Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Ganz at Grist

In early December 2005, Grist Magazine published this interview with sociologist Dr. Marshall Ganz. Though it will be deemed "old hat" to die-hard members of the online environmental community, I felt the piece merited another mention at the beginning of 2006, as we take the first steps in a new year. Ganz has been heralded as an informed catalyst for much needed change in the left-wing of United States politics and he has spear-headed efforts for the national Democratic Party. Although I find his allegiance with one political party unfortunate - my own political leanings aside - his approach is vital and will, I feel, eventually appeal to people from across the political spectrum. Essentially, he calls for a return to family and local values, a building of community that will bring individual communities into contact with the larger whole. (I sometimes think of such a model as European, but I believe the United States is in a singular position to embrace the community hall formation. We are a young country, only two hundred years removed from Ganz's ideal political construct.)

In 2003, the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental groups in the United States, turned to Ganz for advice. How can the environmental movement energize its base and, more importantly, the general populace? Ganz's answer: Think global, act local. Obvious enough, but Ganz doesn't stop at the hackneyed catchphrase; he offers a plan of attack, laid out in very clear, simple terms. The result is the Sierra Club's excellent "Neighbors Together" program, which aims to build communities where all members want "neighbors who have more than a zip code in common with us, who will work with us to protect what we love - our homes and families." This language could just as easily be attached to an anti-terrorism bill, and, to an extent, it is. This variety of terrorism generates less ink and outrage than 9/11 or Lockerbee, despite being far more corrosive and wide-reaching; it attacks us from within and is responsible for the continuing deterioration of our social fabric. The "Neighbors Together" brochure offers many suggested steps we, as individuals and members of our respective community, can take to begin the recovery process, but the core message is one of civic pride. "Preserve working family farms and natural areas from haphazard developments and highways. Take care of our existing neighborhoods. Attend public meetings in your community and speak out. Call, write, or visit your state's public officials." Sure, they also call for increased species protections, a tightening of existing pollution standards (with new, more strict legislation to follow), and energy efficiency, but these changes are made possible - or at least more viable - only when communities stand together.

I realize this sounds like dumb-dumb rhetoric - of course, we need stronger community ties! - but, as of 2000, 59 percent of American teenagers could not name the three branches of government and 98 percent could not name the Supreme Court Chief Justice. You might roll your eyes and think, well, that's not me, but can you name your Congressional representatives without enlisting Google? What about your Senator(s)? As community fails, so too does our belief and involvement in democracy. The Sierra Club recognizes that politics, community and environment are all tied together. Forward progress is only truly progressive if organizations begin considering all fronts and this is what Ganz addresses in the Grist interview. Below, I've highlighted a few of what I feel are his most essential arguments.

"Traditionally, membership associations, volunteer organizations, and advocacy organizations provided connective tissue between citizens and government, and public policy in general. There's been a substantial breakdown in that over the last 30 or 40 years, and it's left a vacuum."

"[T]he traditional formulation is that there's two kinds of resources that can yield power: money and people. Democracy is a way to balance money with people. And for that to work, people have got to act together, because it's through collective power that people can challenge the economic power of private wealth."

"For many years, the model of large organization in America was representative organization. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, corporate organization became an alternate model. One was about representation, the other was about control. So now, as the interests and constituencies represented by large organizations like unions have been losing ground, and as this whole market thing has come to be so dominant since Reagan, and public institutions themselves have been increasingly viewed as illegitimate, everybody says, "Well, we gotta do everything like the private sector; we have to do everything like the market."

And lastly, for all those "healing starts with the individual" folks (like myself):

"Is living your life in an individually responsible way enough to bring about the kind of change that you would hope for? I think the answer is no. It takes collective action. It takes mastering the tools of power, because there are very powerful institutions committed to making your preferred way of life impossible."

At any rate, onward and upward in 2006!

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