Book Review: "Earth For Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash"

by Lorna Salzman

Author: Brian Tokar; Publisher: South End Press, 1997; Reviewed by Lorna Salzman.

Environmental activists have much to be grateful for with the publication of Brian Tokar's “Earth for Sale,” a comprehensive analysis of the origins and accomplishments of the three-decade old environmental movement and its transformation into the Green movement. Tokar pulls no punches in detailing the contradictions, compromises and ultimate defanging of the Washington-based nationally recognized groups—the so-called Beltway Biggies—against whom the frustrated, locally-based groups must frequently struggle in order to get out their far more progressive message.

He presents an incisive recapitulation of environmentalism in the U.S. and how, against the stiff odds offered by traditional liberalism and reformism, it is evolving into a powerful engine for radical social change. The reasons for this, as delineated by Tokar, lie in the convergence of various strands of American political theory and thought, including ecology, ecofeminism, bioregionalism, environmental justice, and human rights. The early history of environmentalism to casual eyes, on the contrary, carried no such promise; its halcyon days of the 1970s were spent passing laws, enforcing regulations, establishing processes for citizen participation (if not control), entreating bureaucracies, recruiting members and grants, and assuming the garb of professionalism that it shamelessly wears today.(I myself was proud to have been part of this early history, without which the world and its inhabitants would doubtless have been plundered and poisoned beyond rescue). In those days the Left made it a matter of principle to attack environmentalists as anti-growth, anti-technology and anti-social justice, though they were proven wrong, so wrong that ultimately the Left had to scramble furiously to acknowledge the inherent potential of environmentalism for stimulating radical societal change. To his credit, Tokar was in fact one of the first Leftists to understand this and this book is a testament to his broad comprehension of the interconnections of social change movements and the power of the environmental message.

At this crucial time, 20 years after the codification of environmental laws and statutes, made possible by a post-Vietnam populace sensitized to a broad range of human rights violations here and abroad, environmentalism outside of local communities and urban minority enclaves is under heavy attack, and with good reason. Like Tokar, arguably the first important Left theorist (or second, after his former mentor Murray Bookchin) to acknowledge the potential of ecology for investing radical social change with a coherent philosophy, many environmental activists (but not enough of them on the Left) understand clearly that environmentalism is not middle-class consumers protecting their open space and pretty views but a broad movement posing fundamental challenges—and positing fundamental change—to the very premises upon which the U.S. materialist, growth-obsessed consumer society is based.

At the same time, the power structure, whether corporate or government, has also recognized that ecology, as a precept and organizing principle, more than any other movement (Left explicitly included) threatens the status quo and in response has gone to extreme lengths to discredit all manifestations of environmentalism, directly as well as indirectly via surrogates in academia and the media. One of their more successful efforts has been the deliberate defanging, if not subversion, of the nationally based groups such as Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund, National Audubon Society, World Wildlife Fund, to name a few of the groups often called the “Gang of Ten,” supported by the large foundations which in turn are dependent upon suspect corporate investment portfolios.

Tokar spends much of his time detailing the literal sell-outs of these groups, whose status with Congress and the White House as well as with influential corporations and foundations depends upon their good behavior, that is, upon their not confronting thorny issues of corporate crimes, resource ownership and control, and social justice and human rights—in other words, ignoring all those irksome social “externalities” that grow out of environmental disputes and which,if addressed, could unsettle large segments of the population in uncontrollable ways.

