Class trends in the environmental movement

Not all that glitters is green

by Joseph Green in CV #45, November 2010

Today it's become fashionable for politicians and corporations speak in the name of the environment. How infuriating it is to see the worst corporate polluters put out "green" ads! Even the infamous oil company BP takes part in this game, and likes to present itself as "Beyond Petroleum".

So it's important that some activists have put out a chart Know Who You're Dealing with...(a Continuum of Types of Organizations Affecting Environmental Matters), which is reprinted here on page 33 with their permission (but they are not responsible for any of my views).(1) It pays particular attention to groups active in Pennsylvania, but also contains many examples of national and international groups. It sketches the range of groups focused directly on environmental matters: at one end, there's the corporate polluters and their front groups, and at the other end are the "funded, but generally uncompromised" environmental groups and "largely unfunded, grassroots" group, on the other. (There are also totally unfunded groups based on the working class, such as ourselves, but the chart leaves these out, probably in order to avoid dealing directly with political issues.) This is a spectrum from corporate pirates and their public-relations people on one side, to dedicated activists on the other.

Not many people will be surprised that the oil companies and other corporate liars, no matter what they say in commercials, are ravaging the environment. So what's especially important in this chart are the categories in the middle. It refers to "corporate controlled environmental groups" and "highly" or "moderately" compromised environmental groups. Many of these groups have big names and are touted by the establishment press as the real voices of environmentalism, and the chart characterizes them as either "corporate controlled", or "compromised" by their connections with the polluters. Groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund present themselves as fighters for the environment, but their leaderships march hand-in-hand with to the polluters. Take a look at the chart, and see how strongly connected the establishment groups are to the capitalists ravaging our planet. This is something which should be known more widely and taken into account.

Now, I am not knowledgeable about every group listed in this chart, and so can't endorse every single categorization. But from what I do know, it seems to me that this chart presents an accurate picture of the general nature of the environmental movement at this time.(2) In particular, its bitter characterization of the big establishment environmental groups is on the mark.

This was shown by what's happened since the giant BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Many members and supporters of various mainstream environmental groups expressed outrage at the crimes of BP, only to find that their own groups had either taken money from BP and other oil companies or were involved in joint programs with them. This became an open scandal that even reached the pages of the New York Times and other establishment newspapers.

The seduction of the movement

So the time is long past when, no matter what solution one advocated, by simply talking about the need to be green one could make a contribution to saving the planet's biosphere. A large part of the bourgeoisie has learned to talk green. Just as cigarette companies learned to give money to "good causes" and advertise in every journal and at every sporting event, and they did this precisely because they knew their product was killing people, so the worst polluters learned years ago to give alms to a certain section of the environmental movement, and build links with it. Thus, for example, BP handed out money to the Nature Conservancy, while Chevron, known not only for its pollution but also for its savage exploitation of third world peoples, has coopted the World Wildlife Fund and seduced academics like Professor Jared Diamond, who sits on the WWF board, write books about the environment like Collapse, and yet praises Chevron.

But direct funding is only one of the ways in which the compromised environmental groups are bound to the polluters. Some of the compromised groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, won't take funds directly from the corporations. But the EDF seeks common ground with the environmental criminals as far as legislation and lobbying; this is supposedly the way to get things done. For example, the Partnership for Climate Action unites the EDF with major enemies of the environment like BP and Shell International, and promotes them to the public as "forward-thinking companies".(3)

The establishment environment groups think that this is realistic politics, but who's using who? This search for common ground with the environmental criminals has been the flag of surrender, and it has meant giving them green credentials and watering down environmental proposals to what they will accept. It means searching for proposals that won't touch the profits or harm the image of the big corporations. And it has helped establish a revolving door between positions in establishment environmental groups and high-paying posts in major corporations.

