Saturday 20 July 2019

The lost chances of the Greens, part III

This is a bit delayed -- I've been travelling to Wales and London, and will write more about that shortly 

Kaller: I’ve been to a lot of rallies, both before and after I became a journalist, and it always amazed me that so many people there considered themselves to be, because they were fighting the takeover of big corporations, anti-capitalist. I’d read The Wealth of Nations, and

Gilman: Written before corporations existed …

Kaller: Yes, and I believed that, by opposing things like corporate monopolies, I am being extremely capitalist.

"Smith came out of a very Christian society, where the moral rules of how you did things were never questioned ... And that was the framework within which he saw the market operating. When you hit the limit of those rules, the free market no longer applies."

Gilman: I would agree with you on that. Yes, it’s totally oversimplified by people who don’t know the history. I have an economics major, so I know a little bit about the emergence of economic theory, and it is a far cry from what neoconservatives today talk about. The whole nature of the world has changed, and the rise of corporations – one of the big inventions of industrialism, equal to the internal-combustion engine, or perhaps more fundamental. That is a much bigger picture than just Marxism vs. capitalism, or capitalism vs. socialism.

If we were living in Adam Smith’s world, we wouldn’t be doing badly at all; the Greens would be right at home.

Smith came out of a very Christian society, where the moral rules of how you did things were never questioned. That was God’s Word, and I don’t think even Adam Smith questioned God’s Word. And that was the framework within which he saw the market operating. When you hit the limit of those rules, the free market no longer applies.

But nowadays, God is the free market. Instead of the divine hand, the invisible hand of the marketplace is the hand of God.

Kaller: People describe it the same way; people will dismiss any problem by saying “The Market will take care of it.”

Gilman: And a truly free market has almost never existed, if you mean the classic definition of a free market. And it certainly doesn’t exist today; the entire advertising industry is an effort to subvert the free market.

Kaller: Government gives huge subsidies to corporations to keep going, there is a tax structure that allows people to .. well, you know all this.

Gilman: Yes, and I think we’d be in very close agreement on this.

Kaller: What are some of the things the Greens predicted early on that are now happening?

Gilman: The limits to growth. Greens, along with all the rest of the world, have been very slow to move ahead with limiting population, because no one knows how to do it, except that it’s obvious that the more you educate women, the growth of population immediately slows down. The limits of the planet, I think, is the main thing.

Kaller: In the last few decades, have you ever seen anything happen – like, say, the energy crisis of the 1970s, the changes in American politics, the 9-11 attacks, or the Iraq War, and say, ‘That’s the kind of thing this person was talking about way back when.’?”

Gilman: I see it continually. The fact that we are running out of oil – there’s the limits to growth right there … The other thing that I have personally been involved with is the peace movement. And the Greens immediately picked up on the fact that we can’t have wars anymore. We’ll only destroy ourselves. And that was a fairly universal understanding among thinkers at that time. We had the atomic bomb; forget war from here on. And that is only one possibility right now. Weapons of mass destruction, if unleashed, will destroy everybody – they are not going to be controllable. And I think that’s been recognized pretty much since World War II among any forward-looking or fundamental thinkers.

"If we were living in Adam Smith’s world, we wouldn’t be doing badly at all; the Greens would be right at home."

Kaller: And yet, when I read things by the peace movement, I think how enthusiastically I agree, and yet I’m frustrated by a lack of practical implementation. How much of that did you see?

Gilman: An enormous amount. I guess I see this in a very big framework of science and where is the human species going, and I do see us as being in a crisis. I believe we are living in a collapsing civilization. And that makes it very hard to gain perspective, because it is happening so fast in so many areas of our lives, all around us, that to see exactly what is happening is very hard.

I think the fundamentalist movements throughout the world – Christian, Muslim, Jewish (and there are a lot of very fundamentalist Jews – I’m not aware of any really fundamentalist Buddhists, but they must exist, and certainly in Sri Lanka they are far from pacifist) – and the return to familiar beliefs is a panic reaction, something to hold on to, to give people a sense of security in a world that is collapsing, that they can’t understand and that seems completely out of control.

