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It’s Time for Greens to Reinvent Themselves

A BC Green Party co-founder urges a radical new path. Pursuing electoral power hasn’t paid off, and the planet can’t wait.

Michael M'Gonigle 31 Aug

Michael M’Gonigle was eco-research professor in the faculty of law and the school of environmental studies, University of Victoria (1995-2016). The former chair of Greenpeace Canada, he co-founded Forest Futures (now the Dogwood Initiative).

Elections for the leaders of the provincial and federal Green parties are ongoing, sparking conversations about the best candidate and the parties’ platforms. But given the limited inroads made in a decade pursuing electoral power, a different challenge faces the Greens.

As the climate crisis clock winds down, it’s time for the party to reinvent itself and, in the process, reinvent politics. Here is my proposed roadmap.

I offer it as one with deep ties to the movement. I co-founded the provincial party and am a long-time environmental activist and academic writing about environmental law and politics. I remember how the Greens came to be, and their early ambitions.

Like the environmental movement generally, the Greens have their roots in the activism of the 1960s and ‘70s, years of social rebellion and the quest for alternatives. Both manifested strongly in B.C.; for example, in the back-to-the-land movement and the rise of direct-action tactics through new groups like Greenpeace.

At the time, B.C.’s environmental culture was affected by the flood of American draft dodgers into the province — from the Kootenays to the Gulf Islands, Vancouver to Haida Gwaii. Theirs is a legacy of resistance and reinvention.

As a Greenpeace campaigner in the 1970s and ‘80s and a co-founder of Greenpeace International in 1978-1979 as well as the BC Green Party in 1983, I still draw inspiration from that era. In particular, I recall the birth in Germany of die Grünen (the Greens) who embraced direct action against building new freeways and nuclear power plants and American nuclear missiles being installed in Europe.

These years were also informed by a critical dialogue that drew attention to the systemic problems of alienation and domination driven by the rise of corporate capitalism and middle-class consumerism. This dialogue drew on a raft of popular books like Small Is Beautiful to One-Dimensional Man. In tandem with countless university sit-ins, activists challenged the so-called hegemony of mainstream institutions that shaped what people saw as normal and possible. Such a counter-cultural dialogue and its radical agenda is largely absent from today’s environmental movement.

Permeating die Grünen was a tension between those dedicated to the fundamental goal of building a new world through collective social action and those realists seeking incremental change through the political process. This was evident in the famous struggle between what the Germans called the fundis and the realos. In 1980, Die Grünen chose the realo path by becoming a political party.

Nevertheless, throughout the 1980s, green was still a “radical” term. (That word is drawn from the Latin that means pertaining “to the root.”) However, over time, the word was co-opted, and green became a description of environmentally friendly dish soap. In the pursuit of political power, the Green Party also trimmed its sails to gain acceptance within the mainstream.

In Canada over the past decade, being a Green has meant being a member of a parliamentary-style party. Over that time, the Greens held a single seat in the federal House of Commons as well as in the B.C. legislature. Today, it has three seats (out of 338) in Ottawa, and two (out of 87) in Victoria.

This is not a route that will save the planet.

So how might the Greens work to achieve system change? Put simply, by returning to their roots by redirecting their ambitions from gaining power inside the legislature to enhancing collective action in the world outside it. This is the difference between political reform and social reformation.

If not state politics, where is the new arena for action?

Consider, for example, the support for “renewable energy” as an alternative to fossil fuels and electric cars as a way to slow carbon change. Dozens of government initiatives now promote this reformist agenda. Yet where is the progress on reducing society’s still profligate use of energy and metals, or reining in the power of big energy companies, car and truck makers and corporate advertisers? How else can we remake our cities except by getting private vehicles out?

To achieve such changes, the reformer would need to address the material and economic foundations of our dominant liberal order. By “liberal order,” I don’t mean the Liberal party as contrasted with the Conservatives or Greens. I mean the whole social order built on a philosophy that celebrates the self-seeking individual and the institutions that give vent to that individualism, in particular, market capitalism and the centralized state.

