(And in oppositional politics in general)
For Earth Day, I’d like to write in brief about an internal dilemma the environmental movement is facing. Because if activist campaigns aimed at mitigating or stopping global warming have been failing to effect the necessary political, economic, social, and cultural changes toward that goal—as I think they have thus far—it’s important to talk about why that might be the case. And as a person who has been in and around the movement in question for over 35 years, there is one causal factor that springs to mind that could stand far more discussion by environmentalists: the fact that lots of children of privilege are attracted to environmental causes.
Which is as it should be, on one level. Especially in a university city like Boston where many wealthy people come to be educated. Such scions of the ruling class should absolutely be as concerned about global warming as anyone else. But on another level, once young people with money and connections get involved in oppositional activist campaigns, they tend to move to replicate class hierarchy in miniature … consciously or unconsciously. Placing themselves at the apex of any available organizational pyramid. Which is a serious problem.
These are people who are “born in the purple.” Who have been trained to rule. From the first moment of Montessori pre-K. Through years of exclusive boarding schools (or public schools in wealthy suburbs like Weston or Sudbury or Concord). And ultimately at Ivy League universities like Harvard or other elite private universities like MIT and Tufts.
Many have real skills that any good social movement needs. But just as capital tends to distort political systems, it also distorts political activism—left, right, or center. When individuals with money and strong personal networks with connections to all kinds of experts and resources decide to do something—in activism as in the other areas of their lives—they have the resources to do it. Whether it is well thought out or not. Whether it is the best move or not. It happens because they can make it happen. Be the project in question the launch of some new “environmentally conscious” juice box; or, to my point, a brand new environmental organization with staff, an office, and access to major media.
Even if wealthy young people don’t start their own groups, they can more easily maneuver to leap into the leadership of existing groups because of their money and connections.
Add to this the tendency of rich people to “flock together” like any other network and it should become apparent why I’m concerned about the effects of significant numbers of young people of means entering the environmental movement and quickly both setting its agenda and providing many of its most visible figures. Who then stay on in top staff and board positions for the rest of their working lives (taking jobs that people from less gilded backgrounds could use). Which does not exactly provide a welcoming space for the majority of working people that have remained on the periphery of an activist scene that does not look like them or anyone they know. Precisely when the campaigns to stop global warming need to become an unstoppable societal force—with working people participating in vast numbers.
There’s no “cure” for this problem in any social movement that aspires to be majoritarian—as the environmental movement certainly does. Rich young activists can and should join up. But there are a few steps that wealthy people can take to ensure that their involvement doesn’t create more predicaments than it solves. And here they are in no particular order:
1) Join organizations that were not started by wealthy people like yourself. Participate in heterogeneous networks and learn to be a good team player in them.
2) Give those organizations access to your money and connections without insisting upon taking a leadership role. And don’t hide the fact of your wealth.
3) Work in the trenches… for a good long while. If you emerge as a leader of one or more organizations based on track record and merit, great. If you don’t, that’s fine too. Go with the flow. Allow organic leadership to flower around you. Whether you end up being a leader or a foot soldier.
4) Don’t have a bifurcated existence—being an activist part of the time, and a typical rich person with a fat investment portfolio and ruling class interests the rest of the time. Choose sides. If you want to side with humanity, then put yourself and all your resources in its service.
If you want to make money like your extended family, and damn the consequences, then just own that and be an enemy of humanity.
Then at least the rest of us will know where you stand.
Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s executive director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2019 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.