The Green Alternative

An ecologically based political movement
is starting to emerge In America

One of the articles in Governance (IC#7)
Originally published in Autumn 1984 on page 48
Copyright (c)1984, 1997 by Context Institute

How might the widespread hope for a humane and sustainable society be translated into political reality? One promising route is the development of "Green" political movements in which the many strands of social and ecological concern that have grown during the past decade or so are starting to coalesce and find political expression. Green movements are flourishing in nearly every country in Western Europe, as well as in Japan, Canada and Australia. Given all this activity in the rest of the industialized West, what are the prospects for Green politics here in the United States?

This is a major question addressed in the new Green Politics: The Global Promise, by Fritjof Capra and Charlene Spretnak (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984, 244pp, $11. 95). The first part of the book provides a fascinating examination of the development of The Greens (Die Grunen) in West Germany, where they have become an established political party with representatives in the West German Federal Parliament as well as many state and local offices. Their program is based on the "four pillars’ of deep ecology, social responsibility, grassroots democracy, and nonviolence.

The following article is based on excerpts from the American chapter, written by Spretnak, in which she reflects on the lessons we can learn from Die Grunen and suggests how we might proceed with a Green Movement in the U.S.. For a more complete understanding of the Green experience, I encourage you to look at the full book. Reprinted with permission.


THE ROOTS OF GREEN IDEAS in American culture reach back to our earliest origins. For more than 20,000 years Native Americans have maintained a deeply ecological sense of the subtle forces that link humans and nature, always emphasizing the need for balance and for reverence toward Mother Earth. Spiritual values are inherent in their politics, as they were for the many colonists who came to this land for the protection of religious pluralism. The Founding Fathers of our government, who were familiar with the federal system of the Iroquois nation, created a democratic federalism that reflects the shared values comprising national identity but entrusts extensive powers to the states and to the people’s representatives, who can block the designs of federal authoritarianism. The young nation spawned a network of largely self-sufficient communities that flourished through individual effort and cooperation – the barn railings, the quilting bees, the town meetings. Yet local self-sufficiency and self- determination eventually gave way to control by such huge institutions as the federal bureaucracy, the military establishment, massive corporations, big labor unions, the medical establishment, the education system, institutionalized religion, and centralized technology.

The inability of our centralist "dinosaur institutions" to address the multifaceted crisis we face is stimulating the growth of the Green alternative in this country. Not only do we – like the other polluted, nuclearized economically imperiled societies – see the writing on the wall, but we also have an outpouring of books and articles that, taken together, are unique in the world for the breadth and depth of the new-paradigm solutions they propose. Stimulated by the civil rights, feminist, counterculture, ecology, anti-nuclear power, and peace movements – and especially by the rise of the holistic paradigm in science and society – visionary thinkers in the United States have been brainstorming in print for the past decade, each contributing to the evolution of a coherent view that could guide an ecologically wise society free of exploitation and war. It is true, however, that these works are not widely known as body and that the visionary thinkers do not always agree. Moreover, the concrete, practical side to most of their theories has not been developed.

We do have years of experience, though, in certain kinds of holistic political practice. The ecology and peace movements have discovered their common ground, the feminists have held ecofeminist conferences and peace actions, and countless networks working toward comprehensive, nonviolent social change have developed. Numerous positive steps have been taken toward realizing that our existence is part of a subtle web of interrelationships – yet these fall far short of creating an effective political manifestation of the new paradigm. We believe it is essential that Green ideas enter American political debate at all levels. Currently the Democratic and Republican parties struggle fruitlessly to apply outdated and irrelevant concepts and priorities to our burgeoning crisis. As the quality of life in this country declines and hardships in the Third World increase, the old-paradigm parties are losing credibility.

Lessons From The West German Experience

To consider the possibilities for Green politics in the United States, we should first reflect on the lessons from West Germany – with the understanding that Green politics here, as in other countries, must grow from our own cultural and political tradition and from our current situation.

First, moving into electoral politics put a great deal of stress on the Green movement, although it brought many advantages. Because of the demands of campaigning and the critical scrutiny of the press, the Greens needed fulIy developed positions on scores of issues almost as soon as they declared party status. Once they won seats in the legislative bodies, a great deal of their attention shifted from evolving responses and comprehensive positions to internal power struggles and ongoing debates on legislative strategy. The stress on the Green legislators themselves is generally intense since the grassroots constituency demands attention, the party’s governing bodies expect results, and the working relationships within the legislative groups are often uneasy and distrustful. In addition, the media are always waiting for any misstep. Hence a movement’s entry into electoral politics should be preceded by a great deal of preparation and attention to the predictable problems – if it is to be undertaken at all.

