The environmental movement & “green” capitalism

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Today is World Environment Day 2018!

Environmentalism has become one of the largest and most influential social movement to arise in the last century.

Through a critical look into the environmental movement, ecological modernization, and corporate responsibility,  we look at how the movement has been adapted to “green” consumerism wit the illusionary ideology that consumerism can be compatible with safeguarding the environment.

Prior to the early 1970s, environmental based movements were “a small niche in American society” that existed outside of mainstream social and political discourse.Like all the radical movements of the 60s that arose at the margins of the political system, the environmental movement was an extraordinary grassroots movement in response to ecological disasters that employed an anti-establishment tactic. Around the early 1970s, however, the environmental movement began to enter popular discourse, both in law and in society and called for a dramatic shift in the legal landscape regarding environmental issues.

The movement was able to successfully generate a popular discourse regarding the values of environmentalism and became favorably accepted in society. Terms such as “ecology” and “resource depletion” entered public discourse and survey polls showed a significant shift in public attitude with the majority of Americans claiming sympathy for the cause of environmentalism.1 Subsequently, the movement successfully achieved a prominent position on the public’s agenda, persuading the regulatory regime to establish environmental protection standards in law that spur legislative actions to minimize environmental threats such as pollution and protect our natural resources.

Beginning in the late 1970s, the movement’s original demands for a transformational shift in law reform lost its prominence in favor of a more discrete and incremental legal change, known as normal politics.1 This shift paved the way for the movement to gain a role in policy-making, submitting to traditional insider political strategies. The movement employed court-based tactics, such as turning to courts to enforce and maintain their previous legislative victories, secure penalties against corporations, and prevent the loosening of environmental regulatory legislation.1

As such, the environmental movement became institutionalized within the political sphere, submitting to the practices of the legal institution for environmental change, so far removed from its earlier anti-establishment tactics that demanded a broad transformation of the political institutions themselves.

Ecological modernization and the institutionalization of the environmental movement 

In the age of neoliberalism, environmentalism has been institutionalized within established organizations that have become the most powerful and influential agencies for environmental change.

Environmentalism is dominated by giant, top-down market-oriented green non-governmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Resources Defense Council, amongst others. Green NGOs’ main rhetoric for environmental change includes a partnership with corporations and strategies such as lobbying politicians and court battles as the most effective way to moderate and place limits on the anti-environmental activities of corporations.2

The institutionalization of environmentalism has allowed for global capitalism to enter “the lexicon of green politics.”4 Increasingly, corporations have become responsive to the interests of the environmental movement by offering solutions to combat environmental issues. This is referred to as ecological modernization, a set of processes and perspectives whereby capitalism tries to achieve its version of sustainable development with the premise that the system of capitalism itself must be sustained.3

The contradiction is apparent.

Global capitalism itself has been massively responsible for the profound environmental damages and issues. The capitalist goal of increased profit requires the constant accumulation of capital through a constant increase in production and of consumption of various resources.As a result, capitalist development contributes enormously to pollution, climate change, deforestation, ozone depletion, and many other environmental issues. Thus, corporate responsibility is an extremely irrational and contradictory approach when transnational capitalism and its massive corporate firms continue to cause enormous destruction to the environment.2 When capitalism becomes ostensibly mixed with an environmentalist aspect, the basic contradictions of capitalism are disregarded.3

Undoubtedly, environmental regulations and Green NGOs have been key agents in addressing some of the concerns expressed by environmentalism. “[T]he widespread acceptance of environmentalists’ values by the public, and even apparently by the marketing departments of corporate America, signals how far environmentalism has penetrated American society.However, these institutions have also been key players in creating major barriers for the movement to fully realize and achieve its goals of environmental protection. In addition, ecological modernization processes have paved the way for the rise of a massive corporate environmental technology industry.

The rise of the environmental technology industry

The environmental technology industry refers to an emerging industrial sector composed of companies and organizations that provide products and services to reduce ecological damage through means of eco-efficient and cost-effective processes to address environmental issues and problems. Ecological modernization is “essentially a political strategy to try to accommodate the environmentalist critique of the 1970s on with the 1980s deregulatory neoliberal climate.”Its market-driven economic approaches to environmental problems, such as eco-taxes, “best practices” in environmental management, and green consumer activism have assumed a new visibility.4

Institutionalization has allowed the space for corporate capitalism to become the gatekeeper of environmentalism where it can maintain its holy grail ‘free market’ ideology.

Despite being an inherently contradictory approach, the environmental technology industry has successfully achieved a large consumer base of its “green” products, as well as its ideologies of corporate responsibility for environmental sustainability. This commodification of environmentalism has been possible through expansive hegemonic processes.

Expansive hegemony refers to the process by which the ruling class absorbs some demands of grassroots movements in order to neutralize popular resistance. By doing so, it formulates a hegemonic discourse that depicts reality from the perspectives of the dominant class and works to control the social order by neutralizing resistance and conflict. The environmental technology industry, and ecology modernization in general has effectively neutralized the environmental movement by adopting key environmentalist ideologies and frameworks such as “environmental responsibility” and “going green” with a sly, yet tragic, twist of its own consumerist ideologies.

By claiming that the solution to environmental degradation is “going green” and offering “green” products and services for consumption, ecological modernization has offered a palatable solution and has altered the popular discourse and public views on the issue.

It is now possible to purchase your way to environmental activism, a simple and attainable solution the public was more than happy to adapt to.

It fits perfectly with our cultural obsession with consumerism and the acquisition of goods and services in ever-increasing amounts, as long as we convince ourselves these good and services are “green” and good for the environment.

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Quick Recap 

  • The institutionalization of environmentalism severed as yet another opportunity for capitalism to monetize the environment and serve its own special interest of capital and resource accumulation.
  • “Green consumerism” has succeeded in camouflaging the interplay between capitalism and environmental degradation.
  • Besides the obvious contradiction of “green” consumerism and its illusionary ideology that consumerism can be compatible with safeguarding the environment, the institutionalization process halted the possibility for the emergence of radical ideas centered around the nature of capitalism itself and its relation to the ecological and climate crisis.


  1. Coglianese, Cary. 2001. “Social Movements, Law, and Society: The Institutionalization of the Environmental Movement.”  University of Pennsylvania Law Review 150(1):85-118.
  2. Williams, Chris. 2013. “Strategy and Tactics in the Environmental Movement.”
  3. Pepper, David. 1998. “Sustainable Development and Ecological Modernization: A Radical Homocentric Perspective.” Sustainable Development (6):1-7.
  4. Watts, Michael. 2002. “Green Capitalism, Green Governmentality.” The American Behavioral Scientist 45(9):1313-1317.

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