Two eco-leaders — one mainstream, one radical — debate the movement’s past and future
When Eric Mann first encountered environmentalists, he saw them as a bunch of “arrogant, racist airheads.” When Frances Beinecke first encountered environmentalists, she felt she’d found her cause.
Nearly four decades later, both are tireless proponents of environmental sanity, but they work in very different ways. Mann is director of the Los Angeles-based Labor/Community Strategy Center, where he fights for environmental justice, immigrant and labor rights, and economic equity. Beinecke is president of Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the nation’s biggest and best-known environmental organizations.
As part of our Poverty & the Environment series, Grist invited the two to discuss the relationship between the mainstream environmental movement and the environmental-justice movement in the past, present, and — most important — the future.
Grist: Let’s get the ball rolling by establishing how each of you came to be doing the work you do today.
Beinecke: When I was in college, I knew I wanted to engage in social-justice issues, but didn’t know what. The first environmental job I had was working for the city health department, testing kids for lead poisoning through a college internship. About that same time, Earth Day came along and I saw the environmental cause as one that was exceedingly timely and new and energizing. So I got in on the ground floor — which I guess ages me somewhat — [and] I’ve been involved ever since.
Mann: Almost everything in my life is framed by the black movement and the war in Vietnam, so I begin with a very radical critique of the United States. In 1964, I was working for the Congress of Racial Equality. I then went to work for General Motors, to organize autoworkers. I saw the environmental movement as a bunch of white, privileged kids who were telling us what was wrong with the automobile and I was saying to them, “Hey look, we’re not building the B-1 bomber. You know, people gotta have a job.”
I was approached by Tony Mazzocchi who had been with the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers and he said, “Eric, these kids may be arrogant. They may be racist. They may be airheads. But they’re right. You’ve got to take a look at the internal combustion engine.” And then, smart organizer that he was, he said, “I thought you were radical. The most radical thing is telling General Motors what they have to produce.”
And I’m a good convert. If you convince me, I organize other people.
Beinecke: I would agree that in order to really address environmental issues, you need a very, very broad movement, a movement that goes well beyond the environmental community as it is today. The environmental community is robust; it’s made up of as many as 10 million people [in the U.S.]. But 10 million people isn’t enough if you’re really trying to change society. I’m sure I’m not as radical as you are, but I would argue that I’m just as determined that we need a broad force to really [get] the attention of our leaders and of the people in the country.
Mann: Frances, here’s an example of where we don’t have a unified environmental movement. In Los Angeles, the [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] is building these incredibly expensive rail lines to almost nowhere, with very, very low ridership, when we have the chance to have bus-only lanes, to have a fleet of clean-fuel CNG [compressed natural gas] buses. We want buses on the freeway, we want auto-free zones to stop the use of the internal combustion engine in large parts of Los Angeles.
Now, we get along very well with NRDC in L.A. This is not in any way a hostile relationship — in fact, it’s a very constructive one. Still, month after month, the lowest-income bus riders go to the MTA and are totally abused and insulted by Democratic Party liberals. And we cannot get white middle-class people to fight for this. It’s been 10 years of active outreach to people who are allegedly environmentalists, and they do not rally around low-income, people-of-color environmental issues. We are good organizers. We did not write them off. We’ve made endless appeals. It’s just not happening.
Beinecke: It sounds like a hugely challenging issue. Fundamentally, in all movements, organizations have their main focus and then they have areas where they work with partners. Here at NRDC, we have a much broader view of partnership than we’ve had in the past, and we’re looking for opportunities to develop that in a way that listens to community concerns and is respectful. It’s a learning experience to try to figure out the best way for an organization like NRDC — which is perceived as a big, national, white, wealthy organization, and you know in many respects that’s a correct characterization — [to] develop a relationship of trusted partnership. I’m sure that we have a long way to go, but it’s something we’re deeply interested in doing.