Second, the presence of the Marxist-oriented faction within the Greens has increased the political awareness of many ecologists and provided a valuable ongoing critique of Green ideas – but at what cost? It cannot be said that the radical-left Greens have advanced the development of radically Green political thought. On the contrary, they have often put the brakes on that process and created endless struggles. In hindsight, perhaps some of the strife could have been avoided, although that is difficult to say. In this country many "alumni" of the New Left have come to realize various limitations of Marxist theory, and are sincerely seeking new options for nonviolent social change. Fringe groups on both the left and the right, however, with well- defined political philosophies that overlap only somewhat with Green ideas would probably make a more negative than positive contribution in the long run to the growth of Green politics in the United States.

Third, while the Greens officially oppose all exploitation including that of women by men and include a number of proposals on women’s issues in their programs, neither feminist analysis of major problems other than sexism nor postpatriarchal practices are actively encouraged. Hence many women stay out of the party, and the Green analysis of several issues is not as comprehensive as it could be. Moreover, the Greens’ political style is often built around competition, aggressive strategies, and dominance – quite at odds with their principles. These problems could be avoided, or at least lessened, by seeking truly holistic, that is, all-encompassing, analyses from the beginning and by incorporating a postpatriarchal style of politics, such as many groups in the American peace and anti-nuclear-power movements have done.

Fourth, the rotation principle for elected officials, that requires Green legislators to rotate in and out of office on a 2-year cycle regardless of the official term of that office, has proven to be more trouble than it is worth for the Greens in West Germany. Corruption by the system may be as large a threat here as there – we certainly have our share of egotistic, unresponsive politicians – but other means should be devised to address it. If a Green movement were to field candidates in the United States, those individuals should be able to serve a full term, whether that be two, four, or six years. Placing a limit such as one or two terms is a possibility, but then the movement would forfeit the eventual power of seniority positions on legislative committees. A more important practice would be to rotate internal positions of power (which should be as decentralized as is practical) on a staggered schedule so that no more than one-third or one-half of an elected committee is new and the continuity of experience is unbroken.

Fifth, politics is about how people treat one another as well as the power relationships among groups and classes. The self-aggrandizing mode of some Greens and the detached, self-protective mode of others have often blocked the kind of unified action that would best serve their political goals. When fear is the core motivation for personal behavior – fear that there is not enough recognition, enough attention, enough appreciation, enough acceptance, enough love to go around – then the creative energy of the group is constricted and the practical expression of Green ideals remains out of reach. Individuals in a Green movement must share a commitment to personal development (which means work) toward wisdom, compassion, and a deep understanding of the essential oneness of all beings or else the larger transformation of society will never be achieved. If such values are not actively accepted as guiding principles, the political work of "saving the world" often results in miserable interior lives and uncomfortable interpersonal relations, as many German Greens could testify.

Sixth, conflict within a movement is unavoidable because of the range of opinions on strategy, tactics, short-term and even long-term goals. The challenge is not to deny conflict but, rather, to deal with it creatively and positively. Green politics in West Germany often entails one faction’s or group’s temporarily conquering another, which leads to resentment and blocks the synthesis of good ideas. American Greens would have at their disposal a number of techniques for incorporating the best of conflicting proposals in "win-win" (rather than "win-lose") solutions, such as the methods presented by the Harvard Negotiation Project (see Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury, Penguin Books, 1983).

Seventh, trust and bonding are positive elements in Green groups at local levels, but are generally absent at state and national levels. Members of the Green Fraktion in state legislatures as well as the Bundestag are usually strangers thrown together and then submitted to numerous and unrelenting pressures. The estrangement that results could probably be lessened or avoided if all newly elected representatives in a party or movement went on a weekend retreat together in between their election and taking office. The aim would be to get to know each other as multifaceted persons rather than potential adversaries. Such retreats should be repeated, perhaps seasonally. In addition, ongoing attention to group dynamics should be an inherent, not peripheral, part of the political process. Frequent evaluation is essential. Also, stress reduction techniques should be shared and practiced.

Eighth, perseverance and flexibility are essential. The Greens failed to win the 5% of the vote necessary for representation in the European Parliament election of June 1979, again in the Bundestag election of March 1980, and again in several state elections. In response they continued to develop their programs and organize broad- based support among the citizen’s movements and the general public.

