JULY 1983 - VOLUME 4 - NUMBER 7
Environmentalists See Beyond the Trees
by Kathleen Selvaggio
Environmentalists in industrialized countries are on the defensive: economic recession has provided governments with an excuse to shove environmental programs into the background, and industries with an opportunity to attack health and environmental protections already in place.
But if the reports of recent speakers in Washington, D.C. are any indication, environmentalists in Europe, at least, are ready to meet the challenge. These environmentalists are steadily broadening their focus beyond conservation issues to consider economic questions and are forging new alliances with the peace and labor movements. This new-found cooperation is not simply a marriage of convenience; activists across the spectrum are discovering they share a common concern for the quality of life in the workplace, in the community, and in nature.
Three American environmentalists who visited Europe on a fact-finding mission and a representative from the German Green Party spoke in June on the environmental movements in France, England, and Germany. Together, their reports suggest that environmentalists in Europe are emerging as a significant political force.
Environmentalists in France have gone a long way toward integrating the related concerns of economy and the environment, Richard Kazis of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmentalists for Full Employment found. "You don't talk about environmental issues there without talking about political and economic issues," he said. But unlike the U.S., Kazis observed, environmental initiatives in France are not pursued through local court battles and citizen actions; France's top-down statist tradition has made grassroots activism weak. Most French environmentalists are active in the "Ecology Party", which draws its ranks primarily from young, urban professionals. In Kazis's opinion, the party is relatively sophisticated politically. It actually ran a candidate for President in 1981, winning four percent of the vote.
Kazis had the opportunity to observe the French environmentalists in action at an April conference on jobs and the environment in France. French ecologists, as they call themselves, started with the assumption that the environmental ethic must be merged into economic and social life, and then defined their task as twofold: first, demonstrating that environmental protection creates jobs and urging the development of environmentally sound jobs, and, second, a total restructuring of work. The French view unemployment as a permanent, not a temporary, problem and so see a need to close the social gap between the employed and the chronically unemployed by changing the goals of employment programs.
"The French think that the economy should not concentrate on creating jobs but on responding to needs. Otherwise, it will create lousy jobs and jobs that are environmentally destructive," Kazis said. Socially useful production, work sharing, shorter work weeks, and self-reliant community development were all part of the program advanced by French ecologists at the conference.
At this point, however, said Kazis, "ecologists fall out with the socialists," because, to the French left, "socialism means industry, production, increased purchasing power."
Whereas French environmentalists fail on grassroots democratic activism and rely on centralized party activity, England is booming with local citizen actions and ignoring the party route. The British Ecology Party is almost an insignificant political force in the electoral arena and public eye, according to Darryl Alexander, a member of the Urban Environment Conference who visited England in April.
Since Thatcher was elected in 1979, England's industrial capacity has fallen by one sixth, transforming the country from a net exporter to a net importer of goods; in recent months, unemployment has climbed above 13 percent. But just as Reagan's policies have forced U.S. activists to rethink their strategies and agenda, Thatcher's policies have given rise to a strong alternative movement in England.
"I was very excited" by the "fantastic experiments" being tried at the local level in England, Alexander said. She described vigorous campaigns to fight nuclear power plant construction and reduce lead in gasoline, as well as neighborhood associations and trade unionists teaming up to address a range of social, environmental, and economic issues.
Alexander also told the story of trade unionist Mike Cooley, who, in the mid-70s helped workers faced with layoffs Lucas Aerospace Industry develop their own alternative plan for manufacturing socially useful products at the plant. Cooley and other Lucas activists are now working with the progressive Greater London Council (England's equivalent of a county government) to help revitalize London's broken economy. Under Cooley, a council board has offered grants and loan to hard-pressed industries, bought several abandoned plants and then leased them to management, helped worker cooperatives to fight plant shutdowns, and formed technical networks to foster the development of socially useful products.
"I was very inspired by what I saw," Alexander said. "The experiment was extremely romantic. I don't know if they'll succeed, but what's important is that they're creating a structure for people who want to do something about the problem." She noted wryly that similar experiments in local councils around the country had prompted Margaret Thatcher to vow in her recent reelection campaign to do away with local councils.
One significant event that surely helped to catalyze the environmental movements in England and France was the March election of 28 members of West Germany's Green Party to the Parliament. The election victory represents "a quantum leap," said George Coling, another member of the Urban Environment Conference who visited Germany in April. "For the first time, the active environmental thinkers and doers are elected members." In the progression from citizen activists to elected representatives, the Greens have become central players in the Euromissile debate and in the fight against nuclear power, acid rain, and energy-intensive industry.
Christine Muscheler, Green Party chairperson for the state of Stuttgart, spoke of her party's aspirations during her recent visit to Washington. "We want to be in Parliament and we also want to be a movement," she said, "an environmental, a peace, and a women's movement." For the Greens, there are no real distinctions between these goals. Declaring the Parliament a "Schweinstall" (pigsty), Muscheler says that the Greens hope to reform it by making "policy for the head and the heart."
Coling reported that the head of Germany's largest and most powerful union, the metalworkers union, claims strong support for the Greens among the union's urban, working class members. Inside and outside the Green Party, Coling found many examples of close cooperation between the environmental, labor, and peace movements. One network of more than 3,000 unionists has organized in opposition to nuclear power and has formed hundreds of local study groups around the issue. The intermingling networks and overlapping voting patterns evident throughout Germany suggest that the Germany people are beginning to recognize environmental, peace, and unemployment issues as all part of the same political program.
Impressed with the highly politicized environmental movement in Europe the American activists urged U.S. environmentalists to heed the Europeans' example and take on larger responsibility for economic concerns.