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Beyond progressivism: Toward a new politics and a new economics

This article was written in response to this post at, and is cross-posted at Green Mass Group.

"We are neither left nor right; we are in front."
-a Green slogan

I learned more about the Green Party from two old books* and two old white dudes** in my local chapter than anywhere else. I joined the party in 2001 and voted for its presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, but it took me over ten years to even begin to get a sense of what it’s really all about.

There are some major things that distinguish the Greens from simply being more progressive than, or to the left of, the Democrats. I’d say the single-most important point is that the Green Party is an ecological political party, trying to establish an "ecological politics" in a country whose politics — left and right — has a fundamental disconnect with reality.

I hope to develop a better understanding of what ecological politics means in practice and theory both, but my simplistic version is that Greens view our economic, social, and political structures as complex systems of interrelated parts, all of which are ultimately woven into a greater fabric of natural systems — the environment our human-constructed systems are fully dependent upon, the solar system, and beyond.

This has dramatic implications for the 21st century. One thing that excites me is the extent to which the green movement is genuinely global in nature, because we have reached a point where we are now talking about the very survival of the human species. And globally, people of all stripes and all backgrounds are organizing like they’ve never organized before. There are indigenous movements, landless movements, farmer movements, peasant movements, worker movements, and other peoples’ movements that are standing up to the accelerating assault on their most basic rights. This ecological uprising is happening just in the nick of time… either that, or it’s happening too late, so I prefer the former.

But even in the United States, there are stunning implications of applying an ecological lens (and the 10 Key Values are not much more than a lens) to the systems we depend on for our livelihoods and lifestyles — individually and collectively. At the heart of most government policy is a guiding rule — that economic growth is the engine of our society. Whether we are talking about pharmaceuticals or prisons, healthcare or warfare, clean coal or next generation nuclear… if the economy is growing (and tax revenue along with it), then all is well.

But our economy, and the energy fueling it, cannot grow indefinitely. If you need to be convinced of this, then watch the incredible set of videos developed by Chris Martenson, called The Crash Course. Martenson points out that in order for our system to function, the economy has to grow each year by at least as much money as is needed to pay interest on existing debt. A growing economy of 3% each year is an exponentially expanding economy, and we are already hitting the physical limitations to such growth. As David Orr points out in this interview, we knew about these limits back in the 1970s, we knew about the grave threats to our survival, but we lacked a strategy for incorporating this knowledge into our social systems. Not only have we failed to adapt, but we have dreamed up new ways of accelerating our destruction and exploitation.

So all is not well, and we’ve lost about 40 years. Note well that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and I can’t think of a better marker of the complete and utter impotence of the environmental movement. We need an ecological movement that is steeped in social justice, recognizes that humans are part of nature and are bound by its physical limits, and appreciates the simple fact that our economic systems must be ecologically grounded. We need a new politics, a unifying politics that ends the tragic distractions of divide-and-conquer tactics. Our species has been divided against itself for too long. If we don’t learn to see each other as human beings, and to focus on the things that bind us together, we might be passing up the key to our survival. From the corporatists and the billionaires to the Tea Partiers and Progressive Democrats, from the Amazonian tribes who stand to be flooded out by the Brazilian government to the rising tide of Americans who face home foreclosures, our ultimate self-interests can only be met by working together.

Our current political system leaves no room for speaking truthfully about the converging crises that confront us. A fundamentally limited debate about climate change serves no one but the fossil fuel industry (and even then, it only serves their short-term narrowly-conceived self interest). Peak oil and its extensive threat to the entire US economy and infrastructure isn’t even entertained as an important issue. The Democrats and Republicans have absolutely no narrative for what’s currently unfolding, and are categorically committed to an unsustainable economic model that has started to unravel. The Democrats, as anyone would expect, have thrown their weight behind propping up their dying models.

If our political system cannot honestly discuss the enormous problems facing us, we will never address them. Yet while the Greens are brimming with common sense, cross-cutting solutions, many of which don’t cost any money and actually save lots of money, we have not found a way to organize effectively around our ideas. We know we need to change the system, but we don’t know how to do it. And this is much harder than simply running more progressive candidates or running to the left of the Democrats.

Donella Meadows, in her groundbreaking article Places to Intervene in a System, points us in the direction of system change:

People who manage to intervene in systems at the level of paradigm hit a leverage point that totally transforms systems.

You could say paradigms are harder to change than anything else about a system, and therefore this item should be lowest on the list, not the highest. But there’s nothing physical or expensive or even slow about paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a new way of seeing. Of course individuals and societies do resist challenges to their paradigm harder than they resist any other kind of change.

So how do you change paradigms? Thomas Kuhn, who wrote the seminal book about the great paradigm shifts of science, has a lot to say about that. In a nutshell, you keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm, you come yourself, loudly, with assurance, from the new one, you insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power. You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

I tend to believe that we need a paradigm shift away from economic growth, and that we need a new economics that will replace our exploitative and destructive models. But I’ve learned this lesson from Meadows:

The highest leverage of all is to keep oneself unattached in the arena of paradigms, to realize that NO paradigm is "true," that even the one that sweetly shapes one’s comfortable worldview is a tremendously limited understanding of an immense and amazing universe.

It is to "get" at a gut level the paradigm that there are paradigms, and to see that that itself is a paradigm, and to regard that whole realization as devastatingly funny. It is to let go into Not Knowing.

People who cling to paradigms (just about all of us) take one look at the spacious possibility that everything we think is guaranteed to be nonsense and pedal rapidly in the opposite direction. Surely there is no power, no control, not even a reason for being, much less acting, in the experience that there is no certainty in any worldview. But everyone who has managed to entertain that idea, for a moment or for a lifetime, has found it a basis for radical empowerment. If no paradigm is right, you can choose one that will help achieve your purpose. If you have no idea where to get a purpose, you can listen to the universe (or put in the name of your favorite deity here) and do his, her, its will, which is a lot better informed than your will.

It is in the space of mastery over paradigms that people throw off addictions, live in constant joy, bring down empires, get locked up or burned at the stake or crucified or shot, and have impacts that last for millennia.

Let’s get to work!

* Green Politics: The Global Promise by Charlene Spretnak and Fritjof Capra, 1986 AND Seeing Green: The Politics of Ecology Explained by Jonathon Porritt, 1985

** Thanks Bill and Elie. I hope that doesn’t sting, but look at the facts!

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