Environmentalism: Fusing Red and Green

September 25, 2007

WITH THE COLLAPSE OF SOVIET-STYLE socialism, the fall of dictatorial regimes and the discredit of armed struggle, a cycle of political tensions has ended in Latin America and the world. This has opened the way for new approaches to social change. Civil society, shaking off its passivity toward populist governments and confronting the oppression of totalitar- ian regimes, has emerged as a multi-faceted and decen- tralizing force, demanding democracy via citizen partici- pation in matters that concern individual freedoms, living conditions, and their destiny as peoples. These new avenues of protest, often quiet, symbolic or nearly invisible, can lead to explosions of anger. Such was the case in Caracas in February 1989 and then again in March of this year. The governor of the state of Zulia described it well when he said that desperation had led Mexican environmentalistEnrique Leffworks at the United Nations Environment Program. His most recent book, Cultura y Manejo Sustentable de los Recursos Naturales (Mexico: UNAM/Porrda, 1992), was written with J. Carabias. to "a spirit of civil disobedience that goes beyond the limits of rebellion, and a profound scorn for authority, for institutions and for the customary channels" of protest. The economic crisis and the seeming incapacity of current neoliberal policies to surmount it are not the only causes. Also responsible are the state's failure to develop ways for people to participate directly in the improvement of the quality of their lives, and its incapacity to repress new forms of collective identity and solidarity that ques- tion its power. Although growing popular protest often does not ex- plicitly refer to the environmental crisis, environmental consciousness underlies much of it. Protest grows out of deteriorating living conditions which people associate with failed development policies, the inadequate use of resources, and environmental degradation. By positing a new paradigm for achieving the ideals of liberty, equality and social justice--one based on a new relationship to nature- environmental consciousness may well be the vehicle that will renew socialism's potential to transform civilization. Nearly 25 years ago the student movements of 1968 announced the emergence of a populace more aware of its rights and desirous of participating in the decisions that affect it. This coincided with a new awareness of the limits of growth, the degradation of the environment and the deterioration of the quality of life. In Latin America these movements marked the beginning of society's break with the authoritarian state. They offered new perspectives on social change and generated a new political culture out- side established channels of power. Illusions of economic miracle-oil wealth in Mexico and Venezuela, the opening up of the Amazon, the colo- nization of tropical jungles in many countries, extensive cattle ranching, the Green Revolution, migration to urban and industrial centers-all left a legacy of deforestation, soil salinization and erosion, and air and water pollution. Meanwhile, Latin America's great megalopololi-Mexico City, Santiago, Slo Paulo and Cubatio (Brazil)-became the world's most polluted and poverty-stricken cities. This all contributed to a growing clamor for a new concept of development to replace the predatory models of eco- nomic growth, exponential use of natural resources and unsustainable patterns of consumption that have devas- tated the region's environment and left 183 million people in misery. IN THE 1970S PEOPLE AFFECTED BY DE- teriorating environmental conditions in the work- place and at home, particularly the poor who suffer disproportionately, began to voice explicitly environ- mental concerns. Their efforts dovetailed with new middle-class demands for a better quality of life, for rights to expression and participation, and for the recu- peration of community values. The "environmental Deforestation along Brazil's southern Atlantic coast. As en drives down the quality of life, environmental consciousne tional banners of the Left. movement" which emerged fused old struggles and new values. It combined the struggle for survival with the quest for a better quality of life. In Mexico environmentalism has given new meaning to the struggles of peasants, workers and the urban poor. Since 1976, peasants in the state of Tabasco in Mexico's Southeast, for example, have protested oil spills and pollution of the rivers. In 1983 the "Plan de Ayala" National Coordinating Council, made up of 523 peasant organizations at the time, incorporated the defense of natural resources into their ancestral struggles for land. And the Mixtec Indian communities of the Sierra de Juirez in Oaxaca state have fought to regain control over their forests, which the government had ceded to a foreign company. Other peasant groups campaign against pesti- cide abuse, intensive farming and the control of residual waters. Peasants have protested arsenic poisoning due to the overuse of the aquifer in Comarca Lagunera and irrigation with sewer water in the Mezquital Valley. 2 Workers, too, began to protest the use of toxic chemi- cals in the workplace and the contamination of surround- ing neighborhoods. They also organized in response to "industrial accidents" caused by negligence and non- enforcement of statutes on workplace hygiene and secu- rity, and by chaotic urban and industrial growth. 3 Unregu- lated municipal dumps are another issue that gives rise to local environmental organizing. These community-based efforts seek not only to move the dumps out of town, systematize land ownership and find more healthy and efficient ways of disposing of waste, but also to transform the dumps from the fiefdoms of garbage barons into community-controlled productive resources. 