Q&A: Jeffrey St Clair

Journalist and author Jeffrey St. Clair edits the newsletter Counterpunch with political journalist Alexander Cockburn; the two co-wrote the syndicated column, “Nature and Politics,” and have collaborated on several books. St. Clair now edits the daily online version of Counterpunch, while Cockburn edits Counterpunch’s biweekly print edition. This year St. Clair’s collection of environmental essays, Born Under a Bad Sky, was published by East Bay independent imprint AK Press. Red State Rebels, a collection of essays about grassroots progressive politics in the United States that St. Clair co-edited with Joshua Frank was also recently released by AK.

St. Clair and his wife Kymberly, a librarian, and their two children make their home in Portland, Oregon. I spoke with him about the state of the environmental movement today and what hope he sees for creating a livable future.

You’ve argued that the US environmental movement became less focused on grassroots action during the Clinton administrations.

When Clinton came to town, a lot of grassroots environmentalists were caught by surprise. Because not only did you have political co-option going on early on in Clinton’s time, but you also had this new kind of environmentalism being adopted by Clinton and [former Secretary of the Interior Bruce] Babbitt and [former vice president Al] Gore, which was “We’re going to get rid of regulations, and we’re going to replace them with risk assesment, cost benefit analysis, and using market sources.”

Clinton comes out of the DLC [the Democratic Leadership Council], and of course, Babbitt was in the DLC, Gore was in the DLC, and these ideas were being bandied about there. What they didn’t want to do was to piss off their corporate backers. And environmental laws and regulations, if they’re strictly enforced, exact economic costs for these corporations. So right out of the gate, you had betrayals … and deals cut. [Including deals with] sugar barons and real estate developers in the Florida Everglades, you had a very famous evisceration of the Endangered Species Act [involving] the California gnat catcher.

So, right out of the gate, it’s the National Forest Management Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Everglades and the Endangered Species Act, all being gutted …with this sort of cost benefit analysis approach. And then the full force of the betrayal comes to light when NAFTA raises it head. Bush had tried to push through NAFTA three times, and he had been beaten back in the Congress by a coalition of labor groups, environmentalists, human rights groups, and old-line Democrats. And [under Clinton,] John Adams, the former head and founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, bragged about breaking the back of that coalition. At that point it was all over for institutional environmentalism in DC. These groups are no longer membership organizations in any sense in which the members have rights. If you’re a member of the NRDC, you don’t have any rights in determining what their policy will be.

You have a right to their junk mail.

You have a right to junk mail, and that’s a fundamental shift in the character of these organizations; they’re not at all grassroots anymore. And so if your members don’t have rights, all they’re good for is money, so you drill them, like the oil companies want to drill ANWAR. You’ve moved to DC or New York, you’ve got offices in LA and Seattle, and they’re very expensive buildings, and [you need] to keep up the institutional flow of cash. So your members aren’t providing enough money, where do you turn? You turn to foundations.

And that’s another change that happened in the ‘80s, and it really took hold during Clinton’s time. These big groups became increasingly dependent on corporate foundations for their budget. Many of these foundations are the progeny of the oil companies. Look at the major three that are funding the environmental movement: Pew Charitable Trust, that’s Sun Oil; W. Alton Jones, another oil company; Rockefeller Family Fund. Those three foundations basically control the environmental movement. And let’s put it this way: They’re not out for regulation, they want you to practice real politics, and number two, they like the neoliberal approach.

If you look at the board of directors of the large environmental groups, they’re filled with corporate executives. From the timber industry, to the oil industry, to the real estate industry, to the airline industry, to the nuclear power industry, they’re there, on every one of these boards. They’re rich, they’re corporate, and they don’t want you shaking things up. So [the environmental groups] are like Gulliver, they’re pinned down. They’re shackled by their source of money, shackled by their relationship to the Democratic Party, shackled by the fact that their boards are controlled by corporate executives.

Do you think there are signs that people in the US have become aware of this problem and that groups that are scrappier and not spending as much money on overhead are getting stronger?

