Published by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Support Us

Sign Up for Our Newsletter

Facebook

Occupy Wall Street: Good for the Environment?

image of Robert Moor
Yes, if the protestors can help disrupt the intersection of money and politics

Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan -- the site of the Occupy Wall Street protests for the past month -- is a pretty desolate place to camp out: it’s fenced in by glass towers, paved with granite slabs, and landscaped with a few spindly honey locust trees. There’s no grass or fresh water, not even a drinking fountain, though there is a tiny flower garden that the protesters do their best not to trample. The park itself is only 33,000 square feet, little more than half the size of a football field. Tourists gather at a safe distance around the park’s border and snap photos of the 5,000-some-odd protesters as they sprawl, stretch, pace, paint signs, bang on things, drink bottled water, and, occasionally, roar. It feels at times less like an acampada than a zoo.

But don’t let that fool you -- this arguably is the most technologically sophisticated protest in history. Twitter-born, optics-aware, and social-media savvy, the Occupy Wall Street activists have managed to capture the nation’s attention and spawn copycat protests around the world. And so it was both fitting and charmingly absurd on Saturday afternoon when author and climate activist Bill McKibben -- staging a "teach-in" on climate change at Washington Square Park before the Occupy Wall Street general assembly -- had to resort to the most analog form of amplification imaginable: the "human megaphone," whereby members of the crowd repeat after him, like members of a gospel choir, to transmit each phrase of his speech to those out of earshot. (Police had prohibited the use of megaphones.)

"The reason it’s so great…" McKibben said, his long thin arm chopping at the air like a scythe.

"The reason it’s so great…" the crowd echoed.

"That we’re occupying Wall Street…"

"That we’re occupying Wall Street…"

"Is that Wall Street…"

"Is that Wall Street…"

"Has been occupying the atmosphere!"

"Has been occupying the atmosphere!"

"The sky does not belong to Exxon," McKibben continued. "They cannot keep using it as a sewer into which to dump their carbon."

McKibben (who is also an OnEarth contributing editor) had come to drum up awareness among the occupiers about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would ferry dirty crude from the Canadian tar sands to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast, creating a serious danger to communities and drinking supplies along the way, as well as the global climate. That very day, The New York Times had reported that the State Department had outsourced an environmental impact study of the pipeline to a firm that had long been cozy with the oil industry. (Or, as McKibben bluntly summarized in his teach-in, "The whole thing was rigged.") The timing of the disclosure could not have been more auspicious: Here was documented proof of how the one percent bend the political system to the detriment of the other 99.

Days before his visit, McKibben’s activism group, 350.org, had staged a well-attended protest at Zuccotti. Afterward, I talked to Phil Aroneanu, 350’s co-founder and U.S. campaign director, to find out if environmental protesters felt aligned with the larger movement behind Occupy Wall Street.

"A lot of people actually came up to us and asked, 'Why are you here?'" Aroneanu recalled. His response to them was simple: We’re a climate change advocacy group. The reason that we haven’t had any change on climate change is because coal companies, gas companies, oil companies, and their Wall Street financiers have rigged the system and bought out our politicians.

"It seemed to make sense for everyone that I talked to," Aroneanu said. "Whether they were from a union or occupiers or from community groups, they were like, 'I totally get that.'"

But the question is not whether the environmental movement can be absorbed by the chimerical Occupy Wall Street movement; the question is whether Occupy Wall Street can benefit the environment.

***

Anyone who has seen the panoply of cardboard signs carpeting Zuccotti Square -- espousing the legalization of marijuana, poking fun at Chris Christie’s weight, eroticizing peace ("Shoot sperm not bullets"), demanding student loan relief, and begging to get Arrested Development back on network television -- knows that these occupiers are an inclusive bunch, perhaps to a fault.

Last Saturday I spoke to Michael Lavelle, a financial advisor for a life-insurance company who had driven down from Boston to hoist a sign reading "End Fracking Now" in the park. Yet far from focusing on environmental issues, our conversation quickly veered into a lengthy detour about the 9/11 Truth movement, the neurologically deleterious effects of aspartame, and how America needs to abandon its support of the state of Israel. "I’m a proponent of all the issues that are on the table right now," he said.

This isn’t open-mindedness. It’s ADD.