Ninth, perhaps the most important lesson from the German Greens is that we do not have to hide our deepest longings and highest ideals to be politically effective. Entering politics usually means having to tone down or even give up a visionary goal in order to be more pragmatic or safe. The Greens have shown us that an undaunted call for an ecologically wise, nonexploitive, peaceful culture in which spiritual values are honored does resonate with people. A call to move beyond the old mechanistic ways of thinking to deeply ecological concepts that more closely follow nature’s way is not, after all, political suicide. What we require are thoughtfully developed positions and good organizing.

Potential Structures For A Green Movement In The U.S.

If Green politics is to develop in this country, we first must develop a coherent view. By that we mean a coherent world view, which would give rise to a set of values and ethics, which in turn would lead to a political analysis. Next we would have to articulate this view effectively in public and mobilize the response. Finally, we would effect change – either within or outside of the electoral system, or both.

The power of Green politics lies at the grassroots level, but we believe a national organization is also necessary to encourage and sustain the people involved, as well as to benefit from the media attention. We suggest five possible forms of such an organization, not as a rigid plan but merely as a basis for discussion.

A Green Network – Since the ecological view of reality is one of a network of relationships, the network structure would be especially appropriate. Networks tend to be nonconfrontational and to require little commitment, so they have succeeded in attracting many people during the past decade and introducing them to political thinking. There are already a number of social-change networks around the country pursuing such activities. They are a necessary first step in the building of a political movement, but in our view they are insufficient. Their limited functions do not translate easily into the activities necessary for political actions, and they carry no responsibility to formulate programs and carry them out. They are, in short, not politically empowering, but they provide a good entry level for many people.

A Green Movement – Such a movement would be a national membership organization that would formulate a coherent view and present proposals to the Republican and Democratic parties at all levels. It would act as politically as a party, and might include a fund-raising political action committee, but would not run candidates for office. It could select "shadow cabinets" at all levels of government to comment publicly from the Green perspective on the actions of Federal, State, and local officials.

A Green movement could be effective in persuading legislators through paid lobbyists (pooling resources of organizations would increase the currently small number of Green-oriented lobbyists), volunteer work in campaigns, and the delivering of large numbers of votes through endorsements. The movement could receive ideas from the grassroots level and present them directly to legislators, as well as suggest practical proposals to local chapters and relay information and models among them horizontally. It could hire professional organizers to enlarge the movement and could support a think tank in conjunction with forming a consortium of Green-oriented research institutes.

Although a movement would require greater commitment than a network to social change and to the process of (nonviolent) struggle, it would be more effective. It would also be more open-ended, dynamic, and welcoming toward innovation than a party. Hence, it would have a broader appeal, both ideologically and in the variety of people it would attract.

A Green Caucus Within The Movement – The caucus would be an arm of the larger Green movement that would work with, and sometimes directly provide Green candidates for, both the Republican and Democratic parties. This part of the movement would concentrate on electoral and legislative strategies at all levels. The Green elected officials would present new-paradigm politics in the forums of power and could use the media attention to the advantage of the movement. This option would avoid a split between those Greens who favor entering electoral politics and those associated with citizen’s movements who feel that is an error. However, the caucus would have to walk a fine line between sincerely cooperating with the major parties and standing firmly for Green principles and the long term vision for society.

A National-Membership Green Caucus Instead Of A Movement – This option would allow people to indicate when joining the Green caucus whether they wished to be affiliated with the group in the Democratic or Republican party. Like the caucus within a movement, this option would be much less expensive to form and operate than a party. However, the danger exists that Green ideas would be co- opted and adopted only to a superficial degree by the major parties. Moreover, working conditions for the Green caucus within the parties might be difficult if the other politicians did not trust colleagues whose first allegiance is to another group. Therefore, the cooperation must be attempted sincerely, not with constant threats from the Greens to bolt for the door each time a problem arises.

A Green Party – If organized intelligently, a Green party could have a broad base and would legitimize the movement. It would require leaders with different qualities from those in caucus work and, unfortunately, an enormous amount of money. The opportunities for new small parties are greater in West Germany where a party (not a candidate) is paid $1.40 for each vote cast for that party in state or in federal elections, a policy which has yielded Die Grunen a sound financial basis. Also, if a party receives a minimum of 5% of the vote in an election, seats are awarded in the legislature in proportion to the percentage of votes received by that party. Unlike the German Greens, the American party would not receive this type of governmental payment. Similarly, our efforts would not bring us the legislative seats they have won because we lack proportional representation in our system of government. To win hundreds of thousands of votes means nothing unless one can beat the big-money candidates at district and state levels. Winning votes up to the time of the first major success is not only expensive but also extremely difficult because third parties are perceived as losers by most of the American public, who are not inclined to waste their vote. The inevitable early losses could be demoralizing to party members.

