(This essay was originally written in 1998. Thank goodness for the Wayback Machine.)
You’ve seen the pictures: one moment, there is a building, seeming solid and stable. Suddenly, flashes of light can be seen within the building, and puffs of smoke appear from its windows. The building seems to inhale for a moment, and then, as it exhales, it slowly folds in upon itself in a great cloud of dust and debris. The surrounding buildings are untouched, undamaged, except perhaps for a coating of dust.
It’s called “controlled demolition,” and the people who make it happen rely on a number of things:
- An intimate knowledge of the structure to be brought down
- Thorough understanding of the capabilities of their tools
- Careful planning and consideration in the use of those tools
- Absolute concern for the effects of their actions on the surrounding environment and the people within it.
Now consider the global society in which we live as a building of its own. Look at the conditions on the lower floors, where the air is fouled, the plumbing backed up, where children and old people sleep in hallways or closets. There has been a party going on in the penthouse for years, of course… but the partygoers are either unaware or uncaring about the conditions below them that make their party possible.
There are those of us, within the Green movement and elsewhere, who believe that this structure is inherently unsustainable — that at some time, it must collapse under its own weight. But what should we do? If we simply sit back and wait for the collapse, countless numbers of innocent beings will suffer needlessly. If, on the other hand, we just bring in the bulldozers and knock it over (the approach that was advocated by quite a few during the 1960’s), we will still cause unnecessary suffering – and be left with a bigger mess than we began with.
It seems to me that the task before the Greens and their allies is multifold. Here is what must be done:
- Construct alternate structures.
- Help people become aware that alternatives are both necessary and possible.
- Enable as many as people as possible to make the transition.
- Then — and only then — bring the structure down, in as controlled and deliberate a manner as possible.
The first two steps are being done, to some degree. Many individuals and groups are building alternative institutions, and the awareness of their existence is growing. But we are nowhere near the point where large-scale transitions are possible. In the meantime, there are other things to be done. Within this metaphor, for example, electoral and legislative activity are attempts to temporarily shore up parts of the structure, to try to stave off the collapse until the other parts of the work can be completed. This is not trivial work, it is not a waste of time, it must be done — but we must not deceive ourselves that electoral or legislative successes in and of themselves are the goal. Rather, they are only one part of a much larger work.