Ecology and Social Change: Who Will Ask the Right Questions?

by Lorna Salzman

Around about 1970, when we celebrated the first Earth Day, something happened that, unbeknownst even to many of the celebrants, transformed history. This transformation remains unnoticed and unacknowledged by most human beings, and by virtually all our media and institutions. This occurrence has, in my opinion, rendered irrelevant virtually all the questions we pose to each other, the problems we thought we were solving, and by implication all the solutions we proposed.

Significant social, economic and political movements have taken place in the US: civil rights, dedicated to black enfranchisement and equality; the women's movement, dedicated to equality of opportunity and treatment in institutions and the workplace; the labor movement of the early 20th century, which successfully overcame many of the abuses and oppression of industrial capitalism.

Despite their differences, all of these movements shared some important things: they sought remedy in our legal system and its regulatory and enforcement arms; they operated from a more or less homogeneous base, an identifiable group based on skin color, gender or occupation; they did not question the fundamental political order; with few exceptions, they did not contest the basic economic system or values represented by free enterprise or capitalism; their demands were eventually, if not perfectly, met and incorporated to a significant degree. The system has been able to fend off more radical demands by acquiescing to a few key issues, thus giving the impression that "the system works", and thereby sending the signal to those on the way up that all they need to do is continue to work within the system and they will eventually get a payoff.

A major part of this mindset, this tendency to go along with the established order, is that it almost by necessity ignores the plight of other movements, other countries and other outrages. The women who slobbered at the feet of Al Gore for protection against the revocation of Roe vs. Wade have defined women's concerns in the narrowest terms: the abortion issue, as if female slavery, prostitution, disfigurement, social repression and disenfranchisement in the rest of the world did not exist. Until Seattle (and we do not know what will come next), the top ranks of organized labor had little regard for environmentalists except when it came to specific pieces of legislation that affected both sectors and necessitated short-term coalitions. The anti-nuclear battles of the 1970s and 1980s saw violent confrontations between anti-nuclear activists on one side and electrical and construction workers on the other, despite the fact that nuclear workers were on the front lines for direct physical harm from reactors.

Most recently, some black organizations expressed anger at the fact that they had not been involved in the planning of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle, ignoring the fact that they had never taken on globalization or the WTO as issues of concern for their constituents, any more than they took on environmental issues until the recent formation of the "environmental racism" movement- and this movement by definition is limited to communities of color and has kept separate from the rest of the environmental movement by choice. I remember Ron Daniels addressing a group in my neighborhood at a debate where he demanded a multi-cultural multi-racial political movement "headed by blacks". I was astounded to say the least. It seems never to have occurred to him that multi-racial movements might want to choose their own leadership in a democratic way.

Seattle has changed a lot of peoples' thinking, but not as much as what I referred to in my first paragraph. Traditionally social change movements were a self-delineated group, and their efforts were aimed at remedying the oppressions of that group. But this kind of identity politics no longer suffices. The awareness that all humans now have of their role in the natural world, of their dependence upon non-human species and ecosystems for their very survival, in every sense of that word, and especially of the fact that human values, institutions and behavior are the sole direct contributors to the destruction of these systems and therefore to the potential extinction of humans, make traditional politics not only insufficient but obsolete.

The interest group that all of us now are responsible for rescuing isn't just one oppressed sector of society; it is that vast assemblage we call Life. Our biological heritage equipped us, at least originally, for empathizing with our immediate family and extended family, and eventually with our tribe or community. Later, the formation of professional and artisanal organizations, and labor unions, extended this empathy to those sharing our profession. And of course there was always a kind of reciprocal empathy within organized religions, and charitable religious organizations still exist today. The 20th century industrial society then gave rise to the recognition of different kinds of oppression, based on skin color or gender, so our empathy was extended to those with whom we shared these characteristics.

