Lorna Salzman: New York resident, regional representative for Friends of the Earth, and long-time anti-nuclear activist

by Lorna Salzman

Item: A leading national environmental group endorses Senator Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.), despite the fact that he is a leading proponent of Westway, a giant pork barrel project that, if built, will starve New York City of funds for public transportation.

Item: The president of this same environmental group is a member of a North Carolina committee now starting to promote Governor James Hunt (D-N.C.), to oppose U.S. Senator Jesse Helms in 1984. In 1982 Governor Hunt was instrumental in getting the Environmental Protection Agency to waive its regulations regarding toxic landfills, thereby allowing dangerous PCBs to be trucked to a landfill in the poor, largely black region of Warren County, North Carolina.

Item: Congressman Morris Udall, (D-Ariz.), with the help of two environmental lobbyists, pushes through a radioactive waste bill that props up and bails out the nuclear industry, waives important requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, makes citizen redress in court difficult, and drastically reduces states' rights in siting procedures.

Item: Senator Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.), responding to President Reagan's January 25th address on the economy, says: "The Democratic Party is committed to both strength and readiness, to new technical warfare strategies, and to better systems such as the cruise missile, which is a far more capable system than the dense pack MX missile plan of President Reagan."

Item: The response of Democratic Party leaders to this same address makes no mention of the environment in citing five ways to revitalize the economy.

The victories achieved by the environmental movement in the past 15 years are in trouble. Although environmental issues have strong public support, and despite the fact that the movement, of all social change movements, poses the most serious threat to entrenched political and economic power, environmentalists, rather than seizing the opportunity to move forward, are hesitating to promote an alternative radical politics. Instead they are moving into mainstream electoral politics, campaigning, and Political Action Committees (PACs), without giving thought to the long-term ideological implications of these activities. Simultaneously there are clear indications that greater effort will be made, particularly within the Democratic Party, to entice environmental activists and groups into their camp--co-opt them as it were--so as to deflect calls for a more radical restructuring of American institutions and goals.

What the movement fails to recognize is that the reinforcement of traditional party politics and the two-party system undermines any chance to achieve the profound political change needed to empower citizens and promote ecological values. With the notable exception of feminism, most social change movements have defined reform in narrow economic terms. The assumption is that if we implement "economic democracy" or "worker control," all other problems will eventually be solved. This is a profound error, for the roots of the ecological crisis are not economic but political. The overriding imperative for ecologists must be the restoration of political power to citizens and communities. Only then can economic, social, and environmental policies be legitimate. Massive social welfare programs, historically implemented to avoid basic political reform and compensate people for the burden of corporate and industrial degradation (pollution, unemployment, dangerous workplaces, etc.), succeed only in creating a bureaucratic and regulatory system that becomes accountable only to itself. Recent experience with the dismantling and subverting of the EPA is a warning to the environmental movement that blind reliance on enforcing laws can create a smokescreen for legal pollution via the permit system. Bureaucracies usually end up legitimizing the activity in question and facilitating the continuation of industrial enterprises rather than regulating or constricting them.

Environmentalists have given scarce thought to the implications of calling for a restoration of government-funded and controlled services that simply reinforce the same remote centralized authority. This kind of system begs the question of ultimate political control and of participatory versus representative democracy. These issues have been obscured by the two dominant political parties in a most cynical way: by defining populist or home rule as demagogic, racist, exclusionary, and reactionary. Thus, local fights against nuclear power plants, dams, highways, etc. are painted with the same brush as local opposition to school integration, low-income housing, etc.

The delegation of political power to elected representatives, as well as to regulatory bureaucracies that are literally given the power of life and death when they set pollution standards, is at the root of the environmental crisis. Economic policy reform can go only so far in dealing with root causes--it can force industry to internalize the full costs of industrial production, for example--but even necessary economic reforms will not occur unless individuals and communities are empowered to set the goals and parameters and carry them out. The reinforcement of centralized government, even in the name of "funding human needs," subverts any hope of restoring true political power.

To assume, as do many liberals and reform Democrats (and even some socialists), that the Democratic Party can be taken over and used for such reform is naive in the extreme, particularly with regard to foreign policy and third-world intervention.

Nor do groups like the Citizens' Party (or at least that part of it which Barry Commoner speaks for) represent a true alternative. In an interview with Neighborhood (New York Urban Coalition, May 1981), Commoner says "basically, I don't believe in environmentalism ... in the sense of, let us say, feminism, you know, a political interest group. My attitude towards the environmental interest group is that it is important not so much in order to take care of that sector of life ... clean air and so on. Its real importance is that it reveals the faults in the system of production ... 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 ... it reveals a problem around which all people can organize ... 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 ... thinking about the environment and energy can teach society as a whole how to increase the productive output of the system.... " Notice the same obsession with growth here as in the traditional political parties, without even lip service to nature, non-human species, the biosphere ... in brief, it is a classic example of seizing a hot issue and using it to promote one's a priori political ideology.

In Europe and elsewhere in the world where Green parties and movements are forming, there has never been a distinction between the ecological crisis and the broader socio-politico-economic ones, for all have the same underlying cause: the inability of citizens and their communities to control their lives and future. In the U.S., neither of the two dominant political parties, nor those promoting socialism in one form or another, offers the answer, nor do their programs and policies fulfill the needs of those with ecological concerns. Only organization of an independent Green Party, which sees ecology as the unifying ethic around which people can organize, can maintain the forward motion of the movement and build its constituency by articulating the links in the ecological and societal crises. Such a party must dedicate itself not only to developing an equitable economic program for a sustainable society in balance with nature, but also to re-enfranchising citizens in self-governing units of government. At the same time, perhaps as its first order of business, it must act to de-legitimize government authority which purports to act on behalf of citizens but actually acts on behalf of private corporate entities or in order to expand its own power. Such a Green Party could articulate a truly American philosophy of decentralization, both economic and political, self-rule as envisioned by our forefathers, and the elevation of citizens into an arena not of commercial consumerism but of public life and community responsibility. If we fail to do this, we risk becoming simply another interest group or arm of the Democratic Party and losing all the momentum gained towards the achievement of an ecological society.

Source: Harbringer, Vol. 1, No. 2, Fall 1983. pg. 26-27.

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