A History of the Green Movement in the US

by Lorna Salzman

The first Earth Day, 1970, transformed history but the transformation remains largely unacknowledged by most people and especially by almost all our mass media. What was remarkable about this transformation was that it rendered irrelevant most of our assumptions about politics, the problems we thought needed solving, and by implication all the solutions proposed.

This transformation was the recognition of Nature, of the natural world, of ecosystems and biotic communities, of non-human species, their interrelationships and human society's dependence upon maintaining the integrity of these relationships and systems. No longer was it adequate simply to seek solutions to problems pertaining only to human beings. Now whole volumes of inquiry would need to be rewritten so as to not only recognize but include the rest of Nature in the equation of human welfare and social justice.

Starting in the mid-19th century, the US was witness to important social, economic and political movements seeking to improve the status of various subclasses of citizens: the ending of slavery followed by the need to insure equality and enfranchisement of blacks; the women's suffrage movement followed later in the 20th century by feminist and women's rights movements; the organizing of labor in the workplace for safe, healthy and remunerative working conditions to overcome the abuses of industrial capitalism.

All of these movements shared some important things: they sought remedy within our legal framework and its legislative, regulatory and enforcement arms. They operated from a base of self-identifying groups based on ethnic heritage, skin color, gender, or occupation. With some exceptions, they did not question the fundamental political order but aimed to broaden the benefits of that order to include their group. Except for socialists and communists, they did not contest the basic economic system represented by free enterprise or capitalism. Eventually many of these movements' demands were met and incorporated to one degree or another in the existing system.

One movement, however, differed in its make-up as well as in its objectives and demands: the environmental movement. It transcended gender and class, sidestepped traditional political arrangements such as the political party system, broadened the base of those with grievances to include all of humanity and eventually the rest of nature, and in so doing posed what is arguably the strongest challenge to the fundamental values and institutions of society and to the usual way of doing business.

While its radical challenge - in effect threat - to the economic and political institutions of industrial capitalism and state socialism - was quickly recognized by government and corporations, many segments of the American Left showed an indifference bordering on hostility to environmentalism. This situation pertains even now, as the American left preaches Identity Politics as part of a Race and Class awareness that is not only distasteful to those of us who regard ourselves first and foremost as citizens but which is anathema to the notion of a philosophically and pragmatically unified movement for both social and ecological justice.

Thus Earth Day 1970 made traditional political alignments, ideologies and politics not only insufficient but obsolete. We learned that the "special interest" group now threatened by the onslaught of industrial capitalism and globalization is not just one oppressed group but that vast assemblage we call Life. The same forces that enabled us to recognize the earlier oppressions of other groups enabled us to extend our empathy beyond humans to the entire natural world. We are now faced with the absolute necessity of identifying with not just those of our color, gender or class, or those in foreign countries, or even with the entire human species, but must now include all of Nature in our social justice equation.

This means addressing the inadequacies and inequities of virtually all of our public policies, paradigms, and values as they impact the natural world. These must now be judged not just by how they meet human needs but by ecological criteria. The ecological paradigm must be placed firmly and irrevocably at the center of our behavior, social structures and institutional arrangements. We must now first ask ourselves, before we take action: 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 must be rejected.

The traditional left in the US, and to a lesser extent in western Europe, has contributed almost nothing to the ecological debate. Many left groups promoted precisely the same values and objectives as the industrial growth societey, berating white middle class environmental activists as bourgeoisie protecting their back yards, and opposing any questioning of or opposition to economic growth which, as an article of leftist faith, they thought was the only solution to poverty. Later, when they acknowledged that capitalism requires growth, and that growth necessarily produces inequity and poverty, they became critical of growth - a remarkable achievement but a bit late. Presently they have shown little progress in recognizing the ecological paradigm except as a tool to recruit people to their sectarian views. In addition to their hostility to environmentalism, they studiously avoid discussion of women's rights, even now as the oppression and enslavement of women in the Islamic world is visible daily on the pages of our newspapers and on our TV screens.

Although the US environmental movement had deeper roots than that in Europe - arising from the late 19th century conservationism that focused on saving wilderness for wealthy white aristocrats to hunt in - the recognition that fundamental political and structural change was necessary to save the planet first arose abroad, first in New Zealand and UK, and then most importantly in west Germany, where the first environmentally inspired political party entered the national parliament in 1983. This entry had been preceded by the election of Greens - die Grunen - to numerous local and state governments. Much of its early impetus arose from opposition to the Cold War and to nuclear weapons, and was later extended to nuclear power and all its manifestations, accompanied by a broad ecological and social justice manifesto that has helped keep die Grunen as a legitimate party and at present as a junior partner in the national German government, where its representative, Joschka Fischer, now serves as Foreign Minister. The German Green Party holds approximately 5% of the votes in the national parliament, and often much more at the state level.

