Is There A Rift Between Progressives And Environmentalists?

I have to admit I was a bit embarrassed that I hadn’t heard about the October 2 One Nation March in Washington, DC until just a week ago. I was in the middle of an interview with Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins – the energetic, young leader of Green for All – when, in response to a question about the state of the progressive movement, she mentioned the upcoming capital rally as an encouraging example of grassroots organizing by progressive groups. I had no idea what she was talking about. And that’s a problem – because it reveals how the broader center-left remains silo-ed and how environmental issues continue to be disconnected from the larger progressive agenda.

In case, like me, you’ve missed it, here’s the deal: A coalition of labor, civil rights, and peace organizations are planning a one-day rally on the Washington Mall to, as they put it on their website, demand “jobs, justice, and education.” The marchers will be calling for “an economy that works for all … a nation in which each person who wants to work can find a job that pays enough to support a family.” The organizing muscle is mostly coming from the labor movement (spearheaded, it seems, by SEIU and the United Auto Workers) and the NAACP. The One Nation organizers are expecting tens of thousands of people to show up in a kind of a counter-demonstration to the recent Tea Party and Glenn Beck fests in the capital, an effort to “demand the changes we voted for.” In other words, to give the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats a kick in the pants to get serious about addressing the unemployment crisis and rebuilding the country’s social safety net.

One Nation boasts that the march will feature “human and civil rights leaders, labor leaders, environmental and peace activists, faith leaders, celebrities and sports figures.”

Environmentalists? Really? I just checked out the One Nation list of partners and I saw only three green groups there: Green for All,, and Friends of the Earth. That’s simply disheartening, and it raises some troubling questions about the continued failure to make environmental sustainability a core part of progressive politics.

Part of the responsibility for this failure lies with the green groups themselves. Why haven’t they signed on as endorsers of the march? At the very least, I would think, the Big Green groups could add their names to the call to action, and in doing so acknowledge that economic justice is a concern of theirs. I mean, does anyone really think that the average NRDC or Sierra Club member (to say nothing of your typical Greenpeace or Rainforest Action Network supporter) would object to creating “a million new jobs right away” or “peace abroad” and an to “end racial profiling and re-segregation”? The NGO-istas within the green groups apparently have not gotten over thinking that “the environment” is somehow apart from other pressing social issues. Of course, if you act like your agenda is a discreet, stand-alone issue it will remain a discreet, stand-alone issue. And you’ll remain a niche.

Some of the responsibility also lies with the One Nation conveners. The call to action does say that “We march for a clean environment, so no child is ever forced to decide between drinking the water or breathing the air and staying healthy.” And the coalition’s policy principles include a demand to “Fund infrastructure investment that spurs higher economic growth, clean energy enterprises, and green jobs.” But the language feels tacked on, and it’s pretty clear that sustainability is a tertiary concern. Maybe green groups can be excused for not participating; after all, their core priorities are given short shrift.

Maybe I’m asking too much. To be effective and pack a punch, a political platform (especially in the age of Twitter) has to be short and sweet. The One Nation organizers have hit all the high notes of a progressive agenda: An end to militarism abroad, good jobs at home, basic rights for everyone regardless of ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation. Throwing in a bunch of demands about greenhouse gas reductions might just have resulted in goobledygook.

But there's a larger problem here. To quote The Captain from Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” Self-identified environmentalists haven’t communicated to their partners in the labor and civil rights movements that they share a passion for social and economic justice. Trade union and civil rights leaders haven’t communicated that they truly understand, as the bumper sticker goes, “There are no jobs on a dead planet.” With the exception of a few cross-cultural ambassadors like Ellis-Lamkins, our movements aren’t talking to each other.

Beyond that, what we have is a failure of imagination. Despite the visionary leadership of Van Jones, despite the speechifying by President Obama, despite all the summits and ad-hoc alliances and opeds, it seems the progressive left still has not internalized the idea of a green collar economy. The Chinese and Europeans are set to eat our lunch when it comes to clean energy technology. Our manufacturing sector is a shell of what it once was. Earth’s core systems are failing. A Green New Deal could address all of those problems by harnessing government investment to spur an industrial renaissance based on green manufacturing. It’s a win-win-win.

Yet too many progressives still seem to view the economy as over here and the environment as over there. Until we connect them, we’ll keep marching past each other.


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