find ourselves awash in the very planetary conditions we set out 50 years ago to prevent. Hard-working environmentalists truly believed during that momentous stretch that the current system could be made to work, and we were wrong.

What we overlooked for decades is how deeply the most important environmental problems and the climate emergency are rooted in our current political economy’s defining features. Baked in are:

  • an unquestioning society-wide commitment to endless economic growth, routinely measured by the misleading gauge of GDP (gross domestic product);
  • powerful corporate interests determined to generate profit and to grow, while avoiding the large social and environmental costs of doing so;
  • markets that ignore these external costs unless corrected by governments, which won’t as long as they are themselves obeisant to corporate interests and the growth imperative;
  • rampant consumerism spurred endlessly by sophisticated advertising;
  • social injustice and economic insecurity vast and deep enough to delay action and fuel false claims that safeguards would cost jobs and ruin the economy;
  • excessively materialistic, individualistic and anthropocentric cultural values;
  • economic activity now so huge in scale that its impacts alter the planet’s fundamental biophysical operations.

This complex is the citadel of power we are up against. It is what has been destroying the environment and climate, and, with history as our guide, it will continue to do so unless we change the system — the fundamental task of a new environmentalism.

The starting point is again asking the basic question: What is an environmental issue? Climate change and water pollution, of course. But what if the right answer is that environmental issues include the things that determine environmental outcomes? Then, surely, creeping plutocracy and corporatocracy — the ascendancy of money power and corporate power over people power — are environmental issues. And so are chartering and empowering artificial persons to do almost anything in the name of profit and growth; the fetish of GDP growth as the ultimate public good and the main aim of government; runaway consumerism; and vast social insecurity, with half of U.S. families scrambling from paycheck to paycheck.

The new environmentalism should debunk consumerism and commercialism, reject “growthmania” and profit-centered economics, redefine what it is that society should be striving to grow, challenge corporate dominance as well as today’s main corporation form and its goals, broaden control and the ownership of productive assets, and push against the anthropocentric values that currently dominate U.S. culture.

New environmentalists must also join with social progressives and others to address the crisis of low incomes and economic insecurity now unraveling the U.S.’s social fabric. We should make common cause with those seeking to make politics respond to the common good and strengthen democracy. We need to reverse the vicious concentration of political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses.

New environmentalists need to champion public financing of elections, new anti-corruption ethical restrictions on legislatures, the right to vote, tougher regulation of lobbying and the revolving door, nonpartisan congressional redistricting, and other political reform. We must join in campaigns like National Popular Vote to work around the Electoral College and Move to Amend to forge a new Constitution that recognizes that corporations are not people and money is not speech.

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, embracing the concerns of workers and working families, people of color, frontline communities, family farmers, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities with complementary interests and a shared fate.

In a nutshell, the new environmentalism should be seeking to build a new system that routinely produces good results for people and the planet, rather than making those results almost impossible to achieve.

The Biden administration is making many good climate moves in its early days, including reversing some of the damaging policies of the Trump era. The danger is that its well-intentioned, positive steps forward will, like previous environmental efforts, still not give us enough velocity to escape the gravitational pull of status quo politics and popular fear of change.

To give us that needed velocity, system change can best be approached through a series of interacting, mutually reinforcing transitions. Eight such transformations — some aborning, some farther off, and all difficult but none impossible — would alter the current system’s key motivational structures.

  • The market transition. The market becomes a secondary force in economic life, ceding dominance to cooperation and planning. Tight regulations keep prices honest and wages fair.
  • The corporate transition. Profit becomes a minor motivation for businesses. Producing social and environmental well-being comes first. Economic democracy is the goal and takes many forms: worker ownership, co-ops, community and public ownership, credit unions, public-private and for-profit, not-for-profit hybrids.
  • The growth transition. GDP — think “grossly distorted picture” — is recognized as a poor guide, ignored in favor of measuring progress toward democratically determined priorities and well-being.
  • Transition in investment and finance. Investment for high financial returns is largely replaced by investment for high social and environmental returns. Public and community banking predominates over private. Main Street trumps Wall Street.
  • The social transition. Powerful social justice measures — a job guarantee, tax fairness, fully adequate minimum wage and unemployment compensation, strong unions, good child care — ensure fundamental fairness and genuine equal opportunity, defeating social deprivation and gross economic inequality.
  • The lifestyle and culture transition. Vain attempts to satisfy non-material needs with material possessions give way to new lifestyles based on the recognition that other people are our main source of happiness. Nature is seen as a communion of subjects in which we are integral.
  • The communities transition. Runaway enterprise and throwaway communities are replaced by vital local communities that prize vigorous democracy and human solidarity. Joy in diversity supplants racial and religious discrimination and intolerance.
  • The democracy transition. Creeping corporatocracy and plutocracy are rolled back as political reforms bring true popular sovereignty and empowerment of marginalized groups.

These essential transitions provide the truest escape from the currently failing system. And they are neither far-fetched nor necessarily far off. We already know enough about the policy and other changes needed to propel us in these directions. Innovative models along many of the lines sketched here are already proliferating: sustainable communities, solidarity economy initiatives, new regional and organic food systems, locally owned and managed renewable energy, community development and finance institutions, sharing and barter networks, local currencies, campaigns to “take back your time” and “move your money” (out of Wall Street) have all been taking hold around the country.

We are also seeing the spread of innovative business models that prioritize community and environment over profit and growth — whether social and public enterprises, for-benefit business, worker-owned and other cooperatives, local credit unions or public banking. Consider, too, the interlinked campaigns for fair wages, worker rights, Earth-friendly and community-oriented lifestyles, racial justice and pro-family policies.

Fifty years after that first Earth Day, we are running out of time and excuses. With examples aplenty of how things can and must be different, we must all be new environmentalists now.

This article is excerpted from an essay in The New Systems Reader: Alternatives to a Failed Economy.

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