The Anti-Environmental Countermovement

My areas of emphases in graduate school were criminology and political economy. But the graduate program at UT also had an emphasis in environmental sociology and, on the recommendation of peers, I took a course from Sherry Cable, a noted expert in the field. 

I soon saw at work in the facts of resource extraction and environmental degradation Edwin Sutherland’s concept of “analogous social injury.” Analogous social injury was Sutherland’s principle for detecting opportunities for enlarging the criminal law: if some action taken by a corporate or government agent has an analog to interpersonal behavior the criminal law has long identified as an offense, then that action suggests itself as a candidate for analogous legal control. That is, to be regarded as criminal. Sutherland wrote a book about it, White Collar Crime, published in 1949. In it, he argued that the powerful and the rich are able to shape law and consciousness in ways that reproduce their power and privilege. The publishing company seemed to prove his point when they censored his book before releasing it to the public.

I thought analogous social injury would make a good seminar paper. But a paper showing that environmental destruction for personal gain is analogous to criminality would surely fall short of the word count associated with the assignment. That’s so obvious, I thought. So, I set out to explain how environmentally-destructive business practices manage to avoid the criminal label. Leaning heavily on Antonio Gramsci’s ideas of “hegemony” and “the organic intellectual”—concepts capturing the method of control through the control of ideas and intellectuals—I showed how capitalists are able to hide the truth and change the conversation about environmental destruction. I also became more aware of the seriousness of the problem confronting us, of the problem of global climate change. 

Professor Cable encouraged me to submit my paper to an academic journal, which I did, only to have the editor, after a round of supportive reviews, refuse publish it. Trying to understand what had happened, I discovered that this editor, an industrial sociologist, had received funding from polluting corporations. I considered filing an ethics complaint with the American Sociological Association but seeing how I was a graduate student who couldn’t afford to burn bridges, I sucked it up and sent the paper off to another journal instead. They published it (after another round of reviews) and it went on to win the 2002 Sociological Spectrum Award for Best Article. More gratifying than this was the article’s impact. My approach played a role in shifting academic work in this area from the too often sterile and passive sociology of collective behavior and social movements to a more radical political sociology of state corporate power. 

That paper, “Advancing Accumulation and Managing its Discontents: The US Antienvironmental Countermovement,” documented the multilayered and well-coordinated structure of corporate-funded foundations and think tanks, faux-academic science mills, fake grassroots movements, what the industry calls “Astroturf,” corporate attorneys and lobbyists, and major media outlets that lay behind the manufacture of an illusion, namely that the earth is fine and really indestructible; that, if it isn’t, the innovative dynamic of the free market will, in promethean fashion, generate technology allowing humanity to repair it; and, in the meantime, the corporations heard the public loud and clear and are cleaning up their act by providing environmentally-sound commodities and services—“greenwashing.”

It wasn’t long before attention to my article, and a subsequent conference paper, provocatively titled “Paper Mills and Science Mills: The Battle for the Fox River,” inspired the antienvironmental countermovement to illustrate in real time one of my main points: polluting corporations, working through local agents, send up flak to delegitimize those who expose their tactics. They learned I was coming up for tenure and sought to prevent it. They got to the chancellor. After receiving phone calls from “concerned citizens,” he came down on me for having referenced a public service announcement warning pregnant and lactating women about eating the fish caught in the Fox river—the concentration of PCBs, a carcinogenic agent used in processing carbon-less paper, had made the fish unsafe for consumption. The industry was in the midst of an effort to blame the problem on what it’s propagandists called “non-source point pollution”—meaning that no one really knows who caused the problem—and manufacturing consensus around a plan called “natural attenuation”—meaning, if we don’t do anything, the PCBs will wash out into the bay in a hundred years or so. 

With a colleague, Laurel Phoenix, I published two more articles using this approach to show the persistence of this structure during the Bush administration. Laurel and I recently discussed applying the model to the Obama and Trump presidencies. A cursory look at the facts indicates that we would replicate our findings—that there is a concerted industry effort to conceal and obscure climate change through misdirection and delegitimation. 

