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Synthesis/Regeneration 15   (Winter 1998)

U.S. Greens Strategize

Ecology and Consciousness

by e b bortz, Southwestern Pennsylvania Greens

...stand on the ocean until I start sinkin -- b. dylan

Whether or not human beings flourish into the next millennium is an open question. Western societies have traditionally viewed Nature as something to be conquered, controlled, exploited for the "good" of human development. Except for some aboriginal cultures, not one social system has truly integrated human beings into the fabric of an interdependent universe with all living participants, plant and animal, having an inalienable right to co-exist. Such a concept of living co-existence is not a utopian pipe dream. The very continuation of the human species may depend upon this kind of revolutionary reappraisal of its role.

Holes in the stratospheric ozone shield; acid rain; toxic levels of soot, sulfur, carbon and nitrogen oxides (ground-level ozone); ravaged forests and green spaces and declining oxygen sources; ground water, river, lake, and ocean contamination; soil erosion, depletion, and the growth of deserts; toxic waste dumps; and, lest we forget, the extinction of thousands of species, have become the mark of modern industrial society. Few can argue with these phenomena or their fundamental devastating effect on the living Earth. The long-term effect of such degradation has the potential for a genuine apocalyptic future-the extinguishing of life on the planet.

The obstacles to a fundamental environmental revolution lie not in the lack of scientific evidence, but in our own weakness in the political arena.

Scientists throughout the world are developing sophisticated environmental models and a knowledge base solid enough to convince even the most skeptical critics of the need for deep social transformation. The obstacles to a fundamental environmental revolution lie not in the lack of scientific evidence, but in our own weakness in the political arena.

Corporate and government bureaucracies will fight fundamental environmental reform to the bitter end. There is simply too much vested interest and too many thousands of years of social conditioning for them not to. Of course this is not new in the struggle for social change.

Public Property and Grassroots Democracy

In the United States, from the national forests to community bicycling roads and hiking trails, public participation aimed at preserving the natural beauty of the environs is under attack. A whole host of vengeful corporate and private landowner initiatives have caught many in the environmental movement off-guard. Trails have been blocked. Pristine forests have been clearcut under "Salvage Provisions." Public riverfront "greenways" have been gobbled up by corporate developers. Even roadways, once the most public of all entities in this society, have become restrictive for bicyclists and pedestrians. These new attacks from the corporate-private property cabal, and their associated political allies, are symptomatic of a regressive democracy.

Every attack on public lands or access must be met by massive, non-violent direct action from the environmental movement.

Every attack on public lands or access must be met by massive, non-violent direct action from the environmental movement. Thousands of hikers, skiiers, campers, and naturalists on trails earmarked for elimination or encroachment by timber and mining companies; thousands of bicyclists on roadways demanding real "share the road" provisions; yes, maybe recreational fishers, kayakers, and canoeists who want the lakes and riverfronts open, clean and out of the hands of corporate mall developers-these are all potential allies. If we ever expect to turn back this growing tide of privatization of our public resources there must be direct involvement from a broad-based coalition of activists with shared environmental interests. We need to be forthright and true to our message at all levels of public discourse: at city and town councils, in the streets, on the trails and in the forests, to the media, and in local communities ready to break the grip of the polluters and plunderers.

Grassroots Electoral Issues

Independent electoral activity, particularly at the local level, is a legitimate method of projecting advanced environmental political values into the mainstream cultural dialogue. If we're willing to learn from our sisters and brothers in the European Green Movement, as well as the important local Green victories in several US communities, we can look forward to building a network of bona fide independent local electoral power bases. These local bases can be effective in bringing an advanced environmental agenda to the forefront, educating the public, and eventually exercising real political power to bring about environmental and social change.

Corporate special interest domination of the political process and voter dissatisfaction are at all-time highs. A new generation has taken the stage, ready to shout out a new set of values closely akin to deep green concepts and a progressive social agenda, independent of the Democratic and Republican establishments. Radical, new cultural currents are emerging in music, poetry, and the arts, breaking down corporate mediocrity and the strangulation by the status quo. It would be a mistake for us not to embrace, advance, and learn from these new constituencies.

There are plenty of sincere activists who question electoral activity at this time. This will always be a point for discussion. But the times require that we find common ground.

Workplace and Community Health and Safety

Recent studies have acknowledged that tens of thousands of US workers die each year as a result of injuries and disease related to their workplaces. Hundreds of thousands more continue working under debilitating conditions. The modern industrial workplace continues to be one of death, disease, and injury.

Closely related to the pollution ... of industrial processes, are the black, white, red, and brown working class communities ... targeted as the receivers of industrial toxic waste.

Health, safety, and environmental regulation have only begun to control the most obvious and flagrant features of this workplace malignancy. Workers through their unions have struggled to bring these issues to the bargaining table and to the media, but often without much success. The issues of job security wages, and retirement are usually top priorities; health and safety are often left to the domain of regulators and management operational procedures, with little input or voice from workers in the process. Workers without union protection (approximately 85% of the US labor force), have even a smaller impact on their workplace health and safety.

The recent effort by corporate lobbies to gut or circumvent new provisions in the Clean Air Act is a direct assault on worker health and safety standards, as well as health standards for the community as a whole. It's clear to me, based on my experience in the steel and electric power generation industries during the 1970's, 80's and early 90's, that the technology to meet and exceed the new Clean Air Act requirements has been developed and is available. What is needed is the political organization to force companies to comply, by purchasing and installing the necessary equipment, and by enlarging their staffs to operate and maintain the new equipment.

Closely related to the pollution inside and out the stack of industrial processes, are the black, white, red, and brown working class communities and towns often isolated and targeted as the receivers of industrial toxic waste. Tailings from mining operations, mountains of flyash from coal-fired boilers, after-product waste from chemical plants and oil refineries, radioactive waste from nuclear plants and companies using nuclear technology-these are but a few examples of the magnitude of the problem.

There is a fundamental shared interest of workers and the community...to defuse the environmental time bomb...

We need legislation that requires companies to fully recycle their waste products, on-site, and in a safe, efficient manner. This will provide an enormous incentive not to create the toxins in the first place. In addition, firms specializing in the reprocessing and recycling of specific waste substances, and in non-polluting renewable energy systems (solar, wind, biomass) must be encouraged through public investment.

Those who close their eyes to the problem or relegate it to a "not in my backyard" issue are at best, totally insensitive to the health needs of people who are often the most vulnerable, voiceless segment of society.

There is a fundamental shared interest of workers and the community as a whole to defuse the environmental time bomb we are all living under. Any regulation that requires more stringent health standards can only improve the general environmental health of us all.

The realization that the ecological agenda requires the most organized, vigorous struggle human beings have thus far been involved in, is only the beginning of our understanding. Scientific discoveries will place bold new demands for radical change in the way that we, as a society, are living and abusing life on this planet. We can either meet these new demands and alter our course, or face the ominous possibility of complete environmental collapse.

The social process to radically improve health and environmental conditions will educate and convince others that our struggle is their struggle as well. The consciousness of a relative few must become the consciousness of millions in every nation. A new society, presently without models and with no vested interest in the past, is yet to be born.

e b bortz is a poet, environmental activist, and member of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Greens (Pittsburgh). He is working on a second collection of poetry tentatively titled Earth Notes and Other Poems. His first collection, Voices of a Wanderer, was published in 1993 (Out There Publishers). More recently, his work has appeared in Tight, Lilliput Review, Hellbender Journal, The Exchange, Suburban Wasteland, and the Pittsburgh City Paper.]

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