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Synthesis/Regeneration 48   (Winter 2008)

Surviving Climate Change

It’s Time for a Deep Green Vision for the United States — and the World

by Kim Scipes

The Green movement around the world has presented a myriad of ideas and projects, each suggesting the way forward to a Green society. However, because there is no overarching vision, we have moved in this direction and that, stumbling from one good idea to another, but never in a coordinated, determined fashion toward an overarching goal that could unify people around the world in a common project.

In the meantime, however, those opposed to Green solutions have been able to dismiss many if not most of our ideas because of their inconsistency. It’s not like they would accept our positions if they were consistent — it’s not that simple — but because our vision is a direct threat to their perceived interests they do not want to have to deal with the environmental movement. And as long as we do not force them to deal with our ideas, they won’t.

Thus, we in some ways have become our own worst enemies, having our opponents on the run intellectually, but unable to “close the deal.” It’s time to project a vision that is realistic, but is bold in its reach.

How can we do this? Are there any standards that we must advance that are bottom-line requirements? And even after we offer some standards, how can we move forward?

Three interrelated criteria

I think there are three interrelated requirements that any Deep Green vision must put forth. First, it must have a global focus: we are part of a globalizing world, this globalization is intensifying, and thus any solution advanced must have a global perspective; thus we must be pro-globalization, not anti-globalization.

… any solution advanced must have a global perspective …

At the same time, however, we must recognize that “globalization” has two aspects, not just one as the media present. One aspect is top-down, corporate globalization, whose purpose is only to ensure that multinational corporations have unimpeded access to the entire planet, regardless of the consequences to and effects upon people and the environment. It is this limited and detrimental approach that is presented as “globalization” in the corporate media.

Yet, there is another aspect: it is the bottom-up, grassroots globalization of women and men around the world, who are seeking another world, a better world, that is based on ecological and economic sustainability. It is this grassroots globalization, the global social and economic justice movement, that is fighting the values and the future of corporate globalization. Thus, the very values of the two different aspects of globalization are opposed to each other — and it is the values and the efforts of the global social and economic justice movement that I want to advance. (See Amory Starr’s 2005 Global Revolt.)

Yet the demand for a global approach is more than just based on values; it is practical: pollution, for example, does not stop at national borders. Pollution from Mexico will affect the United States, and vice-versa.

Second, I think any proposed vision must be based on solidarity, the principle of people looking out for the best interests of each other, and doing that collectively. Thus, any solution cannot be based on individualism, which pits individual interest against other individuals’ interests, but must be based on collectivism. This takes us back to an old slogan in the labor movement: an injury to one is an injury to all!

And third, any vision must be based on emancipation, not domination. We must consider what will work for all the people in the world, and which will enhance their lives overall, even if some are inconvenienced. The idea is to improve the well-being of people, not worsen their lives and aspirations. We must seek to bring every one up, not down.

Based on these principles, I want to put forth a vision that seeks to affirmatively address each. The vision for the Green movement globally should be to develop a standard of living and way of life that would allow every person in the world to live comfortably in societies that are ecologically and economically sustainable over multiple generations. This vision is simple, straightforward, and based on the ideas of social and economic justice globally.

I don’t have a complete solution for all the ramifications of such a vision. We need the best thinking of all who want to join us. But I do have some ideas as to how to move forward to a new economic system based on the concepts of social and economic justice. People should use these ideas as starting blocks, and feel free to modify, adjust and integrate what I say together with advancing strategies that would help address these areas or other areas of concern such as social issues like “race” and gender relations, family forms and child rearing, or any other aspect of society that might be of interest. So, please pardon my limited perspective, but let me share what I can come up with.

Incidentally, there is one thing that is implicit in these ideas that I want to make explicit before going further: to make these changes, a widespread education process must be implemented, these ideas must be discussed broadly, and they must be decided by the people through a system of popular democracy where everything is open to discussion, debate and decision. These changes cannot be implemented from above, but must be decided from “below” by educated, informed people acting in the best interests of all concerned.

Economic restructuring: Three questions and some initial ideas

If we’re talking about the “economy,” then we’re talking about production and consumption within the society. And although it’s not very common to talk about production, I want to start here, as I argue any discussion on the economy must.

If our goal is to develop a standard of living that would allow every person in the world to live comfortably in societies that are ecologically and economically sustainable over multiple generations, how can we do it? I don’t have the answers, but I do have three questions whose answers I think are absolutely central to addressing the problem. Keep in mind, however, that we cannot limit ourselves to only thinking about answers from the perspectives of today — we need to think outside of the box to at least begin answering these questions:

1. What do we need to produce that will allow us to make real our vision with the minimum amount of environmental impact? In other words, what do we really need to produce to achieve this goal?

Now, obviously in our considerations, we must include in our calculations energy needed to transport goods, whether it be food or beer. So, that suggests that we need to reorganize our societies based on bioregions, and organize ourselves to get as much of our needs met from within our bioregions as possible. This would mean we would greatly reduce our transportation needs: we would have to produce beer or other essentials from our bioregion. Only if something were not available from that bioregion and was deemed essential could we initiate trade and resulting transportation from other bioregions, and energy costs might still make things prohibitive in cost.

… we need to reorganize our societies based on bioregions …

Along with that would be the shift to organic, non-chemical-based farming, with no nitrogen-based fertilizers that are ultimately petroleum-based. Not only that, but farming would be done on regional conditions, without dependence on massive amounts of water extracted from underground aquifers (see the work of The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas).

That would also mean some restrictions on being able to migrate into environmentally sensitive areas. I grew up in the desert in Central Arizona, and I’m incredibly aware that the carrying capacity of the desert does not support the massive amounts of people who have moved into Phoenix, Tucson and Las Vegas. And it damn sure doesn’t support golf courses!

By shifting to a bioregion approach, there would have to be a massive reduction in consumption of unnecessary goods: we would have to go back to building wooden children’s toys, instead of making them with oil-based plastic and shipping them from China or wherever. This would drastically reduce needs for oil and other forms of energy.

And when we talk about drastic reductions of energy required to meet our needs, then we no longer have to have a military spread across the planet to protect the oil and supply routes. Since the United States currently spends almost as much on military spending in a year as all the other countries on the planet combined, this suggests major, major financial savings.

… we would have to engineer production processes to remove any kind of waste from them …

But along with keeping our military at home — and after drastically downsizing it — we would have to engineer production processes to remove any kind of waste from them, whether human or material. We want our production to be as efficient as possible, with as little used as possible, and then any of it used to be recycled when completely used.

Our building requirements would have to become much stricter. Space required between buildings would also have to be limited, particularly in residential areas, so that we cut the urge to expand away from our neighbors.

At the same time, we would have to put strict limitations on “urban sprawl.” This destroys farmland, which becomes more precious as we seek to get our food within a 100-mile area.

These things would require much less labor for production than we use now, but people wouldn’t have to waste their lives producing crap or providing unnecessary services. There’s much more that we can do without. For example, most airline transportation is done to move business folks from place to place for meetings, and much of that can be dispensed with through video-conferencing, e-mail, etc.

Why do we need to have so many cars produced? If we limited families to one car, and backed this up with good mass transit, a taxi or jitney service, extensive bicycle transportation systems, shared vehicles or other ways intended to drastically reduce the number of cars, then we could drastically reduce the need for natural resources to be mined and manufactured, the amount of labor being required to produce it, the amount of money needed for streets, highways and bridges (and repairs), the amount of oil required to power these vehicles, etc.

Of the vehicles produced, then why not limit production to simple, gasoline-efficient models, with say engines no larger than four cylinders? Not only is there no need for Hummers, but there is no need for Cadillacs, Lexi, etc., nor for their SUV cousins. Certainly in areas that are mostly flat, which is most of this country, there is no need for cars with engines bigger than four cylinders, and my guess is they are probably sufficient for most mountain driving as well.

We would obviously have to address the cultural implications of cutting unneeded production. Americans have been taught to believe in progress, and in a capitalist system with a supposedly unlimited resource base — whether in the US or stolen from peoples around the world — that almost by definition means “more.” And certainly that means more if we can afford it. We’ve got to change our culture to one that values quality over quantity, time over work, and clear skies over smog.