The seduction of the movement has gone quite far: it is not restricted to groups of staid upper-class professionals and businesspeople, but has drawn in groups like Greenpeace as well. It may seem surprising that Greenpeace is listed in the chart as a compromised. After all, isn't it known for militant direct action in defense of the environment? And indeed, Greenpeace is not the worst of the compromised groups, and the chart does not list it as such, describing it as only "moderately compromised" rather than "highly-compromised". But I use Greenpeace as an example, not to denigrate the positive actions undertaken by Greenpeace, but to show how deeply corporate seduction has penetrated the movement.

A left-wing Australian academic described in 2002 how this led to Greenpeace taking part in the very type of "greenwashing" of corporations that it at other times has vigorously denounced. She wrote:

"When Greenpeace emerged as an international organization in the 1970s, it embodied a spirit of courageous protest by activists who were willing to place their bodies on the line to call attention to environmental injustice. Its mission was to 'bear witness' to environmental abuses and take direct nonviolent action to prevent them.

"In the 1990s, however, a new current of thought grew, both at the international level and at the level of national affiliates such as Greenpeace Australia. Greenpeace leaders and many members began to talk of going beyond negative criticism. The Greenpeace Australia web site proudly asserted this new philosophy: 'We work with industry and government to find solutions.' . . .

"Greenpeace campaigners once criticised green marketing. 'Bung a dolphin on the label and we'll be right' was how Gilding referred to green marketing strategies. Yet this is just what Greenpeace did for the Sydney Olympics. Greenpeace helped sell the concept of the Green Olympics despite the toxic waste landfills on site, the waste plant emitting toxic emissions in its midst, and the use of ozone depletors in Olympic venues.

"A June 1999 Greenpeace brochure stated that 'Sydney authorities were thorough in their efforts to remediate before construction began. Most of the waste remains on site, in state of the art land fills, covered with clay, vegetated to blend in with the Olympic site.' This raises several problems for Greenpeace credibility. For years it has campaigned against disposing of toxic waste by landfill because it is impossible to prevent toxic material from leaking into underlying groundwater. The major landfills on the Olympic site contain dioxins and organochlorines and heavy metals without even linings underneath to mitigate the flow of leachate through the underlying soil.

. . . . .

"Nor was this shift in direction confined to the Australian branch. Greenpeace International wrote to Olympic sponsors, including BHP, Coca Cola, General Motors-Holden, McDonalds, and others, offering to help them earn the name of 'Green' in the same way as the Sydney Olympics has: 'As sponsors, you have the opportunity to play a key role in this success. One of the many benefits of being part of the Green Games is the chance to demonstrate your company's commitment to the environment and to future generations. The Sydney Olympics offer your staff the opportunity to take part in a long-term global initiative to protect the world's environment. . . Greenpeace would like to work with you to explore the areas in which you can make an environmental contribution during the Sydney 2000 Games.' "

She went on to describe the revolving door that Greenpeace began to take part in:

"To date Greenpeace policy does not allow the organisation to take money from industry or government so it is not the commercial opportunities which are converting Greenpeace into a greenwashing operation. It appears to be the career opportunities available to individuals, rather than the funds available to the organisation that is influencing Greenpeace decisions.

"Greenpeace has become a site of the ubiquitous revolving door between industry, government, and NGOs. Not only are people like Bode and Wilson, who come from industry and government and see nothing wrong with a 'reformist' solutions-oriented approach, coming into Greenpeace, but those who embrace such an approach such as Karla Bell (champion of the Green Olympics whilst at Greenpeace) and Paul Gilding are finding career opportunities as consultants to industry when they leave Greenpeace.

"Others include Rick Humphries, who joined Gilding at Ecos Corporation and Blair Palese who left Greenpeace to work as Head of PR for the Body Shop International and then returned to work for Greenpeace four days a week and Ecos Corporation on the fifth day. Michael Bland left Greenpeace in 1989 to work for a Sydney-based marketing firm Environmental Marketing Services. Bland then started his own consultancy, Environment Matters, before returning to work for Greenpeace in 1993. In 1999 he left Greenpeace to work as a PR consultant for the Sydney Games authority."