Not coincidentally, it’s also built into the structural DNA of the Occupation movement. When the anti-consumerist activism group Adbusters first put forward the idea of "occupying" Wall Street in the manner of Tahrir Square, it did so with a chaotic model in mind: rather than a "pack of wolves" with a strict hierarchy, it wanted to move like an amorphous "swarm."

What we are seeing in New York and across the country -- and increasingly, the world -- is that swarm in action: occupiers gather, debate, and, over a number of weeks or even months, hope to reach a consensus. "Tahrir succeeded in large part because the people of Egypt made a straightforward ultimatum -- that Mubarak must go -- over and over again until they won," the Adbusters website says. "Following this model, what is our equally uncomplicated demand?"

Throughout the occupation, any number of activists have put forward their personal demands, which have included stricter financial regulations, universal health care, open borders, stronger union rights, and the abolition of "personhood" status for corporations. One widely circulated list of demands even included -- nobly, but naively -- "one trillion dollars in ecological restoration planting forests, reestablishing wetlands and the natural flow of river systems and decommissioning of all of America's nuclear power plants."

Over time, Adbusters hopes that this Cambrian explosion of demands will evolve into one elegant ultimatum. In its missive, the group makes it clear what it hopes that demand will be: "a presidential commission to separate money from politics."

It seems this proposal has since been lost in the ensuing storm of media coverage, or maybe it was deemed too tame by the protesters themselves. "I love the idea of occupying Wall St," wrote one commenter beneath the Adbusters manifesto, "but the demand for a presidential commission is lame…. Do you think all those people in Tahrir Square wanted a freaking commission?"

And yet if you talk to the serious environmental activists down on Wall Street, many agree that this one demand -- the decoupling of corporate influence from government policy -- would be a quantum leap forward for the environmental movement. This is because, as Phil Aroneanu pointed out, when environmental nonprofits lobby against the interests of polluters and industry, the playing field is never level.

"On the climate bill, the environmental groups spent more money than they’ve ever spent before, and they still got outspent eight-to-one by corporate interests," he said. "The cards are stacked way against groups that are trying to bring progressive change in this country. So I don’t think you’d hear a lot of complaints [from environmentalists] if you decided to remove money from politics. Activist groups are way better at organizing people than they are at raising money."

Julien Harrison, an environmental activist who left his home in Oregon to join the occupation two weeks ago, said that addressing this power imbalance was his first priority. "There’s a systematic problem [with our environmental policy], and that problem lies deeper than just needing stricter regulations," he said.

It lies smack in the heart of Wall Street, he argued.

"If you’re an environmentalist, you should also be concerned about these issues of democracy, of equality, of political corruption," Harrison said. "All of our struggles ultimately are connected. Our success lies in us coming together."

As the last 27 days have made clear, though, just coming together isn’t enough. The Occupation continues, with more people swarming to Wall Street and spinoff protests in other cities every day. But winter looms. To effect a lasting change in this country -- economic, ecological, or otherwise -- the occupiers will need to evolve into something a little more coordinated, something with thicker coats and sharper teeth, and finally, resolutely, pick their prey.

