American shades of green

When we turn our attention to the United States we see much more clearly than in any other part of the world a commercial environmentalism that is slowly but surely winning terrain and influencing people. With the end of the Reagan-Bush era environmentalism received a new lease on life and during the Clinton-Gore administration a number of important changes took place in American environmental politics.

The rhetoric changed dramatically as "green speak," and an interest in sustainable development and environmental technological innovation, entered the federal government. The vice-president was a prominent environmentalist and his Earth in the Balance was one of several programmatic books to signal the coming of a new global environmental agenda. In the 1990s there have been a number of important efforts in energy, transportation, pollution-prevention, and, not least, in environmental management and "eco-efficiency" that to a certain extent represent a "greening" of industry and technology (Commoner 1991; Hawken et al. 1999). These efforts have of course been dominated by private corporations, pursuing the so-called "win-win" strategies of trying to turn a healthy profit while also contributing to sustainable development. There has also been an organized opposition, a green backlash, particularly in the older industrial branches.

Perhaps even more importantly new forms of local politics and community empowerment have developed in the name of sustainable development and environmental justice (Harvey 1996; Gould et al. 1996). A number of projects in devastated urban areas, hit hard by the effects of globalization and the transfer of many traditional kinds of industrial production from the United States to Asia and Latin America, have made use of environmental issues to mobilize resources, human, financial, and material, for environmental improvements. These projects of "civic en-vironmentalism," as they have been called, are still quite limited and, as we shall see in chapter 6, many of them are temporary and poorly funded (Shutkin 2000). But they are a significant part of what has been termed "fourth-wave" environmentalism, a new era of locally based activity that is highly diversified but has nonetheless been growing during the 1990s encouraged, no doubt, by the sympathy of the federal government and the support of many state and local authorities (Dowie 1996).

Intriguingly, we may see in the United States as well as in Sweden and Denmark the mobilization ofnational cultural traditions in the making of different national shades of green. In Sweden there is the ambition to become once again a "model" for others to follow, a great power. In Denmark, the populist heritage is being revived as the country's own room for maneuver is constrained by the project of European integration.

In the United States the historical battle between the exploiters and the preservers is being reenacted in the world ofenvironmental politics. In the nineteenth century populism developed as an indigenous movement of opposition to the "frontier capitalism" that spread across the continent. It drew on "old-time religion" but also on certain republican values that had characterized the revolutionary legacy (Lasch 1991; Kazin 1995). The capitalists, however, also had "God on their side" as they built the railways, the highways and automobiles and airplanes and factories, and eventually colonized space with their machines and powerful science-based instruments.

What is striking about the new environmental politics is that the emerging ecological culture is seeking to mobilize both traditions. On the one hand there is an effort to make capitalism more ecological, or natural, as former activists advise corporations on how best to clean their production processes and manufacture greener products (Frankel 1998; Hawken et al. 1999). On the other, local activists are reinventing populism as they mobilize their lay knowledge and experiences to oppose the further contamination of their communities (Edelstein 1988; Szasz 1994). Whether the capitalism can become "natural" and whether the communities can become less contaminated will depend on the ways in which the different sides interact with one another. The battles of Seattle and Washington in 1999 and 2000 point to deep contradictions in the American, and, for that matter, the global quest for sustainable development. In what follows I look more closely at some of the underlying tensions on both sides of the "dialectics of environmentalism."


This chapter draws on material previously published in Jamison and Baark 1999 as well as earlier comparisons of Sweden and Denmark in Jamison 1982 and Jamison et al. 1990.

1 The academic interest in culture ranges from the conservative ideas of Samuel Huntington, who sees cultural differences causing what he has termed the "clash of civilizations," to the radical views of people like Edward Said, who argues that cultural representations are crucial ingredients in the imperialisms of both the past and present. For a wide range of reflections and perspectives on culture in relation to globalization, see Jameson and Miyoshi 1999.

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