4 In Brazil, despite the existence of over 900 environ- mental groups with 35,000 members, the movement has viromenal dgraatio IlaUe Iew iInlVLIU 111IV U1e environmental degradationpopular movement and re- ss is renewing the tradi-p uar e ment ade- mains essentially made up of urban middle-class pro- fessionals. More effective have been the efforts of "eco-politicians"-people from the movement who have gone on to win public office. Fibio Feldmann, for example, a founder of Sgo Paulo's OIKOS ecology group, became in 1986 the first congressman elected on an environmentalist plat- form. Largely as a result of his efforts, the 1988 consti- tution includes an article for environmental protection that is among the most pro- gressive in the world. Feldmann was also instru- mental in gaining elite sup- report for two key environmental organizations: S.O.S. Mata Atlantica, to preserve the remaining 5% of the tropical forest that once covered the southern Atlantic Coast; and Pr6-Jureia, to preserve the estuary-lagoon complex in the south of Sdo Paulo state. In Venezuela, the most visible part of the environmen- tal movement is also made up of middle-class-based ecol- ogy groups who pursue local, restricted demands. One of their greatest successes was the cancellation of the Trans- Amazon Ralley in 1987, aproposed car-race from Venezu- ela to Brazil, which would have been disastrous for the fragile ecosystems of the Gran Sabana region. A small group of professionals, called the Association of Friends in Defense of the Gran Sabana, managed to unite all the country's ecology groups in opposition to the project. In 1984 the first national meeting of environmental non-governmental organizations was held in C6rdoba, Argentina.s In Colombia, a series of national forums on ecology took place in the mid-1980s, although only the central western portion of the country has formed a regional ecological council, known as CERCO. The gov- ernmental agency responsible for managing natural re- sources, INDERENA, generated the greatest surge in environmental action by launching a "green campaign" in 1985-1986. This effort sought to set up Green Councils in each municipality to organize the communities in defense of their environmental resources, as well as to strengthen local democracy. Hundreds of these councils were formed, although momentum fell off with the change in govern- ment in 1986.6 ENVIRONMENTALISM SEEMS TO BE THE only new social movement that is really "new," the result of heretofore unknown phenomena: cumulative ecological destruction and global socio-environmental degradation.7 This multi-class, heterogeneous, and multi- sectoral movement has yet to find a strategy capable of consolidating the power of civil society. The tendency of ecology groups to stand firm by the principles of diversity and autonomy has led to atomized organizations, frac- tured power and distrust of any form of leadership.8 At the same time, the movement's immaturity has favored the rise of environmental caudillos and personality cults, facilitating the process of co-optation as the state mines this fertile ground forits own environmental spokespeople. Latin America' s emerging democratic regimes have skill- fully manipulated the environmental cause by invoking its symbols for other purposes. When Mexico's President Salinas decided to close the Azcapotzaclo oil refinery in Mexico City last year, for example, he was not under public pressure to do so. But his action neutralized the efforts of the environmental movement and further con- solidated the power of the state. Although the state can co- opt the movement's leadership, it has yet to find a way to defuse its demands. The global, transnational and long-term character of some environmental problems (among them biodiversity, species conservation, climatic change, trade and disposal of dangerous and toxic waste) pose problems that are beyond the consciousness, daily lives and direct interests of the citizenry. As a consequence, instead of evoking broad class actions, environmental issues get translated into diverse, local, concrete concerns, like pollution, the destruction of woodlands, and the degradation of the water supply. Yet the environmental movement offers a vision ca- pable of renewing the traditional banners of the Left, with respect to both the basic rights of the working class and the growing demand of civil society for abetter quality of life. This environmental vision aspires to undo the centralized economic and political power of the elites and the ideol- ogy that legitimizes unequal, oppressive and ecocidal development. Poverty and inequality are as environmen- tally unsustainable as the current trend toward overcon- sumption in wealthy societies. Sustainable development would require not only closing the gap between rich and poor, but questioning the rationality of economic growth as we know it, under both capitalism and socialism. Although the environmental movement has no explicit strategy to build links to the Left or to build a new socialism, it has transformed people's conception of so- cialism. It points to a redefinition of socialist ideals grounded in a new material basis, involving new forms of ownership and access to productive resources, and new participative institutions. 9 A new paradigm for sustain- able development, based on direct community participa- tion, would link up local economies according to the eco- technological potential of their resources, both natural and cultural. It would overcome poverty and marginali- zation through self-managed production to satisfy basic needs and to enhance the quality of life of the majorities.' 