Ecology and Politics in the United States

by Lorna Salzman

Eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin, who is perhaps more famous abroad than in his native United States, is fond of distinguishing between environmentalists and ecologists. In his frequent attacks on the former, he exhorts them to reach beyond narrowly defined economic and materialist concerns and urges upon them a radically emancipatory movement that integrates ecology, feminism and community control, in a non-hierarchical society. For Bookchin, the domination of nature is an inevitable outgrowth of the domination of people.

Bookchin defines "environmentalism", as opposed to the ecology movement, as a managerial approach to the natural world: antipollution, scientific analysis and problem-solving, enforcement of laws and regulations. It is a system that does not challenge existing authorities but rather tries to help them do their job better. By trying to "make the system work", American environmentalists do not examine whether their support for better laws and enforcement is not, by its reinforcement of existing bureaucracy, actually exacerbating the problem.

The history of the American environmental (as opposed to ecology) movement goes back to the 19th century and ranged then as now from the ultra-pragmatic approach of Gifford Pinchot to his arch-enemy (and, like our contemporary Dave Brower, archdruid) John Muir. Stephen Fox's John Muir's World: The American Conservation Movement is an accurate depiction of the early conservationists: wealthy people of leisure out to protect their mountains and wild hunting preserves. It was not until the mid-20th century post-Vietnam period that young Americans of all classes and strata began to question why American values necessitated the plunder of the natural world and to relate these to the pressing social and economic problems of the day. The entrance of young dissidents into the battle broadened the context of debate but also changed the flavor and direction of much of the movement.

The early activists coalesced into large national groups (actually John Muir had started the Sierra Club back in the 1890s) who dedicated themselves to emphatic lobbying and legislative action, mostly in the nation's capital. They also branched out across the country but as many as a dozen now have their main headquarters in Washington, D.C. They range from the stolidly mainstream pro-hunting National Wildlife Federation to the elegantly elitist National Audubon Society, whose mostly-male board reads like a directory of corporate America, to the activist upstarts like Friends of the Earth to the specialized professionals like Natural Resources Defense Council. Meanwhile, out in the boondocks there arose the volunteer grassroots groups fighting backyard and bread-and-butter fights against toxic wastes in their water, leaking landfills, nuclear reactors, superhighways through their neighborhoods, dams, transmission lines, and all the other acts of corporate and government insolence.

But while environmental causes have deep and broad public support, they lack a constituency, which is to say a group of people for whom environmental issues are the compelling ones of the day, around which the rest of politics and ethics revolve and from which they take meaning. With the onslaught of Reaganism and Wattism, this concern is, at least at election time, translated into some kind of change. But is anything really changing? If one uses the measure of European ecologists and the various "Green" parties across the globe, there is little basic change in either the goals of American society at large or in its institutions. Reformism is the order of the day, exemplified by electing a "better" Congressman (who is usually only marginally better and often not on all of the issues), enforcing Federal statutes, or enacting a seemingly momentous piece of legislation. But real political change that takes power away from its illegitimate wielders and returns it to people and communities is as remote as ever. Efforts go towards holding the line, piecemeal legislative reform, ad hoc coalitions working on a single issue without any prospect of a meeting of minds on just what the underlying causes of ecological, social and economic problems might be, whether they might in fact be the same, and whether an uncompromisingly different new direction is needed instead of the usual liberal politics of pragmatism, personalities, parties, and pressure groups.

For American politics is peculiarly un-idealistic and un-intellectual, leftist splinter groups notwithstanding. Few activists stop to wonder why things are the way they are or whether they are doing something that deals with root causes instead of symptoms. Nor are Americans much involved with ideas about the visions of the future (Futurists of course are always with us; they don't change much) or for that matter the past, or with the concept of planning one's destiny or the possibility that the future could be any different from the one being planned for them by others. They do not see or do not want to see, how their personal, professional and organizational acts may be contributing to a strengthening and legitimizing of precisely those processes and institutions that are destroying the natural world, their community, their health, their progeny, or, most important, their chance to empower themselves in a different kind of system that exploits neither nature nor people.

