Needed: a red-green alliance

“The combination of the struggle for the emancipation of mankind and the struggle for the preservation of the Earth needs a lot of new thinking, and I believe that the new thinking does not come from Washington, D.C.” — MIT professor emeritus Dirk Struik

A few days after the 9/11 tragedies, the mayor of my town, Naugatuck, Conn., called a gathering on the town green. We were told to bring candles. We went there expecting a solemn event.

Instead we walked into a proverbial football rally. Chants of “We’re number one” rang out through the crowd. Fingers were pointed at the night sky. My family was stunned.

Can you imagine holding candles for the many who died, including one from our town, with shouts going up around you, “We’re number one?” It was a case study of how sports are misused to support reaction, and turned out to be a prelude to efforts to pit sports against the environment.

Two years earlier, in 1999, a network of nine grassroots groups, including organized labor, got a town meeting to unanimously approve permanent passive open space status for land in the Gunntown neighborhood. Passive open space is land with no artificial hard surfaces.

The next administration, headed by the mayor who led the obscene 9/11 event, said permanent doesn’t mean permanent in 2001. They tried to use “soccer moms and dads” and their children to apply anti-environmental pressure, putting forward a competing proposal for “active” open space — a soccer field — aiming to split the community.

It didn’t work. There was strong opposition to the mayor’s effort.

The regional labor council passed a motion supporting passive open space. Why? The state park in the area began charging user fees just to walk the park’s trails. And the state park was already festooned with paved surfaces. The Gunntown passive open space was the last municipal land in a natural state where workers could walk with their families on trails without being charged.

Solid political work turned the labor council into a progressive environmental force. Council members met with local environmentalists, participated in demonstrations at the town hall and testified at a town meeting. Soccer moms and dads, including a trade unionist who was a former soccer coach, came forward to support the passive designation. A letter to the editor in the local paper explained the labor council’s vote and its importance to the town’s 600 trade union families.

This is an example of similar environmental struggles throughout the country. A battle cry has been rising across our land for some time now — “Save the land.”

The Bolsheviks had the slogan “Peace, bread, land, socialism,” leading up to the 1917 October Revolution in old Russia. Land then was for the landless peasants to farm. Today’s “Save the land” imperative in our country varies from region to region. In some places, it might mean preserving or extending a state or national forest. In urban areas, it may be a struggle for green corridors. For the most part, it is a call to save passive open space.

The ecology of non-impervious surfaces, that is, no hard, artificial paved surfaces, is key to understanding passive open space. When you have open, porous soil it means that water from rain and snow gets naturally filtered and can make its way to aquifers, the underground water layers so important for our drinking water. It means no erosion. Eliminating paved surfaces also means no oil, antifreeze, brake fluid and gas spilling from vehicle engines to pollute surface water.

Finally, paved surfaces create heat islands. Anyone who has walked barefoot from grass to a tarred road or driveway knows this phenomenon, which contributes to, you guessed it, global warming. Passive open space avoids heat islands. Porous surfaces are cooler and allow green organisms to grow. When trees, shrubs and ferns photosynthesize, they suck carbon dioxide, the main contributor to global warming, out of the air.

Passive open space mitigates sprawl, cuts into fossil fuel use and dovetails well with calls for mass transit.

One of the best ways to collectively mitigate global warming is to save the land.

We need to overcome a “consumer” approach to land. Land that is not being “used” is looked upon as wasteful. If maximum “use” in this sense is applied to land, there will be precious little passive open space left in our country.

Every left and progressive group should relate to these land battles. Dirk Struik, the Marxist mathematician and environmental advocate, said, “Red and green have to find ways to collaborate.” That’s certainly true. We also need red green leaders.

The political left can add an important theoretical framework: environmental struggles, to be successful in both the short and long term, must be connected to other on-going battles. A grasp of the struggles in labor, against racism, for health care, for peace, would help the environmental movement. In particular, it would help environmentalists understand that a progressive shift in the 2008 elections would set the stage for advancing environmental issues.

The environmental movement has multiclass dimensions like the peace and social justice movements. We must not let working with Democrats, some quite conservative, and even Republicans, put us off from getting involved.

The environmental movement can be an important part of the election struggles. We can’t let environmentalists be bystanders waving at the train from the station platform. We’ve got to get them on board. One way to do that is to participate in the many struggles to save the land.

Nick Bart is an environmental activist in Connecticut.