How Can Environmentalists Start to Win Against Sociopathic Corporate Interests?
by Max Wilbert
Max Wilbert is on the board of directors of Fertile Ground and is a graduate of Huxley College of the Environment. He has worked against police brutality, militarism, and environmental destruction for nearly a decade. In June 2010, he traveled to the Russian Arctic with a team of scientists studying climate change.
Despite over 50 years of work by a growing pool of talented, dedicated, and intelligent people, nearly every indicator of ecological health is in decline. Why is that?
That is the question that local non-profit Fertile Ground is working to answer. And we know at least part of it – the environmental movement has not matched the scale or the power of the forces liquidating the natural world. Quite simply, we have been outcompeted. That is why we at Fertile Ground are working to build an oppositional culture; a core community that recognizes the linked oppressions of humans and the natural world and works to dismantle them. Before that work can be done, we need to understand what it is that we are fighting, and why we are losing.
Money Equals Power
It’s honestly not surprising that we are losing at this point. After all, transnational corporations have assets greater than all activists combined. The largest five oil companies alone earned more than $1 trillion from 2000-2010. 1 We can’t compete with that kind of wealth at the political level. That money buys infrastructure; it buys favors, politicians, lobbyists; it buys power. Liberals and conservatives alike have consistently worked to grow the economy and facilitate resource extraction at the price of our health, our communities, and the planet.
This is not an accident, nor is it a modern problem. After all, the United States was founded as a business enterprise – a vast colonial project to exploit a new continent. Contrary to common belief, the project isn’t over. In Utah, a new oil project mimics the Alberta Tar Sands. In Appalachia, mountains are reduced to rubble for coal, which is burned to produce electricity.
Exponential Growth in Energy Use
These projects (and many thousands more) feed into the globalized, industrialized economy that has been growing exponentially for the last 160 years. That growth has eaten through nearly every ecosystem on the planet. The Black Sea is dead. The great cod swarms of the Grand Banks are gone. The Great Plains are now the great cornfields. The sixth great extinction event has begun; over 22,000 species disappear every year, a rate between 100 and 1000 times greater than the preindustrial level.2 The bison are gone. The passenger pigeons are gone. The old-growth forests are gone.
Obviously the severity of industrial impact is massive and widespread, but there is one issue that drives them all: fossil fuels. They are the engine of global economic growth and of global warming. Without fossil fuels, industrial logging cannot continue. Industrial fishing stops dead. Industrial agriculture collapses. Without fossil fuels, the healing of the earth can begin; many activists consider this the central struggle of environmentalism in the 21st century.
Our region plays an important role in the global fossil fuels market. Besides the three nearby oil refineries (two in Anacortes, one at Cherry Point), Bellingham hosts a natural gas power plant which sends power to Seattle, and trains which carry coal from the interior to Canada for international distribution. Two pipelines pass beneath Bellingham, one carrying crude oil from the Tar Sands to the refineries, another carrying natural gas (which, according to a recent study, may release more greenhouse gasses than coal).3
Cherry Point Coal Dump a Symptom
The latest plan calls for a new shipping port at Cherry Point that would ship large quantities of coal and other goods to China. The names have changed – SSA Marine is the latest local incarnation of the global resource-extraction machinery. But the story is the same. In Appalachia, it’s Massey Energy driving human exploitation and ecological collapse. In Canada, it’s Suncorp and Tesora, BP and Transmountain. In Nigeria it’s Shell Oil. In Papua New Guinea, it’s Freeport McMoran. In Afghanistan, it’s JP Morgan and Unocal.
It’s not surprising that most of the solutions that are presented to us are not sufficient. After all, cheap and abundant energy is the foundation of our entire culture. The West enjoys excesses that have never been seen in the history of our species. The structure of our societies necessitates this glut.
Alternative technologies cannot replace easily transportable fossil fuels by nature; they require mining, smelting, refining. Most the of the rare earth minerals required for wind, solar, and battery technologies are mined in Mongolia and western China by near-slaves. Lakes of toxic waste mark the production sites.4 And beyond that, these technologies do nothing to address global power imbalances. The US military is spending a great deal of time and money researching alternative energy technologies for the armed forces; tactically, it’s a smart move. But as always, the technology ends up benefitting the powerful while further degrading the natural world and abusing the poor.
“Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand”
Before we can move forward as a movement for ecological and social justice, we have to recognize that global power structures are not going to change willingly. They are not driven by truth or ethics, but by profit. The exploitation is not an accident; it’s a deliberate system to maintain and expand power. No amount of education will stop sociopathological behavior; only some sort of force will do so. This is a fact that many social movements have come to understand. The famous words of Frederick Douglass immortalize the lesson: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”
Unfortunately, the environmental movement still seems focused on “petitioning the king.” This is not an effective political strategy – they hold all the cards in this scenario. It is time to get back to our roots. We need to examine historical struggles for justice to find out what worked for them, and what did not. §
Will examine previous social movements – “the roots.”