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Four shades of green
by Diana Holland

A discussion of the dominant factions in the environmental movement, plus elucidation of the underlying causes of environmental imbalance which have yet to be addressed. 

Even the most cursory review of current environmental literature shows that the environment — its protection, exploitation and/or management — is quickly coming to the forefront as a political issue.

Broadly, there seem to be four main factions or shades of green within the environmental movement itself (Anderson,1989)1:

• The political activists, including professional lobbyists, lawyers and specialists seeking to influence federal and local governments — as well as rank and file members who pay dues, write letters to legislators and otherwise attempt to influence public policy.

• The greens, who may or may not be associated with any form of Green party and are often campus ideologues, are trying to change society through protests and massive shifts in personal life style. They are deeply suspicious of establishment politics and fear being corrupted or co-opted by the system.

• The grass-roots activists, whose motto is NIMBY ("not in my back yard") are interested neither in politics nor ideology, but want to keep their local communities from being destroyed by development and/or pollution. This "no growth" movement was started by prosperous home owners in the 70s but a second wave is now emerging among the less fortunate citizens of poor neighbourhoods and small towns which traditionally have not had the clout to resist industrial developers, hazardous waste dumpers and other polluters. "Not in anyone’s back yard" is the slogan of this group.

• The globals, exemplified by organizations like the Worldwatch Institute, use scientific data, computer modelling and forecasting to study planetary trends such as species extinction or global warming. They advocate sustainable development — economic growth that is not attended by environmental destruction — and are deeply involved in development, especially in the Third World.

But while the various shades of green now emerging wrestle amongst themselves to create an identity for an environmental movement, others point out that the ecological crisis is essentially beyond our control as citizens, householders, consumers or even voters (Sale, 1990)2

Viewed from this perspective, the crisis is the inevitable by–product of our modern-day industrial civilization, dominated by profit-based modes of production and consumption, serviced and protected at all levels of government. According to this point of view, individual actions and life style solutions can have only a minimal effect in altering or reversing the situation. Energy consumption in American households, for example, accounted for no more than 28 per cent of the total usage in 1987 (the most recent figures available) while a disproportionate amount went to industry and agribusiness virtually unquestioned.


Thus, consciousness-raising events like Earth Day, a belief in techno-fix or letters-to-legislators solutions as well as individual life style changes, are seen as nothing but tranquilizers. Recycling centres, for example, should not be viewed as the answer to our waste problems but as a confession that the system of packaging and production in our society is out of control. Like hospitals, they are institutions created as a final solution to problems which never would have occurred if ecological criteria had operated in the first place.

In this context, nothing less than a drastic overhaul of our civilization and an abandonment of its ingrained gods — progress, growth, exploitation, technology, materialism, anthropocentricity and power — will do anything substantial to halt our path to environmental destruction.

Still, a green consciousness seems to be emerging as a ground swell rather than a fad, at least in countries with an educated, prosperous citizenry. Issues internal to the environmental movement — its intrinsic merit, constituent factions, composition or strategies for effective political action — will undoubtedly become clearer as the movement coalesces.

Notwithstanding, the old-guard coalition of business government and industry — the perceived "enemy" of environmentalism — is not waiting until a recognizable opponent emerges onto the battlefield. A case in point is the destruction of America’s rain forest in the Pacific Northwest. While conscientious consumers eat specially marketed ice cream to save the Amazon, American timber companies are successfully lobbying Congress and the United States Forest Service (USFS) to let them cut the last ancient rain forest in the United States, having depleted much of the valuable timber on their privately owned land. The USFS plans to increase the acreage logged each year by 10 per cent, with the eventual result that most of the ancient forests will be gone in 60 years or less. (Nicolai,1990)3

How can this be possible, when the USFS is a government agency responsible for managing the harvest of trees from public lands and when the reserves in question consist of 500 to 1,000 year-old forests of great conifers which were set aside by law at the turn of the century? One reason is that the USFS defines even this precious old-growth forest mainly in terms of its value as timber. Another reason is that the lumber industry, comprised of several large companies and their allies in Congress, has managed to sway public opinion by a marketing campaign which frames the debate as "jobs versus spotted owls".

Because the northern spotted owl is listed as a threatened species, and, like the canary in the coal mine is considered an indicator species for the health of the whole ecosystem, federal courts have issued injunctions to stop logging operations in spotted owl habitats. The industry has been quick to blame the birds for the loss of logging jobs, and to brand environmentalists as "no jobs" reactionaries.

However, the main reason for the loss of jobs is really the changing operations of big timber companies. More than 85 Oregon mills closed in the last decade and 13,000 Americans lost their jobs, but the amount of timber cut in the state nearly doubled from 1980-1990. Over half the jobs were lost as a result of automation in the timber industry and another quarter of the jobs went overseas with logs to China, Japan and Korea where labour is cheap for building or finishing.

Legal challenges by advocates of wildlife conservation, Native American Tribes and others have so far been the most successful in slowing exploitation of public forests. But what needs to be challenged, according to many thinkers, is the whole notion of nature as a resource waiting to be developed for human purposes: "Until the human species understands itself as a species, it will never stop treating the earth and its treasures (‘resources’) as the rightful food for its omnivorous maw, will never stop acting as if it owns the earth and has the right of ‘domination over’ its species." (Sale, 1990)

Meanwhile, as environmentalists in the ‘developed’ world tackle yet another red herring — to convince people that their jobs don’t depend on killing owls, the Third World stands in the wings, ready to repeat and even to better the mistakes of the North. For example, faced with her people’s legitimate desire to raise the standard of living for a quarter of the world’s population, the knife at her back to become "competitive" amongst the world’s industrialized nations, China sits on large unexploited resources of coal, a first-class engine of growth and pollution.

As the Nigerias and the Mexicos of the world surge ‘forward’, their first concern is to import from the First World its ‘love affair’ with the car. Why should Poland or Hungary, poised to adopt a ‘democratic ideal’ and to career onto the capitalist "fast track", accept less than the comfort and prosperity level now taken for granted in the countries next door?

It does not take Maitreya for us to realize that "the environment is the number one issue" as we grapple in the 11th hour with the wholesale changes which must be made — despite a panoply of hidden agendas and disinformation from those who profit from the status quo and the general ignorance of the public concerning the issues and the lack of clout at the grassroots level. But can we collectively agree on the changes which must be made and implement them in time? Only perhaps, if we can see ourselves as the One Humanity with its many shades of green.

Notes: (1) Anderson, Walter Truett. From an article in Pacific News Service, 15 December 1989, reprinted in the Utne Reader, July/August 1990, p. 52. (2) Sale, Kirkpatrick. "The Trouble with Earth Day", The Nation, 30 April 1990, pp. 594-598. (3) Nicolai, Dan. "The Destruction of America’s Rain Forest", Utne Reader, July/August 1990, pp. 23-24.

From the November 1990  issue of Share International 

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First published April 1999, Last modified: 15-Oct-2005