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(en) US, Portland, UNFINISHED BUSINESS* #2 - The Environmental Movement And Class Struggle: How Do They Intersect?

Date Tue, 16 Aug 2005 11:45:18 +0300

Introducing a Working Class Sensibility to the Environmental Movement
I read the inaugural issue of Unfinished Business
with great pleasure. The fact of the NAF's formation
and ongoing constructive work was cause enough
for celebration. But as an anarchist communist who
has long worked within an Earth First! collective,
I was especially gratified to note that the Federation's
Perspectives prominently address the "massive
ecological catastrophe that is on our doorstep".
We should work within the existing
environmental movement, because
that is where the people most acutely
aware of the impending ecological
catastrophe are.
In addition to the Perspectives article, Arthur J.
Miller's essay Developing Working Class
Environmentalism contained some valid criticisms of
the ecology movement. However, after detailing sev-
eral of that movement's more glaring weaknesses
(and also commenting on humans as integral to
ecosystems, and the greed of bosses as the source
of despoliation) he prescribes a solution that involves
building "our own form of environmentalism" based
on the interests of "the working class and other
oppressed groups." He seems to be calling for an
as-yet-to-be-created movement, a new thing apart
from the existing movement. Why this, rather than
agitate within the existing structures to introduce a
working class sensibility?
The point of contention regarding whether to work
within an existing movement or seek to build a new
one, mirrors a long running debate within anarchism
regarding unions. There has been a long and rich
debate within anarchist circles as to whether we
should restrict our activities to working within revolu-
tionary unions (the purist position), or whether we
should also agitate within the business unions.
I lean towards the latter position. I think we should
agitate within the business unions, because "that is
where the workers are." And, that we should work
within the existing environmental movement,
because that is where the people most acutely
aware of the impending ecological catastrophe are.
If the interests of oppressed communities are not
being addressed, or if workers are being bullied by
middle class elements within these organizations, we
should be there (as elsewhere) demanding freedom
and equality.
But the problem seems to be, not so much that
middle class people and interests tend to dominate
within green circles (as elsewhere), but these green
circles tend mostly to consist of middle class types.
(Not the bourgeoisie, mind you, who reap windfall
dividends from profit-focused extraction, production
and consumption. Instead I am referring to college-
educated folks, who are not filthy-rich.)
Just as the richest layers of society are not found
among the ranks of the greens, so too there has not
been a lot of worker participation within this move-
ment. Whose fault is that, that workers have not
found their way into these circles? We can blame
the elitist behavior of well-heeled greens, to be sure,
but what does that accomplish? Our task is to fight
such domination, not to complain about it.
There are many reasons why workers tend not to
join environmental groups, aside from the behavior
of middle-class people. Our work schedules often
don't allow it, for one thing. And, people with less
education tend to be more easily bamboozled by the
lies of the government and the corporate media.
When workers do see through these lies, it tends to
follow from personal experience, rather than from
analysis or having read a book. For that reason,
workers are more apt to be involved in workplace or
community struggles which immediately affect them,
rather than in ecological campaigns. Though they
are impacted by environmental degradation, it is a
less direct impact. (At least for now!) How would
new, explicitly working-class environmental organi-
zations change any of these factors?
Does all this mean that we should abandon the
environmental movement as hopelessly compro-
mised, to sneer at it as so much petty bourgeois self-
indulgence? I think not. Rather, I think the afore-
mentioned scarcity of working class participants in
the movement for ecology is just a hurdle that we
have to be aware of, and either change or adapt to.
No one ever said being a revolutionary was going to
be easy!
I contend that the ills of the environmental move-
ment follow from the fact that workers have not par-
ticipated in it. And I contend that the failure of class
struggle anarchists to bring our theory and practice
into the modern era by taking account of ecological
concerns, has contributed to this dearth of workers in
green ranks.
What should we, as anarchist communists be
doing to bring a working class perspective (and
more working class participants) into the environmental movement?
That, I think, is the question to be addressed. Before we strike out in search
of answers, it is crucial that we frame the question
Profit is the exact point at which worker exploitation
and environmental degradation intersect. The green
faction of the middle class has a common enemy
with ourselves, the corporate owners. Certainly we
should recognize and oppose the hierarchal nature
of the green movement from within, even as we do
within the business unions. But we should support
the larger aims of that social movement, even as we
do the larger aims of the workers organizations, the
unions and grassroots community groups.
prole cat,
The Capital Terminus Collective, Atlanta, GA (in per-
sonal capacity)

