It would seem that progressives have finally found in the Occupy movement the kind of populist momentum for which they have long hungered. Health Care for America Now, Green for All, MoveOn.org, and a number of unions have come out in support of Occupy Wall Street, fashioning different narratives that would tie their organizations’ various missions to the values espoused by the protesters.
No sector of the progressive movement has yearned for this change more than the environmental movement, whose claims to populist underpinnings have long been met with skepticism. The arrival of populism on the left and the attention that is now being paid to institutionalized inequality align well with the heightened priority that environmentalists in and out of Washington are now placing on environmental justice issues.
Environmental justice is premised on a simple notion: that everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic background, is entitled to a healthy environment. In the United States, the majority of hazardous waste sites, power plants, and truck depots are sited in low-income neighborhoods, where the land is cheap and the communities’ political capital is weak. As a result, these communities are subject to heightened frequencies of chronic illnesses, including asthma and obesity, that most often preclude long-term economic mobility. Environmentalists, seeing these historical inequities that have come with traditional, market-based patterns of infrastructure distribution, advocate for land-use solutions that account for externalities in the host communities and ensure equality of opportunity across class lines.
Though there is still much more to be done, the environmental justice movement has made strides. Environmental justice assessments, through which the federal government evaluates particular policies’ impacts on equal access to clean air, clean water, and green space, are now commonplace. At the same time, there is a growing understanding that access to ecological services and natural resources is directly related to the populist notions of economic mobility and opportunity.
Despite this progress, neither the 112th Congress nor the Obama administration has given environmentalists many victories. Election promises of a climate bill and renewed focus on alternative energy have gone unfulfilled. The State Department’s decision on the Keystone XL tar sands oil project was delayed, but plans to reroute the pipeline are imminent. Yet with the world’s attention turned to Zuccotti Park and the hundreds of tent cities across the country, environmentalists are now perfectly poised to have their agenda items thrust onto the map.
Occupy Wall Street presents a perfect opportunity for proponents of environmental justice. In fact, the General Assembly at Occupy Wall Street held a Climate Justice Day last Sunday to explore opportunities for injecting environmental justice concerns into the policy conversations taking place in Zuccotti Park every day. The event, titled “Capitalism and the Roots of the Ecological Crisis,” was one of many interest-specific conversations, including a number of series on financial reform and access to health care.
Occupy Wall Street protesters come from a variety of backgrounds and carry a number of different “pet” interests. Environmental justice is simply one of the concerns on the minds of the protesters. Yet the overarching concerns of Occupy Wall Street — economic inequality, exploitation of the masses, and economic immobility — are epitomized by the environmental justice movement. As such, the environmental community should do everything in its power to ensure that environmental justice remains a significant part of the protesters’ agenda.
The legacy of Occupy Wall Street, more than a list of concrete policy demands, will likely be a shift in decision-making paradigms of governments and businesses. It was just this summer that national political discourse centered on deficits and the risk of government default. In the two months since protesters took Zuccotti Park, policymakers at all levels and in both parties have been forced to confront the frustrations of the 99%. Civic dialogue is being altered and the battle for economic opportunity is taking center stage. It is now up to environmentalists to seize on this new populist momentum and finally give environmental justice the attention it deserves.
David Weinberger is the Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network and a senior at Hunter College of the City University of New York.