If you’re fighting mountaintop removal in West Virgina, you’re well aware that you can’t count on these [big green] groups for help. Because it’s West Virginia, oh, that’s Robert Byrd’s state, we’re not going to get into direct conflict with him. Other than that, I don’t think there’s much. The environment isn’t even talked about in political campaigns much anymore … aside from these airy homilies about global warming, or green jobs to try and reinvigorate the economy. But the problems that people are facing in inner cities with air quality, the fact that urban air quality, the risks of getting cancer are about as great as if you were a four-pack-a-day smoker. Walking outside your house, it’s a hostile environment. And these issues aren’t talked about at all in our two-party, one-body political system.

It’s a tragic waste that hundreds of millions each year are going to these large organizations. What it means is that people are now left to fend for themselves, to mount their own resistance. So you have these rebellions taking root, and they’re not under the control of these large organizations … I mean they can certainly use the help, but the help isn’t coming, so they’re not controlled by them and not boxed in by the playground the nationals have chosen to play on. Some have been wiped out, that’s the way it is. But it’s all happening under the radar of the mainstream media.

In the early 1990s, some journalists were talking about the limits to growth. As the ecological crises have gotten more dire and potentially more fatal to the human species, it seems like that’s not such a discussion anymore in the mainstream.

What they would like is sort of the Gore approach, which is painless optimism. And that’s not the way it is. These issues, down at the grassroots, are life and death issues. They’re not being reported, they’re not part of policy. There aren’t any easy solutions, there aren’t fifty easy ways you can save the planet. That’s what they want, but that’s not going to do it. And you can’t shop your way to a better planet.

Difficult choices are going to have to be made in terms of growth, in terms of energy. I mean, California is essentially out of water. What are you going to do, are you going to spend billions of dollars to build a peripheral canal that won’t even solve your problem? Meanwhile, the ecology of your state is crashing. What are you going to do, steal Oregon’s water?

We’re not going to get our way out of this energy crisis as long as the energy system remains centralized. It’s just not going to happen. I mean look, solar power has gone nowhere. Right at the end of the Carter era—it wasn’t just Reagan—Atlantic Richfield and British Petroleum bought up patents for photovoltaics. Check out the book Who Owns the Sun? by Daniel Berman and John O’Connor. They see large solar generation as being inevitable, but they want it to remain in the hands of large corporations. Until we can break out of the cycle of depending on centralized control of energy distribution we’ll have these problems. If you democratize energy production you can begin to enact the kind of fundamental changes we need. Municipal utility districts, like what you have with SMUD in Sacramento, are a good way to go toward a future system of people powering their own energy.

But if the question is the future of the atmosphere of the planet, I don’t think that’s going to get you very far. Certainly you’ll have more control over choosing sources of energy that you’re going to use. But ultimately they’re still connected to the power grid and it’s going to be very difficult. Unless you’re a huge municipal utility district the size of San Francisco, you’re not going to have the capital in order to invest in large solar production plants, or geothermal, or wind power. So frankly, I don’t think there are any solutions, because I think the climate crisis and the extinction crisis are beyond our control.

Thirty years ago, if we’d made radically different choices, perhaps… There’s an element of hubris in this [that recalls] British philosopher David Ehrenfeld’s view of technology and the environment, the arrogance of humanism. Ehrenfeld wrote an influential book that came out in the early ‘80s called the Arrogance of Humanism … kind of precursor to Deep Ecology, but a much more disciplined philosopher than any of the deep ecology people. The idea that a technological solution can stall or reverse climate change is almost the same kind of hubris that got us into this mess.

So from my point of view it comes down to, what’s the best way to live your life? If these issues are important to you, in a moral way, then you have to disconnect from the grid. And more than that, you need to be essentially generating your own power. You need to have control over your own power. And perhaps be in small collectives along the lines of what Amory Lovins talks about in terms of soft energy paths.

