issue 171 - May 1987
Photo: Churba / Camera Press
Environmentalists have run into stiff opposition to their
economic and political proposals. Richard Swift looks at
what stands between us and a green future.
The smoke-filled room is divided just about down the middle. On the one side are worried residents - along with the environmental activists who have mobilized them. On the other are angry and frightened lead smelter workers. The company is represented as well, by Mr Harris from Public Relations. It is he who starts the counterattack against the environmentalists. 'It's all very well you going on about poisoned children but we've got children too. What are they going to eat if we are forced to close because of pressure from a bunch of do-gooders! Last year the company barely broke even. Any more clean-up orders from the Ministry of the Environment and we are all down the tubes.'
A depressingly familiar scene to anyone involved with Green politics. From the Ruhr valley to the British Midlands, from the east end of Toronto to the industrial belt of Sydney - it has been played out countless times. The personal security of workers against the health of the community and the long-term survival of the planet. Those who want a society that no longer grows at the expense of a vulnerable eco-system can expect to be faced with such dilemmas. Is it possible to sustain a fundamental opposition to the direction of industrial civilization while at the same time advancing a realistic political program that will gain widespread support?
Maybe it is. The Greens in Europe and increasingly elsewhere are engaged in a fierce debate as to the proper mix of ecological principle and practical compromise necessary for their political success. If nothing else, the Greens have been able to put the big questions on the political agenda. What is the purpose of economic growth, that most cherished of all goals? How can we expect to sustain ourselves if we destroy the clean air, pure water and fertile soil on which economic production depends? How can we talk of 'progress' when the main use of technology is to enable a few to hoard vast wealth and allow others to produce ever more efficient means for humanity's self-destruction?
The Greens recognize that reversing environmental damage is not just a question of stopping things - dumping, leaks, serious accidents. It is a question of actively doing things differently - using more benign technologies for example, and taking an approach to fishing, farming and forestry that allows Nature to rejuvenate itself.
They know that big environmental disasters - Bhopal, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the Rhine river chemical spills - catch the headlines and gather support for the Green cause. There are, however, less spectacular but just as deadly forms of environmental damage - soil exhaustion, toxic waste dumping, ozone layer depletion, species extinction, acid rain - all of which are even more damning indictments of our present 'fast buck' approach to life.
Our consumer society is like the glittering court of pre-revolutionary France - living on borrowed time. Green politics would involve doing things differently. And there are positive signs that many people are willing to go along. In several parts of Europe - Belgium, Austria, Scandinavia - the Greens have elected members at all levels of government. The German Greens have consistently increased their political support to the point where close to one in ten Germans voted Green in the last elections. Elsewhere there are also strong indications of potential Green support. In both Canada and the United States, concern for the environment tops the polls as an election issue. In Australia there are 1,069 environmental groups with 500,000 members between them - about three per cent of the population and a higher percentage membership than for either of Australia's two major political parties. In the UK, the environmental movement is flourishing,
In the English-speaking world, environmental politics has tended to take the form of single-issue organizing. This is partly because the winner-take-all electoral systems in these countries make it particularly difficult for new parties like the Greens to break in. The more democratic system of proportional representation has allowed the European Greens a national platform for their politics,
The single-issue approach has certainly had some notable successes such as the Australia-wide campaign against the Franklin Dam in Tasmania or Greenpeace's international campaign to save the whales. But it has tended to fragment public concern for the environment and made it difficult for Greens to put forward a holistic political and economic alternative based on doing things differently. The environmental lobby is instead absorbed as just one more competing pressure group.
The other problem facing British or Australian Greens is that most people in these countries think being 'Green' is just a question of being pro-environment. To be Green in Germany implies much more. It means being pro-feminist, supporting civil liberties, working for solidarity with the Third World and standing for an end to the destruction and waste of the arms race. This diversity has arisen because the social movements with these philosophies have found an acceptable political home in Green politics. The umbrella approach has been an important source of broadening the political appeal of the Greens.