This order has long minimized the social and environmental health of local communities that it sweeps aside to get to the economic resources beneath their feet. These resources fuelled the colonization that created the new money-based wealth that was mobile and could be concentrated in the hands of a few. It enabled the geographical centralization of power in the cities and the middle and upper classes of the countries of the North. Success came to be measured in self-referential indicators like the gross domestic product and the value of stock portfolios.

This is the long history of “development” as it eviscerated the power of territorially-based societies to say No. From the colonization of the New World in the Americas since the 15th century to the long destruction of the regional cultures of the European Old World over those same centuries, to the enslavement of societies in Africa since the 17th century, today’s liberal order enhanced the power of distant space over the health of local places.

Driving that pattern were two emergent forces: the new economics of capitalism with its internal logics of profit-seeking and growth, and the new politics of the state with its sovereign logic of territorial expansion and top-down control.

As this capitalist state system became entrenched, it also became unable to confront its contradictions. For example, the avowedly democratic state may promise to keep the destructive excesses of capital in check. Yet its survival depends on the very exploitation it is supposed to control. This is why so many popular sustainability initiatives — from green energy to fisheries management to endangered species protection — don’t end up challenging the growth trajectory but extending it.

Only one thing can change this historical imbalance — slowing the momentum of centralized power by enabling its long neglected other — the self-sustaining potential of place.

What is this ‘place’ that the Greens might champion?

Place has long been the explicit concern of Indigenous peoples. It is also implicit in environmentalist concern for healthy ecosystems, and opposition to mining and clearcut logging, industrial agribusiness and dam building. But in a world of big cities, jet travel and globalized trade, the impacts of wealth creation and consumption are out of sight, out of mind and out of control.

Recently, worldwide demonstrations reflect broad concerns about climate change and the need for “system change.” The time is right for a new politics of place that can shore up and extend self-maintaining local territories.

For millennia, living in place defined human existence. For Indigenous societies, the “traditional territory” long spoke to the land as the context for communal life — from the spiritual training of the young to the collective endeavours of hunting and gathering and fishing to the shared stories and rituals inherited from and passed along by their community ancestors.

Writing in 1944, the great historian Karl Polanyi explained how land-based communities flourished through economic and political practices of “reciprocity and redistribution.” Colonial expansion untethered this communal rootedness and its self-government. To Polanyi, this constituted the planet’s “great transformation.”

Even so, as recently as the 1950s, most families in North America stayed close to home year-round, worked for a local employer, ate locally, took local holidays and consumed much less. A little over a half-century later, few vestiges of this self-reliant localism remain, victim to the exponential growth needed to build a “competitive” national economy.

What is the alternative? And how could the Greens help bring it about? In short, they would need to revitalize what the Canadian scholar Shiri Pasternak calls “grounded authority.” To reinvigorate communities of place would require not just cultural and material support, but legal protection. Such communities would need the constitutional status that gives them the power to resist. This is not to deny, but reground, the national and the global.

The opportunity reconciliation presents

In the '60s, this narrative informed the so-called bioregional movement and its practice of re-inhabitation. This meant shifting economic production and government back to self-governing communities committed to social and environmental health. Based on dozens of examples, my research group at the University of Victoria developed the “community ecosystem trust” as a vehicle to devolve state power in B.C.

A dramatic staging of this movement occurred in 1994 when the Zapatistas in Mexico revolted against the new transnational trade deal, NAFTA, that undermined their communal land base, the ejido. The American economist Elinor Ostrom showed how such land tenures made possible a workable form of governing. In 2008, that work won her the Nobel Prize.

However unfamiliar this idea of the self-sustaining socio-ecosystem may be, it is age-old. Yet governments continue to displace practices like community managed forests and fisheries with corporate licences with no attachment to place. From B.C. to Newfoundland, India to Somalia, the results have been famously disastrous.

Enter the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. When I read recently that B.C.’s government was going to accept UNDRIP, I was excited but skeptical. After all, its goal is essentially to give authority to self-sustaining socio-ecosystems. This is what the recent Wet’suwet’en struggle is about. There we saw how granting local socio-ecosystems the power to protect their land and its peoples makes it difficult to build more roads and pipelines, to dig up more fossil fuels and ship them to global markets.

