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What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#618 - The Bridge To The High Road -- Part 1, 30-Sep-1998

The environmental movement is treading water and slowly drowning. There
is abundant evidence that our efforts --and they have been formidable,
even heroic --our efforts have largely failed. (For example, see REHW
#613.) After 30 years of exceedingly hard work and tremendous
sacrifice, we have failed to stem the tide of environmental

Make no mistake: our efforts have had a beneficial effect. Things would
be much worse today if our work of the past 30 years had never
occurred. However, the proper way to judge ourselves is not to ask,
Have we made things better? Clearly we have. But the proper question
is, Have our efforts been adequate? Have we succeeded? Have we even
come close to stemming the tide of destruction? And, more deeply, has
our vision been commensurate with the scale and scope of the problems
we set out to solve? To those questions, if we are honest with
ourselves, we must answer No.

What then are we to do? A few things have become clear as our work has
evolved over the past quarter century. This short series will reinforce
some old ideas and introduce some new ones for sustainable development.
The series is intended to provoke thought and debate, and certainly is
not offered as the last word on anything.

Key ideas

Open, democratic decision-making will be an essential component of any
successful strategy. After the Berlin wall fell, we got a glimpse of
what had happened to the environment and the people under the Soviet
dictatorship.[1] The Soviets had some of the world's strictest
environmental laws on the books, but without the ability for citizens
to participate in decisions, or blow the whistle on egregious
violations, those laws meant nothing. Eastern Europe was thoroughly
trashed under Soviet rule, and it will be decades (or longer) before
repairs can be effected. Several generations of humans were sacrificed,
and their natural environment was decimated.

For the same reason that science cannot find reliable answers without
open peer review, bureaucracies (whether public or private) cannot
achieve beneficial results without active citizen participation in
decisions and strong protections for whistle-blowers.[2] Without many
people looking at a problem and bringing their different viewpoints to
bear on it, errors remain uncorrected, narrow perspectives and selfish
motives are rewarded, and the general welfare will not usually be
promoted (to paraphrase the Constitution).

The fundamental importance of democratic decision-making means that our
strategies must not focus on legislative battles. Clearly, we must
contend for the full power of government to be harnessed toward
achieving our goals, but this is quite different from focusing our
efforts on lobbying campaigns to convince Congress or a state
legislature to do the right thing from time to time. Lobbying can
mobilize people for the short term, but mere mobilization does not
create long-term organization. Mobilizing is not the same as
organizing. During the past 30 years, the environmental movement has
had some notable successes mobilizing people, but few successes
building long-term organizations that people can live their lives
around and within (the way many families in the '30s, '40s and '50s
lived their lives around and within their unions' struggles for decent
wages, decent working conditions, an 8-hour day, and so forth). The
focus of our strategies must be on building organizations that involve
people and, in that process, finding new allies. The power to govern
would naturally flow from those efforts.

This question of democracy is not trivial. It is deep. And it deeply
divides the environmental movement, or rather movements plural. Many
members of the mainstream environmental movement tend to view ordinary
people as the enemy (for example, they love to point to Pogo
saying, "We have met the enemy and he is us."). They fundamentally
don't trust people to make good decisions, so they prefer to leave
ordinary people out of the equation. Instead, they scheme with lawyers
and experts behind closed doors, then announce their "solution"
(whatever it may be). Then they lobby Congress in hopes that Congress
will impose this latest "solution" on us all.

Naturally, such people don't develop a big following and
their "solutions" --even when Congress has been willing to impose them
upon us --have often proven to be expensive, burdensome, and ultimately

Since the days of the American Revolution, thoughtful people have
recognized that our democracy depends decisivly upon an informed
citizenry. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1820, "I know of no safe
depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people
themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise
their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it
from them, but to inform their discretion." And Franklin Roosevelt said
in a fireside chat in 1938, "The only sure bulwark of continuing
liberty is a government strong enough to protect the interests of the
people, and a people strong enough and well enough informed to maintain
its sovereign control over its government."

In the modern era, open democratic decision-making is essential to
survival. Only by informing people, and trusting their decisions, can
we survive as a human society. Our technologies are now too complex and
too powerful to be left solely in the hands of a few experts. If they
are allowed to make decisions behind closed doors, small groups of
experts can make fatal errors. One thinks of the old Atomic Energy
Commission (AEC) justifying above-ground nuclear weapons testing. In
the early 1950s, their atomic fallout was showering the population with
strontium-90, a highly-radioactive element that masquerades as calcium
when it is taken into the body. Once in the body, strontium-90 moves
into the bones, where it irradiates the bone marrow, causing cancer.
The AEC's best and brightest studied this problem in detail and
concluded that raining strontium-90 over the prairies of mid-America
would not hurt anyone. They argued in secret memos that the only way
strontium-90 could get into humans would be through cattle grazing on
contaminated grass. They calculated the strontium-90 intake of the
cows, and the amount that would end up in the cows' bones. Then they
carefully measured the tiny slivers of bone fragments found in a
typical hamburger. On that basis, the AEC reported to Congress in
1953, "The only potential hazard to human beings would be the ingestion
of bone splinters which might be intermingled with muscle tissue in
butchering and cutting of the meat. An insignificant amount would enter
the body in this fashion."[4] Thus, they concluded, strontium-90 was
not endangering people.

