A case for a new green politics

06 July 2011 | News story

If there is a model within American memory of what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. A recommended read from CEC Chair Keith Wheeler.

Posted with permission from Yale Environment 360

Environmental Failure: A Case for a New Green Politics
The U.S. environmental movement is failing – by any measure, the state of the earth has never been more dire. What’s needed, a leading environmentalist writes, is a new, inclusive green politics that challenges basic assumptions about consumerism and unlimited growth.
by James Gustave Speth

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A New Environmental Politics

Environmental protection requires a new politics.

This new politics must, first of all, ensure that environmental concern and advocacy extend to the full range of relevant issues. The environmental agenda should expand to embrace a profound challenge to consumerism and commercialism and the lifestyles they offer, a healthy skepticism of growthmania and a redefinition of what society should be striving to grow, a challenge to corporate dominance and a redefinition of the corporation and its goals, a commitment to deep change in both the functioning and the reach of the market, and a powerful assault on the anthropocentric and contempocentric values that currently dominate.

Environmentalists must also join with social progressives in addressing the crisis of inequality now unraveling America’s social fabric and undermining its democracy. It is a crisis of soaring executive pay, huge incomes, and increasingly concentrated wealth for a small minority, occurring simultaneously with poverty near a 30-year high, stagnant wages despite rising productivity, declining social mobility and opportunity, record levels of people without health insurance, failing schools, increased job insecurity, swelling jails, shrinking safety nets, and the longest work hours among the rich countries. In an America with such vast social insecurity, economic arguments, even misleading ones, will routinely trump environmental goals.

Similarly, environmentalists must join with those seeking to reform politics and strengthen democracy. What we are seeing in the United States is the emergence of a vicious circle: Income disparities shift political access and influence to wealthy constituencies and large businesses, which further imperils the potential of the democratic process to act to correct the growing income disparities. Corporations have been the principal economic actors for a long time; now they are the principal political actors as well. Neither environment nor society fares well under corporatocracy. Environmentalists need to embrace public financing of elections, regulation of lobbying, nonpartisan Congressional redistricting, and other political reform measures as core to their agenda. Today’s politics will never deliver environmental sustainability.

The current financial crisis and, at this writing, the response to it, reveal a system of political economy that is profoundly committed to profits and growth and profoundly indifferent to people and society. This system is at least as indifferent to its impacts on nature. Left uncorrected, it is inherently ruthless and rapacious, and it is up to citizens, acting mainly through government, to inject values of fairness and sustainability into the system. But this effort commonly fails because progressive politics are too enfeebled and Washington is increasingly in the hands of powerful corporate interests and concentrations of great wealth. The best hope for real change in America is a fusion of those concerned about environment, social justice, and strong democracy into one powerful progressive force.

The new environmentalism must work with this progressive coalition to build a mighty force in electoral politics. This will require major efforts at grassroots organizing; strengthening groups working at the state and community levels; and developing motivational messages and appeals — indeed, writing a new American story, as Bill Moyers has urged. Our environmental discourse has thus far been dominated by lawyers, scientists, and economists. Now, we need to hear a lot more from the poets, preachers, philosophers, and psychologists.

Above all, the new environmental politics must be broadly inclusive, reaching out to embrace union members and working families, minorities and people of color, religious organizations, the women’s movement, and other communities of complementary interest and shared fate. It is unfortunate but true that stronger alliances are still needed to overcome the “silo effect” that separates the environmental community from those working on domestic political reforms, a progressive social agenda, human rights, international peace, consumer issues, world health and population concerns, and world poverty and underdevelopment.

The final watchword of the new environmental politics must be, “Build the movement.” We have had movements against slavery and many have participated in movements for civil rights and against apartheid and the Vietnam War. Environmentalists are often said to be part of “the environmental movement.” We need a real one — networked together, protesting, demanding action and accountability from governments and corporations, and taking steps as consumers and communities to realize sustainability and social justice in everyday life.

Can one see the beginnings of a new social movement in America? Perhaps I am letting my hopes get the better of me, but I think we can. Its green side is visible, I think, in the surge of campus organizing and student mobilization occurring today, much of it coordinated by the student-led Energy Action Coalition and by Power Vote. It’s visible also in the increasing activism of religious organizations, including many evangelical groups under the banner of Creation Care, and in the rapid proliferation of community-based environmental initiatives. It’s there in the joining together of organized labor, environmental groups, and progressive businesses in the Apollo Alliance and there in the Sierra Club’s collaboration with the United Steelworkers, the largest industrial union in the United States. It’s visible too in the outpouring of effort to build on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, and in the grassroots organizing of 1Sky and others around climate change. It is visible in the green consumer movement and in the consumer support for the efforts of the Rainforest Action Network to green the policies of the major U.S. banks. It’s there in the increasing number of teach-ins, demonstrations, marches, and protests, including the 1,400 events across the United States in 2007 inspired by Bill McKibben’s “Step It Up!” campaign to stop global warming. It is there in the constituency-building work of minority environmental leaders and in the efforts of groups like Green for All to link social and environmental goals. It’s just beginning, but it’s there, and it will grow.

The welcome news is that the environmental community writ large is moving in some of these directions. Local and state environmental groups have grown in strength and number. There is more political engagement through the League of Conservation Voters and a few other groups, and more work to reach out to voters with overtly political messages. The major national organizations have strengthened their links to local and state groups and established activist networks to support their lobbying activities. Still, there is a long, long way to go to build a new and vital environmental politics in America.

American politics today is failing not only the environment but also the American people and the world. As Richard Falk reminds us, only an unremitting struggle will drive the changes that can sustain people and nature. If there is a model within American memory for what must be done, it is the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. It had grievances, it knew what was causing them, and it also knew that the existing order had no legitimacy and that, acting together, people could redress those grievances. It was confrontational and disobedient, but it was nonviolent. It had a dream. And it had Martin Luther King Jr.

It is amazing what can be accomplished if citizens are ready to march, in the footsteps of Dr. King. It is again time to give the world a sense of hope.