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Environmental Anthropology and The Occupation of Wall Street

As we have recently seen in the media stir over statements made by Governor Scott in Florida, anthropology plays an important and diverse role. Today, guest blogger and AAA member, James R. Veteto writes about the role anthropology plays in Occupy Wall Street.

The occupation of Wall Street by a wide range of activists and citizens, which began on September 17, has since spread like wildfire across the US to many cities and towns and has garnered an increasing share of media and public attention, including a recent acknowledgement by President Barack Obama.

What does this broad-based movement, rooted in pluralism and direct democratic principles, have to do with environmental anthropology?
Environmental anthropologists aren’t usually found in the New York financial district studying stock trading or participating in mass protests.  They are more typically found working with indigenous peoples in remote areas on biodiversity or conservation issues.  Or so they more traditionally have done (and many still do).  Environmental anthropologists today find themselves in a broad range of environments, from African-American communities in the American South battling industrial polluters in environmental justice cases to attending international meetings with diverse stakeholders on climate change.  Wherever they may be, however, from rainforest sites to their own backyard communities, they are more-than-likely dealing with issues or consequences related to global economic neoliberalism and the increasing power of multi-national corporations and global capitalism.  There are many variables affecting diverse environments around the globe, but it would be hard to argue that any are as pervasive as what the protesters on Wall Street are calling, “the one percent.”
 
The Occupy Wall Street and associated protests are a diverse and polyvocal phenomenon.  They have already been criticized for an apparent lack of cohesion and clear demands.  But that is by design.  The central thrust seems to be that protesters are frustrated by various manifestations of the corporate takeover of civil society, where corporations are counted as people and the richest Americans have amassed enormous amounts of wealth.  These are the 1% and are highly involved in the banking and corporate sector that engineered a series of huge government bailouts since 2008 that have seemingly had little impact on the lives of ordinary people, as America’s unemployment rate hovers near 10 percent.
 
But what does all this have to with the environment?    
These same financial and corporate entities (what many have identified as the corporate oligarchy) that the protesters are highlighting are the biggest polluters on the planet.  Multi-national corporations, often in collusion with Wall Street financial institutions or global lending agencies such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, are responsible for destructive development and extraction projects around the world.  They are also some of the largest contributors to global climate change.
 
The occupy Wall Street and associated actions can be viewed as a sort of “multi-sited” activism aimed at protesting and creating alternatives to corporate hegemony and its many tendrilled  manifestations across the country.  Environmentalists have been quick to join the fray, as have anthropologists.  Climate change activists have been prominent participants, anthropologist David Graeber has been a leading organizer and voice, and recently a group of environmental anthropologists from New York universities went down to Wall Street and joined an associated march.
 
It is impossible to know what may come of this most recent wave of anti-corporate, pro-direct democracy activism.  Proponents are calling it a new type of movement because of its openness, fluidity, lack of hierarchy, technological savvy and non-violence.  My hope is that it will help in the project of creating a more sustainable, peaceful, and livable world.

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