Issue 43 has gone to the printer. It will be arriving in mailboxes during late November.
This will be my Page 3 editorial:
The Greening of Society
Are we living through the best of times or the worst of times? We’re bombarded with competing memes that can leave us feeling somewhat disoriented.
An ecosocialist manifesto published by Michael Löwy and Joel Kovel in 2001 noted: “The twenty-first century opens on a catastrophic note, with an unprecedented degree of ecological breakdown and a chaotic world order beset with terror and clusters of low-grade disintegrative warfare that spread like gangrene across great swathes of the planet.” And a report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) this past August contained alarming forebodings of sooner-than-expected environmental crises and disruptions.
But if you’ve been reading progressivists like Steven Pinker or Nolan Dalla, you might come away with the impression that “living conditions are constantly improving by leaps and bounds each and every year . . . human flourishing over the last several centuries has been enhanced in measure after measure in the wake of the Enlightenment” (Pinker). The progressivists say that, taking a birds-eye view, we’ve never had it so good.
Well, in his book, Peak Everything, Richard Heinberg attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction: He acknowledges that some sectors of humanity (in particular the elites who dominate the cultural discourse) are currently benefiting from longstanding civilizational trajectories associated with overall “development.” Gross statistics show substantial increases in material living standards, literacy, and longevity; and the seemingly propitious trendlines have accelerated as the industrial revolution has advanced. But, Heinberg asserts, those trendlines are peaking now. They are unsustainable because they’ve been based on extractive processes that are ecologically malign.
THE “GREENING” REVOLUTION
Whether viscerally felt to be the best or the worst, we should recognize the potential for these to be viewed historically as the Most Significant of times. That’s because we currently have an opportunity to initiate a momentous turning point. We are finally, if belatedly, becoming aware of how the growth trajectories of human population, production, and consumption have been leading to an “overshoot” crisis of pollution, depletion, and cultural exhaustion. That awareness could be the basis for a subtle but profound revolution.
Fifty years ago, a ubiquitous item of discussion in media, kitchens, and classrooms was The Greening of America. Written by a previously obscure law professor, Charles Reich, it had been published late in 1970 and then hovered near the top of the bestseller lists during most of 1971. It said: There is a revolution coming. It will not be like revolutions of the past.
Revolutions of the past had rarely worked out well. The American “Revolution” was actually an anti-colonial uprising for national liberation. It was successful. But attempts to radically transform domestic society in a short period of time — like the French and Russian Revolutions, for example — proved discouraging. Typically, after a zealous vanguard attempted to institute sweeping changes, the majority of the populace reacted with resistances and restorations as soon as the revolutionary tide started to wane. Why? Because consciousness, culture, and lifeways just can’t be expected to change overnight.
THE POLITICAL EXPRESSION OF THE MOVEMENT
So the “greening” revolution is manifesting slowly; advancing a little here and then there; two steps forward, one step back. And, as with consciousness, voting patterns don’t tend to shift abruptly. In the United States, Green Party candidates for local offices sometimes get as much as 10% of the vote and occasionally even get elected, but not a single one has ever won office at a level above state legislature. This is the case in most countries (Wikipedia currently lists Green political parties in 98 countries worldwide: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_green_political_parties).
The exception is to note that the pathbreaking European parties have been making some strides recently. US Greens have watched enviously as those parties, enjoying the advantages of multi-party systems and proportional representation, have advanced from garnering 2% of the vote to 4% to 8% and more. In the last national election Finland’s Green Party was supported by 11%; Switzerland’s by 13%; Austria’s by 14%. Last summer the Green Party of Germany made headlines worldwide when they briefly led the pack in that country’s parliamentary election. Throughout that campaign young people were in the streets exclaiming: “Our future is at stake. Significant change is needed now.” Polling showed that almost half of the electorate under the age of 30 expressed a preference for the Green Party. Yet the final result left the old stale centrist establishment parties (one slightly liberal, one slightly conservative) still in control.
The German Greens received almost 15% and very likely will be included in a new governing coalition. It appears that they’re in the process of finally breaking out of the tier of small marginal parties. Such could be a bellwether for the future of the movement as a whole. Their relative success is the culmination of decades of persistent engagement. It has involved much in the way of tactical compromises and reformist accommodations. In fact, detractors lament their vacillations and concessions; radicals disdain their pragmatism. But it might be that they’re demonstrating how to go about holding in mind a profound ultimate transformation while at the same time effectively relating to the cautious sensibilities of the broad electorate.
I’m inclined toward the latter appraisal of the situation, and I think it argues for the idea that the gradualistic pace of change we’re observing is appropriate. We just can’t leap “from here to there,” either in the electoral arena or in our movement activities. After all, what we’re attempting to confront is quite awesome (in addition to being quite awful). It necessarily will take time to counter the inertia of the extant system, enmeshed as it is in the industrial-expansionist Leviathan.
And our presumptions are unfamiliar to modern ears. Whereas the socialist/communist movement, which swept the world circa 1850–1950, promulgated an idealistic message that was all about growth and development (historical advancement, higher stages), the greening movement more realistically acknowledges limits and the need for incipient downscaling. It’s a very different, quite alternative message, one that’s challenging to present programmatically.
WE ARE THE “TURN” AGENTS
Charles Reich’s The Greening of America happened to be published just months after the inauguration of the Earth Day international celebration. In regard to the latter phenomenon, similar to the criticisms of the Green politics movement, we hear a lot from detractors. Earth Day is superficial, they say. It’s tepid and hasn’t moved things significantly toward transformation. There is undoubtedly some truth to that, yet I believe history will recognize the global observance appreciating and honoring our planetary home as emblematic of the turning point that’s so very needed in our time.
It’s understandable that we feel impatient; we want to call for more dramatic strides, more radical measures. But a realistic perspective will help us to avoid discouragement and burn-out. We should take solace from and feel pride in what we have set in motion.
It should be a pride balanced by humility in the face of the challenges that our children and their children will be facing. David Watson: “When the Lakota medicine man Black Elk said, ‘We should even be as water, which is lower than all things, yet stronger than the rocks,’ he wasn’t counseling servility. He was telling us something valuable about strength, not as force but as endurance, about radiating power rather than possessing or controlling it, about listening to nature instead of fantasizing about mastering it — all evocative of the kind of character change that will be necessary to sustain us.” Deep transformation of character and culture are key fundaments of the greening process.
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It can’t actually be the best of times if we are facing what James Howard Kunstler calls A Long Emergency. Reversing toxic trajectories will entail an unprecedently difficult and fraught revolution/devolution. But if we are, in fact, now proceeding to initiate that vitally necessary turning point and starting to forge pathways toward the redemptive green horizon . . . then our times will, at the least, be viewed as very special.