And of course that only precipitates more violence, because anyone who feels they have an exclusive lock on the truth is going to end up fighting somebody else who feels they have an exclusive lock on the truth. There is no possibility of a peaceful world as long as that is the prevailing type. I’m optimistic enough to think that eventually that will play itself out, but how exactly, I don’t know.

Tuesday 9 July 2019

The Lost Chances of the Greens, part II

Kaller: Would you say that Greens everywhere are in favour of a more localized economy?

Gilman: I don’t know about that. I would suspect that’s true, because it’s almost forced by the idea of a more Earth-friendly society. On the other hand, I don’t know what Green Parties in other countries are doing. Certainly in this country, that is true, and is something I’ve worked for in Minnesota, a more localized economy.

Kaller: When I looked at the early issues of the North Country Anvil [a 1970s publication Gilman edited in rural Minnesota], I found it interesting. How integral would you say that was to the early Green Movement?

Gilman: I’d say a good many of them were integral.

[Gilman went on to describe some of the early Greens, mostly farmers and homesteaders from various Christian denominations; I didn’t want to publicise their names without permission.]

They were Luddites; back-to-the-landers, and that particular aspect of the Anvil, carries over to the Green movement … [but] the Greens function on the Internet, and they are not Luddites in the sense of wanting to go back to the land; that was a function of the 1960s and 1970s, especially here in the Midwest. It may not have been as strong elsewhere, but I suspect it was – certainly in New England it was. That was one aspect of the Anvil.

Kaller: It felt like such a rural publication.

Gilman: One of the things that interested me was that it is a rural voice for the Green movement, whereas many others like Murray Bookchin were very much urban.

Kaller: When you were talking about these early ideas -- systems theory and the Club of Rome – how many people were paying attention? How big was this movement?

Gilman: It would be impossible for me to say; I was very much on the fringes of it. I was reading a lot of books, but I wasn’t involved; I was raising kids. I was not involved as an activist in any way.

Kaller: But you were interested early on.

Gilman:Yes, I became interested in the mid-1970s, and my reading went back before that. But through the 60s I was “nesting,” as they say, working full-time and raising a family, and that does keep one a little busy.

Kaller: I know (chuckle). I was trying to get a feel for how small the number of people were, and what kind of people.

Gilman: One key person whose work I read a good bit of, and went to several conferences with, was William Irwin Thompson – and I won’t blame you if you’ve never heard of him. I have a number of his books up there; he came out of the Sixties. His first and best-known book was The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light, the rest were less well-known and less interesting.

In any case, I joined his Lindisfarne Association, and went a number of seminars and conferences, where I met some very interesting people. Mary Catherine Bateson – I never met Gregory, but his daughter Mary Catherine was at many of these conferences – and people like Wendell Berry and his wife, and a number of very Green-leaning people. They were also anti-capitalist, also, but again it’s a much broader thing than capitalist vs. socialist.

Tuesday 2 July 2019

The lost chances of the Greens, part 1

In a nursing home in St. Paul, Minnesota last year, a 91-year-old Quaker named Rhoda Gilman died, and her death was barely noted -- which is a shame, because she led a fascinating life. She wrote several excellent books on American history, raised a family, ran for lieutenant governor of that state in 2002, and was one of the early leaders of the Green movement in America … and lived through one of the great and unappreciated lost chances of world history.

That’s a sweeping statement, I know, but let me explain.  

By “Green movement,” I don’t mean simply the Green Party – although she helped found that organisation – or the environmental movement. The word “environmentalist” has been applied to many things, from activist celebrities to the latest expensive eco-fad. The movement I’m thinking of has rarely been noticed by mainstream media, or else has been called many names: back-to-the-land-ism, bio-regionalism, deep ecology and many other labels. The best word for it, though, in the purely dictionary sense, would be “conservative.”