This kind of ultra-pragmatism distinguishes Americans in general, not only environmentalists, from non-Americans, for whom the distinction between the political-economic system and the ecological disruptions and depredations has never existed. For non-Americans, environmental and economic problems are not accidents but inevitable results of conscious choices imposed by the empowered and privileged on those who lack power and privilege. America has representative government, not participatory; moreover, its two-party system, which is really one, moulds choices by presenting narrow or identical ones, none of which allows existing authority. When the American mass media depict the German Green Party as anti-materialist and anti-authority it is as much with contempt as disbelief, incredulous that the judgement of those in control, whether it be the political, scientific or judicial elite, could be challeneged.

One example is instructive but it is by no means the only one. Dick Netzer is the prestigious director of New York University's Urban Research Centre. Until recently he supported the proposed Westway, a giant boondoggle of a Federally subsidized superhighway that would rip through the west side of Manhattan, place a six-lane superhighway there, and not incidentally create vast new acreage for real estate development, including land owned by the Sulzbergers, publishers of the New York Times who devote weekly editorials to pushing Westway. However, the business-oriented Wall St. Journal recently reversed its support for Westway, mainly because Lewis Lehrman, the Conservative candidate for New York State governor, came out against it and because the Democratic candidate, Mario Cuomo, favours it.

Netzer backtracked on Westway, as reported by the Village Voice, which also quoted him as condemming "crusaders...who reject the only workable process for deciding on public policy in a democratic society...(they take) actions analogous to warfare...that paralyze and destroy the institutions and procedures that make representative government work".

I dropped Netzer a note to say that he had things backwards, inasmuch as the anti-Westway people had utilized all legal, non-violent means of appeal and recourse (public education, lobbying, the courts), whereas Westway supporter NYC Mayor Edward Koch, had run on an anti-Westway platform, was elected, and then reversed himself, making a mockery of democratic institutions and the electoral process. Netzer took the time to reply and his response is worth noting: "I believe that representative government is the only proper, as well as the only practicable, form of democratic decision-making, asve for very small groups of people, likely to be more reflective of citizens preferences than the decisions that emerge from allegedly more participatory practices. I am convinced that most Americans prefer to live in a society in which contention about public issues is less, not more…that they are happy with a division of labor in which all the energies of a few people–the chosen representatives–are devoted to this balancing, so that the rest of us can be part-time, not full-time participants in government…for most Americans, government is not a very important part of everyday life, and indeed, the notion of limited government is at the foundation of American history and American society".

Netzer is totally wrong in his definition of "limited government"; in this country it means limitations on the extension of government powers over private lives and conduct. Yet there is a grain of truth in what he says with regard to Americans and politics, for in fact they have deferred to "experts" in government, science, law and corporate life but have yet to recognize that their discontent is a product of political impotence, and a trade-off in exchange for economic freedom and security. Yet environmentalists, by their detachment from history and culture, have let these important issues–big government and centralization, freedom and personal liberty, self-sufficiency, localism and home rule–be pre-empted by the New Right. Instead of defining those issues accurately as ones of populism vs. elitism, traditional liberals have promoted what they thought would produce equity: busing, curing racism, moving black out of ghettos, when what they really should have been doing was working to assure urban, poor and minority communities of the powers taken for granted by the suburbs: the powers of zoning and taxation, of planning and oversight, of investment and public benefit, all of which could truly empower citizens in participatory and legitimate structures. The 1960's cry for "community control" led to token gestures of elected school and planning boards without a shred of real power being given back, while the issue of neighborhood government never got off the ground.

That the environmental crisis is a direct and inevitable result of such political impotence is beyond a doubt. Thomas Jefferson spoke eloquently of "the public life" of which Netzer speaks with such scorn, but it is the creation of this life that enables an educated citizenry to control its destiny, in that self-governing township which is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "the unit of the Republic and the school of the people". That Americans are cynical about and withdrawn from a debased process is not surprising; it is simpler to pursue profit and pleasure. Nor is it surprising that the Netzer brand of cynicism can be articulated without apology or shame; he is far from alone in the rationalization of the existing power arrangement.

So much for the process; what about the normative issues? While no neat categories or divisions exist, there are several strands that represent genuinely different intellectual attitudes about power. The New Right, neo-conservative, Moral Majority side has a vision dominated by the concept of human benefit from progress, growth, and scorn for any notion about biological necessity, ecological concerns or the rights of non-human species. In fact the attitudes are strikingly similar to some of those of the American Left. Both sides fervently believe in progress via technology; the New Right, however, wants to use these to defend existing power and privilege while the Left wants to turn control over to workers and the presently unprivileged. The parallels, and the parallel dangers, are striking and need no further elaboration. Much of the American Left or at least its more visible spokesmen, (e.g. the conservative or Marxist left that does not yet embrace true neighborhood government or massive decentralization) is, on examination, quite close to the New Right, for it accepts the tenets of growth, human control of nature and resources, better living through technology, but would change the people and the ways to control it. Many American leftists used to be quite hostile to environmentalists and ecological issues; while less hostile now (mostly because of the anti-nuclear movement), they still tend to pay lip service to the issues or exploit them only insofar as they help them promote their particular a priori ideology.

