IV. U.S. Responsibility for Degradation of the Environment and Destruction of Public Health
What can the organized Left and the social movements demand of the institutions of U.S. imperialism to counter degradation of the environment and destruction of the
colonization of nature is fundamental to every act of empire building. Capitalist empire building is unsustainable, beginning with the expanding need for control of land and water—with all the natural
resources they produce. As we discussed in the previous section, we connect the historic subjugation of women with the feminization of nature, which Mankind seeks to conquer, and with the systematic
imperialist exploitation of so-called "untamed" lands and "uncivilized" nations and peoples in the guise of globalizing "modern democracy."
The U.S. drive to colonize every resource in every remote terrain of nature has destroyed natural ecologies as well as agrarian economies the world over.
Around the world and within the United States, the ecological crisis continues to expand: the globe is warming, the food is contaminated, the air is lethal, and women, children and workers are dying of
environmentally caused and exacerbated disease.
Earth Day 1970 took place during the "two decades of the sixties"
when the civil rights, black liberation, and anti-Vietnam war movements were at their height. Those movements proposed a radical environmentalism that was part of the New Left, and had a strong
anti-war, anti-nuclear component. Over the years, an environmental establishment that has pushed for modest but still significant limitations on corporate behavior has supplanted that radical
Barry Commoner, in the late 1980s, wrote a stinging condemnation of the environmental establishment, arguing that its emphasis on reducing and even regulating toxic chemical
production was ultimately bankrupt, as more chemicals that are toxic were in the environment each year. His biological principle was simple: "Everything has to go somewhere." Once polluting
chemicals are produced they must go into the air, or water, or earth, and from there into plants and animals, overwhelmingly impacting poor communities and communities of color. Thus, the core of
environmental policy had to be the banning of all polluting chemicals and the mandatory enforcement of non-polluting alternatives. This would require the most aggressive role for the state, in
regulating profit driven corporations, through a "command and control" form of the most stringent restrictions, penalties, and interventions. His radical ecological analysis led us to radical
political conclusions—the only hope was a Left movement to transform and control production, based on the broadest political agenda, such as Dr. King's antiracist, anti-poverty, anti-war strategy, or a hoped
for Red/Green alliance.
During the early 1990s, an environmental justice movement, rooted in low-income communities of color, gained greater prominence. It challenged the environmental,
upper middle class establishment; it accelerated the militancy of the movement, and drew far more compelling connections between corporate chemical production, air, water, and on-the-ground toxics and a
public health epidemic among poor oppressed nationality people. Despite Al Gore's Earth in the Balance
rhetoric before the election, he and Clinton spent eight years focused on the expansion of stock market wealth and imperialist influence in the world economy. They capitulated to corporate hostility toward state regulation, rather than initiating radical state incursions into corporate industrial and chemical processes. By the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 21
century, after promising beginnings of the environmental movement in terms of state regulation of environmental standards—e.g. the Clean Air Act of 1970—corporate science overpowered environmental science
. While the environmental movement has lost momentum, power, and public support, communities of color and labor unions have been threatened and seduced with the mantra of "jobs" and "community
economic development." Bizarre and later discredited schemes for "pollution trading," that is the buying and selling of pollution "credits" between polluting companies reflected the free market
attack on state regulation and the dismantling of effective and compulsory laws to ban or dramatically phase out known carcinogens and other toxins.
Bush Jr.'s administration began with
selective incursions into what remained of even moderate liberal state policy—testing the waters before making more far reaching right-wing attacks. Bush's efforts to legitimize arsenic in water, his
talk of drilling for oil in Alaska, his open focus on oil production rather than the most minimal ecological conservation gave the Democrats weapons. Since they had no real fundamental differences, or
proposed no alternative, they seized on "the environment" in the most limited sense, as a safe majority issue with a white, privileged electorate. But all of that was destroyed in the bipartisan
hysteria after September 11. Bush openly advertised that he plans to use the widespread public support for his war against the world to manipulate his advantage, "use his capital" as he aptly calls it,
to push through and expand his agenda. Defiantly, he asserts that global warming is not a problem, he plans to gut the 1970 Clean Air Act and he refuses to ratify the Kyoto protocols. U.S.
society, with its white conservative majority, is in a period of reactionary hysteria; virtually any regressive environmental programs—especially those that combine blatant appeals to U.S. xenophobia with
pandering to reactionary U.S. trade unions on the "jobs" issue—will be very hard to defeat, particularly in the short run. Under these conditions, liberals expose themselves as the most cowardly
defenders of imperialism and the most patriotic collaborators with the Right. But it is precisely in these seemingly hopeless moments that the Left has its greatest opportunities; just as Bush plans to
"use his capital," we plan to "use our labor."
