The 99% Movement and Environmentalists: Economic Justice, The Echo Chamber, and Really Old Problems With Democracy

As the gap between public opinion about climate change and the incontrovertible facts continues to be so much wider in America than in any other developed nation, I have been reading a lot of work in the relatively new field of “climate communication.” Roughly one out of two Americans is thoroughly disconnected from our impending global disaster. I wonder if they are the same folks who reject the basic tenets of biology, but I suspect there is less overlap than one would think. There is more than one science denial movement going on. In the case of climate change, it is as if scientists have been tracking a huge asteroid that will collide with the earth in a few decades, and most Americans refuse to believe it, or acknowledge that it will happen but are not particularly concerned. Very few find the news alarming.

Communication about facts is tough with the growth of ideological cocooning, where we all tune in to our choice of echo chambers to get reinforcement of what we already believe. Many on the Left think the Tea Party is an AstroTurf movement funded by billionaires to advance their own interests. Wingnuts on the extreme Right have been claiming that Obama’s campaign staff, George Soros and have puppeteered the 99%-ers occupying Wall Street. This even as Eric Cantor and the Tea Party caucus are dialing back their disdain for the occupiers, at least in what they say publicly, which means that the sheer number of voters involved are getting their attention enough to warrant a counter-spin. Americans are increasingly living in two realities, and there is little if any communication between these parallel universes.

The refrain of criticism coming from both universes against the growing 99%-er/#occupy protests is that they do not have a clear focus, agenda or set of demands. Mainstream media outlets and the blogosphere are still trying to figure out what the new movement represents. Even NPR has been asking what would count as success for the protesters.

As someone who has always believed that writers and artists and even philosophers are the canaries in the coalmine, I have been wondering if the current resurgence of progressive activism provides any reason for hope that the environmental movement might catch on with a group wider than the aging population that has been sustaining it. Demographic information about most environmental organizations makes it pretty clear that us baby boomers haven’t exactly passed along the torch.

Might we see an end to the trend that has led to the most anti-environmental congress in history? The Tea Party certainly had a significant impact in creating it, and they began, ostensibly at least, with a focus on something else. Anti-government libertarianism spread (even, incoherently, to Big Government intervention in personal choice about reproduction and preventive health care for women that is barely supported by the government). Likewise, if the #occupy protests (which moved last weekend beyond Wall Street to nearly 1,000 cities in 82 countries) continue to gather steam and manage to find at least some focus –two big ifs– it might revive the environmental activism that saw some sparks of resurgence in the Keystone XL Pipeline protests. That depends on a third if: whether something resonates in a bigger way between environmentalists and a much larger portion of the self-identifying 99%. Much larger.

So, like everyone else, I have some advice. And like everyone else’s advice, it is not likely to help

What is moving so many to join in can be captured in a simple but rich phrase: economic injustice. The economy is shaped by energy consumption, so environmental justice is a huge part of that. Not justice to the environment, as the ecocentric or biocentric theorists are concerned with. Biodiversity may be valuable for its own sake, and nature, beyond its instrumental value for our resource needs, deserves attention and appreciation that would require rethinking some of the central conceptual lenses through which we see the world. But right now, this is a time to focus more on the value to humanity, including Americans who are trying to make a living, of clean air and water, the ecomonic and security costs of our military adventurism to secure our petroleum interests overseas, the economic promise of investing in a new energy economy, where China has been so far ahead of us in putting capitalism to work, or the effects to humans of the Canadian tar sands project and the rush to frack shale for natural gas. Oh, and that asteroid heading toward earth.

For philosophers, this is not justice to the environment, but instead justice to other people that involves the environment: how the economy and the regulatory structures sustaining it are violating obligations we have to other people — 99% of us, our children, and so on.

Bill McKibben has been trying to point out the connection between environmental justice and the broader issues of economic justice by saying things like “Let’s occupy Wall Street. They have been occupying the atmosphere for 100 years.” Catchy, and there is surely a connection between Wall Street and the forces that have resisted serious changes to our fossil fuel based economy. But I don’t find a lot of hope in a movement that would remain anti-business and anti-captialist. Specific abuses and particular bad policies are the cause of economic injustice. The market should not be the enemy; those who have been abusing it and the policies supporting those abuses are. And bad energy policy is near the heart of this.

In a nutshell, wouldn’t it be nice if this drum was beaten more clearly and in unison by the #occupy movement and environmentalists: Unfair distribution of wealth has gotten worse in large part because of a vast machine committed to perpetuating the current energy economy.

The Machiavelli passage in Andrew Revkin’s recent post is a sober reminder that this is a long shot, and that the prospects for significant changes to the energy economy are interwoven with solving perennial problems about democracy and capitalism.

“It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favor; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” (The Prince)

Plato thought democracy was doomed to failure because its freedom would result in a war among “appetites,” an irrational and self-destructive pursuit of “false needs” created by market forces that profit from unbridled consumption. 2,400 years later, John Dewey was more optimistic that something like what John Rawls called “public reason” would emerge in democratic political arrangements, providing the means for individual flourishing and happiness that real communities who behave like grown-ups can provide. Ultimately, a lot of the answers to these questions will come down to whether Plato or Dewey was right about democracy. The jury is still out.

When powerful forces like the Bros. Koch, PAC-Man Rove, and Rupert Murdoch have so much at stake in preserving the massively self-destructive current energy economy, and their money wields ever greater power in politics, and when formal education (and informal education, a role once played by journalism) is failing to produce the public rationality needed for democracy to function, we are all up shit’s creek. The canaries have been keeling over and far too few of us are inclined to notice or care.

Should that be surprising when the conversation in congressional committees and on the campaign trail has not been about the range of policy solutions to very major problems that 99% of the experts in highly reliable fields of knowledge believe on the basis of very strong evidence, but instead about whether we should reject the very facts about the problem that scientists know to be true? Hard to be optimistic when we need yet another 99%-er movement with a precise message: If 99% of the experts in well-established fields have overwhelming evidence that a proposition is true, then trust them and believe it. But such an #OccupyReality movement is not going anywhere in a country whose occupants inhabit different universes about what counts as knowledge, and who we should trust for even the basic facts.


About Scott Brophy
Scott Brophy is a philosophy professor whose work is focused on the intersection of philosophy and public policy, especially on environmental issues, law, and education. He has also taught philosophy of science, logic, and the history of philosophy. He has served as a consultant for educational programs and schools throughout the U.S. and abroad, and as an adviser to several philanthropic foundations.

2 Responses to The 992 Movement and Environmentalists: Economic Justice, The Echo Chamber, and Really Old Problems With Democracy

  1. Pingback: The 99% Movement and Environmentalists | Planet3.0 | Beyond Sustainability

  2. Pingback: The Next Big Thing: An Open Letter to Bill McKibben and Joe Romm About Why Every Environmentalist Should Occupy a Voting Booth « SayWhat?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: