Forty-four years after the first Earth Day, we must ask a basic question: What is an environmental issue? Air and water pollution, yes. But what if the right answer is that an environmental issue is anything that determines environmental outcomes? Then the definition becomes something much broader, rooted in defining features of our political economy: an unquestioning societywide commitment to economic growth at any cost; a measure of growth, GDP, that includes everything — the good, the bad and the ugly; the ascendancy of money power and corporate power over people power; powerful corporate interests whose overriding objective is to grow by generating profit, including profit from avoiding the environmental costs they create; markets that systematically fail to recognize environmental costs unless corrected by government; government that is subservient to corporate interests and the growth imperative; rampant consumerism spurred endlessly by sophisticated advertising; social injustice and economic insecurity so vast they empower often false claims that needed measures would slow growth, hurt the economy or cost jobs; economic activity now so enormous that its impacts alter the fundamental biophysical operations of the planet. 

All of these combine to deliver an ever-growing economy that is undermining the ability of the planet to sustain human and natural communities. That means all of these are environmental issues. Yet very few are addressed by U.S. environmental law, and rarely do they appear on the agendas of mainstream environmental organizations. 

We should be building a new economy that gives top, overriding priority not to profit, production and power, but rather to people, place and planet.

It’s time for something different — a new environmentalism that seeks a new economy. And to deliver on the promise of the new economy, we must build a new politics. 

But, first, we must also address a second question: What’s the economy actually for? The answer, I believe, is to sustain, restore and nourish human and natural communities. If that is the case, we should be building a new economy that gives top, overriding priority not to profit, production and power, but rather to people, place and planet. The watchword of this new economy is “caring” — caring for each other, for the natural world and for the future. 

Promoting the transition to such a new economy must be the central task of a new environmentalism. It is a task that obviously cannot be accomplished by traditional environmentalists alone, but that instead demands a powerful fusion of forces coming together to build a new politics. 

This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate American culture. 

The new environmentalism must work with a progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics.

Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America’s social fabric and undermining its democracy. In a country with such vast social insecurity, economic arguments — even misleading ones — will routinely trump environmental goals. What we have seen in the United States is the emergence of a vicious circle: Income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the growing income disparities. As core to their agenda, environmentalists need to embrace topics such as public financing of elections, anticorruption ethical restrictions on legislatures, the right to vote, tougher regulation of lobbying and the revolving door, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting, and other political reform measures. 

The new environmentalism must work with a progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing, strengthening groups working at the state and community levels, as well as supporting and fielding candidates for public office and developing motivational messages and appeals. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists and economists. Now, we need to hear more from poets, preachers, philosophers and psychologists. 

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment. 

The final goal of the new environmental politics must be to build the movement. We have had movements against slavery and for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are still said to be part of “the environmental movement.” We need a real one — networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize both sustainability and social justice in everyday life.  View Ensia homepage

This piece is based on Speth’s new memoir, Angels by the River, published by Chelsea Green Publishing.

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