In working with Wal-Mart, activist Adam Werbach is abandoning his principles
In late 2004, Adam Werbach proclaimed that environmentalism was dead due to the movement’s unwillingness to connect with ordinary working people and its inability to effectively grapple with the most profound problem the earth has ever faced, climate change. His diagnosis was clear: In order to build the next liberal majority in this country, environmentalists must create bold new “frames” that will unite us with our working-class brothers and sisters around “shared values.”
Werbach argued that to win we must begin by challenging our most basic assumptions. “What if we stopped defining global warming as an environmental problem and instead spoke of the economic opportunities it will create?” he asked. It’s this kind of out-of-the-box thinking that has landed Werbach a new gig in Big-Box Land.
Yes, Adam Werbach, founder of the Sierra Student Coalition, youngest president of the Sierra Club, author, filmmaker, and self-proclaimed progressive-big-think guy, is going to be a consultant for Wal-Mart. Will he be working with the planet’s largest retailer to cut its carbon footprint by 50 percent, source its products locally from sustainable suppliers, or make fundamental changes to its labor practices? No. Werbach has been brought on to teach Wal-Mart’s “associates” how to live a less consumptive existence in their everyday lives, how to eat healthy food and buy compact fluorescent light bulbs on their meager wages.
Wal-Mart’s line is that this new “Environmental Health and Wellness Program” was created as a direct response to requests from its employees. Oddly they have not responded to employee requests for a living wage, affordable health care, or unscheduled bathroom breaks. The Wal-Mart Workers Association in Tampa, Fla., sent Werbach a letter respectfully asking him not to lend Wal-Mart his name or environmental credentials. They insightfully point out that greenwashing for Wal-Mart is woefully out of step with the views expressed in his 1997 book Act Now, Apologize Later, in which he compares the retail giant to a “virus, infecting and destroying American culture.”
Let’s be really blunt: there is no such thing as a green big box that is full of exploited workers selling you cheap disposable stuff made in sweatshops on the other side of the planet. Whenever environmentalists help Wal-Mart score easy “corporate responsibility” points in The New York Times, they set back the efforts of working people in their battle with Wal-Mart, and simply reinforce the flaws of the old environmentalism which Werbach and others declared dead over a year ago.
We’ve got a multi-issue movement to build, a country to take back, and a planet to save. So get back to work, Adam!