Op-Ed: OWS Can and Should Embrace Environmental Issues, Broaden Targets


The Occupy Wall Street movement has pitched a broad tent: its central pole may be the grotesque power wielded by America’s banks, but it finds room for grievances ranging from exorbitant student debt to the death penalty. This eclecticism has contributed to OWS’ success: not only has it managed to attract the entire spectrum of disenfranchisement, it has also exposed the linkages that connect America’s ailments – the protests have helped us see bank deregulation, foreign wars, unemployment, and numerous other ills as products of corporate influence.

Mostly absent from Occupy’s concerns, however, are environmental issues. OWS’ emphasis on the misdeeds of financial institutions has deflected anger from dirty energy and Big Agriculture villains: protestors heap opprobrium on Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, while Exxon and Monsanto slink off largely unscathed. Granted, environmental causes are gaining some traction within the movement: activist Bill McKibben spoke in Washington Square Park against the Keystone XL pipeline, and journalist Naomi Klein mentioned climate change in her speech to protestors. Nevertheless, Occupy continues to treat America’s staggering income inequality as Wall Street’s fault: deregulation of banks, rather than of polluters, has plunged us into this nightmare of stratospheric corporate profits and unemployment.

While the protests haven’t yet associated inequality with environmental degradation, there is, in fact, a robust connection. In 2007, three researchers from McGill University published an article titled Economic Inequality Predicts Biodiversity Loss, which examined the correlation between a country’s Gini Coefficient (a measure of income inequality), and the number of endangered or threatened species within that country. The study demonstrated a close linkage between the variables: every 1% increase in a country’s inequality predicted a 2% increase in species endangerment. Even more remarkably, those results held true within American states: the more unequal the state, the worse off its biodiversity. When the research team repeated the study with more complex models in 2009, those correlations appeared again.

Although the McGill researchers don’t speculate on the levers driving their results, a quick glance at recent events suggest that environmental destruction and economic inequality are both symptoms of the same obscene corporate power that Occupy Wall Street deplores.

Think, for obvious example, of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The year before the Deepwater Horizon went up in flames, BP posted profits of $5.3 billion (the approximate GDP of Niger) with the help of the Department of the Interior, which turned a blind eye to BP’s myriad safety violations. Lest you worry that the favor went unrewarded, fear not: members of the Minerals Management Service were treated to football games and golf tournaments, falsified reports, and used crytal meth and cocaine with oilmen on an offshore rig. The outcome of this literally incestuous relationship was, of course, the worst oil accident in the history of oil.

The BP spill has had profound impacts on both local economies and ecosystems. Although detriments to Gulf states have proven difficult to quantify, it is certain that seafood industry losses register in the hundreds of millions, and that thousands of fishermen, though temporarily buoyed by piecemeal BP payouts, have lost, or will lose, their livelihoods. Simultaneously, studies have demonstrated catastrophic losses to species in every trophic level, from killifish born with deformed gills to whales whose blowholes were fouled with sludge.

The Gulf is hardly the only place we see environmental and economic disaster running in tandem, and in service to corporate wealth. America’s agriculture has been held hostage by iron-fisted and deep-pocketed companies such as Monsanto and Cargill, which treat their farmers like serfs and impose disastrous monocultures upon the land. Monsanto in particular has bankrupted countless farmers through its GMO seed monopolies, and the omnipresence of Roundup has done profound damage to biodiversity.

And then there’s global warming: in recent years, fossil fuel extractors have gleaned the largest profits in history with the help of extensive government subsidies and deregulation. If Occupy Wall Street really wants to fight corporate wealth, the movement should pick a new nemesis: while Goldman Sachs’ revenues were $39.2 billion in 2010, ExxonMobil’s were a mind-blowing $383 billion. The most widely reviled financial institution in the world is a community lender compared to Exxon. And although Wall Street foul play inflicted a ghastly wound on global economies, that wound was a fleeting one: we won’t be living with the consequences of credit-default swaps in 2050. Climate change, however, is with us for the very long run, and the havoc it wreaks on human livelihoods and the environment will dwarf the effects of subprime lending hijinks.

Occupy Wall Street, then, would be wise to reassess who its true enemies are, or at least to include a few more corporations’ names on its hit list. But how can the movement make environmental wrongdoers pay for their misdeeds, and simultaneously reduce inequality? Here are two demands that the movement should include in its litany.

First, strengthen environmental regulations. The SEC deservedly earned the wrath of protestors for failing to check the activities of banks; but President Obama played just as fast and loose with the nation’s health when he ignored the EPA and elected not to stiffen smog regulations in August. Allowing unsafe emissions of smog and other pollutants benefits the balance sheets of factories and power plants while harming children, asthmatics, and every air-breathing life form. Therefore regulation is an equity concern, as well as an environmental one.

Second, enact a carbon tax. The only way to create a truly equitable global economy is to force companies to pay for the external costs they impose upon society, and a carbon tax is the best way to address that goal. Carbon taxes are frequently referenced as a way to incentivize emissions reductions, but, depending on how the tax revenues are used, they could also help ameliorate environmental woes and disparity. Compensating people who live near risky natural resource projects; investing in green jobs programs; and restoring wetlands and other habitats of both economic and ecological importance, would all be worthy uses of carbon tax revenue.

If Occupy Wall Street truly cares about solving equity issues and breaking corporations’ hold on America, the movement would do well to expand its purview to environmental reprobates. The architects of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and the expansion of hydrofracking all make suitable targets.

The movement has developed the right rhetoric – now it has to reapply it.    


Benjamin Goldfarb

F&ES Class of 2013                                     


Austin Lord

Austin Lord is a graduate student at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, focusing in Political Ecology and Environmental Anthropology with an area concentration in Himalayan Studies. His ongoing research concerns processes of social and spatial change in areas affected by hydropower development in Nepal, with a particular focus on changing livelihoods and shifting patterns of migration and mobility. Austin spent over six months conducting fieldwork within Nepal during 2012 and 2013, focusing specifically on the upper watersheds of the Trishuli and Tamakoshi rivers, and he plans to return to Nepal in 2014-2015 to continue and expand this work. Prior to attending Yale, Austin studied Hydrology at Portland State University and received an A.B. in Economics and Studio Art from Dartmouth College. A broader collection of his photographic work (from Nepal and elsewhere) can be found at www.austinlord.com.

More Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *