(fwd) rachel-weekly: Good sense about movement strategy…


Richard Moore

Date: Fri, 2 Oct 1998
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Subject: Rachel #618: Bridge to the High Road, Pt. 1
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=======================Electronic Edition========================
.                                                               .
.           RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #618           .
.                     ---October 1, 1998---                     .
.                          HEADLINES:                           .
.                BRIDGE TO THE HIGH ROAD, PT. 1                 .
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The environmental movement is treading water and slowly drowning.
There is abundant evidence that our efforts --and they have been
formidable, even heroic --our efforts have largely failed.  (For
example, see REHW #613.)  After 30 years of exceedingly hard work
and tremendous sacrifice, we have failed to stem the tide of
environmental deterioration.

Make no mistake: our efforts have had a beneficial effect.
Things would be much worse today if our work of the past 30 years
had never occurred.  However, the proper way to judge ourselves
is not to ask, Have we made things better?  Clearly we have.  But
the proper question is, Have our efforts been adequate?  Have we
succeeded?  Have we even come close to stemming the tide of
destruction?  And, more deeply, has our vision been commensurate
with the scale and scope of the problems we set out to solve?  To
those questions, if we are honest with ourselves, we must answer

What then are we to do?  A few things have become clear as our
work has evolved over the past quarter century.  This short
series will reinforce some old ideas and introduce some new ones
for sustainable development.  The series is intended to provoke
thought and debate, and certainly is not offered as the last word
on anything.

Key ideas

Open, democratic decision-making will be an essential component
of any successful strategy.  After the Berlin wall fell, we got a
glimpse of what had happened to the environment and the people
under the Soviet dictatorship.[1]  The Soviets had some of the
world's strictest environmental laws on the books, but without
the ability for citizens to participate in decisions, or blow the
whistle on egregious violations, those laws meant nothing.
Eastern Europe was thoroughly trashed under Soviet rule, and it
will be decades (or longer) before repairs can be effected.
Several generations of humans were sacrificed, and their natural
environment was decimated.

For the same reason that science cannot find reliable answers
without open peer review, bureaucracies (whether public or
private) cannot achieve beneficial results without active citizen
participation in decisions and strong protections for
whistle-blowers.[2]  Without many people looking at a problem and
bringing their different viewpoints to bear on it, errors remain
uncorrected, narrow perspectives and selfish motives are
rewarded, and the general welfare will not usually be promoted
(to paraphrase the Constitution).

The fundamental importance of democratic decision-making means
that our strategies must not focus on legislative battles.
Clearly, we must contend for the full power of government to be
harnessed toward achieving our goals, but this is quite different
from focusing our efforts on lobbying campaigns to convince
Congress or a state legislature to do the right thing from time
to time.  Lobbying can mobilize people for the short term, but
mere mobilization does not create long-term organization.
Mobilizing is not the same as organizing.  During the past 30
years, the environmental movement has had some notable successes
mobilizing people, but few successes building long-term
organizations that people can live their lives around and within
(the way many families in the '30s, '40s and '50s lived their
lives around and within their unions' struggles for decent wages,
decent working conditions, an 8-hour day, and so forth).  The
focus of our strategies must be on building organizations that
involve people and, in that process, finding new allies.  The
power to govern would naturally flow from those efforts.

This question of democracy is not trivial. It is deep.  And it
deeply divides the environmental movement, or rather movements
plural. Many members of the mainstream environmental movement
tend to view ordinary people as the enemy (for example, they love
to point to Pogo saying, "We have met the enemy and he is us.").
They fundamentally don't trust people to make good decisions, so
they prefer to leave ordinary people out of the equation.
Instead, they scheme with lawyers and experts behind closed
doors, then announce their "solution" (whatever it may be).  Then
they lobby Congress in hopes that Congress will impose this
latest "solution" on us all.

Naturally, such people don't develop a big following and their
"solutions" --even when Congress has been willing to impose them
upon us --have often proven to be expensive, burdensome, and
ultimately unsuccessful.

Since the days of the American Revolution, thoughtful people have
recognized that our democracy depends decisivly upon an informed
citizenry. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820,  "I know of no safe
depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people
themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to
exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is
not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion."  And
Franklin Roosevelt said in a fireside chat in 1938, "The only
sure bulwark of continuing liberty is a government strong enough
to protect the interests of the people, and a people strong
enough and well enough informed to maintain its sovereign control
over its government."

