Grassroots Victories, Lobbyist Gridlock




This article originally appeared in Z Magazine, February 1995.

On an unusually balmy November morning, eco-activists in the northeast awoke to some long-awaited but entirely unexpected news. In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 elections, any good news would be unexpected, but this one would be an occasion for celebration in any season. The new nationalist Prime Minister of Quebec, Jacques Parizeau had announced the indefinite postponement of the hotly contested Great Whale hydroelectric project in the James Bay region of northern Quebec. The project, Parizeau said, was “sur la glace,” on ice, and for a long time to come.

Opposition to Quebec’s hydroelectric megaprojects was the last major environmental issue uniting activists from different sectors of the community with varying political outlooks in the northeastern U.S. and Canada. Hydro Quebec, the province-owned utility that had for two decades staked its future on damming all of the major wilderness river systems in the James Bay region, had become an international symbol of ecologically devastating development, injustice toward traditional native populations, and high stakes financial and political manipulations. Grassroots coalitions of environmentalists, native solidarity activists, and advocates of sustainable energy and fiscal responsibility pressured electric utilities and regulatory boards throughout the northeast to reject or reduce the power contracts with Hydro Quebec.

The Great Whale project was to be the next major leap in Hydro Quebec’s expansive development plan. The planned series of dams along the Great Whale River would have flooded some 1,800 square miles of forests and wetlands and severely disrupted hydrological cycles in a heretofore undisturbed region larger than New England. It would have destroyed the habitat of caribou and freshwater seals, and the major feeding grounds of migratory birds important throughout the northeast. The flooding of vast quantities of vegetation would have resulted in emissions of methane and carbon dioxide that some scientists said would affect global climate at least as much as if the same amount of electricity (over 3,000 megawatts) were to be produced by burning fossil fuels. More immediately, decaying vegetation would leach toxic quantities of mercury into the entire watershed, as had already happened in the vicinity of the La Grande River system, which Hydro Quebec dammed and flooded in the 1970s.

The devastation would have affected the thousands of native Cree and Inuit people living in the Great Whale watershed, near where the shallow, nutrient-rich waters and coastal marshes of James Bay meet the frigid deep waters of Hudson Bay to the north. When the more southerly La Grande River was dammed in the 1970s, many Cree communities were relocated to new settlements, where traditional ways of life had to be abandoned and people became dependent on meager welfare payments and “development assistance.” Fish from local rivers, the mainstay of the Cree diet for millennia, were often too contaminated to eat, and children and pregnant women were advised by health officials to avoid them entirely. These resettlement communities are plagued with alcoholism, suicide, and other symptoms of advanced cultural decay.

Finally, purchases of electricity from James Bay were shown to be a bad deal for U.S. utility customers. Hydro Quebec depended on their U.S. contracts for the dollars needed to repay major investors in the U.S. When Hydro Quebec’s dams became a source of widespread controversy in New England and New York, state officials were assured that the contracts would be fulfilled from already existing sources of electricity, while at the same time people in Quebec who questioned their utility’s gargantuan construction program were told that new construction was necessary to meet overseas contract obligations. Activists also noted that exporting billions of electricity dollars to Quebec ($4 billion from Vermont alone, and many times that from other states negotiating for Hydro Quebec power) would freeze up funds that could otherwise be used to fund intensified conservation efforts and more sustainable regional eneemrgy sources, while bolstering local employment. When the bottom began to fall out of the glutted northeast electricity market in the early 1990s, already questionable financial arguments offered by state officials in support of the Hydro Quebec contracts became even more dubious. By 1994, utilities in Vermont that had purchased Hydro Quebec power, despite widespread opposition, were selling back most of that power to Quebec at a substantial financial loss.

Grassroots Strategies

Tying together all these issues and more, activists throughout the region developed campaigns against these power purchases that were more diverse, colorful and decentralized than anything the region has seen for some time. Activists petitioned state officials and regulatory agencies. There were demonstrations in the streets of the state capitals, at utility offices and at utility commission hearings and press conferences. Students at major universities initiated divestment campaigns. Cree speakers appeared regularly throughout the region, and Cree and Inuit canoeists traveled up the St. Lawrence River, down Lake Champlain and the Hudson River to New York City, holding public receptions along the way. Traveling roadshows brought music and slides of James Bay to cities and small towns. In towns with municipally-owned utilities, residents successfully pressed for public referenda on the Hydro Quebec contracts. Activists in Vermont and New York State forged alliances with labor around the issue of job losses from such large exports of public funds. People developed alternative energy plans for their towns, and curricula about James Bay and the Cree for their local schools. One town in Vermont established an ongoing student exchange program with a school in the Cree and Inuit town of Great Whale.

