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Giles Slade

Giles Slade

Posted April 14, 2009 | 01:59 PM (EST)

The 'Deep Throat' of Green


No one was more surprised when Made To Break won an environmental award in 2007. I was not an environmentalist then, and my impression of these people ranged from the nasality of John Denver to dogmatic feminists cramming political correctness into any available ear while claiming that they would save the world by recycling, biking to work or changing out the incandescent light bulbs. I was unconvinced and, when pressed, I often said so. (Actually, what I said was more like 'Phooey!')

I avoided them. Environmentalists, yuck!

Made To Break, I thought, was a history book. It described the life history of disposables, an overlooked idea that shaped American culture. Around the time Robert Putnam published Bowling Alone, I was trying to understand the century-long curve of our worsening human relationships. This is what made me look at our use of manufactured goods. The book deals with technology only because technology is a central part of American culture. Like it or not, Kitty Hawk, the model T, atomic bombs, satellites and integrated circuits are as American as apple pie.

Then while exploring mankind's propensity for throwing away used consumer goods, I ran into electronic waste, a huge problem that few North Americans had heard of. I wondered why more people weren't outraged by the systematic poisoning of North America's groundwater or by our dirty, greedy electronics industry. This precipitated a change in me that was a bit like what happened to Dr. Bruce Banner. Suddenly, I turned alarmingly green.

Now as this happened, I simultaneously began wondering why environmentalists had such difficulty getting the message out. If it was remarkable and alarming enough to impact me, surely others with greater social consciences, and more highly developed senses of responsibility must also be susceptible...

Since then, I've been talking about these problems with North America's leading greenies. The wisest, oldest and most honest of the people I've met, admits that the word 'environmentalist' marginalizes his project by allowing people to "put us into a 'Birkenstock, tree hugging, special interest crowd."

"Environmental groups," he says, "talk about being grassroots organizations but for the most part it's' ...[a complete falsehood]. We go out and talk to or even work in the communities, but basically we go out and tell people what the problem is and what they have to do to solve it."

This man -- call him the 'Deep Throat' of Green-- is filled with admiration for the current President's ability to engage America's grassroots. Obama does this, he says, by ignoring old-fashioned top-down approaches that enforce preordained agendas. Instead, 'the People's Prez' uses new technologies to send out the message that a certain issue will present a major policy challenge, and that people should come together to discuss it.

And They Do.

Participation, in this model, begins at the level of discussion and discovery. Out of this come sensible compromises, balanced policies, and an informed active electorate whose involvement is sustained by the knowledge that they are having an impact. 'Technological Grassrootism', in other words, is a partial remedy for political apathy and for, to some extent, the decline of social capital which is my big bugbear.

Not to get too rosey about it, it's what your old civics textbook used to call 'participatory democracy', although that phrase has a distinctly antique ring to it.

Still, as a former America civics teacher (and illegal alien), I strongly feel that greenies need to go this route. They need to remake themselves into organizing activists who invite policy participation at the grassroots level. And they need to do it fast because we're running out of time...

As Deep Throat says: "A lot of us despair at this wave of ecological degradation...that is going to overwhelm us very, very soon."

Check. Ditto. Let's retool, and get to work real fast.