Occupy Wall Street Should Target Environmental Offenders

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 Wall Street’s concerns, however, are environmental issues. OWS’ emphasis on the misdeeds of financial institutions has deflected anger from dirty energy and big agriculture villains. Protesters 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, journalist Naomi Klein mentioned climate change in her speech to protesters, and I saw an anti-fracking petition circulating through the crowd when I attended last weekend.

Nevertheless, OWS continues to treat America’s staggering inequality as Wall Street’s fault: OWS implicitly claims that deregulation of banks, rather than of polluters, has plunged us into this nightmare of stratospheric corporate profits and unemployment.

Yet there is, in fact, a robust connection between environmental degradation and income inequity. 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 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 suggests that environmental destruction and economic inequality are both symptoms of the same obscene corporate power that Occupy Wall Street deplores.

Think, for an 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. 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 the 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 marine mammals whose blowholes were fouled with sludge.

The Gulf is hardly the only place where 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 OWS 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

And although Wall Street's foul play inflicted a ghastly wound on global economies, that wound was a fleeting one: We will not 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 sub-prime lending hijinks.

Occupy Wall Street, then, could effectively address equity issues by expanding its purview to environmental reprobates. The architects of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling, and the expansion of hydrofracking all make suitable targets. Stricter pollution regulations, stronger laws in defense of farmers, and the implementation of a carbon tax are reasonable policy goals. The movement has developed the right rhetoric — now it must broaden that rhetoric's use.          

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Ben Goldfarb

Ben Goldfarb is a recent graduate of the Yale School of Forestry, where he received a Masters of Environmental Management and served as editor of Sage Magazine. Ben's writing on environmental issues has appeared in publications such as The Guardian, OnEarth Magazine, and Green Futures Magazine.

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