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It’s Time to Put the Green Party Out of Its Misery

The BC Greens haven’t brought needed change. I should know: I used to lead them. Why not a new approach?

Stuart Parker 21 Sep

Stuart Parker was BC Green leader from 1993 to 2000 and is acting leader of the BC Ecosocialists party. You can follow him on Twitter at @stuartlosaltos.

From the time the Green party first won a seat in the B.C. legislature in 2013, it has voted for government plans to increase fossil fuel extraction and emissions, first with Christy Clark’s 2014 “LNG budget” and then for the NDP government’s budgets.

Today the Greens still tout the NDP’s CleanBC plan as a major accomplishment, even though the government’s current budget projects a major increase in fracking, continued subsidies for Royal Dutch Shell and its LNG plant partners, and the biggest-ever planned widening of the Trans-Canada Highway for single-occupancy vehicles.

Former leader Andrew Weaver says that’s because the Green MLAs fear that if they brought the government down, they might lose their seats in the legislature. The goal of having Greens hold elected office is an end in itself, the purpose of the party.

The party’s embrace of empty electoralism has had me working through a profound sense of personal guilt. The Green party began in the early 1980s as a party that understood its goals not in terms of electoral success, but of social change.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a generational shift in North America and the U.K. transformed the party into a primarily electoral vehicle, focused on acting through elections to achieve change. I was one of the leaders who was part of that change.

We didn’t mean to initiate a process that would empty the party of principle and meaning. But maybe the choices my comrades and I made in seizing control of the B.C. party and refocusing it on contesting elections led, inevitably, to this ugly parody of Green politics we see enacted not just in this province, but on the floor of the legislature in Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Perhaps if we had listened to the party elders back then, this descent could have been avoided and Green parties in North America would be a force for good today. Maybe we should not have made enemies of the 1970s counterculture survivors and back-to-the-landers from whom we seized control of the BC Greens through a painful and embarrassing series of confrontations between 1988 and 1994.

Then I read Michael M’Gonigle’s opinion piece in The Tyee and it all came flooding back: why we did what we did and why the solutions offered by the party’s Boomer leadership in its founding decade (1980-89) make even less sense today.

M’Gonigle, a great environmentalist, writer and scholar, was one of the founding members of Greenpeace International and claims, along with others from that group, to have shaped the BC Green Party’s early days.

Those Greenpeace founders had their disagreements, but some of them were part of the fractious alliance I put together to oppose, if not M’Gonigle, then the many party members who shared his thinking. From 1988, when it began losing control of the party, to 1993, when it disbanded, this group called itself the Ecofeminist Caucus and it embraced not just ecofeminism but many of the nascent ideologies popular among North American Greens, especially bioregionalism, the ideology that most strongly informs M’Gonigle’s piece. Bioregionalism is based on the idea that current states and governments should be replaced with decentralized, participatory governments within “bioregions” — self-sufficient, sovereign states.

American philosopher Murray Bookchin’s theories also played a role, especially his call to re-organize society with power devolved to towns and cities and decisions made by citizens’ assemblies, not elected representatives.

When efforts to form a Canadian Green party began in the late ’70s, the main supporters were back-to-the-landers and residents of urban communes — “intentional communities.” This was an era of high unemployment and economic recession, but also generous income support programs and student grants and easy-to-obtain white collar employment for those with advanced degrees.

This movement shared a general vision.

My intellectual mentor, David Lewis, the climate change activist, firewood collector and founder of Friends of the Ozone Layer who lived in the midst of the back-to-the-lander scene in the Slocan Valley, cut through the many differences in the base that founded the party to explain their essential basis of unity — “the embryo theory.”

Lewis saw they all shared the same flawed idea: that how one was living now was the embryo of a new society and that simply by living an alternative lifestyle, one was part of the birth of a new society in which everyone would live in similar ways.

They saw their primary job as creating an embryo of the society they wanted in their own space. The implicit idea was that if they modelled the world as it should be — created an embryo — it would grow to the point that the change would come to encompass all of society, giving birth to a new order.

For those people, the Green party was to be the most ambitious embryonic project because it was a chance to model a future, better way of governing. Its role was to be the new politics, not to be part of the existing political reality.

Electoral politics was to be replaced by participatory democracy, so the party would not elect a leader. Voting was to be replaced by consensus, so the party held marathon meetings to achieve unanimity.

Countries and provinces were to be replaced by bioregions, so the party chose not to have a central mailing address or office in Ontario or B.C.

Bioregionalism also meant that because provincial ridings were not based on valley bottom-based eco-regions, the party would have no riding associations and hold no nomination meetings, concepts enshrined for a time in the constitution and bylaws of the Green Party of British Columbia and the Green Party of Ontario.

