Monkeywrench Hope: An Interview with Jeffrey St. Clair
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature. He is the co-editor of the radical muckraking newsletter Counterpunch and the author of several new books, including Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils and Imperial Crusades: Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia. He resides in Oregon City, Oregon.
EF!J: Many progressives I've talked to--who admit that John Kerry offers no alternative to the Bush administration on almost every issue-often justify their support for the Kerry ticket by saying that there is at least a stark difference on the environmental front. They see Kerry as an environmental crusader who has received ringing endorsements from all of the major environmental groups. Having covered environmental politics since the early 1990s, do you agree that there are major differences between Bush and Kerry regarding the environment?
JSC: The actual environmental movement bears very little relationship to "major environmental groups." The big groups, a.k.a. "Gang Green," function politically as little more than a green front for the Democratic Party. They inflate Kerry as an environmental crusader. They would say the same thing about any Democratic nominee. That's their job. The Beltway Greens aren't really environmentalists anymore, not in the way we used to think of enviros 15 or 20 years ago. These aren't activists, but lawyers and lobbyists who could just as easily be lobbying on health care, abortion rights or trade policy. There's no driving commitment to wilderness, burning rage about cancer alley or passionate concern for the fate of the grizzly. It's all very congenial, nicely compensated, prefabricated and totally uninspired.
The irony, of course, is that the better this new breed of eco-lobbyist does its job, the less seriously most rational people take them. With good reason. Does Bush want to pursue corporate-driven, environmentally hostile policies? Of course. Is Kerry an environmental crusader? Of course not, and there's the lie.
In their zeal to become Beltway players, the Big Greens have ceased to be truth-tellers. For example, the Greens say that Bush has turned his back on the Kyoto protocols. True enough. But they neglect to say that Kerry turned his back first, voting against Kyoto while he was a senator and Clinton was president. They say that Bush was tight with Kenneth Lay and covered for Enron. Right on. But they overlook the fact that Lay and the Kerrys are also very good friends and frequent dining companions. Lay was recruited by Teresa Heinz Kerry for a seat on the board of directors of her environmental foundation, where he was assigned the role of heading the foundation's global warming task force.
They charge that Bush, fully marinated in crude oil, wants to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to drilling. Horrible, but true. They say that Kerry opposes this. And that's true, too. But they elide the fact that Kerry told Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa that while he won't drill in ANWR, he does plan to drill "everywhere else like never before." Kerry met with the American Gas Association and pledged his support for a Trans-Alaska-Canada Natural Gas Pipeline that will cut across some of the most incredible tundra and taiga on Earth--a project that will dwarf the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. No one among the Beltway Greens even squeaked.
EF!J: Does this perpetual hypocrisy of the Big Greens go any deeper? Larry Fahn, the Sierra Club's current president, said, "Thousands of Sierra Club members in every state will be volunteering their efforts to tell voters about the clear choice in this election. We are encouraging all Americans who care about the environment to vote for John Kerry in November." This is an enviro organization that boasts more than 700,000 members. What are the reasons that the Sierra Club blatantly turns its back on its radical John Muir roots, while becoming a "green front" for the Democratic Party as you say?
JSC: It goes much deeper than hypocrisy. It involves big money, an obscene craving for political access, ego enlargement and a kind of political paternalism that I find revolting. I don't think the environment will play that much of a factor in the election. Nobody listens to environmentalists anymore, except their own captive members. The Big Greens have marginalized the environmental movement through their blatant partisanship. Essentially, Fahn and the others play the role of cattle drivers, keeping their own herd in line.
The Sierra Club has 700,000 members, but these aren't activists. The Sierra Club doesn't want activists; indeed they are run out of the organization. Activists have an unwelcome tendency to think and act for themselves. They aren't great at following marching orders, especially when it means marching over a cliff.
EF!J: David Cobb, the Green Party presidential candidate, was polling at zero percent in September. What do you think the ramifications will be for the Green Party which, like the Sierra Club, has apparently sidelined any radical tendencies and has opted to run a "smart-state" campaign that basically endorses Kerry for president?
JSC: I think the Green Party is kaput, a kind of group political suicide on the order of that strange cult in Rancho Santa Fe who neutered themselves, donned their black sweat suits and Nikes and poisoned each other while waiting for the Hale-Bopp comet. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the founding purpose of the Green Party was to be a party of resistance. It was never about party building, getting school board candidates elected or being anything but a monkeywrench against a corrupt political system. Once the Green Party decided to play nice, it ceased to exist as a force of opposition.
The only choice now is to not vote. Staying home on Election Day under these circumstances isn't apathy, laziness or political mopery (as much as I admire all of those things), it is an act of supreme resistance--particularly against those hysterical Democrats who yelp that this is the most important election of our lifetime.
Politics is really about power. The only power the Left enjoys these days is the power of negation. We can't elect Ralph Nader, Peter Camejo or Jesse Jackson. But we can defeat bad Democrats until the Democrats bend in our direction or a new political party rises to challenge them. Until that happens, the Democratic Party will continue to move to the right, outpacing the Republicans on several issues.
EF!J: On what issues have the Democrats outpaced the Republicans?
JSC: It's a long list. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), welfare reform, evisceration of the Endangered Species Act, the drug war and logging the national forests (the annual cut under Clinton was three to four times the total cut under Bush in his first three years).
EF!J: It seemed that under the Bush administration, some of the green lobbyists were actually invigorated, whereas under Clinton, they seemed to sit back and watch the Salvage Rider clearcut old-growth forests while NAFTA blatantly undermined environmental regulations. Do you think that having Bush in office another four years will energize these big enviros to do some good?
JSC: As a general rule, environmentalists, like other social movements, are better playing defense than offense; better at organizing against something than for something; better at attacking enemies than holding purported allies accountable for their actions. What's missing, of course, is any admission that it's the political system that is aligned with the corporations against the environment; what's missing is any acknowledgment that Bush is openly pursuing policies that Clinton quietly established. And that's the fatal flaw of the Big Greens.
They have refused to act as honest brokers, as nonpartisan defenders of the planet. Instead, they have seduced their own members into believing that a change in the White House will lead to a change of direction in environmental policy. That's the crucial lie, and it's a big and dangerous one.
On paper, Kerry is marginally better than Bush on the environment. But where a unified resistance has confounded many of Bush's plans, Kerry will face little resistance. In fact, the Big Greens are likely to be complicit, as they were during Clinton time. The press will play along, and then we will be left once again with that thin green line of defenders: Earth First! and people in neighborhoods who put the needs of the Earth and the lives of their children above the niceties of two-party politics. Cherish those people, for they are our only hope.
Joshua Frank is the author of the upcoming book, Left Out: How Liberals Did Bush's Work for Him, to be published by Common Courage Press.
© Earth First! Journal November-December 2004