The example of Die Grunen led to the formation here in the US, in late 1984, of an informal association calling itself the Green Committees of Correspondence. Consisting of regional and local groups and federations, the GCOCs were avowedly and sometimes fanatically opposed to electoral politics, and remained so for over a decade. In 1991 the GCOCs suffered an internal coup and were taken over by the Left Greens, who were also anti-electoral politics. Despite this animosity to electoral politics, the Left Greens changed their name to Green Party USA, exerting full control over its membership and preventing the emergency of any caucus or movement that was inclined to discuss electoral politics. From 1991 through 1996, the GPUSA thus held back the emergence of any local, state or national level Green Party.

But those who had been defeated in the GPUSA takeover of the GCOCs regrouped quietly in these years, and in 1996 announced the formation of a new electorally oriented federation, the Association of State Green Parties. Starting with eleven states, the ASGP grew to include state Green parties in over twenty states. The old GPUSA did not remain idle; it fought to hold off the emergence of a political party at the national level and established state-level Green Parties that shared their Left vision.

In the end, when Ralph Nader entered the presidential race in 2000, they realized they had lost and reluctantly ceded to ASGP their cooperation. This led to the ASGP's being recognized by the Federal Election Commission as a legitimate national political committee. The GPUSA was later dissolved but its leaders and fanatic supporters havent gone away; they still control several state Green Parties, including that of New York State, where after getting ballot status in 1998, it lost it in 2002. At the national level, the Green Party has relegated ecology and environment to the back burner, focusing primarily on anti-war and social justice issues, to the disappointment of many, including myself. Their tokenism towards environment has cost them and will continue to cost them large numbers of potential enrollees and supporters.

Women are crucial and integral to the resolution of virtually all of the outstanding social, economic and ecological problems facing the world. As proof of this we need only look at the list of women leaders, thinkers, activists, teachers, researchers, scientists and organizers. These women are not only at the forefront of the anti-globalization movement but key players across the globe in education, health, environment and human rights. (A partial list can be found at the end of this paper).

Why are women the leading activists and critics? Simply put, it is because women have historically been excluded from the seats of power and from full participation, and subjected to patriarchal control even in secular western democracies like Austria, where the Vienna Philharmonic has explicitly refused to admit any more women to its ranks. Only a handful serve in this orchestra of over one hundred musicians.

While Austria is an exception, and protests against the orchestra's discrimination are not met by torture or death as they are in Moslem countries, it is fairly clear that it is only secular democracies that can accommodate female enfranchisement and equality. The feminist movement, in particular eco-feminism, has developed its critique as a response to very real socio-political conditions and relations, in much the same way that environmentalism has done. Both feminist and environmental critiques and analyses differ strikingly from traditional Left analysis because they derive from actual historic conditions rather than abstract a priori ideology such as Marxism. Such critiques are inductive because they start from concrete particulars and derive an analysis from these. Traditional leftist critiques are deductive; they start with an a priori hypothesis or ideology and then try to fit everything else into it in much the Procrustean bed manner.

The Marxist and sectarian left have been waging their anti-Green war quite successfully. Besides promoting Identity Politics, they exclude all analyses except for race and class, and define the root cause of human oppression economically, so that economic relations ultimately circumscribe their politics. They show little concern for democracy per se, for ecology, or for feminism, because these do not fit their model. In addition, they harbor special resentment towards feminism and environmentalism because these movements have reached their own analysis of industrial capitalism by an entirely different road, without relying on Marxism or economism or the race and class analysis. Read a left or Marxist tract and you will work hard to find the word democracy, not to mention ecology.

Feminism's analysis is in a very broad context, like that of ecology, because it intersects with rigid institutions and established social practices, most notably today with the issues of AIDS, reproductive choice, public health, education, human rights and community self-determination. Two-thirds of illiterate humans are women,and half of those with AIDS are women. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the oppression, exclusion and enslavement of women in most countries has directly led to the most serious physical and social crises of all time.

Focusing on women's issues as well as environmental ones rapidly leads to a very clear understanding of the root causes of the global crises, and thence to a much more incisive and comprehensive political analysis that cuts across all ethnic, economic, and class lines. Yet despite this fact, feminism and environmentalism are the two major movements which the Left deliberately and callously ignores.

The threats to secular democracy are found not only in Moslem countries but here in the US, where fundamentalist Christian sects echo the Islamic oppression of women. The same rhetoric against so-called permissive behavior, threats to society and the family, againsts reproductive choice, against homosexuality, is found throughout the Moslem world as well as in large parts of the US. Such fundamentalism not only threatens our Enlightenment tradition and our representative democracy and Constitution but directly threatens the well-being and civil liberties of all American women.

There are many types of domination: religious, economic, military, technological, and political. Some countries present all of these, some only part. Religious states are the most threatening to traditional civil liberties and civil rights. Industrial states are the most threatening to workers, indigenous people and the environment because of their advanced capacity for technological domination, such as in genetic engineering, weapons, toxic chemicals.

A more insidious form of domination, or actually exploitation, arises under capitalism and free enterprise, whereas consumerism recruits women who have been previously recruited into the workplace. Economic status and social equality in the workplace, even when women earn less than men for the same work, are offered as a kind of liberation but the trap of consumerism ends up putting women in the same position as men, whereby they must purchase proper clothing, spend money on clothing and accessories, entertain in restaurants, purchase gifts, refurnish their homes, buy cell phones and computers, and all the other paraphernalia of the new society.