Photo: Haillot / Camera Press
But even in the European countries where the Greens have had their greatest impact the road has not been an easy one.
Opponents from both Right and Left have painted the Greens as woolly-headed dreamers with nothing realistic to offer. There is some truth here. Greens are reluctant to take on the problems of the world because they do not want to be trapped into choosing between jobs and the environment or between political leadership and grassroots democracy. They see these - with some justification - as false choices. They propose instead their own particular version of the best-of-all-possible worlds - and since Greens value diversity there are many versions of that Green utopia.
This is clearly unsatisfactory. The Greens need to show how we move from this world of false choices to a more desirable balance between human needs and environmental quality. Otherwise they are vulnerable to those who claim we have no choice but to dump toxic waste in the river, increase the military budget or build another nuclear power plant.
The most frequent areas of dispute are economic. The Greens argue that all economic activity depends on the health of the environment - you cannot cut trees on already naked hillsides or farm on non-existent topsoil and it is difficult to run cars when scarce gasoline is up to $20 a litre. And it is true that most ecological issues will eventually become economic issues. When there are no more fish in the North Sea, either because of over-fishing or pollution, then fish will have to be rationed or go up in price. But economists and economic policy-makers don't think ahead - next year's budget or the next five-year planning cycle is about as far as they go. John Maynard Keynes' attitude to long-run thinking reflected the profession's approach pretty well. 'In the long run' he said we are all dead.' Most people concerned with their mortgage payments or grocery bills would go along with Keynes. So the Greens will have to show practical economic proposals which will improve the quality of people's lives today in addition to saving the earth for future generations. Otherwise the spectre of depression will have most people running back to the shelter of 'politics-as usual'.
The Greens stumble when it comes to how they see the role of government. But then so do most other political philosophies. The Right say they want less government interference in our daily lives yet support run-away military spending and a massive build-up of the national security apparatus to keep track of troublemakers. The Left has traditionally supported a state-controlled economy but has found economic centralization an inefficient and wasteful way to run an economy - one that alienates workers and does not satisfy the needs of consumers.
The Greens would like it both ways. On the one hand they call for strong government action to regulate industry and protect the environment. And they want women and minorities defended against discrimination by employers. On the other they are firmly against arbitrary government action that infringes on human rights. And they favour a substantial decentralization of power to allow local communities to meet their own needs in their own ways. The Greens are profoundly suspicious of nationalism and the nation-state from which it springs. It is a cherished and hopeful Green ambition that power devolve away from central government to regions, cities and local communities.
But small can be exploitative as easily as beautiful. Small communities - from Bavaria to the backwoods of Alabama - are second to none when it comes to racism. Small businessmen can make IBM paternalism look pretty good by comparison. If you choose to decentralize into small communities you cannot assume a beautiful Green world where no one will pollute the environment or exploit their fellows. A realistic balance must be struck between people's right to make their own decisions and the need to protect the environment and abide by humane standards of behaviour.
The fact is that many of the things favoured by Greens cannot be brought in by government at all. They require a kind of Green cultural revolution - the rebuilding of communities around economic institutions that are more compatible with the environment. What is needed is a slow process of education and grassroots organizing through which people can learn that they have much to gain by a life that is not geared to 'more, bigger, faster'. The Greens must work out and communicate a set of proposals that give people a sense that their lives here and now could be enriched by doing things differently.
One attractive possibility could centre on the idea of employment. A new definition of full employment might offer everyone a fulfilling livelihood - but it may not be for 40 hours a week for 48 weeks a year for 40 years a life. A guaranteed income and more free time might well be more attractive than that new car and a trip to Disney World. People might be willing to abandon the dream of being rich and famous (if only they could get it together) had they greater control over their own work and community. Green proposals to do things differently must however be credible if they are to overcome the deep-seated conservatism of 'better the devil you know than the devil you don't know'.
