Uncovering the New Paradigm
The liberal assumptions of the Civil Rights Movement, shared broadly among reformers for more than a generation and cutting across the lines of class, race and region, stressed the vision of opportunity expressed so well in Gunnar Myrdal’s famous study, An American Dilemma (1946). Myrdal observed that the long years of racial proscription in the South saddled African Americans with a burden of ingrained social inferiority that threatened to define the cultural life of America. Excluded from the benefits of adequate employment, housing, education, and health care, African Americans too often lived in dire poverty and cultivated a self-defeating mentality of passivity and escapism. Whites observed these conditions without sympathy and blamed the victim for conditions that were the product of generations of white social, economic and political domination. A cycle of racism pitted the races in opposition, and whites seldom got the message that a change in the material condition of African Americans could improve the mentality and culture of both races. Most often overlooked or completely ignored was the deeper, hidden human potential that remained locked away in the destructive relationship that existed between the races. With the American Civil War of 1861-65 as the primary metaphor of Southern culture well into the era of the 1960s, whites and Blacks too often acted out of an older, nineteenth century set of assumptions. They could not grasp that a master-slave relationship, or a winner-loser relationship could be transformed into a relationship in which all sides win as all sides share in a common understanding of good government, social uplift and progressive economics.
Such an understanding must of course be intrinsic to the new paradigm of environmental reform. Therein lies the challenge that must be grasped by those who would move forward into a new era of civic activism in the twenty-first century. The social implications of the new paradigm are intimately caught up in the most fundamental human relationships and the dilemmas of government and popular understanding related thereto. The need for family planning, a lowered birth rate to break the Malthusian cycle of population growth outstripping productive capacity and environmental solvency will have not a ghost of chance in a society made up of impoverished masses from different races pitted in opposition to each other. Public policy reforms must be supplemented with changes in lifestyle and social choices that stem from a shared popular wisdom and responsibility toward nature and consumption. Today we are only beginning to grasp what the future may demand of us in this regard. Surely the new paradigm of environmental responsibility will bring fundamental changes to the collective consciousness of civilization itself. But how so?
In the age before the American Civil Rights Movement in North Carolina, biblical injunctions were routinely appropriated to justify a white supremacist social order that turned a blind eye to the most outrageous social abuses. What Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” to describe the destructiveness of the Holocaust of World War II was just a way of describing the subtle tyranny of ordinary people who think no larger than the conventional nostrums of the hour while remaining passive in the face of society’s collective evil. But in Western societies, and especially the U.S., the ethic of mass consumption, indifference to the destruction of natural habitat for plant and animal species, and the belief that nature’s endless bounty will last forever, are all deeply engrained assumptions that will not easily give way before a new mode of existence. The devotion to consumption as a way of life, to what Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption—not for survival or even for enjoyment but simply as a means of socialization and class identity in a culture of leisure, mass conformity and unquestioning commercialism on the new paradigm will likely be understood as a formula for self-destruction. In North Carolina, as the older town and farm culture of the age before the twentieth century gave way to urban growth, suburbanization, industrialization, and the transformation of agriculture, a society already devoted to commercialism, exploitation and consumption simply became all the more devoted to the same even as the environmental crisis grew—failing to heed the symptoms, the signs and the warnings. Mass transit, in the postwar years, fell by the way side as passenger rail service disappeared and city buses too often ran empty, with publicly subsidized highways congested with vehicles now bearing solitary passengers toward a single destination. Wilmington, North Carolina, once a passenger railway center with a bustling depot with regular traffic that ran the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to New York—today is a city wholly devoted to the gas-guzzling automobile—and along with it so much of Middle America, needlessly pouring tons of hydrocarbon exhausts into the atmosphere.
Throughout much of the world, in the developing nations, and where democracy and advanced educational and communications systems are lacking, it is probably inevitable that in any global warming disaster scenario most the world’s poorest who will suffer the most devastating effects, will never know exactly what hit them. But in the U.S. and the Western Democracies this should not be the case. Why should not African Americans, Hispanics, working class whites, the elderly, and women who are the struggling mothers of children—the less affluent sectors of U.S. society—actually come to lead the way toward environmental reform by urging and patronizing better and improved mass transit systems, more efficient production and consumption of energy, the development of energy efficient low cost housing, while seeking renewed access to common areas of recreation where clean air and water coincide with the preservation of biologically diverse realms in forests and coastal waters?
The new paradigm must involve a new synthesis of social and environmental science with a collective sense of shared values, drawn from our history and built upon an ancient foundation, while drawing upon contemporary models of grassroots democracy as exemplified in twentieth century movements for labor, women, and civil rights reform. It was only through the liberal era, through the influence of figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., that the popular imagination rejected the excesses of 1950s Cold War America and turned the nation back toward belief in the human potential both for governmental reform and a simple but inspired capacity of people to do better and to be better and live better than in ages past. Such lessons are a vital part of what is needed today to move society forward into a new way of thinking about itself and the world. Biracialism, interracial cooperation, and Sixties methods of nonviolent civil disobedience remain a vital part of the environmental movement as a movement of radical protest. But it is also in the daily habits of production and movement, consumption and leisure that so much define how the new paradigm will truly be lived out. In the disaster scenario the poor and the disadvantaged of our society through the struggle to survive become the primary victims—threatening to impose a terrible wound of injury, suffering and disease from which the very destruction of civilization itself may spread. But at least one alternate scenario is one in which the poor and the disadvantaged become the teachers, leading the way toward reform and an altered way of life.
There are many prescriptive solutions to the problem of global warming. A list of them here would be unnecessary. But we will never develop green transportation, green energy sources, sane and sensible means for the production of food, and an ethic of responsibility toward the birds, fish, plants and animals that also inhabit our world until we begin to confront the question of the environment and our most basic relationship to our world. And we will never come to terms with global climate change until we develop and respond to the call for a new environmental ethic and a new paradigm of social reform. This will never happen unless and until we begin to realize that in social terms we are all in this together—all subject to the same natural laws, all creatures of a common world, all beings who possess common roots in the soil of planet Earth with a common destiny that is ours to determine. It may not be too late for humanity.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”
From Carolina Civic Voice
Vol. 7, No. 2, Summer 2007