The difference between co-opted and compromised

By Avram Friedman

In January of 2006, Jim Hansen, a climatologist advising the Bush Administration, said that we have “at most 10 years” to make the drastic cuts in emissions that might head off climatic catastrophe. Hansen was speaking to just one major threat to our existence on earth. Likewise, the continued use of fossil fuels and nuclear technology poses the threat of other disastrous consequences such as acid rain, excess nitrogen deposition, mercury contamination and radioactive materials saturate the environment and endanger public health for generations to come.

With the emerging general cognizance of impending global catastrophe, a new sense of urgency should be gripping active members of the environmental community, and with it a new type of strategy involving new techniques of influence should be evolving to match the accelerated need. The cumbersome process of negligible incremental progress followed by regress and then, hopefully, another small step forward, can no longer be the acceptable mode of operation. There is simply not enough time.

Compromise is a time-honored method of achieving incremental progress. Compromise is necessary when confronted with conflicting needs and interests, but it should never be viewed as a goal in itself by the environmental community. Compromise should not be used as an escape hatch to avoid intimidation, appease greedy corporations, or to express “friendship in a spirit of cooperation” with those whose interests differ from the public interest. We have no right to compromise the lives of our children in order to avoid a difficult political struggle. The political atmosphere within which we find ourselves is filled with subtle intimidations, misleading information, pseudo solutions and political pitfalls that can easily divert our attention from the substantive changes that have to occur in the very near future if we truly intend to avoid a major global upheaval. The laws of physics cannot be compromised. Either we are going to save the planet or we are not.

Without malice or blame and without singling out or naming organizations, but with the intent of constructive criticism, I have to report that at least part of the “established” environmental community in North Carolina and elsewhere appears to be moving toward a path of diversion, through a process I can only describe as co-option. I sincerely hope my assessment can be absorbed in the positive spirit in which it is intended, but regardless, these thoughts need to be spoken and I am prepared to let the chips fall where they may.

Co-option is not a new political phenomena. It’s a pitfall that all movements have had to confront throughout the history of political reform. Individuals and organizations struggle to learn the ropes of the system. They familiarize themselves with the process and with key players in powerful positions, as they must. The difficulty arises when a certain measure of success is achieved, when the reformers begin to feel too comfortable and begin to identify with the process and those they are attempting to influence. Relationships and friendships develop, blurring the inherent roles between the parties involved, and without realizing it they become part of the system that is perpetuating the problem.

Almost all environmental organizations began as basic grassroots ventures with noble intentions and admirable dedication toward the ideals dictated by ecological science and of bringing human habitation more into line with the symbiotic patterns of nature. Some have now grown into powerful, influential institutions with teams of lawyers, lobbyists, and media experts. On the one hand, this is necessary. We need this type of power to compete with the powerful interests that are our inherent opponents.

On the other hand, there is a dangerous pitfall that accompanies this power. The leading operatives in these organizations can easily lose touch with the grassroots and begin to identify more with those working on the same level of the political process as they are. Original goals and missions can be left behind in an effort to maintain social credibility within the circles of acquaintances they now frequent. It requires a conscious effort to maintain an ethical separation between the advocate and government agencies and/or inherently adversarial interests. That line is easily crossed, sometimes without realization.

Examples of this co-option process are, unfortunately, becoming more frequent within the established environmental community at a time when we can least afford to divert from real and substantive solutions. For example, acting independently and without regard to their grassroots constituencies, some organizational spokespeople are lending credibility to nuclear power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels, helping to perpetuate the myth that the nuclear industry produces no greenhouse gas emissions and is therefore preferable as a future energy choice. This belief ignores the unsolvable problems of nuclear waste transportation and storage, the irreversible consequences of plutonium dust entering our biosphere, the proliferation of nuclear weapons made more inevitable by the extended use of this technology, the increased possibility of more and greater Chernobyl- or Three-Mile-Island-type accidents with the addition of hundreds of new power plants throughout the country, or the fact that nuclear energywould not be economically viable without heavy government subsidies. Others are lending their names and the credibility of their organizations to promote the technology of coal gasification, misleading the public into believing that there is such a thing as “clean coal” despite the horrible environmental and social consequences wrought by mountaintop removal coal mining and the vast national sacrifice areas being created in West Virginia, Kentucky and elsewhere by that process.

We are in danger of having sanctioned, “company” environmental organizations, similar to “company” unions that were formed by corporations to divert the development of real unions during the heydays of the labor movement. These are groups that avail political figures with compromised or meaningless, yet sanctioned positions they can adopt on environmental issues providing the appearance of progressive movement, but having little substance. These sanctioned organizations are given credence by the news media and treated as if they alone represent the environmental community.