In the modern era, open democratic decision-making is essential
to survival.  Only by informing people, and trusting their
decisions, can we survive as a human society.  Our technologies
are now too complex and too powerful to be left solely in the
hands of a few experts.  If they are allowed to make decisions
behind closed doors, small groups of experts can make fatal
errors.  One thinks of the old Atomic Energy Commission (AEC)
justifying above-ground nuclear weapons testing.  In the early
1950s, their atomic fallout was showering the population with
strontium-90, a highly-radioactive element that masquerades as
calcium when it is taken into the body.  Once in the body,
strontium-90 moves into the bones, where it irradiates the bone
marrow, causing cancer. The AEC's best and brightest studied this
problem in detail and concluded that raining strontium-90 over
the prairies of mid-America would not hurt anyone.  They argued
in secret memos that the only way strontium-90 could get into
humans would be through cattle grazing on contaminated grass.
They calculated the strontium-90 intake of the cows, and the
amount that would end up in the cows' bones.  Then they carefully
measured the tiny slivers of bone fragments found in a typical
hamburger.  On that basis, the AEC reported to Congress in 1953,
"The only potential hazard to human beings would be the ingestion
of bone splinters which might be intermingled with muscle tissue
in butchering and cutting of the meat.  An insignificant amount
would enter the body in this fashion."[4]  Thus, they concluded,
strontium-90 was not endangering people.

The following year, in 1954, Congress declassified many of the
AEC's deliberations. As soon as these memos became public,
scientists and citizens in St. Louis began asking, "What about
the cow's milk?" The AEC scientists had no response. They had
neglected to ask themselves whether strontium-90, mimicking
calcium, would contaminate cows' milk, which of course it did.
These particular AEC experts were not permitted to make decisions
in secret for very long, and the world community soon put an end
to above-ground nuclear weapons tests, formalizing a treaty 35
years ago. (Recently even China and France seem to have grasped
the wisdom of this approach.) However, secrecy in government and
corporate decision-making continues to threaten the well being of
everyone on the planet as new technologies are deployed at an
accelerating pace after inadequate consideration of their
effects. Only by informing people broadly, and trusting their
decisions, can we survive as a human society. Open democratic
decision-making is no longer a luxury. In the modern world, it is
a necessity for human survival.

For democracy to work, the economy needs to serve our democratic
goals as well.  It seems obvious that the overriding purpose of
the economy is to serve the basic human needs of everyone
according to a widely-shared standard of fairness.  But
increasingly our own U.S. economy is violating this principle.
Five percent of the people are making out like bandits, 40% are
doing well, yet the majority are increasingly excluded from the
cornucopia, abandoned to fight among themselves over the crumbs.
And the chasm between rich and poor is continuing to widen.

MIT economist Lester Thurow has observed, "No country not
experiencing a revolution of a military defeat with a subsequent
occupation has probably ever had as rapid or as widespread an
increase in inequality as has occurred in the United States in
the past two decades."[3]

No one is advocating equal distribution of income and wealth.
Some people want to work harder than others and they deserve
greater rewards for their efforts.  However, it is obvious that
all wealth is ultimately derived from, and dependent upon, the
community.  Bill Gates alone did not create the wealth that is
now the Microsoft Corporation. With hard work and a measure of
luck, Mr. Gates cleverly combined technical details and
capacities that he inherited from the larger society that came
before him.  These centuries of accumulated development are the
community's bequest to each of us, and they are what allows us to
create wealth.  Individual entrepreneurs are important, but
wealth is largely created by the community, not by individuals.
Each member of the community, therefore, has a just claim on a
fair portion of the benefits of the economy.

Citizens who cannot share in the benefits of the economy can
rarely participate in democratic decision-making and the republic
is weakened accordingly.  Furthermore, if a large segment of
society is cut off from the benefits of the economy, this breeds
envy, distrust, animosity and ultimately fear and danger for
everyone.  It weakens the fabric that makes one out of many (e
pluribus unum, as it says on U.S. coins). A broad distribution of
wealth and of human development should be the goal of our economy
because it is morally and ethically right, because it will bring
the greatest good to the greatest number, and because it is the
only way to preserve our most important ideal --our democracy,
without which we will surely lose our liberty.

A recent manifesto has caught my attention.  It is called
BUILDING THE BRIDGE TO THE HIGH ROAD by Dan Swinney who runs the
Midwest Center for Labor Research in Chicago.  It seems to me
that it's an important new statement of how we might achieve some
of our fundamental goals.  And it just might offer the
environmental movement new perspectives on ways to stop treading
water and get moving again.   You can get a copy from the world
wide web --www.mclr.com, though you have to download it in 14
sections and reassemble them into one piece.  You can also order
a paper copy for $10 from MCLR, Room 10, 3411 W. Diversy,
Chicago, IL 60647; phone (773) 278-5418.  Next week, we'll look
into Dan's promising manifesto.
                                                --Peter Montague
                (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)

[1] For example, see Antonin Kratochvil and Marlise Simons,
"Eastern Europe, The Polluted Lands," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE
April 29, 1990, pgs. 31-35.

[2] William Sanjour and Stephen M. Cohen, ENVIRONMENTAL
Environmental Research Foundation, 1994).  And see REHW #484.

[3] Lester Thurow, THE FUTURE OF CAPITALISM (New York: William
Morrow, 1966), pg. 42.

[4] H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 1972), pgs. 93-94, quoting the 13TH SEMI-ANNUAL
REPORT OF THE AEC [TO CONGRESS] dated January 28, 1953.

Descriptor terms:  democracy; economy; inequality; wealth;
poverty; strontium-90; nuclear weapons;

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