Ecology and Social Change

by Lorna Salzman

As the recent backlash from developers, exploiters and certain government officials indicates, environmental values, principles, laws and regulations have become the absolute final bastion between democracy and total economic/political domination by special interests and corporations.

Demolition of this bastion has been accompanied by attempts to dismantle not just unions and social welfare programs but the hard-fought health and safety laws that have heretofore protected workers and consumers. Although exploiters throw around terms like home rule and homeowner compensation, in fact environmental and land use laws are only extensions of the traditional home rule concept that assures towns and municipalities of zoning powers.

Environmental laws, however, protect not just workers but entire communities, public amenities, natural resources and the global commons; subversion of these laws means subversion of the basic integrity and functions of natural systems and resources: farmland, rivers and lakes that provide drinking water and recreation, forests, wetlands, air quality and the oceans. After the dismantlement of social justice laws and structures, including unions and the advancement of minorities, environmental laws still stand in the way.

Moreover, they represent a serious threat to all political parties because they command respect and loyalty from a broad spectrum of citizens apart from traditional political affiliations, hence the reluctance of even the Democratic Party to align itself forcefully with environmentalists or advance a truly progressive environmental agenda.

Until recently, environmentalism has been defined primarily as those aspects of life that have an immediate effect on human health and welfare. Hence, the path was an easy one: recycling, bicycle paths, returnable bottles, in brief, programs that are easily implementable within the present system and which cause no disturbance to the established order.

But replacement of the word environment by the word ecology has broadened what was originally a white middle-class movement saving aesthetic amenities and preventing eyesores like litter; it now encompasses ethical and biological concerns for non-human species, habitats and ecosystems.

This broadening of concerns, recognizing the need to preserve the natural systems upon which all human endeavor depends for survival, also broadens the threat to special interests and corporations. It goes far beyond those problems that can be accommodated and remediated within the existing system, the problems whose solution will cause minimal disruption, if any, of the established economic and political order, and involves the whole global commons and genetic heritage. In so doing, it raises issues that threaten the accelerating trend toward a world economic order that increasingly depends on first world capital and technology but also on third world resources, labor and markets (that is, middle-class consumers).

Those familiar with the struggles in Central America and the writings of Noam Chomsky will immediately understand the connection between democracy, social justice and ecologically sustainable development. It is not for nothing that this country, through both overt and covert means (the CIA and AID, among others, including some parts of the U.S. labor union movement), supports dictatorships to insure that third world land redistribution, labor union organizing, tribal peoples' rights, and self-managing agrarian communities are ruthlessly suppressed. As Chomsky has so admirably documented, U.S. support for repressive regimes in Latin America has been given primarily to insure stability for investment and to provide cheap resources and labor for the benefit of American consumers. Thus, third world democracy threatens not just managerial and technocratic elites in these countries but foreign capital and multinationals; furthermore, these elites are increasingly faced by insurgencies in the third world demanding ecologically sound as well as socially just development policies, as witness the struggles in India against giant hydroelectric dams, in Indonesia against forcible resettlement in Borneo, in Sarawak against corrupt regional and Malaysian governments selling off indigenous peoples' lands to Japanese timber companies, in New Guinea against foreign mining companies . . . the list goes on and on and on.

Here in the U.S. environmental laws and policies have served to democratize the process of managing, utilizing and protecting natural resources and lands for an equitable and sustainable future. Those efforts include inner-city movements for environmental justice, native American efforts to protect tribal and religious lands from mineral exploitation, water diversion and military use, movements to fend off nuclear waste dumping, movements to preserve forest ecosystems from short-term non-sustainable exploitation, movements to protect public lands from ruinous grazing policies subsidized by taxpayers, struggles by small fishermen against high-tech mechanized fisheries that vacuum the seas, and so forth. Worse still, neither the Republican nor Democratic party has ever questioned the extensive public subsidies given to the energy/minerals/cattle/forestry sectors, without which their ecologically disastrous policies could never have been implemented.

But even if social welfare programs are not dismantled, the impact of weakening environmental laws on food, soil, wetlands, water and air will ultimately have the same effect because dismantling environmental laws is just another way of reaching the same objective: total economic domination of public lands and resources, and exclusion of the general public from policy- and decision-making.

Public participation in the environmental process has in fact had a profound democratizing effect on our society. It has made information freely available, it attracts widespread media attention, it integrates broad social concerns into the regulatory and enforcement process, it enhances public oversight of administrative and enforcement agencies, it activates the citizenry and in general has functioned to take environmental awareness and concern far beyond the classroom, hearing room or court room.

The rollback or elimination of environmental laws and regulations will therefore reduce citizen involvement drastically, and all the other benefits of public participation spelled out above will disappear. Environmental oversight, utilization of natural resources and land development will become part of a strictly private domain of investor-owned utilities, energy corporations, agribusiness, ranchers, loggers, mining conglomerates and land developers, who will have free rein without concern for either nature or local communities. If they succeed they will not only decimate the environment but will have destroyed democracy. When one recognizes this fact, it becomes clear that the ecological paradigm promoted by environmentalists in fact subsumes virtually all the social justice and equity issues of concern to social change movements.

Social justice is a necessary but insufficient condition for a sustainable society; it needs to be accompanied by the ecological dimension that places humans and their needs within the biosphere, without regarding nature only as a fount of resources and a foundation of human wealth. Indeed, human and societal wealth do not exist apart from ecological wealth.

Protection of ecosystems and their components necessarily requires many paradigmatic changes: redistribution of wealth, democratization of planning and decision-making, a wholesale revision of the dominant economic paradigm of untrammeled economic growth, consumption and exploitation, and above all new relations not only among humans but between us and the rest of nature. The conclusion is inescapable that we need to radically revise our values and objectives, voluntarily, peacefully and equitably, rather than waiting to be forced to do it in unpleasant ways.

Environmentalism is a broad social movement that calls into question all of our traditional political and economic arrangements and relationships. It addresses policy-and decision-making, investment criteria, the price versus the cost of goods, ethics, distribution of wealth and power, the questions of who benefits, who is at risk, who is in control, who decides what to manufacture, how, where and at what scale, and for what purpose. The interest group served by environmentalism is ultimately that remarkable assemblage of living organisms, species and ecosystems that we call Life.

Ecology thus forms the basis for inquiry and social change by posing new questions about how institutions should function, new definitions and criteria for judging progress, new ways of assessing risks, new parameters for investment and pricing, etc. As such, ecological thought poses the most broad-based challenge to our entire societal paradigm. It is precisely this fact that has produced the anti-environment backlash. Developers, corporations and government bureaucrats long ago recognized the radical threat of ecology; now the progressive sectors of the U.S. need to recognize this too.

Source: New Politics, vol. VI #3, summer 1997

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