When It Comes to the Environment, Are We the 99 Percent or the 1 Percent?

Protestors of the Keystone Pipeline, fracking and other environmental concerns are finding common ground with the Occupy movement -- but there's more to the story.

Canadian resource economist William Rees is far from a political agitator. His claim to fame comes from pioneering the "ecological footprint," a technical method for determining, essentially, how much ecosystem it takes to support each human life on the planet. Nevertheless, Rees, a professor in the School of Community and Regional Planning at the University of British Columbia, gave a fiery speech to a group of international journalists last month in which he accused the world's wealthiest individuals, corporations and governments -- the "1 percent" in the parlance of the Occupy movement -- of eco apartheid.

Seeking to insulate themselves from the worst impacts of global warming, the wealthy are scrambling to secure the best remaining cropland, water rights, mineral and fossil fuel deposits, and other dwindling resources in Africa and elsewhere, while blocking climate legislation that could threaten their business interests, Rees told the gathering at the GreenAccord environmental conference October 19.

"In my worst moments, I think the rich know exactly what they're doing," said Rees, offering an ecological variation on a theme sounded last spring by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, author of a study showing that 1 percent of Americans now control 40 percent of the country's wealth.

"But one big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way," Stiglitz wrote in a May 2011 essay titled: "Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" that inspired this fall's Occupy movement. 

In a whirlwind six weeks since the movement was formed, Occupy Wall Street has spread its criticism of corporate corruption and economic inequality around the country and the globe. But some see the populist insurrection as something more: the best hope yet for stoking a climate justice movement.

From economic sustainability to the impact of corporate money in politics, many points of convergence exist between the economic and climate justice movements. Last week, Occupy Atlanta marched on the headquarters of Koch Industries subsidiary Georgia-Pacific to demand the moguls withdraw their money from politics. Besides funding the Tea Party, the Koch brothers are benefactors of climate change denial groups. 

"Climate absolutely fits in as a concern of OWS," William Jesse, a member of Occupy Wall Street's PR team, said in an email. "The failure to act on climate change is a another clear example of the needs of big business getting priority over the needs of 99 percent of the population."

Environmentalists, in turn, are ramping up the populist rhetoric, a considerable feat for a movement that's earned a reputation for loving wildlife more than people. But with experts predicting rising death tolls and billions of climate refugees as sea levels rise, droughts, forest fires, crop failures, and extreme storms become more commonplace in a warming world, there are no shortages of human impacts.

Occupy Movement Reveals Eco-Inequity

Writing in the Huffington Post last week, environmental lawyer Lisa Kaas Boyle lamented the "corporate hijacking of environmental policy," while Chip Ward, in a widely syndicated essay titled "Occupy Earth," echoed many of Rees' "eco-apartheid" concerns without actually using the highly charged term. Ward linked wealth with health by pointing out that poor communities living near superfund sites and other environmental wastelands inevitably have higher rates of cancer and other health problems. 

Actor Mark Ruffalo connected the fight for economic equity to the battle to stop natural gas fracking in Northeastern states like New York and Pennsylvania and to block the proposed Keystone oil pipeline, and tied them all together with climate justice, in his Oct. 21 visit to Lower Manhattan's Liberty Park, headquarters of the Occupy movement. Russell Mendell, a member of both Frack Action and Occupy Wall Street, told Environment and Energy News, "'This is about linking arms between the various movements,' Mendell said, arguing that 'the same 1 percent' is benefiting from U.S. energy policy and tax loopholes for energy firms. 'There's not a lot that separates the environmental movement and Occupy Wall Street.'"

While Van Jones and a few other environmental justice crusaders have talked about "eco-apartheid" and "eco-haves" and "have nots" for several years now, many environmentalists say the Occupy movement offers the best chance yet to show how "eco-inequity" is wrapped up in society's growing economic divide.

"We will have lost an opportunity, if we don't succeed in translating the current anger to what is happening on Wall Street to the environment," Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.

Activists fighting the Keystone pipeline urged supporters to "Occupy the State Department" last month, on the eve of the final public hearing on the project that would ship oil from Canadian tar sands fields to Texas refineries by way of the ecologically sensitive Ogallala Aquifer that supplies water for drinking and crop irrigation to several Midwestern states.

"People ask: How can people want to do something this crazy? The answer is corporate dominance," said author and activist Bill McKibben. He said the Occupy movement is lending momentum to the pipeline fight that he leads along with other members of 350.org, a group pushing for action on climate change. "It certainly has helped the environmentalists understand that our problems are embedded in the economic structures."

"I think everybody was surprised and very, very pleased" by the rapid growth of the Occupy movement, McKibben said. "It's what a lot of us have been waiting a long time for."

Some activists are more upbeat than others about prospects for new economic-ecological world order. Brazilian philosopher Euclides Mance, founder of the World Social Forum, sees the street protests sweeping the globe as part of a transition to a more equitable world.

