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Chasing the wrong kind of green

By Brian Tokar
South End Press, 269 pages, $18


While preparing an undergraduate course on environmental politics, I came across this book. Tokar is one of those all-too-rare academic activists who has been on the forefront of environmental struggles since the 1970s. Perhaps due to his hands-on experience, he lucidly blends empirical knowledge with astute analysis and a unique sensitivity to political processes.

While focusing on environmental issues, Earth for Sale addresses what I believe to be the most troubling social and political developments in our time. Indeed, it is an essential read not only for those who are concerned with the earth’s degradation, but for anyone who is interested in social justice.

At the outset, Tokar identifies three closely related phenomena that have created the current backlash against environmentalism: “the absorption of the mainstream environmental movement by the political status quo, the emergence of corporate environmentalism and the proliferation of ‘ecological’ products in the marketplace.”

Tokar provides numerous examples where mainstream environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Audubon Society and Environmental Defense Fund have caved in to the anti-environmental demands of big corporations and government officials. We read that corporations like Du Pont, Mobile, Amoco, Exxon, Monsanto, British Petroleum and so on have become major donors to environmental groups, while the Wilderness Society and others have held stock in Dow Chemical, General Motors, Westinghouse and other big businesses. This leads, Tokar claims, to the absurd situation where organizations committed to combating pollution have become financially dependent on the stock value of major polluters.

Tokar not only exposes numerous instances where both mainstream environmental groups and the government have bowed to corporate masters but explains the processes, interests and reasoning that have led them to grovel. His major criticism is that these organizations have appropriated the corporate language and value system and are striving to make room for an environmental agenda within this framework.

At one point he quotes National Wildlife Federation President Jay Hair, saying: “Our arguments must translate into profits, earnings, productivity and economic incentives for industry.”

He contests the prevalent claim that economic development can coincide with environmental concerns. This view is referred to as “corporate environmentalism,” and is defined by one of its advocates as an attempt to engineer industrial infrastructures that are ecologically sound, “so that the scale of industrial activity can continue to increase without resulting in a negative impact on the quality of life.” Pollution, accordingly, should be controlled largely through the use of “smart” market mechanisms.

Against this position, Tokar persuasively argues that the present economic system is oriented toward maximizing profits, not quality. “When companies can already reduce production costs by laying off workers, contracting out large portions of the production process or moving entire factories overseas, the uncertain promise of lowering expenses by improving energy efficiency holds considerably less appeal,” he says.

It is therefore not surprising that while “corporate profits skyrocketed between 1990 and 1995, investment in new plants and equipment by Fortune magazine’s 500 largest firms fell by 40 percent.” Part of this trend has to do with the fact that corporations concentrate on short-term profits in the stock market, while the prevention of ecological hazards necessitates long-term strategies.

While the capitalist market is incapable of “providing adequate protection for natural ecosystems or communities affected by environmental pollution,” governmental regulations have failed to correct the problem. The major difficulty is corporate power to influence the politicians who determine the regulations. That many “regulatory programs simply codify the terms by which corporations are granted permits to pollute” is an indication of corporate control.

On a deeper, perhaps more philosophical level, Tokar criticizes the subordination of all values to the standards of the marketplace. He quotes Al Gore’s book, Earth in the Balance, where the vice president describes environmental degradation as “bottlenecks presently inhibiting the health functioning of the global economy.” Thus, the global economy -- not justice -- has become the point of reference. Tokar cogently maintains that once the marketplace is aggrandized, everything and everyone becomes an instrument to be used. This, he suggests, is modernity’s curse.

The fight to save the earth is lost the moment a group adopts an instrumental relation to the world, Tokar claims, arguing that several mainstream environmental organizations have fallen prey to this form of thinking. Simultaneously, he contends that an instrumental relation to the world is at the root of all instances of social injustice, not only environmental destruction.

The reader also learns that unlike environmental hazards that affect everyone equally -- such as the depletion of the ozone -- most localized hazards plague society disproportionately. It is at the intersection of class, race and sex that people are hurt most. For example, the dense concentration of oil refineries, chemical plants and plastics factories in the Mississippi Delta region of Louisiana contributes to the highest breast cancer rate in the United States; and race is the single most important factor associated with the siting of toxic facilities. The interconnectedness of environment with other social justice issues leads Tokar to argue that history will judge greens by whether they stand with the world’s poor.

Whereas most of the book discusses ecological struggles in the United States and Canada, one chapter deals with the Third World. Tokar underscores the indigenous populations’ loss of control over their lives and environment, blaming the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank. He shows how economic development programs, which are supposed to raise the world out of poverty, “have so far only transformed undeveloped poverty into developed poverty.” He joins Vandana Shiva, a leading environmentalist from India, and argues that the global economy “does not represent the universal interest; it represents a particular local and parochial interest that has been globalized through its reach and control.”

My only disagreement with Tokar arises when he argues that Third World population growth is not detrimental. He claims that ecological damage has more to do with the industrialized countries’ level of consumption -- 20 percent of the world’s population consumes well over 80 percent of the world’s goods. While Tokar’s point is well taken, it is also true that the crazy rate of population growth in India and many other countries is a certain formula for poverty and ecological destruction. The remedy, I believe, is dependent on a concerted effort to reduce consumption in the West and control the Third World’s population’s growth.

Although I have emphasized Tokar’s critical stance, he also proffers positive suggestions for action. He calls on the mainstream environmental movement to come back from Washington to the grassroots, suggesting they’ve often overlooked two central aspects of ecological activism: “a firm rootedness in community and the goal of a more harmonious relationship between human communities and the natural world.”

Freedom, he says, is expanded, rather than limited, by joining with others in collective endeavors. He points to the interconnectedness of social justice issues and argues that a united front of a variety of groups with different concerns is the most viable form of struggle against the powers that be.

Underlying a series of concrete suggestions -- found primarily in the book’s last two chapters -- is the view that we need to relegate the economy, making it subservient to higher values. “A society,” he says, “that extols greed, acquisitiveness and the unlimited accumulation of personal wealth simply cannot be expected to honor the integrity of life on earth.”

We need to stop relating to the world and the people in it as a means that can be used but rather as an end in itself. To accomplish this goal Tokar suggests that our understanding of democracy has to change, from a procedural democracy where one merely votes every two years, to a participatory one where citizens are active members in their community.

Because I believe this message needs to be passed-on, I highly recommend Earth for Sale to anyone interested in grassroots activity and social justice. Brian Tokar’s book deserves a careful read.

Neve Gordon writes from Jerusalem.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 1999