Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Corporate Social Responsiblity, Greenwashing, and the Austin Environmental Justice Team

On September 12th, concerns about DAPL drove local citizens to attend a meeting of the Austin Environmental Justice Team (ATXEJ).

According to the meeting organizers, turnout was about 150% higher than usual, suggesting that DAPL is having a galvanizing effect on activism in Austin (and presumably throughout the country).

The meeting was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30, but it lasted far longer than anticipated because the moderators stuck to an agenda designed for sixteen to eighteen people even though there were more than twice that many in attendance. By the time the icebreaking/introduction activity was over, we were already 20 minutes behind schedule.

Most of the attendees were college-aged, and the event was a hybrid of the typical college workshop and an academic or corporate committee meeting.

There were brief periods of general discussion punctuated by structured group activities. And there were also summaries of reports from subcommittee members on various topics (from the funding of the local police department to the extra fees Austinites must pay to receive electricity generated by solar power).

I don't know anything about how ATXEJ receives its funding, but these folks are getting ripped off if their coffers aren't routinely filled by the sinister agents of corporate social responsibility (CSR)--because it's hard to imagine an intentional greenwashing campaign being more effective at dissipating civic energy than this meeting was.

I was one of a group of people who rose to leave at 8:30--partly because that was when the meeting was supposed to end, partly because not one word had yet been said about DAPL (the concern that had brought most of us to the event), and partly because it had become evident, by that point, that ATXEJ takes a neoliberal approach to environmental concerns.

I sensed the neoliberal tendencies in one of the earlier exercises, when roughly one in five people talked about how important it is for activists to listen to communities in order to get anything done--without a single one of these people indicating what they had learned by listening.

Then came the admission (from a leader named Josh) that the community of environmental activists in Austin is so fragmented that it's hard to organize collective action. Lots of people followed up on his remarks to lament that fragmentation, but no suggestions for building coalitions were examined or discussed. Such suggestions were merely "listened to."

My heart sank especially when we heard from Pete, an environmentalist in east Austin (where the population of African-Americans and Latinos is most concentrated). Pete found his way to ATXEJ because he noticed, as a Hispanic living in east Austin, that all the other neighborhoods around town had beautiful parks. Unfortunately, instead of enjoying nicely maintained parks, the people of east Austin have been living with an area called Red Bluff, where garbage and used oil have been illegally dumped for decades.

Pete's premise was perfectly reasonable: All taxpayers in Austin are entitled to decent parks.

But after working with ATXEJ, Pete's perspective seems to have been warped by neoliberalism. He has done a great job of motivating local citizens (and some politicians) to help clean up Red Bluff, but city officials are unwilling to provide the funding that will maintain it--so Pete is currently working with community leaders to figure out how the citizens in the immediate area can raise money on their own to maintain Red Bluff.

This is the lesson that neoliberalism teaches us: Your tax dollars are going to be spent on the elites, so if you want anything for yourself, you'll have to do it on your own.

It's great that Pete tackled the problem of Red Bluff, and it's great that his community is exploring ways to maintain the area. But what isn't great is the persistence of the fundamental injustice underlying the problem (the fact that wealthier, whiter communities throughout Austin will continue to spend tax dollars raised in east Austin on their own parks without supporting Pete's efforts in any way).

So when ATXEJ bills itself as a "safe space," that's probably because it's designed to preserve the privileges associated with the status quo. If you come to ATXEJ with a problem, they'll be happy to suggest ways that you can address the problem--without rocking the boat.

And if you come to them with a solution, such as how to unify the various environmental groups in the city, they'll listen--without doing anything.

This was my first time to attend an ATXEJ meeting, so it's entirely possible that I've formed an incorrect impression of how the organization operates. However, my first impression of ATXEJ is that this is what greenwashing looks like.

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