The federal Green party’s 1988 policy statement, with its commitments to “an ongoing and interpersonal journey for us to rid ourselves of behavioural patterns that hurt ourselves, others, and the environment,” showed the party’s direction. And its electoral irrelevance.

This approach worked for a while because the social movements from which the party drew support were communes and community networks. They had built useful, functional institutions like barter banks on a local level.

They came together at gatherings where back-to-the landers planned new actions to protect a wild area facing development, like the Stein Valley Festival, or celebrated past, but possibly temporary victories, like the Hat Creek Gathering. On a bigger scale, there were events like the North American Bioregional Congress, attended by thousands at its zenith.

But beginning in the mid-1980s, economic conditions changed. Land prices began rising. Neoliberalism began stripping away income support programs like income assistance and unemployment insurance. Professionalized music festivals replaced the summer calendar of participatory countercultural gatherings.

Even for those with advanced degrees, jobs became scarcer, more insecure and more demanding of adherence to cultural mores and norms. Second-wave feminism was fatally weakened by internal divisions and an external backlash. And Baby Boomers began to get older, more jaded, more tired, more conservative.

All bad news for the people behind the nascent BC Greens. Interest in bioregionalism dwindled. Communes and intentional communities flew apart. Rural counterculturalists who stuck it out had new priorities for their activism as mills closed and communities collapsed. Former dissidents chose a new path — chairing library boards, running local museums and accepting seats on the chamber of commerce board.

And a new wave of Greens was emerging. Younger people like me, motivated by a profound sense of science-based urgency.

The world was changing. The Antarctic ozone hole opened, then the Arctic ozone hole. As the G7 smashed the power of OPEC, the “energy crisis” that saw shortages and high prices was replaced by rapidly rising carbon emissions from the coal and oil sectors. Energy conservation and transition to renewables were forgotten.

Not only was there a neoliberal consensus across the spectrum in favour of austerity, NDP governments in B.C. and Saskatchewan were at the forefront of North America’s first fracked gas boom.

Things were going very wrong, very quickly. For a new generation of Green activists, it was not enough to work for long-term change. Human civilization was in a car flooring the gas pedal and heading off a cliff and someone had to apply the brake. Immediately.

And one of the few points where one could exercise immediate pressure was electoral politics. It seemed to us a gross act of negligence to let those not interested in doing electoral politics control a mechanism legally constituted for the purpose of running candidates in elections.

Our response to the Greens who shared visions similar to M’Gonigle’s was to suggest they do their embryo politics in movement groups and let us run candidates and try to move the mainstream political discourse. Maybe even elect a few people.

The counterargument we faced was that somehow the Green party running candidates and setting out to win seats was inhibiting others from following their traditional approaches.

But nobody has been able to explain how having a Green party genuinely fight an election without tying both of its hands behind its back inhibits the kind of organizing the old guard favoured.

Today’s Green party is worse than useless. But trying to construct a time machine to travel back to 1980 is not going to help.

Today the Greens are a party of managers and aspiring managers of the quango (quasi-non-governmental organization) sector, organizations focused on conservation or advocacy that blossomed under politicians like Mike Harcourt, supported by family trusts like the Tides and Maytree Foundation or Pew Charitable Trust.

Yet, despite the sorry state of green electoral politics in this country, we see the rise of a vibrant new, holistic green politics outside the party system. Thousands of young people have been in the streets this past year, staging climate strikes, demanding a Green New Deal, shutting down ports to stop pipelines, making common cause with Indigenous communities to protect their land and stop the genocide they face from a militarized RCMP.

They have shouldered past the NGO executive directors, the Green MLAs and city councillors, past those who claimed to be leading them, to forge a new politics that responds to the social and economic conditions of the present, and to the escalating extinctions, wildfires, droughts and storms that the climate crisis is producing.

Because, like the North American Bioregional Congress of the 1980s, the Green party is a dead organization walking, a historical irrelevancy requiring not reform but a dignified burial.

For this reason, four veterans of the struggles of the 1980s founded the BC Ecosocialists party last year, not to be led by us, but as a tool, a weapon, that a new generation can wield. It is not a replacement for civil disobedience in the street or strikes from work or school.

It is a means by which practices of striking, witnessing and blockading can be brought from the stairs outside the legislature into the chamber itself.

We will run candidates this election on a platform of transformative political change, not the kind of tinkering in which the Greens are now enmeshed.

But the primary message our candidates will deliver is this: “ban fracking; cancel Site C; stop the LNG projects and we will withdraw from the race.” It’s not our preferred tactic but, in my long and sad experience of the party, I know that one of the very few ways you can get New Democrats to do the right thing is to hold a knife to their throats. And threatening to run candidates who will take away votes from their candidates is our best threat.

And that is what we must do now. Because any true green politics in 2020 must contain within it the potential for the rapid, dramatic change of course necessary to save the planet.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Environment

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