A few weeks ago, I ran into a fellow Columbia student at a bar who appeared, in the dim lighting, to be wearing a red felt square pinned to her jacket. Those of you who follow my columns may be aware of my (healthy) obsession with the Québec student movement, and so you can imagine my excitement to see a fellow classmate sporting the symbol of the “Maple Spring.” My eyesight, however, as well as my enthusiasm for radical education movements, had deceived me, for when I asked my comrade about her piece of flair it turned out not to be a red square at all, but an orange one. She explained to me that she is a member of Barnard-Columbia Divest (BCD), and that the orange square is the new symbol of a national student movement against the fossil fuel industry. BCD’s aim is to pressure the university’s administration to divest its financial holdings from corporations that profit from fossil fuels. Students in the divestment movement, allied with groups such as Bill McKibben’s 350.org, believe that they are leading the charge in a new phase of environmental activism.
Orange may seem a strange color to symbolize a movement of climate activists, as we tend to paint these issues in a different hue. The color green, of course, is practically synonymous with the environment and environmentalists. The decision of a group like BCD to adopt another color as the symbol of their movement – which implicitly entails a decision not to wear green – should raise some questions about our accepted notions of environmentalism. “Green” has become in common speech a ubiquitous catch-all term for ecological improvement. When President Obama speaks of “green jobs,” or when our own university urges us to “go green,” we have no trouble inferring that they are speaking, in some vague sense or another, of the environment, or of “sustainability.” For most of us, it has a positive connotation: except for a shrinking population of anti-science climate deniers, people generally agree that “green” is good. We all want cleaner air and water, renewable energy, and clean technology jobs. If that’s the case, why on earth would the divestment movement, claiming to represent a new generation of environmentalists, abandon the color green?
The association of green with environmental politics first became commonplace in the 1970’s with the formation of “green parties,” most prominently in Western Europe and Australia. Though their success has been mixed, these parties can claim the achievement of having built up the necessary political power to force their respective governments to act on a number of environmental issues (last year’s carbon tax in Australia is a prime example). The modern environmental movement in the United States had its beginnings in the grassroots movements of the 1960’s, and though the activists of that generation most likely did not use the term “green” to refer to themselves, they too approached environmentalism as a political issue. The influence of social movements was essential in putting pressure on the government to adopt the environmental protection laws of the 1970’s. In the context of the early stages of modern environmentalism, to be “green” meant, to some extent, to engage in contestation for political power, whether through electoral politics or grassroots organizing.
The environmental movement, however, has since its beginning also contained a staunchly apolitical element. Since Henry David Thoreau, environmentalism has fostered among some of its adherents a longing to withdraw from the society that is the source of all our ecological woes, rather than restructure society in order to remedy them. Since the decline of political radicalism among modern environmentalists in the 1970’s, this apolitical element has become dominant, and remains so today. Our image of environmentalism today consists more of organic farmers and wind turbine engineers than grassroots protesters, and certainly few politicians (Democrats included) deserve the label of environmentalists. The prevailing consensus of how to combat climate change, deforestation, and pollution is to alter one’s personal lifestyle choices so as to always choose the most environmentally friendly (or more likely, the least environmentally harmful) option. In the mass consumer culture of late capitalism, this is the modern-day equivalent of Thoreau’s ideal of withdrawal from society. Thoreau, though born into the destructive lifestyle of urban American society, had merely to flee to his friend’s estate on Walden pond to discover a better way of living. Just so, the green mentality assumes that we too have an ecologically viable choice at our disposal, an escape from a lifestyle that is environmentally harmful by default. All we have to do is consume the products of the most conscientious farmers and engineers. Rarely in recent decades has mainstream environmentalism seriously considered altering, through political contestation, the social structures that determine what our individual options actually are. To be green has lost nearly all its political meaning.
This is particularly insidious in the context of today’s neoliberal ideology that exalts individual choice above all else, and that believes, in the words of Margaret Thatcher, that “there is no such thing as society.” Today’s environmentalism presents personal lifestyle choices as the primary means of fighting climate change (just look at this list of ways to “take action” compiled in conjunction with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). This not only opens up people’s goodwill to be exploited by companies selling “greenwashed” products, but sends the message that radical changes to the systems that lie at the root of our ecological woes is impossible. It is not these systems, products of collective social actions, that are to blame for climate change, but individuals who make bad personal decisions. Are we really free, though, to choose an environmentally friendly lifestyle? What if the economic relations that we have developed are such that a truly sustainable option is not available? Neoliberal ideology, tied to a specific form of social relations, cannot allow these kinds of questions, as their implications would, in all likelihood, provoke political challenges to those relations themselves. Thus, neoliberalism promises that environmental catastrophe can be averted via apolitical means, removing radical social change from the realm of possibility. This has become the new meaning of “green.”
This neoliberal vision is simply false. The way to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, is not for all of us to simply decide to buy oil from other pipelines, but to exercise our collective power as citizens to force politicians to abandon the project. The environmental challenges we face today are political problems, and thus require political solutions. Groups like BCD understand this, and it is for this reason that they have distanced themselves from greenness. Though we can debate the actual potential for success of their methods, their essential aim is a political one. Universities, especially elite ones like Columbia, hold considerable political influence. If students can successfully force the hand of their administrations to act on climate policy, it seems that this could help shift the balance of power away from those with the greatest interest in maintaining destructive economic systems. Whether or not we are on the verge of a turning point in the movement to address our environmentally destructive systems of production and social relations remains to be seen. I, for one, am still unconvinced. If we ever get there, though, the repudiation of what “green” has come to represent, even if merely symbolic, will surely be a necessary condition. Whether or not BCD is successful in forcing Lee Bollinger’s hand on fossil fuel divestment, if “orange” environmentalism ever takes off, their claims to represent a new era of climate activism will have been well-founded.