One of the most structural and devastating ecological challenges is the clear and present danger of global warming. We are in
the process of expanding our knowledge of its causes and effects, but we already know that greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, emitted from automobiles and electricity generating emissions from the
burning of coal are among the worst culprits. The impacts make any Hollywood disaster film pale by comparison. On March 19, 2002, "an Antarctic ice shelf the size of a small country disintegrated
under the impact of global warming"—the Larson B ice shelf, that existed for 12,000 years has disintegrated over a period of 35 days. This crisis motivates our desire to build international
relationships and participate in the antiimperialist challenges that will be raised at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to be held in Johannesburg in August 2002.
Through participation in the UN preparatory conferences, we hear chilling first hand commentaries from the Alliance of Small Island States.
Nations like Samoa have talked about how the warming of the oceans by only a few degrees over the past few decades have had profoundly disruptive impacts on the viability of their entire society. Tuna,
a major source of export and foreign exchange, have been moving away from the island and its fishermen because the increase in sea water temperatures have diverted their natural trajectories. The
warmer water is deteriorating coral reefs that have protected the coastlines for centuries, leading to massive flooding and growing coastal inundation. On some island states with very little inland
territory, their coastlines essentially bind them and the flooding has required them to build massive concrete dams that last for a few years and then collapse under the water pressure. Friends from
Guyana in South America have told us that their seacoast is more than 1 meter under water and again the floods are devastating peoples homes and livestock—the country of less than 1 million people is
threatened by massive out-migration. In a struggle for survival, the Small Island States have issued an international call for a world reduction in fossil fuels by 50% in order to have a chance, again
over decades, to reverse the impacts of global warming. In return, as George Bush Sr. told the delegates at Rio in 1992, the U.S. does not intend to change its lifestyle because of threats from other
nations. Representatives from the small island states have angrily replied, "for you, autos and SUVs are a question of lifestyle; for us stopping global warming is a matter of life and death."
The Strategy Center's Bus Riders Union has already initiated a Billions for Buses campaign and forced the Los Angeles MTA to rebuild its dilapidated bus system, purchasing more than 1800
new Compressed Natural Gas buses and replacing more than 1800 dilapidated diesel buses. Our next challenge will be to organize a more frontal assault on the automobile in Los Angeles, where more than 8
million cars daily pollute the atmosphere, poison the air, and contribute massively to global warming. Could we build a movement to reduce autos to only 4 million a day? Could we expand the MTA
bus fleet from 2300 to 4000 and dramatically expand public transportation options that would combine with restrictions on auto use? Can we advocate for "auto free zones" where only public
transportation, bicycles, and pedestrians would be allowed? These are some of the programmatic arenas we are moving in to address the challenge from our friends in the Third World—for the global
warming disaster will impact all of us. As usual, it will be provoked by the capitalist west and impact the most dependent third world nations first, but then will come back to wreak havoc with Western
imperialist societies as well. We see this work as a high priority and a chance to build life and death alliances between communities and workers in the U.S. with oppressed nations in the Third World
fighting for their lives.
Despite very difficult international conditions, there are continued movements in low-income
communities of color in the U.S., and movements coming out of the Third World South confronting the industrial North on a wide variety of interrelated ecological abuses. At the World Summit on
Sustainable Development, environmental devastation and public health catastrophe will be central to a growing antiimperialist challenge.
Dilemmas for the Left
The united front between the Left and liberals on the environment begins with an
agreement that profit-driven corporate behavior must be regulated by the capitalist state in the interests of public good. The Left faces the dilemma of how to develop unity on demands that account for
the contradictory behavior of the state under capitalism. This problem is reflected in a structural contradiction: since the capitalist class controls both political parties, the State, and society at
large, it is extremely difficult for the state to regulate the corporations that it serves. Environmental regulation does restrict profits, does ban entire products and even industries—and thus,
cannot help but generate the most ferocious counterattack from oil, atomic, chemical, auto, rubber, and virtually every other heavy industry. While the 1990s in particular reflected an initial period
of popular anti-corporate environmental regulation—the polluters have regained the political and ideological offensive. More powerful and sophisticated corporate lobbyists, often with the active
support of reactionary trade unions that are willing to do their master's bidding in a desperate push for jobs at any cost, began a deregulatory assault. They worked to remove appointed
environmentalists from environmental agencies, cut the funds and authority of regulatory agencies, pass regulations that are even more permissive than existing pollution levels, and extend timelines for
The Strategy Center, through its Labor/Community Watchdog project, devoted more than five years to direct organizing in low-income communities of color to protect the public health
from assault—most directly from LA's massive oil refineries. The Center and the Watchdog organized a powerful county-wide coalition which won passage of a strong air toxics law—the Right to Know
rule—at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD). Under the rule, any companies that emitted toxics at a concentration above a "1 person per million" cancer exposure standard would be
required to inform community residents of the chemicals to which they are exposed. Had it been implemented, the Right to Know rule would have created the conditions to pass very strict "toxic use
reduction" regulations that would have mandated companies to radically change their industrial processes and phase out many carcinogenic chemicals. However, in response, the polluters—lead by the
Western States Petroleum Association—launched a massive counteroffensive, took over the AQMD board and, despite our most militant and organized resistance, passed an air toxics standard that was twice as
carcinogenic as the existing, unregulated level of emissions. Most companies could then boast that they were in compliance with federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards because the
Clinton/Gore administration did virtually nothing to raise standards and in many cases granted additional delays and exemptions to even the existing weak ones.