Mann: NRDC is perceived as a wealthy, predominantly white organization — but that’s not the critique. That’s what it is. In 1991, at the People of Color Summit, part of the dynamic was, you could say, jacking up the mainstream environmental movement. And it deserved it, and some people responded better than others to that critique. But in 2006, I’m not trying to replicate that phenomenon. This is a more subtle conversation. NRDC has been a friend, NRDC buys an ad in our annual book, we go to their events. This is not a story of not getting along; that is the progress that has been made. The more fundamental question is why the white middle class does not give a damn about the black poor and does not care about Latinos, even when the issues [are] right up their ideological alley.
Beinecke: I don’t know how to answer that question. I think people generally speaking do [care], but environmental issues are conveyed very much in terms of natural-resource issues. To separate the natural environment from the human environment results in a train wreck, because they’re so interconnected. That’s something that we have to convey much more powerfully than we have in the past.
Mann: Well, let me go a different way, because of course we both agree on that. The question is trying to figure out where we’re not [agreeing], right?
Mann: So let me just raise a couple of things. I think the work has to be independent of and hostile to the Democratic Party. We’re right now in the face of a right-wing, evangelical, neo-fascist movement in this country that is frightening the hell out of me, and I’m a pretty good fighter. That counter-revolution is being led by the Republicans, with the criminal conciliation of the Democratic Party. John Kerry goes on the radio with Larry Kudlow, who’s a right-wing TV reporter, and he says to Kerry, “Are you for free markets, John? Or are you for that socialistic control of corporate life that’s gonna squeeze profits and drive away people’s jobs?” “Oh, I’m very pro-business.” Larry Kudlow has got him groveling. It’s like he cannot push back and say, “Hey Larry, we believe in regulating the corporation, we think free markets lead to poverty, racism, and environmental degradation.”
Can we get a Democrat to say that? No. So the environmental movement is going to have to say it. But that’s not the discourse that I’ve heard. So that’s one of the problems.
Beinecke: I have absolutely no dispute that we’re sorely lacking in leadership. Both parties and particularly the Democrats have an opportunity to use the environment as an issue and haven’t used it. I think that change is not going to come from the federal government, it’s going to come from local leaders. At the local level, people are getting the issues out there in a way that people perceive that there are solutions. Over 200 mayors have signed on to curb global warming in their cities when you could barely get it on the congressional agenda. It’s important for us to be working in those places where change is possible.
Mann: But what I’m asking you is, do you have a theory of counter-hegemonic organizing? If NRDC issued a vote of no confidence in a group of legislators, both Republican and Democrat, for jeopardizing the public health and capitulating to corporations — which is different from what the Bus Riders would do, it would come [from] within your own culture — people would say uh-oh, NRDC is escalating the struggle in a way we’ve never seen before.
That would be a real contribution to the movement, and I don’t see it happening yet. And as an organizer, Frances, I’m trying to organize you to do it, because we need you to do more. You have the resources. I hope you know this is not an effort to jack you up. This is an effort to say, “Look, you’re an important piece of the puzzle.” Because in some way you are a public trust, right? You are an organization that has that level of public recognition, and people should be able to hold you accountable in a constructive way and urge you to do more.
Beinecke: I welcome the urge to do more. We have spent five years working as hard as we can to try to hold the line with the Bush administration’s rollback of environmental laws. And I think we’ve provided a huge service by doing that, but the period of defensiveness is over. So I welcome encouragement to be out there in a more aggressive way than we’ve been. We may disagree on exactly how that unfolds, but I think we will agree on the need to be a very powerful voice on these issues.
Mann: The second thing I want you to think about is a constructive proposal that came out of a criticism. I was at a meeting [last week] in Sacramento with about 25 environmental-justice leadership groups [and] maybe six liberal environmental — in a good sense — legislators. And what they said is, “When certain groups” — such as yours, Frances — “come to us to make proposals on a bill, in the past we thought they spoke for a broader environmental movement. What we realize now is they speak for part of the environmental movement, but in fact there are significant disagreements.”
