We Need a New Green Politics! James Gustave Speth on The Change Needed in the Environmental Movement


photo: Katie

While the environmental movement can claim some genuine successes, the methods used so far are ultimately limiting the scope of the type of change that it can, and must, create if we are going to leave our children a planet that is capable of supporting human life in anything near the capacity it has previously done. That's the broad-stroke view of Yale University's James Gustave Speth. In a recent article for Yale Environment 360, Speth argues that a reassessment of the boundaries, methods and goals of the environmental movement is needed. Nothing short of a new politics will work:
Speth's summary of the current environmental situation will be familiar to many TreeHugger readers: Too many people on too small a planet, consuming too many resources at rates far beyond natural rates of replenishment, are creating an environmental situation that to call dire would be understatement.

While many of us would agree with that assessment without question, it's Speth's solution to this which (while I agree with it wholeheartedly...) more people will have problems with:

We Must Challenge Consumerism & Commercialism, 'Growthmania'

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.


Write a New American Story
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.

I particularly like this last sentiment, and not just because my bachelor's degree is in poetry. It is far too often presented that economics is an immutable natural law, like that which forms clouds, or even gravity. In fact, philosophical, psychological and spiritual factors are the underpinnings of supposed economic fact, cause and effect. Without launching into examples, if we develop and eco-philosophy of economics (which is of course a slightly more flowery way of signifying the type of ecological economics advocated by people like Herman Daly for some time) Bill Moyer's 'new American story' will flow forth with ease.

First Paragraphs Are Being Written Now

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.

What I take from this, and what I encourage readers to consider, is that this sort of change is not just about 'lifestyle choices' (although that's necessarily part of it, it overly simplifies the situation). It is about greater active grassroots political action, civil engagement, philosophical engagement and earnestness, and if need be civil disobedience. We must both engage with both the personal actions we can take, but also must engage with the large issues at the same time.

Complete interview at: Yale Environment 360
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Tags: Activism | Consumerism | Economics | Environmental Footprint | One Planet Living