Another consideration is that Green ideas might become rigid within a party framework. The ecological truth that all living systems are in process has not yet found a place in politics, so the public expects fixed positions. Many a politician impresses voters by reminding them that his political positions have not changed one iota in the past twenty years. Meanwhile, biological conditions and economic and social constellations changed at extraordinary rates, but reality is ignored in favor of the comforting illusion of stasis. Denying change is still one of the biggest ruses in party politics, and people with consistent but evolving positions are suspected of lacking competence.

Just as we believe a network to be an insufficient political form for Green ideas, so we believe that moving into electoral politics prematurely would be an error. Considering the political system and traditions in this country, a bipartisan caucus is probably the shrewdest choice, although Green candidates could run at the local level as Independents. However, whether or not a caucus or party evolves later the soundest starting point is a well organized, grassroots, national Green movement that develops a coherent view and comprehensive programs to present to law-makers and the public. The structure should respect local and regional autonomy within a framework of shared values and should have only the minimal amount of national coordination necessary to present the movement as a potent element in American politics.

Regionalism And Political Ecology

A Green perspective encourages finding our place in the ecosystem, realizing that our very existence depends on the continuity of interdependent living systems. If we bankrupt those systems through greed and stupidity, we destroy the life supports for ourselves and our descendants, thereby severing the human chain of generations that has spanned millions of years.

Combining ecological concepts with the realities of the American governmental structure, we suggest five strata of organization for the green movement: local, bioregional, state, macroregional, and national. At all five levels the Green movement could organize study groups that would gather information, discuss Green perspectives, and formulate Green proposals to present to lawmakers and the public and to incorporate into a comprehensive program. Applying the holistic world view entails asking fundamental and interrelated questions currently absent from the political dialogue in America. In particular, questions of sustainability and long-term goals must be raised. With sustainability as the key to their proposals, the various Green study groups would formulate public policy statements.

Internal And External Challenges

If a Green movement is to become a political reality in this country, it will have to overcome several initial problems, both internal and external. The first is the issue of who may become a member. Green politics attracts people who have been searching for a way to transform new-paradigm understandings into political practice, people who were previously somewhat apolitical but now realize that single- issue citizen’s movements are inadequate by themselves, and political people who were dissatisfied with their old party or movement and now embrace Green ideals. Unfortunately, in nearly every country where a Green movement has been established, it has also attracted opportunistic persons from unsuccessful political groups on the right and the left who enter the new movement with hidden agendas and dishonest tactics. Identifying and banning them are difficult for two reasons: Individuals from any political background may sincerely change their thinking and adopt Green politics, and a diversity of opinions within the framework of Green goals and values should be honored. However, persons who undermine the progress of Green political development by repeatedly trying to impose their own incongruous priorities should not be allowed to ruin the movement. One of the first orders of business during the movement’s founding stage should be the creation of a statement of principles and goals, more detailed than the "four pillars", to which all members would adhere. Although allegiance to such a declaration would not preclude the possibility of dishonesty, it would clarify the movement’s expectations of its members. If infiltration actually occurs, additional means would have to be devised to address it.

A second internal problem is that the movement may be heir to unconstructive personal attitudes that should be addressed. The struggle is not to smash "bad guys" or to fight for short-term gains for one group or even one class, but to effect systematic change that will yield a better life for all people, all our partners in nature, and all the generations that may follow us.

Another destructive attitude might be negativity toward people with leadership abilities. Groups in the feminist, peace, anti-nuclear-power, and ecology movements have found small steering committees and well-defined positions – such as facilitator, note-taker, correspondent, agenda- maker and timer, and process-watcher – to be effective. These positions are rotated not to thwart potential monsters in our midst, but to encourage as many people as possible to take a central role and develop leadership skills. Competent leaders are essential for the success of a movement. They should be supported and encouraged at all levels.

