Creating a Movement for Ecological Sanity

by Lorna Salzman

It has not escaped notice that global warming impacts are proceeding apace with no impediments and barely noticeable responses. Numerous groups scramble each day, wring their hands, scratch their heads, yet an effective political response COMMENSURATE WITH THE THREAT is still absent. Clearly we still lack some important tools, concepts and objectives to confront those – in the majority – who still think marginal and incremental reforms to Business As Usual will do the trick. Here are some thoughts about how we might create an effective movement to bring about the fundamental and systemic changes needed, focusing on what will be needed at a minimum to reverse our race to the precipice.


A handful of committed scientists, academics, economists and writers, including Gus Speth, James Hansen, Bill McKibben, and E.O. Wilson, have spoken out and some are preparing to join in nonviolent direct action. But these are not enough. Across the country, in universities and elsewhere, there are thousands of worried scientists and teachers who need to join their voices and hands in a unified movement that will focus on two things: informing the public of the truth, and making their voices heard by lawmakers in congress. As soon as they take the lead, they will find millions of people behind them, allowing them to provide the legitimacy and credibility needed to counteract the doubters, deniers and growth-fixated corporations. THESE LEADERS MUST SPEARHEAD AN ECOLOGICALLY BASED LEGISLATIVE AGENDA BASED ON SCIENCE, NOT POLITICAL EXPEDIENCE.


The obstacles to serious action are numerous and consist primarily of institutions and policies that grow out of the economic growth paradigm that created the problem to begin with. These include both social and economic policies such as: tax codes, subsidies, building codes, land use control, habitat management, unenforced health, safety and environmental regulations, investment criteria, the electoral process, lobbying and PACs, “free” trade, corporate dominance, and globalized investment. Most significantly, the legislative response in congress has been gravely diluted to accommodate special interests, minimize inconvenience to international capital, facilitate increasing consumption, retain access to cheap labor, and is based on political feasibility rather than science. WE MUST ORGANIZE TO PROMOTE OUR AGENDA, NOT THE MEEK DILUTED ONE OFFERED TO US BY CONGRESS.IF OUR CONGRESSIONAL REPRESENTATIVES REJECT OUR DEMANDS, WE MUST REPLACE THEM AT ELECTION TIME.

The public has traditionally accepted the decisions of its legislative, executive, regulatory and financial wizards, in exchange for cheap fuel, food and mobility. The climate change regime can no longer provide these benefits. It is time to reject the hegemony and conditions laid down by the agencies of government and finance who got us into this mess, while accepting our own responsibility for overconsumption and economic inequality. We can no longer believe in or trust our lawmakers, our mass media, and above all our financial structures. We need to withdraw our reliance on the bureaucracies and institutions that we do not control, by starting to resist and withhold the powers we unwittingly bestowed on them.


The evidence of the Democratic Party’s betrayal of progressive policies and legislation is now on the record, as is their deference to corporate and financial interests. In the past year alone, the president and the Democrats in congress have slaughtered climate change legislation even after drastically diluting it down under energy industry pressure; made their opposition to universal single payer health care clear and unwavering; continued the military’s drain on the treasury and taxpayer by funding an unwinnable war in the middle east, to the extent of enriching Pakistan’s ISI which in turn is training and assisting the Taliban to kill American soldiers; been unwilling to pursue banking and Wall St. thieves and criminals for demonstrable high crimes and misdemeanors, among other things. Enrolled Democrats, scared out of their wits over the Tea Party rabble rousers and a conservative trend in the Supreme Court, continue to swallow their party’s scare tactics and blackmail and vote the same men into office who are directly responsible for allowing the country’s economy, health care system and environment to be sacrificed in the name of the false idol called Economic Growth. The Democratic Party is part of the problem, not the solution, and should be shown the door for once and for all.


Economic growth has already contracted because of the recession; we need to continue our “voluntary frugality” so as to reduce the size and impact of our corpulent wasteful society back to a sustainable and just level. This means preaching, practicing and pursuing all means of reducing individual consumption and waste, while committing ourselves to the redistribution of wealth. REDUCED CONSUMPTION REDUCES THE POWER OF THOSE IN CONTROL OF OUR ECONOMIES.