You need to grow your own food in community gardens. What it’s going to require, even to feel good about yourself, as the planet careens toward a kind of climate Armageddon, is a radical downscaling. What we’re being offered is a kind of short-selling of the environment. The solutions from Gore, the solutions of many of the mainstream environmental groups, are a kind of profit-taking as the planet hurtles toward a radical reshaping of the global ecosystem which I think spells doom at the end of the line for mammalian species. That’s what these solutions are about. They’re about how to make money, how to capitalize off the anxiety and panic and guilt and hopelessness that many people feel about the state of the environment.

Amory Lovins was way ahead of the curve back in the ‘70s, he was talking about issues that are just now sort of nosing their way under the tent. Amory is trying to develop environmentally neutral forms of transportation. In a way he’s trying to work radically within a very corrupt system. I have a lot of respect for him. He’s been working on this car for twenty years or so, and that’s a lot of time and investment [laughing] in something that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and in the end will have such a minimal, micro-fractional influence on the state of climate, on the state of the atmosphere. But you can see how you get sucked into this. It’s like being pulled into a black hole.

Do you have a sense that as the global economic crisis gets worse that it could be dramatic enough to have a positive effect on the sustainable future of humans on the planet?

I don’t think so. I think the deterioration of the current economic regime in the short term will have dramatically dire economic consequences for a lot of the things I care about. Forests, endangered species… there’s not going to be the capital to invest in large-scale sustainable projects. What you’re going to see is the opening up national forests. A lot of the public estate is going to be at risk. As the economy tumbles south in what I think is going to be a prolonged recession, if not depression, if you look historically, those situations have always had very dire consequences for the ecology of native ecosystems.

We’re already fighting resource extraction; now we’re going to be fighting them at a much more intensive level. I think you’re going to see governments act to preserve themselves by giving away the public estate in the name of job production, in the name of whatever. Taking down dams in the Columbia River in order to protect salmon species in the middle of a depression, that’s not going to happen. The dams went up in the middle of the [‘30s] Depression.

So, no… I’ve heard these arguments but I don’t buy them. Look at Africa, which has been mired in something beyond a depression for fifty years. It’s been disastrous for ecosystems.

Will the economic crisis result in foundation money drying up for the big environmental groups and for smaller ones?

Well, that is a positive. These major foundations have been like cloning shops for environmental groups. They control their agenda, they want all of them to look the same, behave the same, be utterly predictable, and dependent upon their money. Once you get on the foundation dole, it’s like becoming like a meth addict. A lot of them, certainly the smaller groups, will lose their funding first, and that’s going to be a very good thing. The weaning process is going to hurt for a while. But when they emerge from that, they’re going to be much better off. That’s what I’m interested in—the varieties of resistance to industrial capitalism and neoliberalism, the forces that are exploiting the planet. The first mission of the foundations was to take critiques of capitalism off the table. Hopefully in the future, you’re going to be seeing, five to ten years from now, much more indigenous radical and unpredictable, organic environmental groups that will end up being much more effective, much more healing for people.

You want it to be fun, like Edward Abbey says… of all the movements out there, the environmental movement should probably be the most fun. You can see what you’re fighting for, the kind of direct actions and protests that you can engage in are much more exhilarating than a lot of other issues. And it has to be fun, otherwise you’re going to burn out. One of the things the foundations have done is turn it into a bureaucracy. It’s easier to control that way.

Do you see the environmental justice movement as holding hope for a shift toward that kind of activism?

Yeah, I do. Environmental justice became a sort of passing interest of the foundations in the ‘90s. But the big money never came. It was the same old white Eastern elites pimping off of their issues, with the exception of Greenpeace, which probably was the only big environmental group that had a commitment on environmental justice issues in the Mississippi Delta Region, in Cancer Alley. They actually went there and listened to people living in the chemical soup bowl. And they put their expertise at direct action, how to train people in Cancer Alley, how to shut down a chemical plant for a day with a protest.

The other groups remained in DC, they put out their White Papers, and when interest eroded in environmental justice they moved on to something else. I think people will be happy to extract themselves from the likes of the Environmental Defense Fund and the NRDC.

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