All of these things had one advantage: they were based on conditions that were easily perceivable: inequities in wages and workplace treatment; inequities in access to power and decision makers; inequities in social arrangements and benefits such as health and child care; discrimination in all its forms, etc.

We are now faced with the absolute necessity of identifying with not just those of our gender, color, ethnic group or economic class, or even with those in other countries, or with the human species alone. We are faced with the need to include all of the rest of Nature in our social justice equation, if only out of self-interest and concern for physical survival. It is in the interest not only of social justice but sheer pragmatism that we must - there is no question of any contingencies or exceptions - address the inadequacies of all of our public policies and social values as they impact the natural world. The false dichotomy of being forced to choose between humans and non- humans is inapplicable at best, and suicidal at worst. All of our human values, institutions, prescriptions and policies must be judged by comprehensive ecological criteria, not just by human needs alone. The ecological paradigm must be placed firmly at the center of all of our behavior and social and institutional policies. We must ask one main question: does this policy or proposal contribute to the integrity, sustainability and continuity of biotic communities and ecosystems and the unimpaired processes of evolution? If it does, it is acceptable. If it does not, it should be junked.

But many of the living proofs of the destruction of the non-human part of Nature are invisible or hard to demonstrate except through words, statistics and scientific discourse, especially the concept of ecosystem processes and functions. Even the most expert biologist would have a hard time justifying why a particular paramecium in a particular body of water needs to be protected, or why its existence and functions are important to that aquatic ecosystem. Much of ecology is based on not just empirical observation but on extrapolation, statistical trends, and educated assessments about such functions, based on prior research, hypotheses, and data. Even when data are clear and unassailable, their interpretation is open to debate. This can be most clearly seen in the climate change debate, where even honest scientists have disagreed.

The practice of science is often misunderstood, because debate and attempts to refute the claims of other scientists are in themselves the very fundament of honest science. Honest science is what Konrad Lorenz referred to when he said that the first thing he did when he arose in the morning was to discard a pet hypothesis. Scientists must not only defend their own work but must cast a doubting eye on every other piece of work, because that is the way science works and proceeds. Debate and dissent are the very food of scientists; there is no clear unclogged path to the truth.

So we are faced with science and a scientific community that may take decades before they can agree that, yes indeed, we do have a real problem with global warming. But that is only the start of the problem. The challenge of what to do then faces us, and of course we all know that the resolution of the global warming threat will probably bring about more radical social change - not all of it desirable - than all the Left prescriptions collected in the world's libraries.

So what should the Left do? Well, the last thing they should do is pretend that coalitions and alliances have meaning any longer, with regard to traditional left concerns. For it is abundantly clear that, foggy and unresolved as it is right now, the broad Green message is the only sufficient one being offered. Green thought and principles have been described in different ways, but it seems quite obvious to me that the originality of Green thought arises from the combination or convergence of two strands: the first strand is the social justice strand that gave rise to the movements I mentioned earlier, and the second strand is the ecological strand which enlarged the body of concern to include the entire natural world. In other words, the ecological paradigm subsumes all the concerns of traditional movements for progressive or radical social change. By this token, ecological or Green politics is the only politics of survival extant.

It is a fact - observed by others more prestigious than myself - that the traditional Left has contributed almost nothing to the ecological debate. Early on it was hostile - and I can attest to this personally - to environmentalism in general because it thought environment was simply the bourgeoisie protecting their backyards and pretty birds and because they rejected the environmental opposition to continued economic growth which they, as an article of faith, thought was needed to end poverty. Little did they know. Later on, when it realized that capitalism depends upon growth, and that growth produces inequity and poverty, they then said: well if capitalism is bad, then growth must be bad too! A remarkable insight but a bit late.

So the only honest recommendation I can make to the progressive Left is to close up shop, join the Green movement, bring your beliefs, values and insights, Left or otherwise, into the wider Green community rather than keeping them captive in a marginal, ever narrowing discussion group with the same faces, and dedicate yourselves to the most important thing worth doing today: saving the planet.

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