0 In many ways, the environmental "movement" seems little more than wishful thinking: an amalgam of groups without defined social actors or effective strategies to build power, paralyzed when faced with the uncertain direction of global change. But as Galileo put it years ago, e pure si muove, and nevertheless it moves. Environmen- talism is taking hold in people's consciousness, trans- forming people's ways of thinking. It links different social movements that assault the social edifice. Its actors circulate within and outside the state institutions, the universities and the new professional entities and organi- zations of civil society. It is heterogeneous---crossing class lines, economic sectors and national boundaries. It mixes with other social movements, old and new, renew- ing worker and peasant struggles, indigenous and urban popular movements, and the peace and conservation movements. A new Left that fuses red and green as it reaches for a new utopia could launch a new cycle of social change, capable of transcending the civilizing rationale of moder- nity. The environmentalism being born may well prove to be the theory and praxis that will allow humanity to survive into the twenty-first century. Environmentalism: Fusing Red and Green 1. See J. O'Connor, "Capitalism, Nature, Socialism: A Theoretical Intro- duction, Capitalism, Nature, Socialism (1988); R. Bahro, La Alternativa (Madrid: Alianza, 1980); and O. Ovalles, La Fuerza de la Ecologfa en Venezuela (Caracas: Ecotopia, 1983). 2. See V.M. Toledo, "La Resistencia Ecol6gica del Campesinado Mexicano," Ecologia Politica, No. 1 (Barcelona). 3. The worst of these was the November 19, 1984 explosion of a PEMEX gas depot in the heart of San Juan Ixhuatepec (known as San Juanico), a town of 70,000 inhabitants located in the industrial zone of Tlanepantla north of Mexico City. This "accident," which killed over 400 and left more than 4,000 injured, gave rise to a struggle for compensation, for the relocation of the industrial park, and for policy changes to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy elsewhere in the country. The recent gas explosions in Guadalajara have already triggered significant protests. 4. A good example was the local community organization in Colonia Hidalgo, in the city of Minatitldn, Veracruz, which managed to transform an unregulated dump into a sanitary landfill overseen by the community and a municipal "ecology ombudsman." And in Ciudad Judrez in Chihuahua, the workers who labored under wretched conditions picking reusable goods in the municipal dump threw off the yoke of the official union and formed a cooperative. They are now compensated directly without intermediaries, set their own prices, and are learning how to read. The cooperative covers medical expenses and funerals. For an overview of the social-environmental movement in Mexico, see E. Left and J.M. Sandoval, "Primera Reuni6n Nacional de Movimientos Sociales y Medio Ambiente" (Mexico: Programa Universitario Justo Sierra, UNAM, 1985). 5. From that meeting two tendencies emerged: the Confederation of Environmental NGOs (COANG) and the Ecology Action Network. P. Quiroga, "La Dimensi6n Politica de la Problemitica Ambiental," in Crisis Ambientaly DesarrolloEcondmico:Aportesa la discusidn en laArgentina, (Buenos Aires: Centro Latinoamericano de Estudios Ambientales/Fundaci6n Friedrich Ebert, 1991). 6. E. La Torre, "Estado, Ambiente y Sociedad Civil en Colombia," in M.P. Garcfa Guadilla (ed.), Estado, Sociedad Civil y Medio Ambiente: Crisis y Conflictos Socio-Ambientales en America Latina y Venezuela (Caracas: Universidad Sim6n Bolivar/Centro de Estudios del Desarrollo, 1991). 7. See A. Gunder Frank and M. Fuentes, "Nine Theses on Social Move- ments," IFDA Dossierr, No. 63 (1988). 8. Recent studies identified 900 ecology groups in Brazil, 700 in Argentina and over 100 each in Mexico and Venezuela. Most of these are very small and many are not active, but the numbers are indicative of the movement's atomized nature, due in great part to the environmental philosophy which stresses decentralization and autonomy. For Brazil, see K. Goldstein, "Search- ing for Green through Smog and Squalor: Defense of the Environment in Brazil," PhDdiss., Dept. ofPolitics, Princeton University, 1990;forArgentina, see P. Quiroga, "La Dimensi6n Politica"; for Mexico, see E. Kurzinger- Wiemman et al, PoliticaAmbiental enMdxico: El Papel de las Organizaciones no Gubernamentales (M6xico: Instituto Alemdn de Desarrollo/Fundaci6n Friedrich Ebert, 1991); for Venezuela, see M.P. Garcia Guadilla, Ambiente, Estado y Sociedad. 9. F. Ovejero, "Ecologfa y Proyectos de Izquierda,"Ecologa Polftica, No. 2 (Barcelona, 1991). The socialist governments of Latin America have been open to the environmental viewpoint, but their environmentalism has been limited to Nicaragua's defense of natural resources and Cuba's policies of decentralized economic planning. The new democracies are more inclined toward neoliberal de-regulation than environmental management. Although "ecology" has become a mandatory staple of political rhetoric, both socialism and democracy in power remain divorced from the transformatury capacity of environmentalism: democratic participation in the management of environ- mental resources. See E. Leff, "Cultura Democritica, Gesti6n Ambiental y Desarrollo Sustentable en Armdrica Latina," in Conferencia Internacional sobre Cultura Democrdticay Desarrollo: Hacia el TercerMilenio en Amdrica Latina (Montevideo: UNESCO/PAX, 1990); J. O'Connor, "Capitalism, Na- ture, Socialism"; R. Bahro, La Alternativa; and O. Ovalles, La Fuerza de la Ecologia en Venezuela. 10. See E. Leff, Ecotechnological Productivity: a conceptual basis for the integrated management of natural resources," Social Science Information, Vol. 25, No. 3 (1986).

Tags: environmentalism, leftist politics, neoliberalism, Protest, socialism

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