image of Robert Moor
Robert Moor is a freelance writer living in New York City and a Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism.
We live in a country no longer represented by the people but by the interests of major corporations and the money they use through lobbying to pay off our elected officials. These politicians no longer voice the opinion of the voters who put them in office but instead speak for the special interests which pay them more and more money to turn a blind eye to the destruction of our environment and the extinction of the middle class. How long will the occupations have to last before a SINGLE government official asks what WE the PEOPLE want changed? Visit my artist’s blog at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2011/09/occupywallstreet.html to see my art for the movement and also see videos of the protests and police brutality as well as get other sources for coverage of the movement.
It's not ADD, it's inclusive progressivism. The environmental movement has a big place in this. You should read this: http://www.andrelevy.net/lakoff_framing101.pdf and then tell me if you don't recognize all of the values represented in this movement.
Great article. If OWS are serious about getting change it's time they put together a cohesive and reasonable proposal outlining what they are FOR.
Define reasonable. The Occupy movement sees our current economic system, financial institutions, and the political foundations on which those structures were built as the problem. If you see the basis of our political and economic systems as the problem, there is no easy (“reasonable”) solution. Suggesting a piece of legislation or two isn’t going to cut it – it’s a wicked problem. This is a nascent movement. Really, it’s only been a month. The press, politicians…..everyone keeps calling for a clear and reasonable set of goals. Why shouldn’t we first gather everyone who feels a sense of injustice, unfairness, and inequality in our economic/political system, and then define ourselves and our goals on our terms? I’m assuming you’ve read The Death of Environmentalism. Look at the conservative movement. As Lakoff suggests, what do abortion restrictions have to do with financial deregulation have to do with opposing gun control? Nothing. Other than those causes have joined together to push a larger narrative. Environmentalism has everything to do with worker’s rights which have everything to do with economic and social justice – until we fully recognize and act on this, we will lose. So as I see it, environmentalists can sit on the sidelines and wait to see where OWS is going, or they can join in and bring their energy, ideas, and experience to help organize the movement. (Another great read: “The Market as a Prison” by Lindblom http://www.astepback.com/EP/Market%20as%20Prison.pdf)
If we are to make one demand that will affect all others it must be to change campaign financing to public campaign financing away from corporate sponsorship that is now the case. As long as representatives rely on sponsorship, they will be loyal to those sponsors instead of the citizens interests. This is the only way to remove undue special interests loyalty and the corresponding lack of concern for the rights and needs of the average citizen. When representatives depend on voters to get elected, then they will be serving the needs of voters. The responsibility of voters to research candidates and examine candidate platforms has been abandoned and replaced by relying on adds that use bait and switch tactics to say what people want to hear, but then ignore those promises and instead serve the corporate interests that pay for all the adds. In the same way the media uses false narratives to confuse and divide voters. No issue can be resolved until the corruption of special interest money is removed from the election process.
I completely agree that the first and most important step is to end the corporate control of our government and I want to let you know that we are staring to organize here, in Los Angeles, and across the country to build grassroots support to amend the US Constitution to firmly establish that money is not the same as free speech and that only living human beings are entitled to constitutional rights, not corporations. Thus invalidating the legal rationale for the Citizens United decisions and also giving local communities the right to protect themselves from corporate polluters and abusers. (since they would no longer be able to overturn democratically enacted laws on the basis that they violate their constitutional rights!) The strategy is to get cities and towns to pass non-binding resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment either through a popular referendum like they've done in Madison, WI and Boulder, Co. or through the endorsement of the City Council like we're doing in LA. We're also very close to making this one of the central demands of the Occupy LA movement. We're working together as Move To Amend, which is a national coalition of hundreds of organizations. Go to movetoamend.org for more information and do like I did and just start an affliate in your city and town and begin creating the kind of fundamental change we need. Because we all realize that whatever we want, it will be thwarted by corporate interests as long as they control the reins of government. Feel free to email me if you want pointers on how to begin. My email is movetoamendla@gmail.com In LA we're calling it the "Resolution to Free US Democracy from Corporate Control." That to me, says it all.
If the WALL $TREET-WALKER$ can trickle-down to US, We the 99% can DUMPling UPON them.
I applaud the Occupy Wall Street people, it's about time that those who give the environment a chance be heard, and we are heard in these protests. Glenn Beck and his television chronies blare out that Bill McKibben is "communist", well, Bill pointed out that he is a Methodist (if I remember correctly), and just because the radical left entertains our environmental views is no reason that, even if we are demonstrating with them, we are to be painted up as 'red'. The truth is that I think most environmentalists simply enjoy the fact that our Earth-saving ideas are shared by almost all the radical left. Lately, it seems that even ordinary people are starting to participate, good, I agree that the wealthy and powerful hide behind their Wall Street and pollute the planet. Three cheers for the 'Occupy' people, now we who care about the Earth are listened to.
I wonder, if someone were to wave a magic wand and include anyone who volunteered in the "1%" financial demographic category, how many of the protesters would abandon their protest and decide to join? Is it genuinely a personal pursuit to change the system or basically a case of whose "ox is being gored"? Outstanding article by Robert Moor, by the way. He is currently an emerging voice in the realm of litierary reporting. Watch for his work.
Isn't it nice to know that you have support from actresses/actors like Susan Sarandon. Oh wait how credible is someone who is calls everyone outside of her realm as a Nazi. go figure.