A growing movement for community economics may be of help here. It has long been accepted by non-government organizations working in the Third World that small-scale community development is much the best way of meeting people's needs. The movement for a 'community economics' is well underway in the industrial world as well. In the United States the Institute for Community Economics estimates that there are now nearly 40 community loan funds in operation supporting local environmentally sensitive projects. Community and workers' co-operatives are among the many alternative forms of economic enterprise. In the last ten years in the UK alone there have been 1,000 workers' co-operatives established. Whether through knitting co-ops in the high Andes of Bolivia, or car remanufacturing centres at Allentown in the Pennsylvania heartland, community economics is beginning to provide an ecological alternative to chasing multinational investment.
A Green government can only be achieved as part of a society that is already well on the way to becoming Green itself Only then will it be possible to strike the necessary balance between Green ideals and the rights of individual communities and workplaces to decide things for themselves. Perhaps the best model of a Green government is one which uses its resources to enable people and communities to create their own solutions to their own problems.
But to reach such a point the Greens have to pull together a new political consensus from the existing political world. The idea that the Greens are transpolitical with the potential to draw support from across the political spectrum is at least partially true. Liberals are attracted to Green pragmatism and the defense of civil liberties. Libertarians like the emphasis on devolution of powers and local self-government. The attempt to conserve what's best in the existing world - natural beauty or the family farm - appeals to conservatives. The Left feels comfortable with Green commitments to equality and finding collective, co-operative solutions to social problems. Although the Greens insist that they are 'beyond Left and Right' the causes with which they are identified - peace, the rights of women and people of colour, the control of corporate power - are very much ones identified with the Left. In this sense they are a form of renewal and rethinking of the traditional socialist vision.
But the Greens have had only limited success with the Left's traditional constituency. Industrial workers have an indirect stake in, and a lot of skepticism about, the Green vision of the future. The German Greens have been able to get a certain amount of grudging working-class respect by supporting the rights of workers both on and off the job. But big trade unionism and 'small is beautiful' remain a very uncomfortable fit.
The Greens have a political tightrope to walk. They must pull together a very diverse group of people who will make uneasy company. They must be pragmatic and willing to compromise without being absorbed by existing political forces who just want a 'technological fix' of the environment so that growth can continue unabated. They must maintain a vision of an ecological future while operating within the political parameters of a very unecological present. They must encourage diversity while having enough unity of purpose to act effectively. The Greens must, according to well-known West German Green Rudy Bahro, adapt themselves to the mentality of their audience without abandoning the spirit of their message.
Bahro's own political history illustrates just how tricky it is to strike that balance. Bahro is in many ways the ideal Green. He served several years in an East German prison for writing The Alternative - a devastating critique of Eastern bloc state socialism. On his release he moved to West Germany where he became a leading member of the Green Party. His rejection of the growth-oriented industrialism of both the Right and Left made him a highly credible representative of a new kind of politics that rejected the old political divisions as two sides of the same obsolete coin.
Rudolph Bahro is one of the Greens' most articulate and effective spokespeople. His books have been translated into several languages. He is ruthless in his belief that the present industrial order must be discarded completely if humanity is to survive. To put it in his own words; 'If you want to get rid of tanks, you have to get rid of cars.' But most Greens - at least in Germany - no longer agree with Bahro's strident denunciations of piecemeal reforms. In June of 1985 Bahro resigned from the world's most successful Green party because of what he saw as a tendency to compromise Green ideals in order to achieve political success.
But the Greens remain one of our best hopes. In a world where birds drop dead out the polluted skies of a Mexico City that has been turned into a kind of slow gas chamber... in a world where penguins in the far off Falkland islands have been found to be suffering from lead poisoning... in a world where the US spends more to operate one aircraft carrier for a year than the combined health budgets of 12 West African countries ... in a world where North Americans and Europeans use 20 per cent of the world's agricultural land (on top of their own) in order to feed themselves ... it is essential that we ask the kinds of questions about growth and progress that the Greens are asking. It is hard to escape the conclusion that if there is going to be a future it is going to have to be some shade of Green.
This special report appeared in the what if the greens achieved power? - the politics of ecology issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.