A side effect of becoming part and parcel of this new society is that women throw in their lot with men in transnational corporations and thus are put in the position of not just supporting their employer but contributing to the exploitation of less developed nations and of Nature. The irony of this is that in the rest of the world, women not only do not enjoy these same economic and professional freedoms but are actively and deliberately prevented from obtaining the education that might enable them to participate in the larger professional, academic and commercial worlds.

Some efforts have been made to overcome this, such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, where loans are made to women for small, locally based cottage industries to serve basic community needs. The bank works on a kind of honor system where money is loaned according to need and then repaid as the new business expands and attracts customers.

One of the most urgent problems that women face, especially in Africa, is the AIDS epidemic. In many of these countries women have no control over either their own sexuality or over their reproduction. Men in these countries refuse to use condoms and women are powerless to force them. The result is that the AIDS epidemic is claiming innocent women infected by their husbands who are infected by prostitutes, as well as babies who are born with HIV. Moreover these populatons are still in denial about both the cause and the seriousness of the disease.

As economic globalization continues, the stark division between women in the secular western world and those in less developed and Moslem countries will only grow worse, much as the gap between rich and poor widens. Conditions have scarcely improved for women in Afghanistan, where women whose heads are exposed are subject to threats and ridicule. In Pakistan, a fire in a girls' school killed dozens of students because the firemen did not consider rescuing female students to be important. In Nigeria women who have sex outside marriage, adulterous or not, are still subject to shariah law which requires them to be stoned to death, while the men go free. One woman is still imprisoned there awaiting an appeal of her sentence; she has a small infant and expects to be killed as soon as her child is weaned. Daughters of fundamentalist Moslems who reject their parents' chosen spouse or are caught associating with a male friend are commonly murdered by their own father for bringing disgrace upon the family. Despite laws to the contrary in India, widows routinely have their homes and belongings stolen by their late husband's family and are turned destitute onto the street, with no means of support or making a living. In Sudan and other Moslem countries in Africa, female genital mutilation still takes place and often is carried out here in the US.

Children fare no better, especially girls in Pakistan and India, where they are either forced to work twelve hours a day to bring in income for their impoverished families rather than allowed to attend school. In many cases young girls are betrothed to elderly men who pay their families dowries. In other cases such as southeast Asia, young girls are forced into prostitution, where they become future AIDS cases. Education for girls is considered a luxury by families who are desperate for money, thus perpetuating the inhumane oppressive conditions under which half of the world's people live.

Economic globalization by transnational corporations only exacerbates the situation. Most foreign loan and aid programs for development go into the pockets of the government, the technocrats and the managerial class. Money for basic health care, education, housing, transportation or small scale business simply does not exist. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are at the root of the scandalously unethical attitudes towards less developed countries, as they demand, as part of their loan programs, what is called "structural adjustment' to bring their budgets into balance. This adjustment without exception means reducing or eliminating social programs, firing large numbers of government workers, and in general tightening the noose around the necks of the poor.

Predictably there has been a backlash against these institutions because politicians find that they will be voted out of office if they obey the World Bank and IMF. Privatization of public utilities and resources has created the same backlash. In Bolivia the public water supply system was taken over by a branch of Vivendi, a large French corporation, which then attempted to extort huge increases in water rates. This produced marches and demonstrations by tens of thousands of people, including people from the country and highlands, forcing the government to take back the water company. Similar protests have taken place in Ecuador and will occur no doubt in other places until the World Bank and IMF back off their Feed the Rich, Soak the Poor programs.

The question remains as to how long Americans will put up the same thing at home: shredding of social programs and welfare benefits, unaffordable health care that has left 75 million Americans without health coverage at all, deterioration of our national railroad system, a tax code that pours money into the pockets of the rich with all manner of tax breaks, growing white collar unemployment, attempts to destroy our national parks and wilderness heritage through oil and mineral exploitation, and now a multi-trillion dollar imminent war that once started will invite terrorists into our neighborhoods, cities and businesses to wreak havoc as they please.

Will women rise up here to confront the destruction of their family's health and wellbeing? Will women confront the growing inequities that are ubiquitous throughout our system? Will they speak out and against the same forces that oppress women in less developed countries and which now threaten them? Will they lead the battle that men, in particular those serving in Congress, have meekly backed away from, to stop a war that could explode into a global conflagration? A war not authorized by we, the people? Will women finally resist?

ACTIVIST WOMEN OF NOTE: Wangari Maathai, Rigoberto Menchu, Petra Kelly, Caroline Lucas, Karen Silkwood, Hazel Henderson, Maude Barlow, Susan George, Vandana Shiva, Charlene Spretnak,Sarah Larrain, Lori Wallach, Helena Norberg-Hodge, Medea Benjamin, Frances Lappe, Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, Jane Jacobs, Victoria Corpuz, Sarah Parkin, Bella Abzug

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