By Ralph White
Recently we saw a major surge toward the various Green parties in the European elections that can begin to give hope to those of us waiting urgently for more dramatic action on the climate crisis. It’s a relief to feel that people are at last waking up to the need to live in a society that operates in harmony with the biosphere and with all life.
But where did the whole Green movement begin? What were its origins?
Recently I spent time with Rex Wyler, one of the founders of Greenpeace, on Cortes Island in British Columbia where he now lives. In fact, I was living in Vancouver in 1971 when that first solitary Greenpeace ship set off towards the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to see if they could prevent an underground nuclear test that was going to be detonated perilously close to the San Andreas Fault line that runs the length of the West Coast. The brave few on that little boat seemed to be embarked on a quixotic and dangerous impulse at the time, in which they risked both their lives and arrest to call halt on a totally insane impulse in which nuclear domination was the only serious objective to the detriment of all other considerations.
Amazingly enough, that act of courage by a few people helped to begin to turn the world toward a greener, more sustainable future. It was just the first of Greenpeace’s many smart initiatives to draw the attention of the world to budding environmental catastrophe.
Since those pioneering days in the early 70s, Green politics has slowly moved toward center stage (excluding the United States) and will only move closer to the heart of the world’s future as we grasp our dire ecological predicament.
With the imminent destruction of a million species of plants and animals, as the latest UN report tells us, or the fast heating of the polar ice caps and Siberian tundra, we are in urgent need of a dramatic change of course. It may take millions of striking school children to halt our headlong rush to oblivion, but the madness must come to a stop.
How does the Open Center fit into all of this?
Well, way back in 1986, we saw the emergence of a new and necessary Green politics, first in Germany of all places. The founding inspiration of the German Green Party was Petra Kelly who embraced support for Tibet as one of her core principles. In that year, we invited Petra and her partner Gert Bastian to speak on Green Politics at the Open Center. They had to be in New York for a law suit of some kind and agreed to come.
I remember well dealing with the tiny office of the Green Party in the Bundestag all those years ago. I also recall the first images of the new Green representatives marching into the parliament on the first day with long hair, no ties or jackets, and an anti-establishment attitude that was just the beginning of serious change.
Sadly, the court appearance in New York was postponed, and our speakers never came to the Open Center. However, it was one of our first commitments to an ecological worldview in practical expression, something we feel is an essential component of a holistic understanding of life.
Not long afterwards, we produced the first symposium in New York on Green Politics with Fritjof Capra and other luminaries including Lynn Margulies, the co-creator with James Lovelock of the Gaia Hypothesis that sees the Earth as a living being that must be treated accordingly.
Fritjof grew up in Austria and was well aware of the new, creative political currents emerging in the German speaking world. Of course, the Green Parties in Europe bear little relationship to their namesake in the United States, as a system of proportional representation in the European Parliament means they have a sizable and growing presence in multiple legislative bodies. They have been in governing coalitions on a national level too. The rise of the Greens in many countries worldwide is a profoundly hopeful sign, especially in Germany where they have recently emerged as perhaps the most powerful party in the country.
Politics is usually a world of up and down, left and right, but the early Greens always said “We are neither left nor right. We are in front!”
They remind us of the wisdom the ancient Greeks, the founders of democracy, understood well: either we pay attention to our political life or we pay the price of being ruled by idiots. The present moment demands nothing less than a fundamental shift in our values and priorities as a country and a planet. The world must begin to turn toward preserving the biodiversity that lies at the heart of life. We must rejoice in power sources that are renewable and non-polluting.
We need to spend more time creating a sustainable and biologically diverse world without the grime, smoke, and pollution that have characterized so many of our lives. We might ask, Is it possible to imagine, in the manner suggested by John Lennon, a collective feeling – We Did It! – when we look back on how we began to turn around the suicidal materialistic impulses that almost wrecked our civilization?
At its root, the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis too. We simply cannot go on driven by the relentless accumulation of more goods and products, working relentless hours to enrich a tiny percentage of the world population, more and more people feeling that their work is meaningless. We need to enlist in the greatest possible of causes to preserve life and culture. Whether we work on a spiritual and philosophical level, in the realm of industry and commerce, or whatever sphere of life we find ourselves in, our task is clear: Bring a green, sustainable, global economy into being and find deeper, eternal values to direct our lives and our societies.
It’s been a long journey since those early shoots of Green thinking were supported by the Open Center back in the Eighties. Now it looks like they’re starting to germinate, and not a moment too soon. It will be a long, hard slog to wean the world away from fossil fuels and the relentless obsession with short term profit and economic growth that has proven so toxic to both our psyches and to the biosphere. But thanks to the irrefutable evidence of science, the emerging Green worldview, and the environmental awakening of millions around the world, we may finally be starting to do what is necessary.
The huge Glastonbury music festival in England just banned the use of plastic and prevented perhaps a million plastic bottles from winding up in an increasingly clogged ocean. Green consciousness, an integral part of the holistic worldview, is making its way into popular culture, and not a moment too soon. Our challenge now is to make sure that the world continues to move in that direction, despite opposing forces.
The coming decade will be crucial and will require every awake human being to commit themselves to this profound change in both thinking and behavior. The agenda is clear. We cannot allow ourselves to sleep through what may be our last chance to create an ecological civilization.
Ralph White is co-founder of the New York Open Center and currently serves as Senior Fellow and Conference Director. Since the Open Center’s inception in 1984 he has created hundreds of programs across the spectrum of holistic learning. In particular, he directs the Esoteric Quest conferences in Europe www.esotericquest.org the Western Tradition that have now continued for twenty years, and the Art of Dying conferences www.artofdying.org that address the emergence of a more holistic understanding of death in contemporary America. From 1995 to 2001 he edited Lapis Magazine, winner of the Alternative Press Award 2000 from Utne Reader. He has been a seminal presence in the development of the global network of holistic centers www.centersgathering.org. A writer and speaker, he is the author of the memoir, The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning.