Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Environmental Justice, Capitalism, and Winning Over Workers


A while back I was wondering to myself if environmental justice (which I would define as the equal sharing of environmental risks and benefits among all people as part of a transition towards a pollution-free economy) is possible under capitalism (i.e. an economic system in which the means of production (capital) are privately owned and vast fortunes accumulate giving a few individuals enormous influence over the state and society). Then I found a book that more or less tackles that topic: The Struggle for Ecological Democracy: Environmental Justice Movements in the United States. Yay!

Unlike Van Jones, the authors of the chapters in this book really are socialists, although as always, what exactly that means is harder to define then you might think. I won't review the entire book here, although it would be interesting. I want to focus on a single idea instead, which keeps coming up, expressed remarkably well in the following quote:

"Displaced workers need equivalent jobs at equivalent pay in their community"
- Judi Bari (p. 254)

Sometimes pro-environment policies hurt workers. For example, putting a moratorium on oil drilling after the Gulf Oil Spill, made sense from a preventing further destruction standpoint, but hurt the workers who were drilling for oil. This allowed the right to drive a wedge between environmentalists and workers further reinforcing the idea that environmentalists are privileged people out of touch with the survival struggles of most workers.

The key thing to remember is that the interests of workers are not always the same as the interests of corporations. For example, oil workers have an interest in safe long-run employment at good wages that utilizes their skills. Now tell me, how does oil meet that interest well, since it is running out and causing occupational risks that threaten the lives of drilling workers? The oil companies on the other hand have an interest in maximizing short-run profit from the extraction of oil and in displacing as many risks and costs as possible onto workers and the environment. See, not the same.

Now, the key is to acknowledge that pro-environment policies sometimes hurt workers and pay real compensation to the affected workers so they don't turn against the environment. Compensation can take the form of guaranteed wages for some period of time, money to retrain plus a stipend to survive on, or an actual job at equivalent pay in the same area in a more sustainable industry.

Workers and environmentalists have the potential to unite in a way never before seen in American history. The key is to be simultaneously sensitive to the needs of workers and the environment.


  1. Responses and new posts will be delayed for a while.

  2. Here's my short answer. No.

    And not even that, not just environmental justice, but a clean environment will never be possible under capitalism, because in capitalism the only thing that matters is the bottom line.