Thus, a contradiction
the Left must address is that while we make demands on the State to regulate and enforce environmental standards, the capitalists control the State and use its powers to legitimize industrial poisoning and
to make ecological assaults even more "legal." The negative impacts of these actions are often concentrated in low-income communities of color but they threatening the ecological viability of the entire
society and the planet.
In order to combat this assault, an anti-corporate united front needs unity on its view of the State. As with regard to other issues, we do not rely on the State
just because there is a good law or regulation on paper; nor do we oppose placing demands on the State that contend with the corporate agenda. We seek ways to use the State to expose the State while
fighting for actual gains.
A second contradiction is that the greatest ecological crisis of Western imperialism is being forced on oppressed nations and peoples outside the U.S., and yet
those nations are presently in a world situation of dependency and inequality that prevents them from establishing independent, ecologically viable alternative means of sustainable development. This
forced dependency and violation of self-determination takes many forms, such as the exporting of banned chemicals from the West into the Third World. There are many instances—the most well-known is
that of DDT—where chemicals proven to be hazardous, toxic, and carcinogenic, are banned in the West, but instead of destroying the products or even ceasing to produce them, U.S. transnationals unload them
onto Third World nations. These practices kill children as well as the workers who must use these poisons. Many Third World nations are placed in a horrific contradiction: they are aware of the
devastating impacts of Western models of industrial and agricultural chemical driven production, but they are saddled with debt, coerced by imperialist dominated institutions such as the World Bank, WTO and
IMF. Under these conditions, these exploited and oppressed nations must compete with the advanced capitalist nations in a global context and, therefore, often approach environmental issues seeking solutions
that are as "cheap" as possible.
If individual nations try to have higher environmental standards than the U.S., as can be seen in the growing "fair trade" movement, they are
vulnerable to retaliation for undermining free competition—as the U.S. has retaliated against France for its efforts to ban U.S. hormone injected beef. Similarly, the U.S. uses the threat of
competition from countries it has forced into underdevelopment as a basis for deregulation of its own domestic environmental standards, claiming that they threaten U.S. competitiveness in foreign markets
consume and destroy the land, natural habitat, and ecological viability of the planet.
This is made even more difficult because of the particularly reactionary trajectory of U.S. imperialism at
this point in its history. During the height of socialist and Third World influence, there were efforts at liberal imperialist theory: coexistence with socialist forms of economic development, foreign
aid to help Third World nations "take off" through a jump start of Western capital for example. But today, without the counterforce to push the debate to the left, both the Clinton and Bush strategies
of imperialist economic development have focused on the greatest penetration of U.S. imperialism into the world economy—ruthlessly driving nature and society to its will. Clinton's tactics involved a
massive stock market bubble, the penetration and consolidation of foreign markets into world economic institutions that tried to mask political and military domination, and the domination of international
institutions. Bush focuses on U.S. unilateralism and brute force; both offer an ecological colonialism that is consuming and destroying the land, natural habitat, and ecological viability of the
This leads to our emphasis on developing international standards to ban toxic chemicals worldwide. Yet, this demand must be combined with debt relief, widespread reparations,
and actual non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries by the US, the EU, and the regional sub-imperialists to allow Third World nations to have a chance to pursue non-toxic models of
industrial production. This scenario requires a major expansion of Third World revolutionary activity and organization.
Another contradiction exists in the international scale of struggle
against imperialism today. The U.S.—in violation of international, ecological, and war crimes statutes and conventions—has implemented an international war of terrorism against the entire
planet, and is using massive aerial bombardment of the most grotesque and devastating proportions to destroy entire societies, natural habitats, and ecosystems, the most recent of which are in Afghanistan
and Palestine. The U.S. permanent war against the world threatens the ecological viability of the planet—this is not science fiction but, unfortunately, indisputable scientific fact.
