Are The U.S. Greens Our Last Best Hope?

Several media perspectives on the annual National Green Gathering

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 6
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

By now, the memory of the 2nd (or 3rd, by some people’s reckoning) National Green Gathering (or "Platform Conference," or "SPAKA Gathering," or one of several other names) has faded considerably. Of that small convergence of 300 dedicated U.S. Greens upon Eugene, Oregon last June, what remains? Answer: an inspired group of activists, a continuing debate, a huge collection of position papers – and a media record.

For those who know little or nothing about the Greens, the media record is their sole window on that remarkably full week of meetings, discussions, and more meetings. U.S. Greens, who have nowhere near the level of organizational strength that their European counterparts have attained, nevertheless made significant progress toward defining who they are and what they ought to do. But you wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading a newspaper report.

Many journalists, including some of the "alternative" variety, arrived looking for the environmental salvation of the nation. Many left with long faces of disillusionment or worse. Those from the more mainstream outlets spent much of their time seeking power centers and political bosses – entities which do not really exist in the Green world. When they grew tired of the endless meetings and attempts to "consense" upon sticky questions of seemingly dubious importance, they gathered under the trees to lament together about how desperately America needed something like the Greens, and how it obviously wasn’t going to get it from this group.

Granted, Greens have a tendency to talk: because they use the consensus process, they often spend time at the beginning of a meeting talking about what to talk about, as well as how to talk about it fairly. Sure, some of them wear tie-dyed shirts, though most don’t. And yes, the Greens are not likely to take over the country by political storm in the near future.

But who says they want to? Even if some of them seem willing to embrace it, why should the Greens – a collection of social and environmental activists with widely varying interests and philosophies – be saddled with the messianic role of planet-savers, or nation-savers, or even bioregion-savers?

Let the Record Speak

"U.S. ‘Green’ Movement Flounders in Internal Politics" heads a story that went out through the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain (The Journal of Commerce, 7/6/89, p. 34). The lead sentence intones, "Their brethren have become a force in West German politics and have been elected to the body that is shaping a united Europe." The rest of the report focuses on the dashed hopes of visiting international "brethren" (a very non-Green word), quotes several frustrated gathering attendees, and offers a characterization of the proceedings as "a parliamentary session in wonderland."

"American Greens agree to disagree with each other" heads the somewhat more even-handed report from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (6/26/89, p. 33). It, too, concentrated on problems within the movement – its difficulty in reaching mainstream Americans, and the division between leftists and those averse to words like "anti-capitalism." To its credit, the story also described the Green agenda ("a social and cultural transformation of humankind … [with an] overall emphasis on protection of the environment") and quoted a Navajo Green’s favorable comments about the movement.

At the other end of the spectrum was a report in the National Catholic Reporter (7/14/89, p. 31) entitled "Greens going for a Green America." This was a glowing review that focused, appropriately, on the values Greens hold and hope to promulgate through society – values like decentralization, feminism, ecological wisdom, and grass-roots democracy. (Some news reports never even mentioned Green values.) It particularly noted the Green respect for diversity, and recognized that the Greens are not trying to be yet another marginal third party – they are trying to redesign politics "from the ground up."

Such efforts do not happen overnight, especially in a country as ethnically diverse and politically monolithic as the United States. Greens in Europe and elsewhere have ridden into power and the public eye thanks to a parliamentary system of democracy that the U.S. does not share. Winning 4% of the vote in Germany gets you seats in the Bundestag; in the U.S., it means next to nothing. The Greens have wisely chosen not to pursue the electoral road above the local or state level, at least for now.

But some commentators are disappointed. "The Greens are right. But is that enough?" starts a lengthy story by John Powers in the LA Weekly (7/14/89, p. 20). This terrifically entertaining article – which finally endorses the Greens’ cautious approach – praises and skewers the Greens by turns, paying particular attention to such trouble spots as the admittedly awkward language used by meeting facilitators ("We are now needing to move into an organizing function for ourselves") and the "feckless," "anemic" elements discerned by Powers in the movement itself. "I still believe 90 percent of what the Greens stand for and am driven stark raving mad by the other 10 percent," he says near the end. He seems ultimately to fear that the Greens cannot possibly do what needs doing, but that they are still our best – perhaps our only – hope.

Mark Satin, editor of the influential political newsletter New Options, seems to feel similarly, though he is much more deeply involved in the U.S. Greens. His generally sympathetic write-up is entitled "The Last Chance Saloon" – meaning that the Greens represent "our [i.e. the Sixties’] generation’s last chance to affect the mainstream political debate." Satin’s accurate, detailed report (New Options #60, 6/30/89) is the best place to go to find out what really happened at the Green gathering. And he sums up the feeling of many reporters there, especially those in the alternative press who have routinely, he rightly notes, overstated the Greens’ significance: "We wanted the Greens to succeed so much that we couldn’t stay away [from the gathering]."

Satin has put his finger on something. But rather than taking it to its logical conclusion, he falls into the desperate optimism of those awaiting the apocalypse. He’s learned, he says, "never to underestimate the power of context. Deep down inside, the Greens know they’re sitting in the Last Chance Saloon – and it’s not just their own last chance. The planet itself is at stake."

And Now, My Report

As memory fades, perspective sharpens. Working with a quarterly, I’ve had time to think, and I have a very different interpretation of what happened in Eugene.

The U.S. Greens are a relatively tiny group of activists – most of whom spend a lot more time promoting recycling, protecting wetlands, or fighting racism than they do in meetings trying desperately to reach consensus on very complicated issues. They are not going to save the planet. Investing that much hope and responsibility in a small, young, evolving movement is unfair to them, and ultimately a cop-out: it’s another version of awaiting the second coming, or expecting the cosmos to take care of your problems.

U.S. Greens perceive themselves – at least as I understand the prevailing self-perception – as catalysts. They did not even intend to produce a final Green "platform" at this convention, a fact rarely or only obliquely mentioned by many reporters who bemoaned their lack of one. They are trying to develop new ways of making the governance decisions by which we organize our cultures, and to encourage better decisions by the structures that exist. They are innovators, they will make mistakes, they may never attain the U.S. "presidency-by-committee" that some of their number envision – and then again, they may.

It is agreed by an ever-growing number of human beings that the planet’s envelope of life is in trouble. But the Greens are not our only chance, nor our last one. They are wrestling more consciously and more dedicatedly than most with the central question that confronts us: What do we need to do differently? We would all do well to join them, or learn from them, or join some other organization with which we feel more comfortable – but which also addresses that central question.

We humans are creatures of habit. And yet, we are also capable of transformation. As more of us begin to wrestle with that question – whether in the context of Green politics or elsewhere – we are also going to make mistakes, slog through new turf that makes for slow going, and encounter disappointment both in ourselves and others. And yes, we must act more quickly than our culture has ever had to before. But we get a new chance every instant. With every decision we make and every action we take, we change the world daily. "The Greens" are not our last best hope. We are.


The U.S. Green Clearinghouse will be moving to Eugene, OR in 1990. Until then, write them at PO Box 30208, Kansas City, MO 64112. A draft Green platform is available for $2 from Green Times, Box 210628, San Francisco, CA 94121.

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