All these actions contributed to the steady erosion of political support for the Hydro Quebec contracts. Maine was the first state to turn down Hydro Quebec power, requiring utilities to strengthen conservation plans instead. The Vermont contracts were reduced by about a third (due to declining electric demand and to successful referendum drives in Burlington and other communities), and then railroaded through by a Democratic governor with close political ties to both the utilities and to Wall Street. Probably the most decisive blow was the cancellation in the spring of 1992 of a $13 billion contract with the New York State Power Authority. Activists in Quebec and the U.S. continued to apply pressure on state and utility officials. Last fall, Vermont regulators took the unusual step of lowering the allowed rate of return on equity for the Central Vermont Public Service Company, the utility with the largest share of Hydro Quebec power and the greatest resulting losses. Vermont utilities faced increasing pressure to renegotiate their contracts.

Meanwhile, the Great Whale project was becoming a significant embarrassment for the new Quebec government. The Parti Quebecois was voted into power last year promising a referendum on Quebec sovereignty within a year of their victory. Incessantly promoted by the previous Liberal government as the key to Quebec’s economic integrity, Hydro Quebec, with its massive international debts and massive construction program, was facing an increasingly uncertain future. Electric demand was falling, while new dams were still being built, both on the La Grande River near James Bay, and on the Sainte Marguerite River near the mouth of the St. Lawrence and close to the border with Labrador. The native Innu community, residing in Labrador and eastern Quebec, was increasingly divided over the Sainte Marguerite dams; a dozen Innu and several U.S. supporters were arrested last May blockading road construction in preparation for a third Sainte Marguerite dam. Hydro Quebec suffered an additional political embarrassment when some 15 executives and former executives of the utility were tied to the Solar Temple cult after the mysterious mass killing of its members in Switzerland last fall. Cree representatives made it widely known that if Quebec were to secede from Canada, then the native peoples of the region were ready to take steps to secede from Quebec.

The November announcement may still not have been the last word on Great Whale. Cree spokespeople immediately denounced Parizeau’s announcement as a political ploy, and fear that as long as the environmental review process for the Great Whale dams continues, Hydro Quebec will be able to obtain the necessary permits and resurrect the project at any time. Some activists in Montreal are more optimistic, and expect the environmental review to also be suspended shortly. However, construction continues in Innu country which, despite its geographic distance from James Bay, reflects Hydro Quebec’s continuing practice of destructive hydroelectric projects on native lands. Hydro Quebec agreed to lower the prices Vermont utilities pay for electricity, but ratepayers and stockholders are still organizing to press utility officials to reconsider their commitments to imported power.

Grassroots Successes

While the battle for James Bay may not be over, Parizeau’s announcement was clearly a victory for grassroots environmentalists and native solidarity activists. While mainstream environmental groups suffer the bruises of interminable defensive battles and compromise away their rapidly diminishing integrity for the sake of watered-down legislative “victories,” the James Bay campaign demonstrates that grassroots movements can win where working entirely within the system cannot.

National environmental groups like the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club and NRDC did play a role around the James Bay issue, but they generally took a back seat to the initiatives of local community activists. Not that they didn’t try to take control of the issue. On many occasions, the national groups sought to capture the initiative around James Bay, with promises of more funds and higher visibility for local campaigns. On a few occasions, they did play an important supporting role: Audubon was the first organization to publicize the issue nationwide, and NRDC used its influence to get a well-publicized hearing for Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon-Come before the New York State legislature. But while grassroots campaigns made James Bay a highly visible issue in communities throughout the region, the mainstream groups were most notable for their incessant turf battles, broken promises, and continued exploitation of the issue to fuel their own direct mail fundraising appeals.

James Bay is not the only issue where grassroots campaigns of public education, community organizing and direct action have succeeded where the behind-the-scenes lobbying campaigns of the large mainstream groups have accomplished little, while draining the movement’s scarce financial resources and activists’ morale. The 1980s and early 1990s saw a massive effort to promote incineration as the solution to a growing solid waste crisis in communities across the U.S. A new generation of incinerators were vigorously promoted as sources of renewable energy as well as cost-effective waste disposal, claims which rapidly lost credibility against findings of poor economic performance and uncontrollable emissions of dioxins and other toxic substances. According to Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation, community groups defeated 280 proposed incinerators between 1985 and 1994, some 80 percent of all those proposed. Environmental justice activists, local Green groups, public health advocates, and many others contributed to what may be the most decentralized, least publicized, and probably the most successful multiracial popular movement in the U.S. today.

Local groups from New York State to California have resisted the federal government’s plans to site regional dumps for low level nuclear waste in communities across the country. While these facilities are promoted as repositories for medical waste and radioactive tools, activists have discovered that their main purpose would be to bury the highly radioactive reactor vessels from the scores of nuclear power plants that will face decommissioning in the next several decades. Efforts to prevent the siting of these nuclear dumps have drawn on the methods of the grassroots anti-nuclear power movement of the 1970s and early 1980s that succeeded in reducing the number of nuclear power plants in the U.S. from a planned 300 to 1,000, based on the industry estimates of the mid-1970s, to just over 100. Despite tens of billions of dollars a year in federal subsidies, the nuclear power industry has been unable to license a single new plant since the Three Mile Island accident of 1979.

