For those of us casting about for ways to build the movement against President Bush and his willingness to trade restricted civil liberties and declining economic welfare at home for empire abroad, there is a strategic path that allows us to reach mainstream Americans with an approach that does not sound radical but, in fact, goes to the heart of ending imperialism.
Although the U.S. military gets most of the media attention as the enforcement arm of the U.S. empire, the underlying institution that is the true basis of empire is the transnational corporation.
Two key characteristics of transnational corporations are: (1) they are not rooted in place and have no patriotism to any specific location; and (2) they systematically destroy the environment by turning nature into money. So to create an alternative system, we should focus on promoting the locally owned, green economy. There are a number of trends in our society that are taking us in this direction anyway.
Environmental breakdown is increasingly evident: The key terrain of struggle is the public mind. If we can convince enough people of the need for a rapid transition to the green economy we can force corporations and governments to change their policies through a pincer movement combining market forces and government regulation. This task is becoming easier because the public mind is steadily being opened by the undeniable collapse of biological systems around the world: topsoil is being depleted, glaciers and the polar ice-caps are melting, fresh water supplies are being poisoned and depleted, many species of flora and fauna are going extinct, extreme weather events are causing increased casualties and property damage, ocean levels are rising from warmer temperatures, the ozone layer is receding allowing in dangerous levels of ultraviolet light, and the list could go on. These, and other signs that we humans are destroying the biological basis for our very existence, are causing more people to realize the urgency of a transition to conservation economics.
The green economy is growing rapidly: Green economy sectors (solar, wind, organic, recycled) are increasingly price competitive and popular. Their growth rates are higher than the non-green economy. Plus, these sectors are increasingly well organized politically as trade associations (solar energy associations, wind energy associations, biofuel associations, the Hemp Industries Association). Now these sectoral associations are starting to come together into a network of networks.
Green building is the one section of the U.S. economy where green materials and practices have penetrated most deeply. Architects, contractors and developers are finding that using green goods and techniques can be good for the financial bottom line as well as helping the social and ecological bottom lines. Healthy buildings mean healthy workers, and more than 80 percent of the total lifetime cost of a commercial building is the cost of the personnel. This trend toward sustainable building techniques is shifting billions of dollars toward the green economy.
There is a growing movement focusing on strengthening the local, green economy. Groups such as the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, the Institute for Local Self Reliance, and Local Exchange are creating an alternative to transnational corporations, which only invest in a local economy on the presupposition that they can take away more wealth than they put in. The local economy networks fight this with education and local rule making that seeks to trap wealth in the local economy rather than having it be extracted by big corporations.
Socially screened investment funds are growing (now more than $2 trillion) and are beginning to shift money away from traditional stocks and bonds to green and socially responsible investments. Market data shows that many of the same qualities that make a company socially and environmentally responsible also make it a well-managed and profitable company, and therefore a sound investment.
Within the nonprofit community, the techniques of enterprise are gaining widespread acceptance and increasing sophistication. The Social Enterprise Alliance groups hundreds of nonprofits to perfect their use of enterprise techniques to generate revenue so they can reduce their reliance on traditional sources of “charity.” There is also a new national network (www.nonprofitcenters.org ) of nonprofit organizations creating co-location buildings that forge synergies for building the progressive movement.
City governments are enacting laws that favor the local, green economy. Local governments now realize that downtown infill development makes more economic and social sense than suburban sprawl, and they are passing measures designed to foster that kind of redevelopment. Local governments are also passing numerous laws directing government spending toward goods and services that favor social equity, local purchasing, and restoring the environment. These laws tend to stand up better in court because they are “proprietary” (local communities have a right to spend their own tax money as they see fit), rather than “regulatory” (higher courts tend to rule that the federal government overrules local government on regulatory issues). Some local governments are also realizing the green economy investments create more and better jobs than do traditional polluting industry investments.
The progressive movement is realizing that merely protesting must be supplemented and eventually replaced with positive examples of our alternative system. Unless we can create economic institutions that provide meaningful jobs, while producing needed goods and services aimed at healing the environment, we are stuck in the rut of decrying the policies of those in power and elaborating policy alternatives that we cannot implement because the two corporate parties dominate policymaking at the national and state levels.
And this leads to our strategic conclusion regarding the future direction of the progressive movement. The traditional path for transforming the economy—followed by corporate and Marxist political parties alike—has focused on the political: you develop a political apparatus that can get control of the state, and then government agencies are used to transform the economy from the top down. That strategy failed in the Marxist version, and it is failing in the corporate version, because people who don’t live in your community will never know what is best for your community. The feedback loop of experiential knowledge is broken. The new approach being forged by the local green economy movement is to reverse that traditional approach: get the economy organized at the grassroots level, build up from there, so that any large scale political movement (e.g., the Green Party) when it comes to power, will have already transformed the economy from the bottom up. A community-based approach to transforming the economy is more democratic and provides a more solid foundation for national policies designed to simultaneously create good jobs while saving our environment.
Kevin Danaher, PhD, is a co-founder of the international human rights organization, Global Exchange, and the Director of the Global Citizen Center (www.globalcitizencenter.org).