"We are living the transition from one model of social organization that has been around for many years but has generated an economic crisis that could damage the entire planet, that has left more than 1 billion people in hunger, and given a few companies disproportionate power, much greater than sovereign governments," said Mance in an interview after addressing the GreenAccord conference last month.

"All of this is causing a break with the past and the emergence of another economy. Not a state economy, it's an economy in the hands of the workers and the people who organize solidarity economies and democratic systems. They decide what to make, how to distribute the goods," said Mance, who discussed experiments underway in Brazil and elsewhere to replace the corporate-made goods with ones made by the members of "solidarity" networks and traded using a credits system similar to bartering.

Moving From Outrage to Action

Opinion polls show broad support for the Occupy movement, which may seem promising for environmentalists looking to recast the climate debate as a matter of environmental justice-for-all. Focusing on the human toll rather than, say, the mass extinction of other species that climate change is also driving, could arguably make it a more personal issue for the majority of Americans, who consistently tell pollsters they aren't sure global warming's a problem -- or even real.

But harnessing Occupy fever may prove difficult, said Fabio Rojas, an Indiana University professor who studies protest movements. Achieving action on something as multi-dimensional as global warming is "an order of magnitude" harder than, say, tax code reform that may appease members of the Occupy movement, according to Rojas, who is not yet sold on the long-term relevance of Occupy Wall Street, either.

"This movement will not change things until someone decides how to take that energy and make a concrete and effective strategy for change. Until you do that, you are just people sleeping in tents," said Rojas, who thinks the Occupy-ers should add other traditional avenues of action such as lawsuits, political campaigning and boycotts to translate outrage to concrete results.

Those are the kinds of things the environmental movement has been doing to various degrees of success for decades. In the climate fight, however, such as a "big tent" approach has yielded little beyond criticism of the country's leading environmental groups for being too willing to support watered down climate legislation, which failed to pass in U.S. Congress last year, in any event. Indeed, the partisan divide that has blocked passage of legislation for capping greenhouse gas emissions and spawned Republican efforts to abolish the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to show signs of stress from this fall's insurrections.

We Are Also the 1 Percent

There are a few problems with applying the "we are the 99 percent" mantra to global warming activism, as well: Chiefly that most U.S. citizens come closer to the "1 percent" when it comes to measuring global wealth.

"The one percent in this case is the oil companies," McKibben saids. "They are the problem here -- people who have used their influence to buy political support."

While that may ring true in the United States, it might not be as convincing with the estimated 40 percent of the world population that survives on $2 or less each day. 

A few sobering facts: The United States used 39 times more energy per person than Bangladesh in 2008. Water scarcity effects people on every continent today and is getting worse. The world's wealthiest 20 percent is responsible for more than three-quarters all consumption on the planet, while the poorest 20 spent account for just 1.5 percent, according to one World Bank estimate.

If everyone were to live as Americans do, it would take three or four additional Earths to sustainably support the world's present population, according to Rees, whose ecological footprint measures the amount of average productive land and water ecosystems needed to grow food, create all the other "bio-resources" we consume and process the waste produced by each human life on the planet.

Since the wealthy living in developed countries take up a lot more resources than people in impoverished countries, the per capita ecofootprint varies from country to country. Inhabitants of Malawi and Bangladesh use less than one hectare, for instance, while people in the U.S. and other wealthy countries use about 10 times as much.

Recent research shows that the average global citizen uses about 2.7 hectares (6.7 acres) of average ecosystem. The problem is the planet only has about 2 hectares (4.9 acres) of "bioproductive" land and water per capita, which means we are running through resources quicker than nature can replenish them. If you think of nature as a bank account, this year we had spent all of our natural "interest" by sometime in August and are now drawing down on the "principal," or as Rees points out, squandering the inheritance of future generations.

There Is a Way, Is There the Will?

Rees knows the real test of the environmental movement won't be whether it captures the emergent populist mood but how well it communicates the need for draconian reductions in greenhouse gas emissions -- cuts that, barring a stunning breakthrough in clean energy, will require us to live more like Bangladeshis, at least in terms of energy consumption. Perhaps that's why he says he's not sure whether the Occupy movement is a sign of a new economic -- and ecologic -- world order or simply the beginning of social breakdown as environmental problems fuel a downward economic spiral, riots and insurrections.

Equally sanguine about humanity's future is Joseph Tainter, whose 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies is considered a classic. Tainter says he knows of only one such society that voluntarily downsized to survive a crisis. That was the Byzantine Empire after the Arabs seized much of its territory in the 7th century C.E. More often, he says, societies collapse when faced with challenges that go to the very cores of how they live.

"Voluntary simplicity," he says, "is not that simple."

Christine MacDonald is an environmental journalist and the author of "Green Inc., An Environmental Insider Reveals How a Good Cause Has Gone Bad" (The Lyons Press).