Grassroots groups throughout the country have also protected countless acres of National Forest land from logging over the past several years. Small groups of wilderness advocates, field ecologists and activist lawyers have contested logging permits, exposed corporate abuses, and rallied public support for preserving some of the last intact forest land in North America. Meanwhile, efforts to enforce better forest policies through legislation have rarely succeeded on the national level, and Clinton’s Forest Service appointees have proved to be as beholden to the timber industry as their predecessors, despite their apparent command of ecological science and environmentalist rhetoric. Several Forest Service and Interior Department employees who were emboldened to speak out for reform by Secretary Bruce Babbitt’s early supportive public statements have been summarily fired or simply removed from policy-making positions. It has been up to small, underfunded groups of activists to do the basic work of regulatory enforcement that they once believed the Clinton administration would acknowledge its legal responsibility for.

Environmental Gridlock

Two short years ago, the voices of official environmentalism were brimming with confidence that the incoming Clinton administration would soon be implementing their agenda. But even though officials of DC-based environmental groups were appointed to a number of high-profile advisory positions in the administration, these hopes were rapidly dashed. Even the policies they thought would be easiest to change, such as the elimination of money-losing timber concessions and of public lands grazing and mining permits still offered at 19th century prices, succumbed quickly to Clinton’s deference to powerful moneyed interests. Instead of actively supporting popular environmental measures, Clinton has consistently framed policy issues in a way that has demobilized advocates of environmental protection, while fueling the flames of right wing reaction.

Some liberals still assert that the Administration has the best of intentions and that its plans have been sabotaged by powerful interests outside the government. The League of Conservation Voters, along with many issue oriented lobbying groups like the Western Ancient Forest Campaign, put the blame on Congress, which they say has had the worst voting record on environmental issues since the mid-1960s. Now, with the Republican right having seized the reigns of Congressional leadership, one wonders how these organizations, along with major funders like the Ford and Pew Foundations, will be able to sustain the claim that Congressional lobbying should be the strategic centerpiece of the environmental movement.

Few would argue that what happens in Congress is irrelevant. Many imperfect but pivotal environmental laws—most notably the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act and Superfund—were up for renewal last year and were successfully stalled by right wing forces. Now, we will see further attempts to pad these laws with all manner of gimmicks handed down from rightist think tanks and their minions of “wise use” and “property rights” fanatics: payoffs to landowners who face regulatory limits on “development,” a halt to state-level enforcement of federal regulations, imposed cost-benefit requirements for new regulations, measures to curtail public participation in the regulatory process and all manner of new corporate tax breaks, to name a few. A detailed analysis by OMB Watch released in November revealed how the “contract” promoted by congressional Republicans would thoroughly immobilize federal regulatory agencies by smothering them in layers of additional budgetary, judicial, administrative, and legal burdens. Meanwhile, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund will continue pushing for tradable permits and other “market-based” substitutes for regulation. Both types of efforts to weaken already compromised environmental protections need to be opposed at all levels.

But trying to out-lobby the corporate lobbyists in a Congress clearly predisposed in their favor is a recipe for demoralization and exhaustion. Many of the environmental laws we now take for granted once represented the system’s defensive responses to political and legal pressure for more stringent protections. This echoes the pattern of most of the progressive legislation implemented over the past 50 years. Environmental laws have offered a predictable regulatory framework for abuses that were vehemently opposed by growing numbers of people. However, for the current crop of environmental professionals and lobbyists, legislation is an end in itself. They have become practitioners of what Robert Gottlieb, author of the most politically astute history of U.S. environmentalism (Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, Island Press, 1993), terms “a kind of interest group politics tied to the maintenance of the environmental policy system.” Though Gottlieb tends to underestimate many of the gains of what he terms the alternative environmental movements of the 1980s and 1990s, he carefully documents how mainstream environmentalism came to be redefined “less as a movement and more directly as an adjunct to the policy process.”

This brand of back-room politics has made it easier for significant numbers of people to be mobilized in reactionary campaigns against further regulation to protect public health and the integrity of ecosystems. In a period when state and corporate bureaucracies exercise unprecedented control over the lives of millions of people, right wing demagogues have been able to depict environmental regulations as excessive constraints on individual freedom, handed down by faceless government bureaucracies. Voters are mobilized by cynical campaigns against “government,” while expressions of anxiety over increasing corporate control are dismissed as futile gestures against the inevitable. This trend is unwittingly supported by environmental managers who are more comfortable wielding the instruments of state power—or the mere illusion of power—than aiding in the development of participatory means for popular mobilization.

