Environmentalism and anti-imperialism

“Hey Henry, what are you doing in there?”

“Hey Waldo, what are you doing out there?”



This dialogue between Henry David Thoreau and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson is purported to have occurred through the jailhouse window in Concord, Mass., in 1846.

Thoreau (1817-1862), the philosopher-environmentalist and author of “Walden,” was in jail for refusing to pay a poll tax he felt was supporting the U.S. imperialist drive into Mexico, a drive that would also expand slavery. Thoreau’s fusion of environmentalism and anti-imperialism was a precedent-setting stance.

The baton of anti-imperialism among environmentalists was picked up in the early 20th century by Scott Nearing (1883-1983). An economist by training, Nearing was an early advocate of the simple life as a way to stay physically healthy and mentally alert.

While teaching at the Wharton School of Economics, Nearing began investigating child labor and supporting legislation to prohibit it. At the same time, war drums were beating in Europe in the prelude to World War I. When Nearing agitated to keep the U.S. out of the inter-imperialist war, he was summarily fired by the university. His case still is mentioned when academic freedom struggles erupt.

Nearing is popularly known as an early practitioner and initiator of the “back-to-the-land” movement. His book, “Living The Good Life” (1954), co-authored with his wife Helen, is a classic in this genre. What many don’t realize is that he was a member of the Socialist Party and later the Communist Party USA. He remained a staunch anti-imperialist for the rest of his long life. One of his many books was “The Twilight of Empire: An Economic Interpretation of Imperialist Cycles” (1930).

Many see the rebirth of the modern environmental movement in the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962. Carson (1907-1964) focused on the effects of pesticides on wildlife and their potential harm to people, an issue subsequently taken up by the United Farm Workers in the 1970s.

But a forerunner to these efforts was the work of the Committee for Nuclear Information (CNI). Although CNI was initiated by Barry Commoner, women such as Virginia Warner Brodine (1915-2000) played outstanding roles and helped give the evolving group an antiwar bent.

In the 1950s, with participation of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, where Brodine was a staff member, CNI campaigned to have milk tested for strontium-90, radioactive fallout from nuclear testing. This led to a unique partnership of scientists and grassroots citizenry at the height of the Cold War.

In 1963, CNI morphed into the Committee for Environmental Information (CEI). CEI did seminal work on air pollution, water pollution and pesticides. In 1969 it launched the journal Environment. Brodine had served as editor of its precursor, Environment and Citizen.

Brodine opposed the war in Vietnam, visited Cuba, and wrote on that island’s developing environmental consciousness and the need to defend Cuba from imperialist designs. In one of her last theoretical works she exposed capitalism’s forced alienation of workers from both their work and nature. In the manufacturing sector, she wrote, “nature appears to have nothing to do with the work. Those workers who wish to have a connection with nature think of it as something apart” from their work life. It was her conclusion that this fed the slowness of unions and communist parties to recognize the need for a working-class environmentalism.

The anti-imperialist tradition in the environmental movement needs rekindling now more than ever.

In a recent speech on Iraq, President Bush stated, “We are not an imperialist country.” Among the lies this administration has circulated, this was a whopper.

The U.S. has over 395 major military bases throughout the world, and that’s just the big ones. The military arsenal includes 8,000 strategic and 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons. (How’s that for weapons of mass destruction?) Navy nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers and other craft are in every ocean and visit every continent. Their total tonnage and firepower surpasses that of all the world’s navies combined. The U.S. military spends more than all other major

powers combined.

But it’s not just the military realm that stamps the U.S. with the imperialist logo. Its flow of capital is a telltale sign. One needn’t look further than Iraq for evidence. Behind the blur of military force in Iraq came the corporate invasion. Eighteen companies, including Halliburton, Kellogg Brown and Root, Bechtel, and MCI WorldCom, lead the profit parade.

Virginia Brodine developed the slogan, “People and nature before profits.” More than ever, it needs to be raised in the antiwar and environmental movements to increase their breadth and deepen their content.



Nick Bart is an environmental activist. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.