In short, what do we really need to live well? And what can be dispensed with so everyone else on the planet can also live well?

2. Of whatever production requirements that remain after we make drastic cuts, how can we organize it? First, we have to decide whether to retain our hierarchical and dominative production system — boss on top, worker on bottom, shit roll down hill — or do we want to decentralize our production as much as possible, and then make workplace relations much more equal and cooperative? Also, however we decide on this first issue, then we have to figure out how to organize production so that both the good and bad parts of needed jobs can be shared, so no one does just “good” work and no one does just “shit” work.

In areas of skilled work, such as piloting aircraft, then we’ll need pools of trained people who will share overall duties — but they’ll have to contribute otherwise as well, perhaps by helping to provide child care at a neighborhood childcare center.

But there is other work, such as trash collection, that is much less glamorous, but is just as needed. How can we share the work? Obviously, if we all have to do it, then it behooves us to reduce the amount of stuff thrown out — again, another reason to reduce consumption!

Would it be more equitable to not allow anyone to own more than one house or apartment until everyone who wanted one had one?

And there is other work — such as home construction — that can reclaim old or abandoned houses, or build new ones when needed, which has a positive social purpose, rather than being something “we need to do.” There is much we need to do, but we need to do it consciously.

All of this requires conscious thought and struggle over how best to do it. And there have to be some places for experiments, innovations, and technological developments to take place. Our goal should be to reduce human impact on the planet and the atmosphere around it. We need to keep working to reducing our footprint. As we do so, not only does the planet benefit, but it means less required work must be done.

3. Of whatever production is still done, how can we distribute it most equitably? The key here has to be equity: how can we share the fruits of production most equally, both in the present-day United States and around the world?

Think of the area of housing: Would it be more equitable to not allow anyone to own more than one house or apartment until everyone who wanted one had one? And I’m talking not only in the US, but around the world. Our resources are not unlimited, but must be used efficiently to meet the needs of everyone.

Tied into this move toward equitability, though, must also be an effort to change our culture. Particularly since the early 1970s, there has been a conscious effort by the political elites of both Democratic and Republican parties in the US to ensure that the levels of collectivity attained in the late 1960s–early 70s never again be replicated. This attack, of course, took a qualitative leap beginning with the election of Ronald Reagan and all presidents subsequently: the result has been what I call the “I’ve got mine, screw you, Jack” culture, whereby one only takes care of oneself and one’s immediate loved ones. The economic and political programs that have been initiated by the government have been consciously designed to foster individualism at the explicit cost to collectivity. Accordingly, as collectivity has been denigrated, these neo-liberal economic policies, which have devastated developing countries in the Global South for so long, have been turned on the American public.


I’ve presented a goal for the global environmental movement, with a particular focus on the United States, although not limited to it: to attain a standard of living and way of life that would allow every person in the world to live comfortably in societies that are ecologically and economically sustainable over multiple generations.

In my efforts to present ideas to move us toward achieving such a goal, I’ve concentrated on the economic sphere of society, addressing both production and consumption. I presented three questions that should play key roles in addressing these areas of concern: (1) What do we need to produce that will allow us to make real our vision with the minimum amount of environmental impact? (2) Of whatever production requirements that remain after we make drastic cuts, how can we organize it so that both the good and bad of needed jobs can be shared, so no one does just “good” work and no one does just “shit” work? And (3), of whatever production is still done, how can we distribute it most equitably, in the US and around the world?

I have put forth a vision that can apply to literally every person on the planet, and have done so in a way that recognizes the historical realities of imperialism and capitalism, of oppression and domination, and the need for widespread social reform, globally and within each country of the world. This is not just some pie-in-the-sky rhetoric: the environmental crisis threatens to destroy life on the planet, and this demands that we move as hard, as fast, and as thoughtfully as possible toward a goal such as I have put forth. The planet deserves nothing less.

Kim Scipes is a long-time global labor and social justice activist, who now teaches Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana. He thanks those who participated in the June 2008 “Surviving Climate Change” roundtable in St. Louis for ideas and general stimulation, which has helped him with some ideas in this article. His web site is at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes.

[17 dec 08]

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