Beyond Ecomilitarism: A New Path For Environmental Activism
[Excerpted below are portions of a speech made by Bill Shireman to an Earthday event in April 1999 in Palo Alto, California.]
n his 1971 book Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky advocated activism to create mass organizations, to seize power, and to give it to people.
This was a war-based strategy, a military-modeled strategy that used as its motto the credo of the Spanish Civil War: "Better to die on your feet than to live on your knees." This is the model on which we developed the first wave of environmental activism. The military model. When you look at how we carry out our battles, you see that in many ways we are solders, except that we claim peaceful methods. We do everything but the final act of war.
The frontier in the environmental movement has long been the activists who are carrying out civil disobedience campaigns at the front line -- Earth First!, Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior, Rainforest Action Network,
They infiltrate enemy lines, they scale the buildings, they blockade the ships, they lay down their bodies in front of the path of the bulldozer before it gets to the forest, to the trees. One step back from the front lines we have the protesters, and we protest and raise our arms up against the corporations and government and entrenched interests. And then a step back from that are the lobbyists, and we design the laws and push for the regulations that are as tough as possible on the offenders, so that we can force them to take actions that will be more in line with environmental sustainability.
I've been involved in every element of that, and I recognize that all of these methods are still important elements of the environmental movement. But they aren't sufficient to bring about the sustainable culture that we want to grow.
Implicit in the military strategy are several assumptions that are common to war.
Number one is that the enemy is uniformly evil, and that everyone that is a part of the enemy institution is a part of that evil and an advocate of that evil.
Another assumption is that the enemy could change if the enemy only decided to do so. It is an assumption that corporations are not part of a larger system in which they also have incentives that compel them to take actions that may be contrary to the interests of sustainability.
We assume that if we could only get them to wake up and act morally, that our problems would be solved. And we assume that the way to do that is to get to the very top, because in a military organization you go to the top and the top person orders everyone else to get in line and to do the right thing ....
Contrary to these assumptions, however, we are not fighting an evil enemy. We are fighting a system within which other people who are caring and concerned are also operating, and we need to begin to focus on that system and to change that system. And we need to begin to look at all of the individuals within these institutions we've been fighting not as enemies who've sold out and taken the big time job with the corporation, but as catalysts, potential change agents, who are perfectly positioned to begin to make some of those changes because of where they are, where they work, what they can do right there.
So what is the system that we need to change, and how should we change it? What is the model on which we should seek to make the changes?
Is it the free market system -- the system that creates competitive demands for companies to achieve the lowest price possible on their goods and services and get them out to stores at that lowest possible price -- that compels them to avoid recycled materials, to avoid using renewable resources, to instead exploit resources that we gather up free pre-prepared from nature? I don't believe that it is this system that is at fault. I don't believe that the competitive system, I dont believe that the market system, is to blame.
I think that we only have to look at the former Soviet Union, at the current Chinese system, at any controlled rigid inflexible system, to see that in those systems the situation can be much much worse.
We have to recognize that the institutions we have at present are working well within the structure of incentives that they have.
If a flexible, changeable system like our own, that has the capacity to adjust in response to ecological limits, has trouble being sustainable, then a more controlled rigid system, even if it is imposed because of the vision of an environmentalist ... will become as unsustainable as the system that we have, and probably more so.
The system that we must move beyond is not the market economy. It is the system of industrialism itself. Industrialism is a machine economy that profits by extracting complex natural capital, raw materials, from the Earth and funneling those raw materials as quickly as possible through the economy.
The faster the machine economy operates to extract materials, turn them into products, and turn them into waste, the more money builds up in the economy, the faster the economy grows, and the better off we all are. Except that, of course, that economy is feeding off its own foundation. Machines, and a machine model, and in fact the vision of humanity against nature, the war against nature, is what drives the industrial system.
It is the same system of conquest and system of battle that really underlies our approach to environmentalism.
But industrialism is only one stage in the development of human culture. Human culture,
Industrialism is a rapid growth, pioneer species stage that can be succeeded by a stage in which we grow not through consumption but through design, were we create value by design. We've begun to do that, but we've only just begun. The microchip, the compelling technology of this era, is founded not on the consumption of resources but on the use of knowledge. It is value that is created by design ....
We can carry that much much further. What would a new approach to environmentalism look like?
First, its vision would be positive and not negative. It would have a vision of a sustainable economy.
Second, its methods would be organic, not mechanical. It would not "build a better future." I hear that all the time. "We're going to build a better future" according to a mechanistic blueprint that is obsolete before it is on paper. It would grow and develop a better future, not according to a preconceived model but according to principles that we find in nature, and we would allow that future to take its own form.
Third, that activism would make people responsible for the effects of their actions. Institutions and individuals responsible for the effects of their own actions. Pay your own way, earn your own income.
Fourth, it would recognize not just property rights but also property responsibilities. It would recognize that people are stewards of property and that they are responsible for the impacts of their actions on the property and on all who are dependent on the property.
Fifth, it would change the signals that are deeply planted in our economy. Signals that were designed, consciously or not, to accelerate the speed of the industrial machine. The new signals should enhance the development of the new economy, a post-industrial economy, that multiplies not our muscles but our minds.
.... None of this is to say that the old style military model of activism has no place. It remains an essential part of the whole, but if this is a war that is worth winning, then we must recognize our new opportunities for proactivism and envision not just what we want to destroy but the deeper values that we want to emerge in their place. For those we need only look to the very system to which we have devoted ourselves, to nature, and to follow her way.
Bill Shireman is the CEO of Global Futures and a Co-founder of The Future 500, an organization working to demonstrate how companies can profit from sustainability by applying measurement and management tools that stimulate innovation, by replacing products with services, and by driving waste toward zero.
For a 3 MB MPEG video of clips taken from Bill's talk "Beyond Ecomilitarism:
A New Path For Environmental Activism," click here.
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