03/16/2011 01:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Response to Japanese Nuclear Crisis Shows Need to Revive the Legacy of the Anti-nuclear Movement

Japan's desperate struggle to contain the nuclear catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors should bring Obama's attempt to reintroduce nuclear power in the US to a grinding halt. Instead, the administration has responded with an anxious defense of nuclear power. Indeed, energy secretary Stephen Chu told Congress on the 15th that learning from the disaster in Japan would "strengthen America's nuclear industry." This ludicrous response and the mindset it reflects should push us to revive discussion of the US antinuclear movement from the 1970s, which posed radical alternatives to the energy policy offered by both major parties, and in doing so defeated the designs of the nuclear industry.

In the waning days of the American New Left, the antinuclear movement emerged to challenge an emergent and powerful industry, and eventually prevented hundreds of facilities from being built across the country. This broad-based struggle is important to consider now for a number of reasons. First, in an era when US politics were shifting rightward, this was a highly successful populist, grassroots, and militant response to powerful energy interests. It brought together workers, farmers, parents, students and others in both rural and urban settings to oppose the introduction of nuclear power. Second, the anti-nuke movement articulated anti-authoritarian organizing practices, relying on direct democratic decision-making and direct action. Third, the movement pushed beyond New Left thinking from the late 1960s and advanced important ideas about the role of hierarchy and domination in the contemporary era; the relationship of human society and the natural world; and the central role of capitalism in the destruction of the planet. The critique of patriarchy was a key note in the anti-nuke movement, and feminist analysis shaped the movement in fundamental ways. Organizations such as the Clamshell Alliance in New England and the Abalone Alliance in California pulled together the most libratory articulations of the counterculture with analytic acuity and political resolve.

As in all social struggles, there is much to criticize in the anti-nuke movement, but it left important legacies. First and most practically, while many other advanced industrial nations moved forward with nuclear energy, it was stalled in relative infancy here. Second, it bequeathed forms of radical democratic organizing, such as affinity groups (the origins of which were in anarchist strategies in the Spanish Civil War), decentralization and direct democracy. Third, it stimulated anti-corporate, feminist, and anti-racist analyses of the ecology crisis that became important correctives for a largely bourgeois ecology movement that emerged in the 1980s and after, while providing a way to interject ecological analyses into left organizations - which had largely ignored ecology.

We are back where we began as Obama pushes aggressively ahead with nukes as a "green" energy alternative. Now, with an ecological future that looks far more grim and a political landscape that has moved far to the right of where it was three decades ago. Social and ecological battles will likely be tightly linked as climate change exacerbates inequities between the global north and south. And as Naomi Klein has argued recently, global warming will likely be exploited by capitalism and militarism. We could use a few lessons from the last time this battle was fought.

Here are a few titles for further reading (although there are many more):
Murray Bookchin Toward an Ecological Society
Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution
Midnight Notes Collective, Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War 1973-1992