RGV Earth Day 2020 and the Environmental Movement's unsustainability
Updated: Apr 22
By Jonathan Salinas
The Environmental Awareness Club (EAC) at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has kicked-off a week's-worth of Earth Day events.
The series of events comes on the fifty-year anniversary of the first Earth Day, 22 April 1970, when more than 20 million people across the country took to the streets, in the name of environmental justice—the first time such an event had occurred. The EAC holds a climate march every year, which was supposed to take place on Earth Day this year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the climate march was turned into an online series of teach-ins, workshops and online Yoga.
Earth Day's Legacy
Earth Day is nostalgically remembered by conservationists and environmentalists as a benchmark in advocacy and activism. During this time of mass-mobilizations held throughout the 1960s and 70s, bedrock environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act (1973), Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1971) were passed and signed into law in a bipartisan fashion. The legacy of such foundational conservation laws, however, is grim.
The Endangered Species Act is responsible for saving hundreds of wildlife and plant species from extinction over the years. The Clean Air And Water Act cut pollution nationwide. The Trump Administration, however, issued regulations last August which "gutted" the Endangered Species Act, in the words of the Sierra Club, by allowing financial profits to weigh-in as factors when considering federal construction projects.
Additionally, on the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Rio Grande Valley, these “bedrock” environmental laws—and dozens of others, including Native American religious freedom laws and laws governing rivers and harbors—have been routinely “waived” in order to construct border walls for the last fifteen years and still are to this day, as recently as this week.
The waivers on the border are possible because an esoteric law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in 2005 known as the REAL ID Act gave Homeland Security, according to Dinah Bear, the country’s leading environmental lawyer, “the broadest waiver authority in U.S. history,” in order to disregard any law getting in the way of expeditious border wall construction, including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air and Water Acts, among dozens of others.
By publishing in the federal register which laws they will waive, and in which areas, the Department of Homeland Security proudly and at times boastfully announces its plans to build more walls, which often first requires taking people's homes and lands. DHS published new waivers in the federal registry April 15—just in time for Earth Day festivities—announcing border wall construction in Starr County's floodplain, which is sure to be addressed as I will be discussing this at the EAC's zoom meeting tonight on environmental activism in the time of COVID-19. As we speak, however, border wall construction is ongoing, despite numerous lawsuits by conservation groups and public petitions by community organizations.
The harm inflicted by hundreds of border wall miles made possible by the RIA, which actively negates the foundational environmental laws, is incalculable.
Earth Day organizers and leaders of the Environmental Movement's theory of conservationist change relied heavily and most importantly on legislative reforms. In the 1960s and 70s, environmental advocates “saved” parcels of habitat throughout the country, and fought environmental racism with protests but especially with lobbying local, state and federal officials, which led to the legislative victories environmentalists around the country will commemorate this week. Wisconsin U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day founder and legislative champion of the movement played a key role in crafting many of those key conservation bills passed at the time.
Earth Day's legacy, however, demonstrates that if the government can give us a law, they can take it away. Relying on legislative reform is only as good as the legislators and officials charged with enforcing them. When profitable interests, like pipelines and border wall construction, are at stake, these "bedrock" environmental laws, may be overstepped time and again, unsurprisingly, by those who’re supposed to enforce them. There must be another way.
Thankfully, there is. In a 2008 essay titled, The Stewardship of Nature Also Falls to the Working Class, Socialist Workers Party National Secretary, Jack Barnes, wrote, “If we translate everything commonly thought of as an environmental issue into how to advance the protection of the working class, and how the working class can extend that protection to all, then we can hardly ever go wrong.”
While militant labor movements generate, amidst the coronavirus pandemic, workers control over production in my opinion should be our demand at this point of the struggle, not legislative reforms. The demand for workers control is a labor movement demand with continuity and roots. On the subject, Barnes wrote in 1975 that workers control means demanding the owners "open the books" so we can see how money is truly used, while demanding veto-power over production if worker and/or community health and safety is threatened:
“Workers committees must be empowered to decide directly, in consultation with citizens committees responsible to the community, on projects to establish plants or use industrial processes that may adversely affect the environment of cities and regions. Such decisions have to be made on the basis of full and accurate information about the ecological and health effects involved, and with no concern for profits such as motivates the lobbyists and government representatives of big business. Only labor can fight to put science to work as the liberator of humanity, not its destroyer.…”
Coalmine, oil field and border wall construction workers, alongside allied workers in other industries, stand in realistic position to stop border wall construction, global pollution and reverse production priorities: Instead of border walls, for example, we could demand the government hire workers to manufacture personal protective equipment for medical and “front-line” workers and build hospitals.
This struggle will be educational for us, according to SWP 2020 Presidential Candidate Allyson Kennedy, who recently said, “Organizing production will be a school for workers to learn how to run the whole economy in the interests of the vast majority,” as Cuban workers who overtook industry during their workers revolution in 1959 did. And as one can see Cuba lead the world in humanitarian solidarity, one can also see the results of Cuba's revolution, despite U.S. embargo.
Moving forward, environmental efforts for legislative reforms, like the so-called "Green New Deal," will only lead us down that fatal path in which the weathered carcasses of the Endangered Species, Clean Air and Clean Water Act now lay as capitalism’s road-kill. As humanity enters an age of global pandemics, we should pursue more sustainable and enduring victories than those won fifty years ago. Workers control over production, I believe, is our only real chance for a viable planet, society and civilization.
Jonathan Salinas served as the Rio Grande Valley No Border Wall Coalition chair from November 2018-November 2019. He also served on the Lower Rio Grande Valley's Sierra Club Executive Committee from January 2019-January 2020, also serving as a volunteer for the Sierra Club's Borderlands Campaign from January 2019-March 2020.
* * * An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Senator Gaylord Nelson represented the state of California. Senator Nelson in fact represented Wisconsin. * * *
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