Thus, we are giving greater attention to international bodies that at least purport to advocate world peace, ecological sustainability, and human rights—in particular the United Nations. We think that
international forums in general, and the UN in particular, are important arenas for the U.S. Left. It is energizing and consciousness-raising for low-income, working class organizers of black, Latino,
and Asian/Pacific Islander communities to understand more fully their relationship to the Third World and its diverse realities. It can be truly empowering to meet first hand antiimperialist social
movements, activists, and organizers from the Third World, and also Europe, in the international spaces and forums created by the UN.
And yet, the Left is weak and faces the dilemma
that most groups are forced to prioritize either international alliances or grassroots organizing. Most grassroots groups have very little capacity for such work. Most of the groups doing this
work are national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with very few ties to—let alone membership/leadership in—the working class of color, or any communities of color.
There is not
much value in building an "international alliance" of groups without a base of people in struggle, and yet the groups that are most committed to building a militant grassroots base have little financial or
organizational capacity to carry out sustained international work, either inside or outside of the UN.
A related dilemma is strategic as well as tactical: we lack agreement on how to approach
the inherent contradictions of international governmental forms. Even when groups have the capacity to maneuver in its spaces, the UN is a double-edged sword. While it does provide an
important international arena for challenges to U.S. imperialism, it is often a bureaucratized and ossified institution dominated by the U.S. imperialists and the G8 bandits. There are some on the Left
who feel that the U.S. is so often able to push through its will on the UN through the structure of the Security Council, despite General Assembly protests, that the UN legitimizes U.S. aggression in the
world more than checks it. Our view is that the balance of benefits and costs right now favor an active experiment in working within UN structures, supporting initiatives from the nations of the South
that are objectively antiimperialist—such as debt cancellation and bans on corporate theft of natural resources from indigenous peoples. As one important arena in which to understand the current
balance of forces internationally, the work does not proceed without areas of concern and potential danger.
Strategic demands around which the strategy center's program demand group is unified
We call on the U.S. government and U.S. transnational corporations to ban known carcinogens, toxic chemicals, and smog producing pollutants from manufacture,
thereby using government regulation to force a public health and environmental revolution in industrial products and processes. We call on the U.S. government to prohibit and stop the export of banned
chemicals and to provide reparations for its environmental and public health imperialism in communities of color in the U.S. and in the Third World. We call on the U.S. government to attend, stop
sabotaging, and implement the recommendations of international conferences and treaties to stop and reverse global warming, to reduce toxic chemicals, to dramatically reduce the production and use of fossil
fuel internal combustion engines, and to commit massive funds to produce clean energy technology such as hydrogen fuel cells and solar electric power.
Focal Campaigns we prioritize
U.S. government, implement a zero tolerance for carcinogens policy, prohibiting the manufacture, use, and distribution of a specific list of known carcinogenic and toxic chemicals by U.S. corporations and the Pentagon. U.S. government, mandate a clean fuel policy, reflected in radical fuel economy measures, the phasing out of fossil fuels for autos, and the required use of natural gas, hydrogen fuel cells and electric vehicles, beginning with all government agencies and companies receiving government contracts.
U.S. government, combat environmental racism by prioritizing the removal of all toxic chemicals and the radical reduction in industrial and auto emissions from Latino, black and other communities of color throughout the United States. U.S. government, remove all toxic chemicals from Native American lands and communities in the U.S., and provide billions for reparations and the creation of economically viable sustainable production under the self-determination of residents. U.S. government, make environmental racism and degradation by U.S. corporations a criminal offense; pass laws making it criminal to violate the civil and human rights of communities of color by destroying public health; make it criminal to dump known toxic chemicals, to subject workers to environmental toxins, and to violate the environmental rights of indigenous peoples internationally, such as the Ogoni of Nigeria; impose severe civil and criminal penalties on corporate executives who violate such laws.
U.S. government, abide by all international treaties and UN conference resolutions on the environment, human rights, and antiracism, which demand the radical reduction in greenhouse gases, and the provision of massive funds to Third World nations already suffering soil erosion, species extinction, and epidemics caused or exacerbated by climate change and global warming—in particular, implement Agenda 21, the resolutions of the 1992 UN Rio Conference, the Kyoto Accords, the International Criminal Court, the Treaty on Persistent Organizing Pollutants and the forthcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development. US government, implement a national policy to reduce greenhouse gases by 50% in 10 years—far more stringent than Kyoto, and yet called for by the Organization of Small Island States faced with floods and the potential extinction of their islands, populations, and cultures.
U.S. government, stop the bombing of Afghanistan and halt all plans to bomb other potential targets in the so-called "war on terrorism"; stop the use of aerial bombardment of civilian populations—now anticipated with unmanned planes. Stop the devastation of infrastructure, ecological viability, and public health through the military use of chemical weapons and weapons testing, such as in Vieques
. Stop the permanent war against the world and the planet.