So, now, according to the New York Times, the “environmental community” is beginning to “warm” toward the idea of nuclear power to meet future energy demands to combat global warming. Likewise, in North Carolina state legislators dismiss a grassroots effort to pass a Disapproval Bill against the weakening of New Source Review regulations because “the environmental community” reached a compromise with industry. Halfway measures addressing important issues are arrived at through “compromise” by the sanctioned groups, and then dropped, providing the appearance that the problem has been solved, diverting public attention as the problem continues to fester. Enforcement of existing laws and regulations is ignored and, because the sanctioned organizations don’t find it glamorous enough to raise a fuss, the issue is ignored by the news media, legislators and the public.

Co-option can be insidious in its subtlety while it is devastating in slowing real progress. For instance, while public utility “front” people are conversing with representatives of sanctioned environmental organizations, making trivial concessions and giving lip service to environmental concepts for public consumption, the bulk of the power industry’s legal and financial machines are busy laying the groundwork for a new generation of coal and nuclear plants throughout the Southeast while completely ignoring the health and environmental consequences. Some of the long-established environmental leadership have “grown” into the concept that it is only through cooperation with industrial interests that progress can be made. A frequently repeated concept heard within environmental circles these days is that we have to find a way to make energy efficiency profitable for power companies. Only then, it is thought, will efficiency measures stand a chance for success. “We have to work with industry to achieve gain.”

There is, undeniably, some room to work with industry for gain. For instance, circumstances almost miraculously came together to make it profitable for the power industry to cooperate with the environmental community in producing the North Carolina Clean Smokestacks Act. Likewise, there are industrial corporations throughout the world discovering that increased energy efficiency can mean considerably increased profit margins. But, that’s not always going to happen and the environmental movement can’t limit itself to progress that can be obtained only through chance circumstances that allow deep cooperation with industrial interests.

Cooperation with industry will work only within the narrow realm of possibilities that allow environmental progress to be accompanied by financial benefit to industry. But, beyond that realm there is the vast territory in which corporate interests diverge from the public interest, where changes will have to materialize despite the fact that they don’t bring increased corporate profit or may even bring losses (may I not be hanged for heresy).

It is at this point that the environmental community has to be able to maintain its integrity and identity as a completely separate entity with clearly defined goals that differentiate its interests from both industry and government. This separation has to be so complete that the environmental community retains the moral and ethical ability to turn around and do battle on all legal and political fronts to achieve its goals, regardless of who may be offended or how powerful its inherent opponents may seem. The environmental community can never lose sight of the fact that, while there are occasions when interests may intersect, polluting industries — and in particular the electric power industry — are inherently opponents at the present time.

The electric power industry is in the business of selling energy and it is in its interest for people and industry to use and buy more energy. Those who lose sight of this basic fact are naive and being misled in a direction that wastes the time, effort and limited resources of those working for real progress toward energy efficiency, conservation and a transformation to a renewable energy economy. In addition, the power industry is terminally intertwined with the coal industry and the nuclear industry, with the federal bureaucracy that is promoting its proliferation in conjunction with the Department of Energ, and its nuclear weapons production program. How easy it is to ignore this relationship, go into a state of denial and pretend that real, substantial progress can be made if we simply enter into a cooperative relationship with industry. In effect, to do so is succumbing to the intimidation of the enormity of the power of our inherent opponents, and settle for whatever scraps of perceived progress we can salvage through weak compromise, as political and economic confrontation is avoided at all cost.

Friends, we don’t have time for this. Compromise has had its place and served its purpose in germinating and growing the environmental movement into its current mainstream status. But it’s time to get back to the roots, the grassroots, of the environmental movement and move forward as a force to be reckoned with. Let’s stop for a minute to realize that a great majority of people in this country now consider themselves to be environmentalists. The potential of our movement has changed in our favor and so the dynamics of our actions need to change to take full advantage of this new status. It’s time to cash in our political chips and assert the power that is represented by the majority of the people, the scientific community, the medical community, and virtually every segment of our society including, more and more, the religious community. We have to quickly move past the mode of compromise and into the mode of creating a firm platform that will in actuality meet the needs, based on scientific reasoning, of a step-by-step program that will save the planet. We need to stand by that platform without compromise and battle our opponents through every political, legal, judicial and non-violent way possible, perhaps including civil disobedience, if necessary, to achieve every aspect of that program.

We are the majority. We no longer ask for favors from politicians. Our support has enormous political value. Politicians must seek our support and we must not give it away lightly or cheaply. Whatever has to be done to preserve an inhabitable world for future generations, that’s what we have to do. There is no compromise with scientific data. Compromise is meaningless and detrimental if it doesn’t get us all the way to where we need to be in time to make a difference.

There is no time and no reason to move backwards on air quality issues. It’s time to put our collective foot down and assert our power by facing off against those who would move backwards and stand in the way of the rapid progress that needs to materialize. The sooner we exhibit our political strength the better to permanently change the political dynamics in North Carolina and nationwide, and move relentlessly toward real solutions and dramatic progress within the political system.

(Avram Friedman is executive director of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based clean air advocacy organization. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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