“Activist Malpractice”

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people with pro-environment sympathies are regularly demobilized by futile campaigns for legislative measures that are often acknowledged by their supporters as having little potential for passage. This has been most apparent recently around food safety issues, another area where public outrage and action succeeded in halting unsavory corporate practices. Widespread public outrage has curtailed the adoption of irradiation as the technology of choice for food preservation, a development that seemed nearly inevitable just a few years ago. Anti-irradiation laws were passed in a handful of states, but what held back food irradiation was primarily an organized grassroots campaign targeted against corporations: supermarket chains, wholesale food distributors and the irradiation facilities themselves. Efforts to apply the same methods to campaigns against pesticides and genetically engineered foods have been severely compromised by well-funded national groups promoting exclusively legislative solutions.

Michael Colby, director of Food and Water, the organization that catalyzed much of the anti-irradiation activism around the country, has termed this “activist malpractice.” Instead of supporting and encouraging popular mobilizations against the companies responsible for compromising public health, organizations with virtual monopolies on scarce organizing resources are lulling activists into a false sense of complacency—inevitably followed by cynicism and burnout—with incessant letter writing campaigns for temporary moratoria, labeling laws, and gradual phaseouts. No matter how diluted, these bills are still acknowledged as having little or no chance of passing Congress, especially in the absence of a widespread campaign for more lasting protections.

In Food and Water’s quarterly Safe Food News, Colby wrote, “Activist leaders, particularly those with a legislative focus, tend to treat the struggles more as some kind of game than an essential struggle for the health and well-being of the public and the environment. Why else would groups so readily trade real reform for hollow, watered-down compromises that do little except bolster reputations and give the false impression of victory?” While legislative action may have a role in consolidating and sustaining the successes of grassroots movements, as it has many times in the past, there is nothing but defeat in the offing for strategies that would turn grassroots activists into passive supporters and letter writers for environmental lobbyists.

The incessant conflicts among conservation groups over highly compromised wilderness protection bills offer a similar message. While thousands of acres of land have been protected by strategic lawsuits and popular mobilizations, the only significant public lands bill to pass Congress last year protected six million acres of southern California desert from development, but not from mining, grazing, hunting and the use of off-road vehicles. While these lessons often evade mainstream environmentalists, they are no mystery to corporate strategists who attended an exclusive conference on “grassroots organizing” last year—described in the winter issue of the important new PR Watch newsletter—that featured speakers from the Christian Coalition and numerous public relations firms. Reporter Joel Bleifuss describes how the right’s voter databases are being used to manipulate both state and local elections, and how employees of major corporations are coming under increasing pressure to serve as political operatives for their employers around controversial public issues.

To Confront Corporate Power

Last July, the directors of the 15 largest environmental groups, from the National Wildlife Federation to Greenpeace, sent a first-ever joint letter to their members calling for action against right wing efforts to weaken major environmental laws. “Even during the Reagan/[James] Watt/[Anne] Gorsuch years, we have never faced such a serious threat to our environmental laws in Congress,” they said. Their answer: write to the White House and your representatives. No public mobilization, no unified media campaign to counter the “wise use” fraud, no call for direct action, no mention of corporations, except for the elusive oil, timber and mining “lobbies.” Just write to the President, send money, and trust your favorite organization to do the rest.

In response to this well-meaning but notably lacking effort, two prominent advisers to the environmental justice movement proposed an alternative. Peter Montague of the Environmental Research Foundation (and publisher of the widely quoted Rachel’s Environment and Health Weekly) and Richard Grossman, best known for founding Environmentalists for Full Employment during the 1970s, gathered nearly 175 signatures from both individuals and organizations—a virtual who’s who of “alternative” environmentalism—for a letter extolling the directors of the 15 national groups to seriously address the issue of corporate power. “We believe that it is too late to counter corporate power environmental law by environmental law, regulatory struggle by regulatory struggle. We don’t have sufficient time or resources to organize chemical by chemical, forest by forest, product by product, corporate disaster by corporate disaster,” the letter pleaded, urging a coordinated strategy to address the larger issues at stake.

Grossman has also been traveling across the country encouraging activists to challenge the legal personhood that gives “corporate leaders legal authority to make private decisions on very public issues.” In a pamphlet, titled “Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation,” Grossman and worker-management pioneer Frank Adams trace the gradual but systematic erosion of the public power to regulate corporate practices. Whether their specific strategy of challenging corporate charters on the state level will be the key to focusing popular opposition against corporations remains to be seen. However, it is virtually certain that only a return to grassroots activism, with widespread popular campaigns against corporate abuses and corporate control, can interrupt the demoralizing spiral of endless defensive battles and challenge the widespread political appeal of the reactionary right.