A non-elitist environmentalism?

In: Uncategorized

18 Jan 2009

Can there be a non-elitist environmentalism? The is the question posed, implicitly at least, by an article on Greening the ghetto in the New Yorker.

The piece is a profile of Van Jones, the founder and president of Green for All, a California-based “national organization dedicated to building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty”. His project is to reduce poverty by creating millions of “green jobs” in such areas as installing solar panels, “weatherising” buildings and constructing mass transit systems. Jones’s book on the subject, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (HarperOne 2008), has the endorsement of the likes of former vice President Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi (the speaker of the house of representatives) and Thomas Friedman (New York Times columnist).

The article acknowledges that environmentalists normally come from an affluent minority: “A 2006 study commissioned by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental-law group, found that the ecological base ‹defined as Americans who report the environment as being central to their concerns) is nearly ninety percent white, mostly college-educated, higher-income, and over thirty-five.” It is implied that Jones, who is black, could represent the future of a more broad-based environmentalism.

There is a problem with this argument. Even if environmentalism caught on among the mass of the population it would remain an elite ideology in an important sense. Any project with the goal of curbing economic growth is likely to reinforce the existing order. As far as it is possible to tell from the Green for All website the campaign shares the prejudices of mainstream environmentalism in relation to curbing energy use and penalising the use of fossil fuels.

The Jones campaign could be a pragmatic way of raising funds from the federal government and other sources. Clearly his pitch is likely to appeal in today’s intellectual and political climate. But even if he genuinely believes it the campaign will not solve America’s economic problems or benefit the mass of the population.