The following year, in 1954, Congress declassified many of the AEC's
deliberations. As soon as these memos became public, scientists and
citizens in St. Louis began asking, "What about the cow's milk?" The
AEC scientists had no response. They had neglected to ask themselves
whether strontium-90, mimicking calcium, would contaminate cows' milk,
which of course it did. These particular AEC experts were not permitted
to make decisions in secret for very long, and the world community soon
put an end to above-ground nuclear weapons tests, formalizing a treaty
35 years ago. (Recently even China and France seem to have grasped the
wisdom of this approach.) However, secrecy in government and corporate
decision-making continues to threaten the well being of everyone on the
planet as new technologies are deployed at an accelerating pace after
inadequate consideration of their effects. Only by informing people
broadly, and trusting their decisions, can we survive as a human
society. Open democratic decision-making is no longer a luxury. In the
modern world, it is a necessity for human survival.

For democracy to work, the economy needs to serve our democratic goals
as well. It seems obvious that the overriding purpose of the economy is
to serve the basic human needs of everyone according to a widely-shared
standard of fairness. But increasingly our own U.S. economy is
violating this principle. Five percent of the people are making out
like bandits, 40% are doing well, yet the majority are increasingly
excluded from the cornucopia, abandoned to fight among themselves over
the crumbs. And the chasm between rich and poor is continuing to widen.

MIT economist Lester Thurow has observed, "No country not experiencing
a revolution of a military defeat with a subsequent occupation has
probably ever had as rapid or as widespread an increase in inequality
as has occurred in the United States in the past two decades."[3]

No one is advocating equal distribution of income and wealth. Some
people want to work harder than others and they deserve greater rewards
for their efforts. However, it is obvious that all wealth is ultimately
derived from, and dependent upon, the community. Bill Gates alone did
not create the wealth that is now the Microsoft Corporation. With hard
work and a measure of luck, Mr. Gates cleverly combined technical
details and capacities that he inherited from the larger society that
came before him. These centuries of accumulated development are the
community's bequest to each of us, and they are what allows us to
create wealth. Individual entrepreneurs are important, but wealth is
largely created by the community, not by individuals. Each member of
the community, therefore, has a just claim on a fair portion of the
benefits of the economy.

Citizens who cannot share in the benefits of the economy can rarely
participate in democratic decision-making and the republic is weakened
accordingly. Furthermore, if a large segment of society is cut off from
the benefits of the economy, this breeds envy, distrust, animosity and
ultimately fear and danger for everyone. It weakens the fabric that
makes one out of many (e pluribus unum, as it says on U.S. coins). A
broad distribution of wealth and of human development should be the
goal of our economy because it is morally and ethically right, because
it will bring the greatest good to the greatest number, and because it
is the only way to preserve our most important ideal --our democracy,
without which we will surely lose our liberty.

A recent manifesto has caught my attention. It is called BUILDING THE
BRIDGE TO THE HIGH ROAD by Dan Swinney who runs the Midwest Center for
Labor Research in Chicago. It seems to me that it's an important new
statement of how we might achieve some of our fundamental goals. And it
just might offer the environmental movement new perspectives on ways to
stop treading water and get moving again. You can get a copy from the
world wide web --www.mclr.com, though you have to download it in 14
sections and reassemble them into one piece. You can also order a paper
copy for $10 from MCLR, Room 10, 3411 W. Diversy, Chicago, IL 60647;
phone (773) 278-5418. Next week, we'll look into Dan's promising

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] For example, see Antonin Kratochvil and Marlise Simons, "Eastern
Europe, The Polluted Lands," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE April 29, 1990,
pgs. 31-35.

[2] William Sanjour and Stephen M. Cohen, ENVIRONMENTAL WHISTLEBLOWERS:
AN ENDANGERED SPECIES (Annapolis, Maryland: Environmental Research
Foundation, 1994). And see REHW #484.

[3] Lester Thurow, THE FUTURE OF CAPITALISM (New York: William Morrow,
1966), pg. 42.

[4] H. Peter Metzger, THE ATOMIC ESTABLISHMENT (New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1972), pgs. 93-94, quoting the 13TH SEMI-ANNUAL REPORT OF THE
AEC [TO CONGRESS] dated January 28, 1953.

Descriptor terms: democracy; economy; inequality; wealth; poverty;
strontium-90; nuclear weapons;