In a less-constrained world, this authority could be celebrated as a “disruptive innovation” (to borrow a phrase from entrepreneurial capitalists). Is it innovative? Yes. Is it disruptive? For sure. It is even entrepreneurial, but is it going to be embraced by the powers that be? Not on your life.

And so, our NDP government put an important caveat on its acceptance of UNDRIP — there would be no veto power given to a First Nation over access to their traditional territories. The ultimate say would rest with the state whose sovereignty (and wealth) depends on its control of “its” land base.

Ah, but we in Canada have embraced the promise of “reconciliation.” Unfortunately, this does nothing to support territorial integrity. In fact, it does the opposite as governments seek to “reconcile” with First Nations with payouts if they acquiesce to resource development, board memberships and jobs where they join in corporate partnerships for oil and gas production and embrace new capitalist profit via casinos and real estate. Is reconciliation just another example of the age-old pattern of hegemony, delay and co-option?

Consider too the B.C. treaty process. From today, it traces its roots back almost 60 years to the launch of the Calder case that led to the famous 1967 Supreme Court decision. That’s three generations where Indigenous communities expended vast sums to pursue dozens of costly court actions. Before that (from 1927 to 1951), the federal government actually banned First Nations from raising that money to hire lawyers for such purposes.

And the result today? A few treaties where First Nations representatives sign on the dotted line to give up large traditional lands in exchange for some minimal acreage and a bit of money, and some forgiveness of the half billion-dollar debt incurred by First Nations in endless negotiations. That’s a full century of government-driven territorial erasure.

What could be the work for the reinvented Greens?

Today, real reconciliation is an imperative for everyone. For the Greens, this means doing the work to empower place-based social ecosystems. In the terminology of constitutional law, the socio-ecosystem must again become a “constitutent” power — that is, a systemic power where grounded communities can reconstitute who they are and what their lifeworld will become.

To achieve this, the Greens would jettison their obsession with achieving formal political power but work to develop a caucus of individuals whose day-to-day jobs would be as local facilitators of change at the level of each person’s socio-ecosystem. Such a green “representative” would not be an indistinct politician in a distant institution but an actual reformer of local practices and its institutions. The Greens might even reconstitute their constituency (whether rural or urban) to map onto its physical bioregion.

Linking local action to a global network, the Greens would create their path — and their movement — as they go. There are many prosaic details. For example, to support their work, facilitators could reinvent the old tactic of the in-person, door-to-door canvas. This would make possible the interpersonal (ie. pre-internet) community dialogue that is essential to building an activist movement. Today, party memberships are about the unending ask for money, not grounded engagement.

Central to this incipient movement could be a new Green parlement (that is, a place to speak) where local facilitators could exchange ideas and experiences, and co-ordinate their activities. In the language of Polanyi and Ostrom, this parlement would function as a true house of the commons.

These facilitators could also put their names forward to win formal power in the provincial or federal assemblies. When they did, they would not be another anonymous name campaigning with vague promises designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the electorate. Rather, they would be real locals with experience and connections to putting green ideas into practice. This would reinvent the nature of political leadership as anyone elected to the big House would be accountable to those already co-ordinating their activities in their green house (pun intended).

Overall, this work would lay the foundations for a reinvigorated democracy that reforms the sovereign state by placing real power in the community. This is still the potential for Indigenous land claims. There is much to draw on, including many exciting initiatives in small-scale food production, low carbon transportation, co-operative businesses, and so on. For everyone, it remains the foundation for our reconciliation with the Earth.

This may seem all fanciful, but revolutions do happen, and re-evolution is now a planetary imperative. No longer would the Greens be defined as a bit player seeking small permissions from a locked-down state but as a vibrant movement facilitating real changes in place.

Today, the political realist is actually the one who takes seriously climate change and the inevitable chaotic systemic upheavals that every day makes imperative the quest for systemic alternatives beyond the old liberal order — and who is doing the real work to replace it.

It’s time for Greens to reinvent their politics and purpose. I have returned to the movement’s roots to present a vision for the future. My intent is to spark an overdue and vital conversation among realos and fundis alike. The stakes could not be higher, and time is short.  [Tyee]

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