Visions of Sustainable America

Visions of Sustainable America

Many advocates for the environmental justice movement recently joined together to form Sustainable America. On its web page, the new group describe its orientation and goals as follows:

SA’s vision is to create “new economies” in the United States by implementing sustainable economic development models in metropolitan (urban and suburban) and rural regions of the country….

Sustainable communities need healthy environments and stable and diverse economies rooted in communities. Our economies should provide good jobs that pay family-supporting wages and that do not harm the environment.

But increasingly our efforts to create communities like this are thwarted by a host of pressures; some global and some local. Corporations are choosing “low road” policies that push down wages, degrade the environment and pit one community against another in “subsidy wars” to entice corporations.

Global competition, unequal standards and foot-loose capital feed instability that results in job loss from shut-downs and corporate flight. These and a host of other challenging problems, whether firm-based or international in scope, require our attention.

Peter Montage, the editor of Rachel’s Environmental and Health Weekly (a fine source of information on the environment) is on the board of directors of Sustainable America. Another board member is Dan Swinney, executive director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research. He has written a paper titled “Building the Bridge to the High Road: Expanding Participation and Democracy in the Economy to Build Sustainable Communities.”

Swinney’s paper gives an excellent account of the decline of the quality of life and living standards for the vast majority of humanity. He lists many crimes against nature (the environment) committed by capitalism, but fails to determine that capitalism itself is the main problem. He counterposes several options for change with his and Sustainable America’s vision of the “high road.”

Three visions for change

Swinney describes three strategies in the struggle for social change. They are the “socialist vision,” the “social-democratic vision,” and the “single-issue vision.”

“The socialist vision,” he writes, “inspired leaders of huge U.S. movements for change most recently in the 1930s and 1940s, and again in the 1960s and 1970s. It gave many domestic organizers hope that if they could achieve power in one form or another, there was a tested system that worked and could be imported and applied in the restructuring of our society.”

Swinney goes on to state: “The socialist vision had, and still has, enormous strengths. It has contributed and continues to contribute to the development of society. But, where it was represented by a command economy and a command state or movement, it was compromised and failed. Its weaknesses have become painfully apparent with the collapse of most socialist command economies and societies….”

But here, Swinney substitutes the bureaucratic Stalinist vision for the revolutionary socialist vision of Marx, Engles, Lenin, and Trotsky. They envisioned a society that was based on the democratic production and distribution of goods. U.S. socialist Eugene Debs put it into one slogan: “Production for use, not for profit.”

Swinney’s description of the social-democratic vision is fairly accurate. He writes that the “social-democratic vision-best demonstrated in policies that have guided European governments and movements-has also failed to provide a framework to inspire legions of grassroots leaders and organizations around a vision for restructuring the economy and society.

“Their tripartite democracy brings together big business with big government and big labor, essentially seeking to create capitalism with a human face.”

But Swinney does not explain that the social democrats had similar political positions to those of the Stalinists in this country. They both subordinated the struggle of workers and oppressed minorities to the election of Democratic Party politicians (that is, “high road” Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt).

In describing the “single-issue vision,” Swinney is correct about the limitations of this kind of struggle. It does not deal with the totality of the struggles facing humanity, such as the decline in the standard of living of the world’s masses and the destruction of the environment.

But Swinney ignores the fact that action-oriented coalitions frequently find it necessary to restrict their goals to “single issues.” In that manner, forces are able to work together in the struggle although they may not have agreement with each other in regard to broader perspectives.

Swinney views the problems facing humanity and other life forms as a moral issue. Hence, the problems of the world are not caused by capitalism, but by individual immoral “captains of industry.”

Swinney and Sustainable America advocate a “kinder, gentler capitalism” with which workers can participate. He uses the example of the workers at United Airlines “lending” wage cuts and other concessions to buy temporary stock in the company. (The workers never own the stock, and future workers have to work for less wages and worse conditions.)

Yet this is hardly a “high road.” It is the same program as that of the trade-union bureaucracy, which claims that strikes and class-struggle methods do not work anymore.

The labor bureaucrats advocate “corporate campaigns” as the way to improve our living standards. This strategy is designed to embarrass the employer to take the “high road” for his workers.

But these partnerships for a “high road” have all led to defeats and a decline in living standards.

Three key principles

I found nothing on Sustainable America’s web site that incorporated any of the basic principles of the environmental justice movement as stated by Sandra Steingraber in her book, “Living Downstream.”

On pages 270-271, Steingraber explains the following concepts:

One is the idea that public and private interests should act to prevent harm before it occurs. This is known as the precautionary principle, and it dictates that indication of harm, rather than proof of harm, should be the trigger for action-especially if delay may cause irreparable damage.

Central to the precautionary principle is the recognition that we have an obligation to protect human life. Our current methods of regulation, by contrast, appear governed by what some frustrated policymakers have called the dead body approach: wait until damage is proven before action is taken. It is a system tantamount to running an uncontrolled experiment using human subjects.

Closely related to the precautionary principle is the principle of reverse onus. According to this edict, it is safety, rather than harm, that should necessitate demonstration. This reversal essentially shifts the burden of proof off the shoulders of the public and onto those who produce, import, or use the substance in question.

The principle of reverse onus requires that those who seek to introduce chemicals into our environment first show that what they propose to do is almost certainly not going to hurt anyone….

Finally, all activities with potential public health consequences should be guided by the principle of the least toxic alternative, which presumes that toxic substances will not be used as long as there is another way of accomplishing the task. This means choosing the least harmful way of solving problems-whether it be ridding fields of weeds, school cafeterias of cockroaches, dogs of fleas, woolens of stains, or drinking water of pathogens….

These principles are key concepts that a rational society should adopt. It is possible with today’s level of science and technology to stop the production of most pollution and harmful chemicals.

The question is: Is this feasible under capitalism?

These principles are in direct conflict with the “right” of capitalists to make a profit and control production.

Most safety and anti-pollution laws incorporate these principles, but these laws and regulations also incorporate what is considered “economically feasible.” Sustainable America, moreover, defends the right of “economic feasibility” as primary.

At the present time, most advocates of environmental justice are ambivalent toward capitalism. But sooner or later, as the principles of environmental justice come in conflict with the right of “economic feasibility,” they will have to determine which principles are more important.

If they continue to struggle for human rights and the survival of the species to cure the environmental illness that is damaging our biosphere, they will have to develop anti-capitalist conclusions.

Most of the factual articles written by environmentalists demonstrate that environmental illness is globally intertwined within our society.

They do not yet acknowledge that it will take a combined political, social, and economic struggle to reverse the current course and to begin to implement the principles outlined by Sandra Steingraber.

Socialist Action advocates that all decisions affecting the world and the survival of humanity be under the democratic social, economic, and political control of the world’s working people.

On this “high road,” the production of goods will be done for the needs and survival of humanity instead of for profit. This is what we advocate for a sustainable (socialist) world.

Socialist Action February 5, 1999