I’m referring to a diverse movement of people casting aside the stereotypes of left and right, who mostly live on homesteads and revive traditional ways of life. Most are private and stay under the radar of the internet for a reason, but I know many of them on homesteads across the USA, the UK and Ireland. Rather than take their inspirations from celebrity environmentalism, they embraced a radical traditionalism, following figures like economist  E. F. Schumacher, theologians like Ivan Illich or Father Thomas Berry, and do-it-yourselfers like John Seymour. Many were quite religious – sometimes conservative Catholics like Schumacher, Illich or Berry, some Lutheran or Mennonite, some Quakers like Gilman. And they began to appear just as the world was becoming aware, on a mass scale, of issues like pollution, climate change and consumerism. There was once a time, though, when Christians forming their own communities in the country talked to, and were sometimes the same people as, the ecologists and libertarians doing the same.

"I saw it as an alternative to the identity politics that were already springing up and dividing people. Women, blacks, gay people, American Indians, now Asians ... Identity politics is made to order to divide and conquer. I saw the Green Movement as bridging all of those, and responding to the basic problems ..."
-- Rhoda Gilman 

Unfortunately, all Greens were branded as “far-left,” and the growing evangelical movement of the time “far-right” – both simplistic and somewhat inaccurate labels. During a crucial window of history, when we had a chance to really avert any serious climate change and manage an orderly rearranging of civilisation  rather than a catastrophic decline, Green ideals failed to catch on among the larger and politically powerful Christian movements.

About 15 years ago,  I sat down with Gilman in her apartment to talk about the early years of the Greens, and of what could have been.  

Kaller: One of the reasons I wanted to do this is because, in the popular media when the name Green comes up, everyone in mainstream political ideology talks about them in very specific terms: ultra-leftists, split off from the Democrats, made Gore lose.

Gilman: And environmentalists.

Kaller: Yes, and I’ve heard that even from some people who joined the Greens recently, people who believed this stereotype and liked it. So I’d like to publicise the actual beliefs of the Greens and where they came from.

Gilman: I can’t speak for Europe, I only know this country. In 1970 there was the Club of Rome report from Donella Meadows, in 1973 the Catholic economist E.F. Schumacher wrote Small is Beautiful, in 1979 the scientist James Lovelock published Gaia, and people like Arne Naess and Murray Bookchin expanded on their ideas. Bookchin was part of the very early Green movement here, in social ecology, and was part of the left wing of the Green Movement when it was first founded in this country.

My own feeling is that ecology as we know it today is based on systems theory. Norbert Wiener wrote The Human Use of Human Beings in the 1950s, and then Gregory Bateson applied some of those same ideas to nature.

Kaller: Could you tell me more about them?

Gilman: Weiner was an early computer man, and is fairly well-known; if you look him up on the Internet you’ll get the whole story. Gregory Bateson was an anthropologist, and for a while the husband of Margaret Mead. He was also very interdisciplinary, applying systems theory to evolution. I have several of his books here – Steps To an Ecology of Mind and Mind and Nature are probably his best-known. The intellectual currents of the time were leading towards the Green movement, and Bateson was close to Schumacher …

The intellectual roots of the Green Movement are right there. Donella Meadows died just recently, but her work on the Club of Rome report in 1970 was the one that created the term “limits to growth.” I see that as much more integral to the Green movement than, say, the Sierra Club or Save the Whales.

Environmental organizations tackle a problem or group of problems. These seekers went to the basic problems with our industrial society that are going to have to change because the planet can’t support it. That is, to me, the essence of the Green Movement.

I joined the Green Party – or the Green Movement, before it was a party, early on – because it was the one umbrella group that faced the whole problem of the need for change, rather than joining the Left. The socialists and communists still worked within the framework of an industrial society. The Greens said, “We’ve got to question the whole thing.”

Also, in this country, politically, I saw it as an alternative to the identity politics that were already springing up and dividing people. Women, blacks, gay people, American Indians, now Asians – at that time Asians weren’t in the picture yet. Identity politics is made to order to divide and conquer. I saw the Green Movement as bridging all of those, and responding to the basic problems facing our industrial civilization.

That’s why it’s international. It’s facing the problems not of a country or even a system like capitalism, it’s facing the problems of the entire planet.