The Birth of Green Politics

In natural ecosystems, environmentalists understand that interventions have consequences, not all of which are intended or are even understood to be related to the original intervention. In a political ecosystem, this deep relatedness is even more crucial. As in a classic ecosystem form, a sequence of events and conditions sets us on a path that we generally still follow. To understand how we arrived at this political moment in time for the new climate movement, with a long-delayed take-off period only now finally under way (see chapter 3), it is crucial to study the 19 70s.

Although American greens revere earlier forebearers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, the break symbolized by Earth Day 1970 was a massive disruption, a distinctively new beginning for contemporary environmentalism. That first Earth Day promised something that greens had never before even approximated: a mass movement. It is not too much to say that the entire contemporary canon of green thought took shape in the five or six years surrounding that first Earth Day (if we reach a bit, to let Rachel Carson into the mix).

Before the 1970s, throughout the early and middle twentieth century, the environment was a matter, in the political context anyway, that few cared about. It didn't rank on the policy agenda except when insiders inched some specific issue up higher on the agenda, year by grueling year. So the first generation of greens worked the only way they thought possible: through influence on elite leaders. Muir and Gifford Pinchot battled for President Theodore Roosevelt's approval. Years later, the Wilderness Act passed in 1964 because the Wilderness Society's director shepherded the process for ten years, almost entirely out of the public eye, lining up congressional and administration support.1 It was hard to imagine that green politics could ever work any other way.

The first Earth Day broke that precedent in a way that was hard to miss, particularly for those who were there. Pat Williams, a retired member of U.S. House of Representatives from Montana, recounted to me that the gulf between the leadership on the stage and the audience watching could not have been larger; white males in white shirts and ties, the elites of their day, looked out on the Woodstock generation. It was the listeners that day who were soon leading the charge: as that new generation spread its wings in the 1970s, environmentalism became a dominant political issue. Arriving just in time for persistent oil shocks, burning rivers, and remarkably toxic urban air, the environmental movement was almost instantly successful.

That remarkable popularity coincided with a sea change in the U.S. Congress. Following Watergate and after a series of reforms that undermined seniority, a young, activist Congress passed environmental laws like there was no tomorrow. In short, environmentalism arrived with perfect timing. The movement was well articulated in science and ethics, the barriers to building a social movement were low (amid a culture of activism that had yet to meet the resentful response that has been so successful in recent decades), and government was uniquely susceptible to green initiatives. Compared with feminism, which had to recover from a long period of distraction after the ultimately unsuccessful fight for the Equal Rights Amendment, greens had a remarkable first act on the main stage of American politics.

As the 1980s soon unfolded, the legacy of that first Earth Day strongly persisted. Environmentalists—no matter how much they became scientific, managerial, and legal insiders—preferred to stage highly visible, public controversy as outsider protest. In protests, public controversy translates into ritualized moralism, which has as much to do with raising awareness and confirming movement solidarity as with reaching out in any political way. The protests reminded greens that they were outsiders and that they weren't being heard, and served as a substitute for activity in the electoral arena. Not insignificantly, that message got out to their adversaries and to the public in general.

This unique mix of "insider" and "outsider" produced subtle effects, which have not been well understood in the intermittent debates between the "grassroots" and "Big Green" organizations. The insider part of the green experience in the 1970s confirmed hopes of political power and control because surely an issue that emerges so forcefully and successfully must be on its way to utterly reshaping society. The outsider element, though— entirely understandable in the 1970s and confirmed by green ideology— pushed greens away from the political institutions where actual control is negotiated. Lobbying and filing lawsuits are potentially "insider" approaches in that they involve important institutions. The ballot initiatives and cultural gestures of the movement, however, are "outsider," showing skepticism of political institutions and reflecting a single-issue approach insulated from the compromise and cooperation typical of legislative and electoral action.

Soon, a sort of perfect political storm had been set in motion, even if nobody much noticed it at the time. For although environmentalism had opened with remarkable success in Congress, in the courts, and, crucially, in public opinion, greens barely noticed that their initial rush of success had the effect of tethering them to an odd set of moral and political commitments. American greens were clearly the reborn children of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau's patron, foil, and inspiration. They accorded personal moral commitment an incredibly high value, mystically depending on individual righteousness to change the world.

The packaging for 1970s green moralism, however, was not out of the pages of Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, it followed the pattern of another old New England religious tradition, the jeremiad. Loud, insistent, unwavering demands—often informed by an apocalyptic sense of doom about nature's capacity to adapt to human intervention—durably set the tone for green moralism. Thus the political terrain of environmentalism became caught between future and past, soldiering on with the moral and cultural composition of a cantankerous, hundred-year-old Protestant Bible-thumper, utterly convinced of its vision of the future, but still hampered with the self-image of an outsider who would never quite be welcome in King George's court. Add to the package the greens' scientific evidence that the actions of humans were bringing the end nearer. The perfect political storm was settling in.

From a political standpoint, the science-jeremiad-social movement combination informed an environmentalism that could be communicated as a culture, while still maintaining an evangelism that expressed the political goals it obviously continued to have. Without question, this cultural dimension served to consolidate the movement. There were organic gardens to grow, food co-ops to found, bicycles to tune up, and solar panels to futz with. Folk music. Central American crafts. Backpacking trips. Naturopathy. Recycling centers. Birth control. Nature centers for the local schools. Granola.

While other countercultures of the 1980s were conceptualizing themselves in the terms of identity politics, the politics of environmental culture retained its old New England roots. While other movements (at least in significant part) were founded on the insistence that institutions grant them respect and an opportunity to participate, greens persisted in issuing grim predictions and insisting that authority be ceded to them, implying not merely that they should have a voice in the conversation, but that the conversation should end, the sooner the better.

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Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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