Thus, Barry Commoner, who attracted a small "green vote" in his presidential campaign, can candidly admit (in an interview in Neighborhood, May 1981, published by the New York Urban Coalition) that: "Basically, I don't believe in environmentalism. In other words, in the sense of, let us say feminism, you know, a political interest group…my attitude toward the environmental interest group is that it is important not so much in order to take care of that sector of life, you know, clean air and so on. Its real importance is that it reveals the faults in the system of production that supports everything…my interest in environmental issues is only as they illuminate the basic problems that are of concern to labor, to Blacks and other minorities, to women, to urban problems, and so on. In other words, it reveals a problem around which all people can organize".

Should anyone consider him a non-growthnik, Commoner takes pains to dispel this notion: "…I'm not an eco-freak. My interest in environmental issues comes out of my interest in social progress…a proper and environmentally sound understanding of environmental and energy issues leads to the conclusion that solving them will lead to economic growth. I am not a no-growth person…The issue is that there's something terribly wrong at the root of the whole system when you cannot have further growth, and there are ways of doing it by reorganizing the system of production which were illuminated by our analysis of environmental energy concerns". A clearer articulation of the fascination of many of America's leftists with growth and progress–and their rejection of the rights of the natural world or the concept of ecological systems and imbalance–could hardly be made.

An interesting and highly revealing politico-scientific squabble is now going on in the U.S. regarding sociobiology, as personified by Harvard entomologist Edward Wilson. Wilson and his field of study have come to be regarded by the American Left as reactionaries par excellence, but less for Wilson's statements and thesis (the indisputable contribution of genes to human behavior and therefore culture) than for the false assumption that human genetic traits are socially and politically determinant and compelling and therefore totalitarian and hierarchical. Interestingly enough, his strongest critics are the Boston group Science for the People who although vehemently against nuclear power and genetic engineering, seem troubled in the extreme by the thought that human beings may contain animal (read: base or violent) tendencies…a concern which when translated really means a conviction that the human species, by virtue of its brain and behavior, somehow transcends nature and is therefore justified in placing human cultures and institutions above and beyond the influence of Nature. (As the English lady said upon hearing there was a theory abroad that said humans are related to apes: "My dear, let us hope it is not true. But if it is true, let us hope it does not become generally known".)

Examined closely, it becomes easy to see how in fact anti-sociobiology, rather than the object of its attack, lends itself more readily to authoritarianism. For if human institutions and culture need not defer in any way to Nature, then societal control by those who happen to be in power will be completely arbitrary at any given moment in history, and will be absolute and total.

So the American Left continues to define issues not as part of the relationship of humans to the natural world but in narrow economic and materialistic terms which are far from both Thomas Jefferson and John Muir, and closer to the Buckminster Fuller and Rene Dubois vision of a world managed–better and healthier of course–by and for humans.

Clearly, neither the romance of the left with worker control notions, nor the professional environmentalists' dream of perfectly operating environmental bureaucracies and laws, builds a movement. Nor does it help shift the course of events towards either ecological sanity or economic equity. What is vitally needed is the unity proposed by Bookchin: "…to replace social domination by self-management, a new type of civic self–the free, self-governing citizens–must be restored and gathered into new institutional forms such as popular assemblies to challenge the all-pervasive state apparatus. Followed through to their logical conclusions, all of these movement challenge not only class formations but hierarchies, not only material exploitation but domination in every form." Only thus, says he, will there be "the achievement of a totally new, non-hierarchical society in which the domination of nature by man, of woman by man, and of society by the state is completely abolished". The central conflict lies within the movements themselves and the need to discover the "sweeping implications of the issues they raise". The backlash of industry and government against ecological consciousness is the strongest indication we have of their recognition of the radical and dangerous threat of ecology to their way of doing business. Now the movement itself must come to the same recognition.

Source: The Ecologist, Volume 13, Number 1, 1983.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.