We have to admit the problem of global climate change—it is real and catastrophic. The fact that humanity is facing what environmentalists call “overshoot and collapse” has been established not only by the bulk of scientific work over the last several decades but is well-known by forest rangers and wildlife officers, as well as hunters and fishers. Even the average citizen can see something is amiss. Armadillos are now common in my home state of Tennessee. They’ve become standard roadkill alongside the Opossum. Armadillos have been sighted as far north as Chicago. They carry the wasting disease leprosy. There are coyotes, too. And homeowners along the East Coast are seeing the value of their properties plummet as sea levels rise, many unable to dump their homes because buyers know what’s coming. 

We must also identify the culprit: The capitalist mode of production—what Allan Schnaiberg call the “treadmill of production”—is exceeding the carrying capacity of the planet. Extractive and polluting corporations are so committed to the imperative of profit maximization—and lives of extravagance, opulence, and leisure—that they’re prepared to sacrifice the future of their own children and grandchildren. They have constructed a vast propaganda apparatus—a fog machine—to ensure this happens: the antienvironmental countermovement

What is to be done? Many suggest regulating corporations. I hesitate to disagree. But there is a downside to this strategy that most folks don’t talk about. It’s not only that it is not enough. Without a larger comprehensive framework, it may be helping plunders and polluters. For years, environmental groups have invoked the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA) to stop mountain top removal, a problem I’m quite familiar with having roots in East Tennessee. Environmental groups demand that the mining companies follow the law. But minding companiesare following the law.The Army Corps of Engineers, in adherence to the law, has approved 99 percent of all corporate permit applications under the CWA and in accordance with the SMCRA. 

As Richard Grossman, of the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy, notes, in a 2002 open letter to Joan Mulhern of Earthjustice on Earth Day, “Both laws [have] enabled polluting and ruling corporations to legalize their destructions; to block the public from using democratic processes to stop corporate assaults upon life, liberty and property; from advocating people’s visions and agendas.” He continues: “These laws have channeled people (including dedicated lawyers) into endless regulatory and juridical struggles over definitions and minutiae, struggles which conceded corporations’ right to govern communities and devour the Earth. These laws have diverted passionate and creative minds away from strategies and tactics that empower local jurisdictions to prevent their eviscerations by absentee corporations and politicians for hire.” 

“There were people who understood that there could never be sane strip-mining in Appalachia’s ridges and hollows,” Grossman writes. “Alas, Washington DC environmental groups joined with corporate lobbyists and politicians to establish rules under which coal corporations could strip-mine for ever and ever. They betrayed the folks from the ridges and hollows whom Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM) had brought together over the previous decade in a valiant effort to ban strip-mining.” 

I remember SOCM, how they boycotted the legislation written in their name that enabled extractive corporations to continue blasting off the tops of our Cumberland Mountains. I remember watching Jimmy Carter, in a well-publicized bill signing, deceive the public into thinking that our mountains would be saved.

Noting the difference between progressivism, which works within a legal structure that accepts the legitimacy of corporate rule, and populism, which desires to see corporations—if not abolished—returned to their previous status subordinated to democratic rule, Grossman laments the opportunity lost: “If the quarter century investment in SMCRA or CWA had gone instead to challenging corporations’ ability to use law (and the Constitution, and our governments) against people, communities, mountains, rivers and species, and into asserting the people’s authority to govern, there’d be no mountain top removal today.” 

Grossman warns in his letter: “Before young activists and lawyers throw themselves into another twenty-five years of trying to make corporate rights laws work to people’s and the Earth’s advantage, wouldn’t it make sense to explore the nation’s experience with regulatory laws? With corporations? With the Constitution?” 

That was more than 17 years ago. We have only eight more years to go before activists and lawyers will have thrown themselves into another twenty-five years of trying to regulate corporations to save the environment. But capitalism is unsustainable. It cannot save the environment. We have to change our approach—shift the emphasis from reformism to radicalism. The threat is that dire. Our future lies in reclaiming the republic from corporate power and establishing a democratic socialist order where economic decisions are made not for the sake of a privileged few who cannot see beyond avarice and egoism, but for the good of humanity and the planet and all the beautiful and precious things that live on it.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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