Against this backdrop Tokar sketches what he sees as the three main forces in the environmental movement: environmental justice, forest activism, and Third World human rights and ecology movements. (Ironically some environmental justice theorists, in Race, Poverty & Environment, have attacked forest activism as antithetical to their concerns—a rather shortsighted analysis indicating their failure to recognize that corporate exploiters are the common enemy). Forest activism seems to be today's direct-action avant-garde, replacing the anti-nuclear power movement which was arguably the first manifestation in the U.S. of a true populist revival and one whose long-term significance Tokar, formerly active in the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, is well qualified to judge. After examining these three forces in present-day environmentalism, Tokar then moves on to their social and political implications and to his own prescriptions for how these forces can work together and be mutually supportive in a new environmentalism unifying ecology, democracy and social justice across communities, professions and borders. Indeed, for those of us who sometimes feel we are back in pre-Earth Day times, the amazing courage of individuals like the late Ken Saro-Wiwa of Nigeria, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, and the late Chico Mendes of Brazil, supported by the insights and theories of people like Vandana Shiva of India and Edward Goldsmith of the UK, often seems to be the only encouraging and positive indication of any progress in raising public environmental consciousness. It appears that the Third World is in fact leading the way in theory and practice, and that U.S. and western Europe “liberals” are reluctant to demand a meaningful redistribution of power, wealth and resources—the minimal prerequisite to an ecological and socially just society. The affluent consumer society, complacent workers, and accumulators of wealth do not willingly give up their privileges and perks.

Tokar's prescriptions for change in the U.S., however, fall short of the mark and are not really adequate to the huge task of reclaiming democracy, the necessary (if not sufficient) precursor of an ecological society. This is not to say that his prescriptions are wrong. On the contrary; they are diverse and imperative. In his chapter entitled “Ecology, Community and Democracy,” he expounds on the need for grassroots networks, inter-movement cooperation, holistic issue-oriented politics, international links, new economic and political structures, and, overall, a “reconstructive ecological vision,” stressing that “in a green economy, ecological and ethical values need to become the centerpiece of economic and social decisions.” This is welcome news indeed, and in stark contrast to the belabored Leftist economism which perpetually defined access to wealth as the sine qua non of a liberated society. In this respect Tokar shows himself to be as far ahead of the Left as ... well, as the Greens, for example.

Yet something is missing, and a very big “something” it is: electoral politics. Tokar's antipathy to electoral politics both binds and blinds him—it binds him to the astigmatic Left and blinds him to the need for Greens to shake off cynicism and apathy—although he seems not to experience any discomfort from this particular straitjacket. But it is doubly striking by its absence from his proscriptions for achieving a “democratic culture.” At first reading Tokar seems to put himself squarely in the traditional American populist corner, with resounding statements like these that any New England Yankee could be proud of:

In the absence of a civic culture of active democratic engagement, we are in danger of losing touch with the most basic inheritance of the democratic revolutions of the 17th and 18th centuries, what poltical analyst Daniel Singer has described as “the conviction that society, and therefore life, can be radically altered by political action.”

Tokar continues:

Neither democracy nor ecological sanity is well served by a political culture in which most people have withdrawn from the public sphere...

Yet Tokar's stance and that of much of the Left, in particular the Green Party USA (GPUSA), which is waging war against electorally oriented Greens, in essence calls for such a withdrawal from the public sphere, or at least that part of it we call public office. Tokar's mentor Murray Bookchin has railed against all forms of such electoral indulgence and figuratively expelled another of his acolytes, Howie Hawkins, the leading intellectual theorist of the GPUSA, from his presence for Hawkins' involvement in electoral politics (he recently ran on a cross-party slate in Syracuse NY). What Tokar mourns, as do most Left Greens, is the lack of a mass-based social movement in tight control of not only the Green movement (that is, action and projects) but of Green parties and electoral efforts as well. This, of course, would be heartily applauded by corporations, Democrats and Republicans, as well as by those who traditionally regard any and all electoral efforts as dirty, shameful and corrupt. But what better way to let the corrupt continue to dominate our civic life, one might well ask, than to keep radical activists shut out of politics? For some years I have pondered on the eerie resemblance of the Left Greens and the New Age movement. This ostensibly contradictory combination—called in the UK the “Marxists-Lentilists”—destroyed the incipient Green Party in the UK and almost destroyed the U.S. Green movement in the early 1990s and at this very moment is intent on monkey-wrenching the post-Nader electoral efforts. What could they possibly have in common? If one were a New Ager—in a loose sense, those for whom reality resides in “personal transformation” and inner beliefs—one would also applaud Tokar's distaste for electoral politics. The U.S. Left could well be called today's “secular fundamentalists” as they try to deconstruct ideologies and movements that are anathema to their own and “locate” politically acceptable “truths” within individuals rather than society or the external world.

