09/20/2006 01:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Purity' Won't Make the World Any Better

In an earlier blog I got a lot of flak for pointing out that the left's addiction to ideological purity had crippled them politically. There was a lot of whining about how how could I 'blame' the left for the evil neo-cons. But in their just-published book, One Party Country, journalists Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten show that the neo-cons were able to take over because they welcomed any single-issue right-wing nutcake onto their team as long as they were anti-left, while the left hasn't even been able to get labor and environmentalists to work together.

The neo-cons know how to exploit this leftist addiction to purism. They pour money into Green party campaigns to siphon off Democratic voters--a strategy that put Bush in office. They're using it again in this year's Congressional races.

What the purist loves most is to be "outside the system"--that is, to be an armchair critic. To moan over the savageries of the Right while trashing anything constructive less "militant" leftists achieve as "selling out". (It's interesting that "militant" is such a positive word in purist circles. It reveals the closet warmonger within the purist, and why he's part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The Weathermen were "militant", and what did they accomplish, besides blowing up a few buildings, getting Tim Leary out of jail and themselves in?)

The purist's main strategy is to withdraw. To opt out. He refuses, for example to buy stock in "bad" companies--as if Exxon would even notice. And he won't shop at Wal-Mart--as if any middle-class intellectual ever did anyway.

While our government is doing everything possible to worsen our environment, the biggest environmental gains today are coming from the corporate world, many segments of which are getting the message about sustainability. Purists dismiss this as 'window-dressing' and 'greenwashing', and PR is certainly one motive for corporate environmentalism. Who cares? If a concern for PR keeps one river unpolluted, I'm for it.

Of course it's important to check on follow-through, but purists are only interested in making the case that corporations do very bad things. (As if anyone didn't know). Like Bush not talking to Iran, they think by refusing to have anything to do with the 'enemy' they're making some sort of powerful statement. To these people I can only say: get real, buddy, capitalism isn't going away, corporations are the most vital force in the world today, and if you care at all about the planet your efforts should go toward civilizing them as much as possible. And this means recognizing positive moves as well as attacking negative ones. If you only sound one note you're too easy to tune out.

And PR is not the only motive behind the current movement toward sustainability. Wal-Mart added $28 million to their bottom line by eliminating excessive packaging, which also saves 3,800 trees a year and a million barrels of oil. I'll take that window-dressing anytime, even from Evil, Inc. Wal-Mart--one of many giants to be influenced by Natural Capitalism--is now the biggest buyer of organic cotton in the world, which has taken millions of tons of chemicals out of the environment.

But when Wal-Mart offered to carry Seventh Generation products, its head, Jeffrey Hollender, declined, because selling to Wal-Mart would be "selling our soul".

I have news for you, Jeffrey Hollender: if buying your products helps save the environment, as you claim, you ought to be selling to Wal-Mart, where it will have a tremendous impact, instead of just to middle-class liberals in health food stores. Your precious soul isn't worth one tree, much less the thousands that will now be cut down because of your prissy puritanism.

To support a company's environmental efforts is not an endorsement of the company, or its labor policies, or it's cutthroat business practices. We're not talking Nobel prizes here, we're talking about encouraging people to move in a positive direction. When a child learns to read you don't punish it for not being able to do multiplication.

It's interesting that leftist purists, though supposedly anti-authoritarian and anti-war, are in fact authoritarian and militaristic in their approach to corporations, which are, after all, motivationally rather simple. They are also the most powerful force in the world today. To refuse to get your hands dirty working with them is opting out of the future.

I have enormous respect for anyone and everyone working to improve the environment, achieve a peaceful world, or raise the education, health, or living standards of the poor. I have none at all for armchair militants who criticize them for 'selling out'. It's hard enough to buck the tide of money, greed, fear, and ignorance in our decaying society without having a pack of 'militant' purists yapping at your heels.