A third internal problem, and certainly one of the major challenges, will be to arrive at agreement among a broad spectrum of members on the key principles, such as the extremely complex issue of decentralism. Green politics in this country would support a great deal of decentralizing in government, the economy, and energy production. At the same time, it might well support accountable, responsive federal power to safeguard the shared values of an ecological, nonexploitive society. For instance, our federal government would determine that air pollutants must not exceed a certain level beyond which serious diseases result, but would leave the means of compliance up to each state to determine. The tensions between the desire for autonomy and the reality of interdependence would have to be reconciled creatively.

One of the external problems a Green movement will face is that several groups will probably claim to be the national Green party or movement with little justification. The Citizen’s party, for example, considers itself the American counterpart of the West German Greens; however, the politics of the Citizen’s party is less Green than socialist grafted with some environmentalism.

Another external problem about which a Green movement should not be naive is possible harassment by a reactionary fringe group that regularly denigrates the Green party in West Germany via its European chapters.

Such annoyances, however, are hardly the major external problem a Green movement will face. To achieve their goals, American Greens will have to accomplish a dynamic expansion of their ideas into mainstream consciousness. Without dismissing the enormous challenge of getting from here to there that all idealists and realists face, we can take heart in the success of the German Greens. Many of the very same policy-makers in West Germany who insisted not long ago that Green proposals are utterly impossible are now adopting and implementing some of them.

Another problem in applying Green ideas is that, despite their frequent complaints, people are in the habit of letting the monolithic agencies and institutions make decisions for them. The Green ideal of self-government and participatory democracy requires involvement, time, and effort. Combining such hindrances with the inevitable personality conflicts, one may wonder whether there is any hope for mobilizing Green forces of change. The answer lies in whether enough of us come to realize, as the German Greens have, that the matter at hand is survival.

Although an effective Green movement in the United States will not manifest itself automatically, its potential far outweighs the possible problems. There are literally thousands of groups and periodicals that are working along the lines of Green politics. If a Green movement is to develop in this country, many of the organizers will probably come from these and similar groups. Moreover, we hope that local Green groups will contact these organizations for resource material in the various areas we have delineated.

A Green Future

When we were in the final stages of writing our book, people began to learn about Green politics, beyond the media distortions, through the speeches and interviews of several German Greens who made lecture tours of the United States. In public forums we also shared our research on the Greens and our ideas for Green politics in this country, which were met with a great deal of enthusiasm. Many people asked us, "When? Where? How?" As soon as we do it. In our own towns and cities. By expressing Green ideals to a broad cross section of groups and individuals and inviting them together.

The first gathering might be a fund-raising picnic or fair or party at which Green values and goals could be discussed and community groups working in beyond-left-and-right modes could display material. Local groups might then decide to establish task forces for projects such as weatherizing the homes and buildings in a community. The Green organization might wish to conduct a "goals and futures project" to consider various scenarios for the future of their town, developing such policy-making tools for their local government as an agenda of long-range, intermediate, and short-term goals, along with analyses of issues and planning for legislative policies. In conjunction with such a project, the local Greens might establish study groups on various issues who could gather information and develop Green proposals to be discussed and refined by the larger group – incorporating the wisdom of our elders and the fresh insights of our children – and then present them to officials and community groups. One of the central aims of grassroots Green politics is to make the question "How do l live?" a key issue in social activism, that is, to make everyday life the focus.

The local groups could send representatives to bioregional and eventually state and macroregional meetings as well, but it is important as the grassroots level develops to have some coordination at the national level. Several people interested in building a Green political organization are planning a national founding convention to be held in April 1985. We have prevailed upon the staff of New Options, the newsletter of Green politics in the United States, to serve as a temporary clearinghouse for information about the development of a movement: Green Movement, c/o New Options, P.O. Box 19324, Washington, DC 20036. We welcome reports from local Green groups and ideas about all aspects of the movement. It is certainly possible that Green politics could grow as quickly and as firmly here as is has in other countries.

If there is an immediacy to Green politics, there is also a deep optimism that we have taken the first steps. Both the right and the left will attack our course, as the Greens in other countries have found. The carrot of "security" has been used in the past to lead people out of crisis situations into fascism when no comprehensive alternatives existed to challenge that drift with sufficient strength.

Anyone who seriously examines the ecological and economic underpinnings of our system can see that we are heading for a staggering escalation of the current interrelated crises. At that point will the increasingly powerful centralized states that nuclearism is feeding enact "emergency measures" with all the repressive force the old- paradigm institutions can exert? Or will we be well on the way to building a regionalized global community that is ecologically wise, nonexploitive, and spiritually grounded? The future, if there is to be one, is Green.

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