Response to Letter
First let me say I have been a working class envi-
ronmentalist for over 35 years and I have tried many
times to work within environmental groups. The only
such groups I ever found that I could work
in were smaller community based groups made
up of people in a community that was faced with some
type of direct threat. In most of the mainstream and
even more radical groups I found that the classism
and class privilege were such that I could not do any-
thing but be a camp follower. A few examples.
The point in all this is that in most
cases in order for a working per-
son who is not of the cultural mid-
dle-class scene, they most face a
struggle just to be heard (in the
I lived for a while in a town where development of
undeveloped land was a big issue. I agreed that such
development should be slowed or stopped altogeth-
er so I went to a meeting. I expressed the point of
view that such movements need to be concerned
about the effects they have on oppressed and
exploited people because that was the only way
such a movement could make a real difference. In
this case the problem for poor and working people
was that if development stopped in undeveloped
areas then the capitalists would turn to poor neigh-
borhoods to redevelop homes and condos for rich
and middle class people. So along with a campaign
against development of undeveloped areas there
needed to be a part of that campaign that worked to
protect poor and working people's communities. I
was told very strongly that those issues could not be
combined. I asked why poor and
working people had to always make
the sacrifices for middle-class envi-
ronmental solutions? It should be
noted that all the organizations of
people of color in that town came out
against the campaign.
When a large oil spill from a tanker
took place up in Alaska I went to an
environmental meeting of people
who wanted to do something about
it. After listening to folk's talk and
come up with solutions based upon
a lack of understanding of ships, I
spoke up. I have worked on ships for
many years including tankers. I tried
to explain to them what the problems
were with tankers and how to make
them no longer be the threat that they were. They
advocated the double-bottom solution and I tried to
explain to them that most all tankers leak a little oil
and that without forced ventilation of the double-bot-
toms they would be like having bombs at the bottom
of a tanker. If you know anything about tankers you
know that it is the fumes that are the most dangerous
and are a greater threat than full tanks and thus the
fumes from the small leakage made double-bottoms
very dangerous if they are not vented out and dou-
ble-bottoms are not ventilated. I also pointed out that
tankers don't carry spill containment equipment like
booms and have to sit there spilling oil until booms
are brought in from elsewhere. I wanted to tell them
about other things that could be done. But the folks
at that meeting did not want to hear what I had to
say; rather they acted like I was the enemy because
I worked on ships.
The point in all this is that in most cases in order
for a working person who is not of the cultural mid-
dle-class scene, they most face a struggle just to be
heard. Why go through that? Why not organize
among other working class folks and too hell with
those that have class privilege and use it against
One good example of the attitude of class superi-
ority is expressed in the letter. "people with less edu-
cation (I believe this person speaks of the education
of the statist schools) tend to be more easily bam-
boozled by the lies of the government and the corpo-
rate media." Let me be very clear about this, I am not
of the intelligentsia, I have never gone to college, I
never even finished high school, so I am to the writer
one on the "less educated". But does that mean I
don't know what I am talking about? Maybe to the
class supremacy of the intelligentsia I know nothing
and must be led around by my nose by the better
people. But in reality I, like many other working peo-
ple, have a direct education from the point of produc-
tion. Are we more easily bamboozled than the intelli-
gentsia? I think not. As the writer shows a bamboo-
zling in the thinking that the intelligentsia is so
smart and working people are just sheep even
though the greatest rebellions against the
capitalist bosses, both in history and today,
come out of the working class and not the intelligentsia..
I am a working person, I have worked on ships for
near 30 years, worked on oil rigs, worked in the hard
rock mining industry, drove a long haul truck and
worked as an environmental technician. I see the
problems of the threats to the environment first hand
at the point where the problems are created. I am
interested in organizing among others like me. I see
no reason why working people need to struggle in
organizations that are based upon class privilege,
don't see the problems and solutions at the point that
they exist and will always rely upon their class privi-
lege by making working people make sacrifices that
they don't have to make. I believe in a working class
environmental movement.
Arthur J. Miller
* Unfinished Buisness: Agitational publication of the
U..B.. B U P.o. Box 112 Portland, O R 97232

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