She concluded: "Like many groups, Greenpeace is at a crossroads. Will it remain a principled green activist group confronting polluters and despoilers or will it become a deal-making, compromised collaborator with the powers that be?"(4)

Class differences in the environmental movement

Why has this taken place? Although the corporate polluters have a lot of money to throw around, it isn't simply a matter of direct bribery or even the revolving door. No, while the corporate front groups may simply be paid spokespeople for the environmental criminals, the stand of the establishment environmental groups involves something more than this: it reflects a class viewpoint.

The establishment groups represent a bourgeois wing of the environmental movement. These groups base themselves on the bourgeoisie; and they believe in bourgeois measures. They believe in bourgeois economics, which would supposedly be compatible with environmental concerns provided goods were priced at their "true cost". They believe in neo-liberalism, and they would be horrified at the thought of the class struggle. All this being the case, it's not surprising that they advocate impotent market measures like carbon trading for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems, and shy away from the regulation and economic planning needed to effectively deal with environmental issues.

There are also activist groups which are quite different from the stuffy bourgeois establishment organizations. But they face a good deal of pressure to keep them in line. Funding from the charitable foundations leaves organizations a longer leash than direct money from the corporations. But the foundations represent the humanitarian wing of the bourgeoisie, and their money and approval also sets limits on those who take it. Many NGOs are also active on various environmental issues, and employ many activists, but they are funded through bourgeois or even governmental sources. Meanwhile professors who wished to study the critical areas of the Gulf to deal with the BP oil spill often found that they had to sign non-disclosure agreements with BP in order to get either access or funding for their work.

The result is a struggle between the push from a mass of activists for serious change in the economy, and the restraints of bourgeois environmentalism. The chart points out that there are some organizations which do receive some funding from foundations yet, for now, there are few strings attached. But, as the chart points out, it is "the largely unfunded, grassroots environmental groups" who "are capable of being more radical" in their agenda, because they don't have "conflicts of interest" resulting from where they get their funding or other organizational issues.

But aside from funding, some activist groups end up compromised because they are influenced by the general bourgeois standpoint. They may oppose neo-liberalism, but think that all it takes to overcome neo-liberalism is to have more government spending on certain programs. They may oppose cap and trade, but support the carbon tax, which is simply a different type of market measure. A certain section of the activist movement says directly it opposes market measures, but yet it does not see the carbon tax as a market measure, and it believes believe that "true cost pricing" is a radical departure from the market.(5)

Meanwhile the conservative atmosphere of the times has a tendency to wear down some people who might otherwise have preferred a more militant stand. The failure of the cap and trade mechanism used by the Kyoto Protocol, the failure of the US Congress to pass any environmental bill this year, and the horrible nature of the bills that were proposed, have led to a crisis in the environmental movement. This could lead in one of two directions: to rejection of this new fiasco of bourgeois environmentalism, or to a search for some type of common denominator to form a basis of unity with the present neo-liberal awfulness.

Thus recently David Roberts, a staff writer for the environmental on-line journal Grist, expressed a certain mood in his article " 'Environmentalism' can never address climate change":

"...the question is whether 'the environmental movement' can catalyze a big enough movement to be effective on this problem.

"What needs to happen is for concern over earth's biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement -- and movement politics, as handed down from the '60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes."(6)

Here Roberts calls for jettisoning "movement politics", generally understood as embracing some kind of struggle, and looking towards making the environment "a priority concern of American elites", liberal or conservative. This seems to reflect a certain weariness with what seems a one-sided fight against the powerful the polluters: it is a dream of bringing them all into the fold, along with their concerns to maintain their privileged position (their priority concern on the economy) and their imperialism (their priority concern on national security). Well, that may not be what Roberts sees as their concerns, but that's what the concerns of the elites actually are, and closing one's eyes to them won't change that. What is needed is not drawing closer to these elites: it is to link the environmental movement closer with the masses oppressed by these elites, in order to develop a class struggle that is far stronger and more consistent than that of the 60s.

