The American Green Movement: Challenges and Opportunities

by Lorna Salzman

The traditional environmental movement has been accused of callousness towards issues of social and economic justice and political empowerment. The "left" — generally individuals and groups involved with societal change and community activism—have been accused of lacking an ecological perspective or underpinning to their programs. Thus, the newly forming Greens, whose members comprise individuals from both of the above, are entrusted with reconciling and integrating these concerns into a comprehensive set of principles and programmes for political action.

First of all, the Greens must make an explicit statement that the struggle for an ecological society (e.g. one that is sustainable, self-regulating, and in a harmonious equilibrium with Nature) in no way contradicts or underplays issues of social and economic justice but that a broad definition of ecology necessarily incorporates them as pre-requisites for such a society. Nor does a new vision of humanity's role in the biosphere—on an equal footing with other species, not superior—in any way down-grade the need to practice humane values and improve human welfare. Like the false dichotomy of "jobs or the environment", the integration of the human species and its activities into their rightful role as one of many species (albeit the steward for the rest of the natural world) does not mean turning one's back on the needy and oppressed. What it does mean is the abdication, belatedly, of human beings' role as controller and manipulator of the natural world, whether done in the name of humanity and justice or in the name of growth and domination. It also means changing the basis of economic activities so that ecology becomes the basic factor, not growth, profit or markets. Seen in this way, societal control and control of Nature become two sides of the same coin that must be confronted together.

The other issue requiring explication and clarification is the role of the central state: the relegation of power to state bureaucracies and regulators, the deference to "experts", the trade-off of individual political power for economic power and status, the deceit practiced on citizens by representative government and the two-party system, and the legitimization of the economic system by the political system. Green ideology must not and cannot, however, be abstract, at the mercy of changing values, bodies politic, individuals or the political and cultural times. A Green philosophy can be given coherence and internal consistency only by turning to the timeless compelling laws of Nature under which all species, social, political and economic systems, operate and persist.

Such recognition is especially important for community activists and the 'left', who must recognize that while a humane, just and equitable society is a pre-condition for a sustainable ecological society, it is not sufficient. The elimination of domination, repression, and hierarchy in human relationships and institutions does not guarantee that socially just societies will automatically adopt values and attitudes towards the natural world and non-human species that will protect or sustain them for their own or human benefit. Just societies must concern themselves with both human and non-human rights and must make their own practices and goals consonant with the survival of the biosphere and in constant accord with ecological principles or they will inevitably undercut their own stated goals of furthering human welfare, protecting diverse cultures, insuring individual rights, providing means of sustenance for future generations, and promoting self-determination and access to resources and power.

Three dimensions need to be addressed in articulating the root causes of both the ecological and political crises confronting our planet: the need for an ecological doctrine governing human behaviour; the need to restore grass-roots (participatory) democracy in place of representative government; re-defining economic growth and activity in light of the compelling truths of finite resources, environmental degradation, and equity. One can conceive of a clean, democratically controlled production system that still emphasizes growth at the expense of the natural world. One can also conceive of a pollution-free society based on technological fixes that still sacrifices non-human species and habitats and oppresses workers and the third world. What is needed is the ecological perspective that integrates humans and their social and cultural systems into the natural world in a context of interdependency and societal responsibility—a perspective where communities, not just workers, control local wealth and resources with global awareness and concern for future generations and the third world. What is also needed is a new definition of economic growth that emphasizes sustainability, equilibrium, the inherent rights of non-human species, the need to preserve ecosystems and their functions. In this context, where the human species comes to understand its evolutionary history, the strategies of facilitating self-determination and self-government, economic equity, and human welfare become not ends in themselves but pieces of the larger picture—a vision propelled not by abstract a priori ideology that fervently wishes away the limits to human endeavor, but an ecological vision showing the parameters of Nature under whose constraints all political and social systems must operate. Given such constraints, it becomes all the more urgent to re-align human values and objectives in the name of equity as well as survival. In this light, the ecological paradigm held by the Greens becomes the only extant philosophy of survival.

Source: Fourth World Review (UK).

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