Numerous groups have sprung up, variously supporting “green jobs”, “green growth”, “Jobs for all”, and notably the Apollo Alliance, based on the prospect of a renewable energy economy. Unfortunately most of these groups lack a sense of urgency about the need for rapid deep cuts in energy consumption and for focusing sharply on energy efficiency, preferring to avoid the negative impacts of climate change so as to not alarm the public. This distraction has soothed the anxiety of the public but in so doing has distracted attention away from the actions that need to be taken IMMEDIATELY.

Additionally, these groups have neatly avoided the issue of economic growth and in so doing have created a false sense of security, leading many people to believe that the renewable energy economy(as well as the federal stimulus funds) can mature soon enough to rescue the country, and that it will allow a continuation of the consumer society without major social disruption. This is a huge disservice and one that could doom any movement for the far greater systemic changes that are necessary and that cannot occur until the fixation on consumption and economic growth is ended.


We unquestionably do this for our children. Why should we not do it in the interest of saving the earth…on which our children will need to live? Not all the things we need to do actually involve some kind of pain or inconvenience: walking or biking instead of driving; putting on a sweater instead of overheating our homes; eating fresh unprocessed foods instead of the pre-packaged food surrogates that populate our supermarket shelves, while refusing to eat out-of-season foods imported from thousands of miles away, such as strawberries and tomatoes in winter. Major sacrifices will have to be made in order for us to shut down coal power plants expeditiously and the public needs to know this. SOME HARDSHIP NOW WILL BRING A BETTER WORLD FOR OUR CHILDREN IN THE FUTURE.


While the sustainability of large cities which import their food, water and energy from elsewhere will be called more and more into question as climate change proceeds, smaller towns and regions will be able to adjust more readily by a relocalization of their economies, both those of the local community and of the larger bioregion whose natural resources will need to be preserved and utilized for local and regional benefit, not export. Serious analysis and planning will be needed not just to promote local economies but to defend against the forces at the national level that penalize them or prevent them from achieving local self-reliance. RELOCALIZATION IS ARGUABLY THE MOST URGENT TASK FACING AMERICAN SOCIETY AND MUST BE CONFRONTED QUICKLY.

Attempts have already begun in New England and the Hudson River Valley (Sustainable Hudson Valley) to envision what needs to be done or not done, to allow the survival and flourishing of local economies, with special attention given to small scale development, land reclamation, preservation of fresh water supplies, lakes, streams, wetlands, minerals, forests, agricultural land, and wildlife habitat, as well as ending suburban and exurban sprawl and controlling population growth. Distributed renewable energy, regional low impact transportation, compact settlements, animal husbandry, agriculture, and artisanal food will be indispensable. ONLY SMALL SCALE LOCALIZED ECONOMIES POSSESS THE SOCIAL AND TECHNOLOGICAL RESILIENCE NEEDED TO ADAPT TO CLIMATE CHANGE.


The avenues to the necessary kind of change are few in number but evident: legislation/regulation; taxation; redefinition of public and private property.
Environmental havoc has been wreaked because of a failure to define and protect the public COMMONS. Capitalism has failed to protect the ecological capital that belongs to everyone: air, water, soil, and natural resources. By first commodifying all aspects of the commons, it has then allowed the privatization and sale of its parts, starting with land and the resources under and on top of it; efforts have started to privatize water (the scarcity of which is rapidly increasing and already generating conflicts), and the proposal to allow the trading of carbon permits for greenhouse gas emissions has in effect conceded ownership of the atmosphere, and the right to pollute it, to private industry. COMMODIFICATION AND PRIVATIZATION OF THE EARTH’S RESOURCES AND ECOSYSTEMS MUST BE REVERSED.

No political movement will be successful unless it integrates these parts into a comprehensive agenda that can be implemented through federal legislation, regional land use planning, decentralized economies, community empowerment and decision making, guided by an ecological sensibility rather than economic feasibility, a sensibility that refuses easy paths and compromises and is willing to accept interim sacrifice in the interest of long-term survival.


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