The Environment in Campaign 2000: Laying a Foundation for Citizen Activism

The Environment in Campaign 2000: Laying a Foundation for Citizen Activism

Anyone old enough to remember gas lines, Love Canal, or Three Mile Island will recall a time when the environmental movement focused mainly on domestic issues. To be sure, the idea of a fragile planet was always part of the logic of ecology. But the actual work of lobbying for clean air and water, defending endangered species, protecting wilderness, and challenging toxic polluters was mainly a local and national affair.

It was during the Reagan era that the biggest American environmental organizations discovered ecology without borders. The ozone hole and the loss of biodiversity spoke of damage on a truly planetary scale. Powerful global images—Amazonia in flames, toxic-laden garbage scows trolling international waters—took their place beside then-Secretary of the Interior James Watt as tools to fan public outrage and raise funds. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam was nothing compared to the drought-plagued summer of 1988, which focused attention on scary scientific projections of global warming and turned climate change into the granddad of all global threats.

Despite this experience, mainstream American environmentalism lacks a coherent stance toward the brave new world of economic globalism. Two decades of turbulent economic change have altered the international environmental agenda fundamentally, rearranging both the problems and the pressure points in ways that many of the big organizations seem not to grasp. Some progress has been made; campaigns organized around trade issues, multinational investment, and sustainable livelihoods are emerging alongside the traditional (and still important) focus on endangered species, public lands, watersheds, and wetlands. But when confronted with the challenge of neoliberal globalism, mainstream American environmentalism has had a disturbing tendency to split into competing camps of economistic liberalism and nativist rejectionism—both poorly suited for the new world economy we actually live in. These orthodoxies make it harder to build a progressive green response to economic globalism that is both meaningful and politically muscular. In order for the American brand of environmentalism to play an effective, responsible role in the response to globalism, some fundamental rethinking of the perils and opportunities in this changed world economy will be necessary.

The NAFTA Split

Most big American environmental organizations have domestic origins; they ventured seriously into the international fray only in the 1980s. Riding the wave of Reagan-inspired fundraising, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, and Sierra Club began to join transnational campaigns on the hazardous waste trade, development financing, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and damage to the ozone layer. Some valuable lessons were learned in the process. The campaign to green the World Bank showed the leve...