Like the New Age movement, the Left, while stridently in favor of social change, is basically apolitical in that it seeks, through non-electoral work, to reform individual behavior, preferably in the direction of mass random political agitation, rather than engaging in a struggle to change or take over existing institutions or political offices. In this respect they show an almost naive faith in individual choice and action (except with regard to those who choose to run for public office). In fact, the supernatural in New Age thought parallels in an uncanny way the political correctness paradigm of deconstructionists in that both of these bodies of thought are presented as incontestable articles of faith (while actually being irrational or unfalsifiable in the Popperian sense). The oppressive life experiences of individuals or groups who have been victimized apparently “privilege” their views and opinions in much the same way as the opinions of New Age gurus or their transformed followers are embraced as dogma. Small wonder that both the Left and the New Age movements scorn ecologically based thought and action, for it is totally antithetical to deconstructionism in its focus on real objects, real systems and real-world relationships.

Seldom has cynicism and political autism been so fervently enshrined as it is by those on the Left who decry even fleeting contact with national electoral politics. Yet Tokar's book makes such a reasonable-sounding argument for such a withdrawal that many readers will no doubt be persuaded by his calls for social, economic and ethical change to be brought about solely by local activism, issue campaigns, alternative economic structures and alliances, unified by ecological and ethical exigencies. One could scarcely ask for more, that is, unless one asks different kinds of questions and seeks different kinds of answers. Ultimately the Green movement Tokar favors is not really a collective phenomenon toward a common objective but a static one of a myriad of separate actions toward that vague objective called a Green society. In the Tokar world of optimistic open-ended, free-form Green movement work—unlike the tawdry, tough, demanding, consuming and costly world of electoral politics—all you have to do is stand on a corner waving a placard and you will have succeeded, in one way or another. How very different such an act would be if, while you stood on the corner, there were also people carrying candidate petitions, citizens lobbying their officials, Green candidates debating major party incumbents, or a Green slate challenging an unresponsive city council. Ultimately the Green Movement model that Tokar, the GPUSA and the Left Greens support is a deconstructed one, whose shape and significance are determined only by individual actions and subjective criteria of success. And Tokar would allow a Green Party to exist only if controlled by that same vague body of individuals spread across fifty states who describe themselves as “Green”—hardly a prescription for true grassroots democracy. In this politically deconstructed world, it IS easy being Green.

Tokar himself, of course, made Green history last year with a biting attack in Z magazine on Ralph Nader's “white male” presidential campaign. The attack, which was in fact silly and unwarranted, was really an opportunity to disparage not Nader personally but those who worked for him, whom Tokar characterized as “a thoroughly unaccountable cast of aspiring political operators acting in (Nader's) name, (who) have used this effort to try and reshape Green politics in the US into a demoralizing mold of politics-as-usual.” Nader himself is attacked for his failure to embrace the strident demands of the identity politics gangs: ecofeminists, gays, people of color. Indeed, Nader, who explicitly stated that his campaign would address those issues that affect all Americans, not just special interest groups, should have been lauded for his principled refusal to pander to such splinter-group politicking.

Notwithstanding all this, “Earth for Sale” is right on top of the Green compost heap for its broad historical understanding of the origins, internal contradictions and challenges facing U.S. environmentalism. I do not use the word “heap” in a derogatory sense; on the contrary, environmental history and theory need all the heat and light they can get to nourish the movement. Like organic compost, political theory compost is comprised of many dirty little ingredients that, when first turned over, appear unattractive. But ultimately they must be unearthed in the interest of the health of the movement under cultivation. Tokar's insights and first-hand experience will be extremely valuable to newly minted Greens seeking to understand where the movement came from and where it might be headed.

Source: New Politics, vol. VI #4, winter 1998

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