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Food Can Close the Green Divide

April 22, 2001|ROBERT GOTTLIEB | Robert Gottlieb's new book is "Environmentalism Unbound: Exploring New Pathways for Change."

The Bush administration has let it be known that it intends to open the door for the oil, gas and chemical industries while putting out the "not welcome" sign to environmentalists who had grown comfortable with the revolving door between government and environmental organizations. True, last week, President George W. Bush, in the face of fierce criticism, began to modify his anti-environmental approach. But not since the early years of the Reagan administration and the convenient targets of James G. Watt and a scandal-ridden Environmental Protection Agency have environmentalists been so thoroughly challenged. In response, environmentalists must reinvent their movement after a decade of sluggish growth and unstated unhappiness with the performance of their presumed allies in the Clinton administration. And food may be a catalyst.

The last two decades have also witnessed a protracted divide within environmentalism itself. On one side are advocates of environmental justice. Rooted in neighborhoods, they focus on the hazards imposed on their communities and are often suspicious of the big, national environmental organizations. On the other side are the national organizations, such as those affiliated with the Green Group. Their lawyers, scientists, lobbyists and experts are chiefly concerned with developing national and international agendas.

In the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration created one environmental crisis after another, these two wings of the environmental movement flourished. Environmental justice groups took on big polluters and government officials whose job was to design solutions to the problems created by the polluters. But while some of the more egregious polluting projects were stopped, the environmental justice groups were left with the task of identifying what their communities needed, not just what they wanted to keep out.

The big national environmental organizations, meanwhile, became wedded to high-profile campaigns. Direct-mail bonanzas yielded more staff, bigger budgets and large paper membership. The groups scored some important victories, like the reauthorization of the federal Superfund law and the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments of 1996. But they also lacked any connection to the communities and constituencies associated with environmental justice. When the first Bush administration toned down the rhetoric (remember George Bush declared that he would be the "environmental president") and former President Bill Clinton opened the passageway to the White House, many of the big environmental groups floundered. They lost paper membership and were unable to identify targets or agendas.

The sudden onslaught on the environment by the second Bush administration offers a kind of Ronald Reagan redux. But can environmentalists also learn the lessons from that earlier period when Watt became the poster boy for environmental anger?

One important and intriguing rallying point is food: how it's grown and processed, its quality, access to it--the overall food system. Food issues touch significantly on environmental questions; but they raise other concerns, too, such as health and social and economic justice.

Supermarkets provide one example. In their rush to the suburbs and their mergers, which have turned local chains into national and even international behemoths, supermarkets abandoned the inner city, squeezed local growers and producers and helped foster a proliferation of snack products (whose nutritional value was zero) and packaging (whose waste was enormous).

Or take the fast-food revolution of the last 30 years. Chains like McDonald's have transformed the way potatoes are grown and how cattle, chickens and hogs are fed, slaughtered and processed. They contribute to the new epidemic of obesity (even among kids who are undernourished!). And they are transforming what kids eat at school by ratcheting up the fat, salt, sugar and caffeine content both inside and outside the school cafeteria. Fast food helps pollute our water, increase our wastes and create health hazards for its workers, like repetitive motion injuries.

These kinds of food issues are now becoming an environmental--and community--movement target. The South-Central-based Community Coalition, for example, has expanded its initial campaigns against liquor stores in the inner city to include the fast-food blight in its neighborhoods and the poor quality of food in its supermarkets. At the same time, it has begun to push plans in the neighborhood for a farmers' market, a community garden and a food court modeled after the local and ethnically diverse outlets at Esperanza's Mercado la Paloma (across the freeway from the Coliseum). Similarly, the Sierra Club has taken up the food issue and will devote a special issue of its magazine to environmental concerns like pesticide use but also to the struggle against genetically modified foods and the growing food insecurity of developing countries.

Food is not the only example of a new focus for environmentalism. The struggle to re-envision the Los Angeles River provides, both symbolically and substantively, a new framework for addressing how diverse communities can be connected and how to link a community and an environmental agenda.

Ultimately, environmentalists need to talk a new language of community change and environmental possibility, of clean air and water, and of healthy communities and workplaces. A rooted, united, and undaunted environmentalism could be the result.

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