Build a working class environmental movement

The only force that can provide a consistent counterweight to the corporations, and to the government run by the bourgeoisie, is the working class. But for this to be so, the working class has to provide not just numbers for the environmental movement, but also a working-class standpoint for the movement. The building of such a class-conscious environmental movement would fill out a new category in the chart -- groups with no connection to bourgeois philanthropy, but based on the class struggle.

A working-class environmental movement wouldn't be compromised by ties to the corporations and the bourgeoisie in general. It would be able to fight for serious measures to deal with greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental problems. It wouldn't be a stepping stone for getting cushy jobs in big business, but a part of a general movement of struggle of the working masses in their own interest.

A radical environmental movement shouldn't simply be more militant than the establishment groups, but it should fight for a more effective environmental strategy. It shouldn't fight for the same market measures as the establishment groups, but avoiding their compromises. It shouldn't, say, fight for a cap and trade bill, albeit one unwatered down by the many compromises with the corporations which appeared in the last congressional bills. Instead it should put forward a better, truly effective, environmental strategy; it should oppose the futile cap and trade and carbon tax proposals; and it should put forward the need for comprehensive environmental regulation and planning.

Such a movement would see that the bourgeoisie acts not just through the corporations, but through the government as well. It would take seriously the lessons of the corporate capture of government regulatory agencies by the polluters, and would call for regulation to be carried out on a new basis, not only more transparent than before, but also involving the workers in enforcement. Naturally only a small part of this is possible under capitalism, but it is essential that something be accomplished along these lines if environmental regulations are to be enforced in every workplace, and if the government agencies are to have some independence from bourgeois industry.

A serious working class environmental movement doesn't mean one organized around the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy which leads the present-day American union movement, but around rank-and-file workers. It would be good, of course, if unions took a serious interest in environmental matters, but this would require an upsurge of rank-and-file pressure to transform the present situation in the unions. Today's union bureaucracy, insofar as it considers environmental issues at all, is linked up with bourgeois environmentalism and trying to find common interests with business leaders.

Today there are militant activists that are looking for a real fight against environmental devastation. There are groups that are not compromised by ties to the large corporations. But these groups don't yet have a class viewpoint towards the differences in the movement. And, as can be seen by the example of Greenpeace, it isn't sufficient to have militant actions against the polluters in order to be free from corporate seduction. It is necessary to go further and see the class issues involved in the movement.

The chart Know Who You're Dealing With brings out that there are real differences in the movement. It shows that the establishment environmentalists are compromised by ties with the corporate polluters. In doing so, it makes important points that should be spread widely in the movement. A consciously working-class environmental movement can only be brought into existence by keeping such lessons in mind, and maintaining vigilance against the bourgeoisie, which not only runs the corporations, but also stands behind the government agencies and the establishment environmentalist groups.


(1)It appears at the website of the Corporate Accountability Project at

(2) It doesn't deal with everything. It leaves out both government agencies and the different political groups, as well as the issue of the environmentally-related departments of universities.

(3)See the glowing description of the Partnership for Climate Action at The Environmental Defense Fund's website:

(4)Sharon Beder, "Offering solutions or compromises?",

(5)For a discussion of environmental market measures in general, see "The coming of the environmental crisis, the failure of the free market, and the fear of a carbon dictatorship" (Communist Voice #39, August, 2007,, which deals with the Kyoto Protocol, cap and trade, the carbon tax, direct regulation, and democratic vs. capitalist planning. For a much more detailed discussion of the the carbon tax, see "The carbon tax: another futile attempt at a free-market solution to global warming" (Communist Voice #42, August 2008,

(6)" 'Environmentalism' can never address climate change", August 9, 2010, "Grist: a beacon in the smog",, emphasis as in the original

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