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


from his Oct 18 entry on his blog Say What?

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? It’s 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.


Copyright is retained by the author.

Image, funded by NASA and rendered by Don Davis, is in the public domain.


  1. 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.

    This is a mind-boggingly dumb canard.

    Is the very name "99%" still not a clear enough indication of the movement's general goal? If one can see the big numeral "99%" and still not figure out what the movement's about, then he's hopeless.

    Meanwhile, The Onion actually Gets It:

    NEW YORK--As the Occupy Wall Street protest expands and grows into a nationwide movement, Americans are eagerly awaiting a list of demands from the group so they can then systematically disregard them and continue going about their business, polls showed this week.

    -- frank

  2. Are you referring to anything in the present article?

    My own position is close to Scott's. I'll probably have an article of my own on this but I think there are two others in the pipeline, and at least one of them has a similar spin.

    Here's what I said this morning on G+:

    Except for the "jobs" thing I agree with the individual points but I am disappointed with the overall message.

    I want people to know that they are rearranging deck chairs if they don't talk about the environment.

    I want people to be able to thrive happily without "jobs".

    I want to live on a world that has some prospect of staying intact in a century.

    I want people to know that there is such a thing as science and such a thing as engineering, and that leaving them out of discussions of the future is almost as crazy as our current system is.

  3. Thanks for this piece, Professor Scott.

    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.

    Energy is used to produce goods and services. The sum of all these products constitute GDP. GDP must grow or else everything crashes and burns. That's why the energy economy is what it is. It has to promote economic growth. IMO there are a few problems with that.

    1) No matter how much energy there is, you will eventually bump into limits. We are witnessing this around the globe.
    2) Because the fuels with the highest energy density (fossil fuels), are getting scarce and/or can't be brought on-line fast enough, prices are going up. That's putting a damper on economic growth. But little or no growth = crash and burn.
    3) To make the economy grow as fast as possible, the financial markets were given free rein to come up with their their lovely, non-physical inventions. All these inventions revolve around debt. Debt is future production of goods and services, in other words a lot of energy. That energy isn't there and won't be there = an even bigger damper on economic growth = more crash and burn.

    When talking about solutions, instead of focussing on environment and energy, shouldn't we be focussing on the economic theory that has been dominant for many decades now and maintains that economic growth is the main goal of society (and is de facto infinite, or in other words: limitless, which is impossible)?

    IMO the energy economy and environmental problems are symptoms of the way the economy has been set up by neoclassical economists many decades ago. This is the root cause of most if not all global problems.

  4. MT:

    Are you referring to anything in the present article?

    Um, the portion I just quoted?

    Seriously, if some goons need it to be spelled in big bold letters that "We are the 99%" means "Policies should be crafted and implemented to benefit the 99%, not the richest and most powerful 1% -- and everything else flows from this basic imperative", then seriously, it's the goons' problem. This stuff isn't rocket science, folks!

    The real question is how (say) the Keystone XL Pipeline protest movement can frame their message in a way that fits naturally with the "99%" focus.

    And yes, Lakoff does have the right idea.

    -- frank

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