So they proposed two things: One, for the EJ groups to please show up in Sacramento more. But two, could we and the so-called mainstream groups get our act together, work out some of these differences, and come back with a united front for the legislators of both parties? I thought that was a really good suggestion, and I’m offering it to you as another constructive thing we could do.
Beinecke: I think we should be doing that, and I’m surprised that we’re not. We will definitely be a stronger force if we can agree ahead of time on the agenda. But you know, Eric, there’s something I want to ask you.
Mann: Sure, sure, please.
Beinecke: You were saying earlier that you came out of the civil-rights movement. And I got in, as I mentioned, through Earth Day. That was a period of time where people marched. People spoke out. They thought their voice made a difference and could affect decision-makers — and did, in fact, because both the civil-rights movement and Earth Day had enormous impacts from a public-policy standpoint.
The issues that we’re facing today are equally great. And yet, we’re not marching. We’re not marching on Iraq, we’re not marching on the environment, we’re not marching on social-justice issues. Do you see that emerging again, or how do you see movement-building going into the future?
Mann: I completely agree with you that movement-building is the essential task facing all of us. The Strategy Center has a national school for strategic organizing, and we do go out into the street and do hand-to-hand ideological combat with the right. What I’m convinced about is the environment must be a cause — not an issue, a cause. It has to have a strong moral, transformative nature to it.
Barbara Lott-Holland, a black woman, is going on the bus telling black people that they should not buy cars because small island states are being overwhelmed by global warming. Barbara is up on the bus saying to people, “Black people gotta give up their cars.” They say, “Give up my car? I don’t got a car! It’s the white man who’s got a car! How come the white man gets everything and now, just when I’m about to buy a car, you’re telling me global warming? Who the hell cares?”
And Barbara’s saying, “Well, the reality is, we have always been the moral conscience of this country.”
My point is that we’re training people to do what we call transformative organizing, to have ethical and moral conversations with people. The thing that’s missing today is training centers for organizers. We’re trying to get to the point where we can train 100 organizers a year instead of about 10. I think the movement needs to figure out how we’re going to train a couple of thousand organizers a year. The Heritage Foundation now takes 64 summer interns a year.
Beinecke: I saw that.
Mann: And we take eight.
Mann: We could use your support to say, “Hey folks, we need to develop a cadre of environmental and environmental-justice and anti-racist organizers,” because taking it to the street is not primarily marching. Taking it to the street is primarily about addressing churches and addressing union halls and [getting] involved in the politics of transformational ideological conversion.
Beinecke: Yeah. Well, the thing about a march is that it sends a message much more broadly.
Mann: Oh, I agree.
Beinecke: What I’m saying is, the march needs to be a vehicle of the 21st century, of an outpouring of urgency that isn’t there. Intellectually, people get the urgency, but from a communication and action standpoint, I don’t feel it permeating as broadly as it could. If we could come together not only in organizing but in amplification to make these issues more broadly understood, it would be a great thing.
Grist: This is one role the media can play — and when the mainstream media doesn’t, that’s when more progressive and independent media ventures [like, eh-hem, Grist] have to jump in and fill the gap.
Mann: Right. I want to thank Grist for doing this, because I think this was a really good conversation between allies. I hope that’s clear from the beginning to the end. We began by saying that when you got involved, Earth Day was part of Anti-War Day was part of Civil Rights Day, right?
Beinecke: Mm hmm.
Mann: I mean, you didn’t join Earth Day; you were doing stuff on civil rights, and I’m assuming you were also doing anti-war work.
Beinecke: It was a continuum.
Mann: Exactly. And I think our goal is to rebuild that continuum.
Beinecke: I agree with that. We have a nation of great breadth, and to be successful as a movement we have to have connections with a broader array of communities. So it’s been a privilege to hear your perspective on this, and I am going to come find you when I’m in L.A.
Mann: Let’s make that happen.
Beinecke: I pledge it.