The Collusion of Almost Everybody

February 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Catholicism, Climate Change | 7 Comments
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We’ve heard the word “collusion” a lot in recent months. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia? Did members of the FBI collude with the Clinton campaign? Etc., etc.

In his 2016 book, The Environmentalism of the Rich,* Peter Dauvergne details the ways in which mainstream environmental organizations have colluded, so to speak, with environment-destroying corporations. Here’s my review of that book, which appeared in the Grail’s monthly publication, Gumbo, in January:


At first glance, the title of Peter Dauvergne’s book could be off-putting. “Environmentalism” can sound pretty broad, or abstract, while “of the rich” surely doesn’t have much to do with people like us, right?

Actually, the title notwithstanding, Dauvergne’s book has a whole lot to do with people like us: concerned about the degradation of the natural world—God’s creation—but also necessarily up to our necks in the consumer society that is the 21st century United States—driving cars, flying in airplanes, eating processed food, buying cell phones, etc., etc., etc.

The “environmentalism of the rich,” as Dauvergne understands it, is a way of thinking and acting that has come to dominate the mainstream environmental movement in recent years. It focuses on “eco-consumerism”—favoring corporate products that are “green”—and making small life-style changes like composting, recycling, and taking shorter showers, even as overall consumption skyrockets around the world. And thanks to crack-downs since 9/11, state security agencies have suppressed many of the world’s direct action environmental movements that previously succeeded at confronting corporate and government harm and galvanizing the attention of the public.

Especially stunning in Dauvergne’s delineation of this shift from radical environmentalism to the environmentalism of the rich is his documentation of the rise of partnerships between retail corporations and mainstream environmental groups. Consider, for example, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF). Already in the 1960s WWF was lobbying for stronger environmental laws, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to save endangered animals and highlighting the threats that economic development posed to wildlife. It went on to sponsor conservation projects around the world.

But in the 1990s the WWF began advocating “eco-labelling”—working with corporations like Cargill, McDonald’s and Walmart to certify various products and activities as “green.” In 2006, it began partnering with Coca-Cola to promote freshwater conservation in exchange for a $20 million donation. In 2011 Coke and the WWF launched a campaign to raise funds to conserve polar bear habitats; consumers could donate to WWF using “Coke Reward Points”; these projects are now in 50 countries. Coke revenues in 2014 were $46 billion. And it takes 150-300 liters of water to produce a half-liter of a sweetened beverage, in a world where billions of people live without adequate fresh water and obesity is sky-rocketing.

And it’s not only the WWF: The Nature Conservancy partners with Dow Chemical and Cargill; Conservation International works with Bank of America, Coca-Cola, Disney, Exxon-Mobil, McDonald’s, and Nestlé, to name only a few; while the Environmental Defense Fund also partners with McDonald’s. All of these partnerships help to fund the huge numbers of staff people needed to run environmental organizations around the world. Even Greenpeace, a group that has engaged in radical environmental protests over the years, now also engages in eco-consumer campaigns, thus helping to legitimize “the very political and corporate processes that are causing the overall rate of unsustainable consumption to escalate.”

Please do not get the impression that Dauvergne dismisses the contributions of mainstream environmental groups. Some of the best parts of the book are his stories of the achievements of those groups—protecting wilderness and animals, alerting the public to environmental dangers, and so forth. Yet ultimately, he is forced to admit, as are we, that despite these contributions, the situation of the planet is getting worse and worse and worse. And it’s going to take a lot more than the environmentalism of the rich to change it.

But that’s not all. Just after the review came out, I heard a discussion on the radio about another book–God forbid I could find the scrap of paper on which I wrote the title–about the relationships between food banks across the country and food chains like Walmart. Such mega-markets donate to the food banks and then claim they support the hungry. But something like 17% of Walmart employees are on food stamps because they’re paid to so little. Collusion ?

Then I was watching a Big East basketball game with my esteemed companion (I learned to love basketball in the Catholic schools in Philly when I was growing up.) It was a game between two Catholic universities–Marquette and maybe Xavier. During a time-out, an ad for Marquette described it as a university rooted in the Catholic faith. Quite inspiring. Then it was followed by a Jeep ad. And the game was airing on Fox, a network whose news coverage is widely recognized for its profound commitment to Catholic social teaching.

And then there’s my husband and me, with our money in Chase bank.  I mean, a Catholic university can’t be expected to pass on commercials that support its sports team that in turn supports its bottom line just because cars are a major source of the green-house gasses that are destroying the planet, can they? And should the Big East (all Catholic schools, I believe) stop using Fox, when it gives them the best deal, just because Fox commentators are racist nationalists? For that matter, should Keith and I be using some credit union when the Chase branch is walking distance and, conveniently, has more ATMs that any other bank out here in Brooklyn?

Let me conclude with a paraphrase from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “All have colluded and fallen short of the glory of God.” The question is, how are we going to stop?

*Peter Dauvergne , Environmentalism of the Rich (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2018).152 pp.  Paper. $16.95.







My Ambivalent Christmas

December 24, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Posted in Capitalism, Christmas, Climate Change | 6 Comments
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I have to confess, I am having a hard time with Christmas this year. Part of it, of course, is the election of Donald Trump and his nomination of billionaires, generals, climate change deniers and anti-labor activists to the cabinet. Not much to carol about in all this.

I am also sobered because last fall, in the perfect preparation for the Trump election, I took a course title, “Marxism, Science, and the Anthropocene,” offered by the Marist Education Project at the Brooklyn Commons on Atlantic Avenue. (Anthropocene is a term used to indicate that human activity has radically altered the earth’s geological reality.)

Now to say that I had not previously thought of myself as a Marxist is to grossly understate the case, growing up as I did as a working-class American Catholic in the 1950s. Communist executions of Catholics priests and bishops in China and eastern Europe didn’t much incline us in that direction.

But the Marxism course changed all that. As a result of reading and discussing Andreas Malm, John Bellamy Foster, Ian Angus, Jason Moore, Donna Haraway and others, I came away convinced that capitalism is the cause of climate change and the Anthropocene. The problem is the essential place of growth, especially the growth of profit, and thus infrastructure, in the capitalist system when the earth is fundamentally and irrevocably finite. The unfettered ecstasy generated by growing GDP and a rising stock market illustrates the problem pretty well.

As a result of having my imagination reconstructed around the incompatibility of capitalism and God’s creation, I have found the  consumer obscenity of the Christmas season pretty hard to swallow. Why in the name of Jesus (literally) do we buy all this stuff? Nicholas DiMarzio, the bishop of the Catholic diocese of Brooklyn, in which I live, even had buttons handed out to every member of the diocese half way through Advent. He requested that we all wear the buttons in the weeks remaining until Christmas. Here’s the checklist on the button:

(X) Shop

(X) Cook

(X) Go to Church

Kind of like George Bush urging us all to go shopping after 9/11.

I am trying to focus on the fact that Mary and Joseph were homeless people and that the beauty of God’s creation was a central part of the celebration of Christmas throughout Christian history. Green grow the holly and all that.

But I am also getting ready for 2017. As Mark Hertsgaard argues in the January 2—9 issue of The Nation, we’ve got to take to the streets to prevent the incoming administration, the billionaires and the fossil fuel moguls, from destroying this undeniably limited creation that the infant Jesus came to save.

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