Green politics must be pragmatic to succeed

Erstwhile Green Party spokesperson Sara Parkin on the future of green movements in the industrialised world.

By Sara Abraham
Published: Sunday 31 January 1993

What is the significant insight that you have gleaned over your years in environmental politics?
We've realised the circle of dependency that exists between the government -- with its five-year cycle of being in power -- and industry -- with its 20-30 year cycle of investment planning. Industrialised countries depend on the big planetary degrading activities such as construction for about 75 per cent of their GNP.

Industry does not invest millions in new machinery and projects without having looked 20-30 years ahead. It does its homework. Politicians don't. Which means you need industry on your side for which it's critical you break the circle of dependency between government and industry.

So far, it was industry that set lifestyle patterns. Are you suggesting a reversal of this trend?
I am just saying the government has the power to change things because it makes the policies. So you need to get allies on your side to put pressure on governments. And because governments depend so much on activities that destroy the environment for GNP, it's going to find it difficult to change them within a five-year cycle. You have to use this dislocation between the government's five-year cycle and industry's 30-year cycle to push your agenda through.

There are short-term benefits industry can get from the five years a government is in power. Often, these interventions are dangerous. How do you handle this?
This is a big problem because you are, in a way, asking industry to ignore short-term success for long-term gains. But it is beginning to understand this is low profits now, to survive.

But doesn't this lay industry and the environment movement open to the charge that they support the old economic model, which depended extensively on planning?
This is where strategy is important. I think the green movement has failed to understand this. There should be four divisions in a movement. The first are the pressure groups. Second, you have the people who influence lifestyles by actually developing new economic systems and ideas. Thirdly, you have the "moles". You find them within political parties, within industry, universities and so on. They can influence people better by staying where they are. Finally, you have the political parties. The role of each of these groups is different. So, when you are negotiating with politicians or with industry, you can tell them they have to move a bit further or they won't get the movement to support them.

Was this being done?
The groups were there, but they were being used to quarrel. One group said no compromise, no surrender. Another group said look, here we are talking of massive change, but people prefer to travel a clearly marked path, let's go slow. These various groups argued between themselves and destroyed the Green Party.

Ultimately, the Green Party is not a lifestyle or a campaign movement. It's an organisation comprising competent, trustworthy people whom people vote in at election time.

A recent German survey revealed a large proportion of buyers today are particular about what they buy. And this depends on their level of education.
These are the people who are called dinks -- double income, no kids. Industry is interested in them. And they are also conscious of their environment. So, while environment may have dropped out of the political agenda, for industry, environment is still very much an issue. The big European surveys indicate environment is still among the top five public concerns. So I am reasonably confident that though the generation emerging from universities now may be Thatcher's children -- who know they need to make money -- there are a lot of them also who see at stake their future pensions and the other benefits they once took for granted.

Are you reflecting a British situation?
The trend is Europe wide. The whole monetary union in Europe was designed simply because it was understood that there was going to be a showdown between the yen, the dollar and the Deutschmark and it is politically unacceptable for Europe to give in and say the Deutschmark will be the only currency. Therefore, the European Monetary Union (EMU) will not be the German mark, it will be the Eurocurrency. That's all gone horribly wrong because of the global recession.

Did the German greens lose out because they did not take a strong enough stand on East Germany?
The reason why the German greens lost the elections was because they behaved atrociously and they had a terrible East-West policy. It was right to say East Germany could become a colony of West Germany, but it could have been said differently. The other thing was the various green groups were not united.

Is green politics sustainable?
It has succeeded in some of the German states because of pragmatic politicians. A green politician from Hesse became environment minister and he did things such as exporting toxic wastes. The other greens went crazy over this, but he was making a political point: that he did not have the facilities within the state to handle toxic wastes. This is a beautiful illustration of how different reality is from the plans you make.

But when you become the government, what would you do?
If Jonathan Porritt and I were asked to put together a cabinet in Britain, it would be no problem. But you wouldn't find potential cabinet members in the Green Party.

It's critical that the Green Party gets into a better condition, and makes a link between the people and the government, so that people perceive them as a bunch of people who they are confident can run the country. The pressure groups we have are now facing a dilemma. They have become rich and powerful, but they've been used by governments.

There is so much to be done. I have talked to industrialists who are angry they've been told to put systems at the end of their production process when they should have been looking at the other end. Then there are global concerns. Rich countries have to cut down on their consumption and poor countries have to admit they cannot follow development patterns set by rich nations.

Where are the green parties on the question of fiscal instruments?
Frankly, confused. The vanguard green argument is that what matters is the size of the market. The green movement wants small markets to be favoured. For this, you need to turn around the dynamics of the economy. You are talking of penalising larger markets in a way that makes it easier for the smaller markets.

The rich countries are not looking at their failure as an inability to cut down on consumption. Now they say they are too poor to compensate the ecological damage they've already done.
This is because they don't understand why they have failed. That is why it's important to meet people where they are and bring them to where you are. Nobody is looking outside Europe for the moment.

And yet, they speak of an interdependent world.
Well, they are taking this stand because the more uncertain things are, the more you want to control them. The green movement has not been too good at handling larger concepts, and as a result, we do not grasp the method of the ethical value system that governs everything else. The larger the organisation, the more it should limit what it does to ethical and value considerations so that it can help people make the right choice. Of course, to make the right choice, they need access to information. And that's the other major job of the movement.

How strong were the green parties in local democracy?
In a participatory democracy, you can have a democratic trough, but you can't force people to drink at it. That's where the Left went wrong -- they had these endless meetings where everybody had to decide absolutely everything, which puts people off and leaves you with a hard core of political party cadres.

I think the whole point about participatory democracy is people don't have to participate in everything. The Belgian Greens set up what were called city boutiques -- little shops that had a lot of information on what was happening at the local political level. Therefore, nobody got an excuse for not participating in local decision-making.

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