Holy Earth!

By Michael Hasty 

Grassroots Politics

No matter which candidates win the races for US president and West Virginia governor in next month’s elections, environmentalists will still have a lot of work to do.

That is true even in the (at this point unlikely) event that the independent "green" candidates for those offices are elected. In fact, it may be even truer in that case, because those candidates would be dealing with legislative majorities hostile to their environmental priorities and eager to drive the interlopers out of office at the earliest opportunity. Any hope of legislative success would, even more than usual, depend on grassroots organizing.

"Grassroots" is a word that is often used to refer to mass organizing at the community level. It evokes the image of being grounded in the people, the "little guys" rising up from the earth. "Grassroots" stands in contrast to "treetops" organizing, which means rounding up the support of community leaders. And it’s the opposite of what is called "astroturf" organizing, which refers to the phony "citizens’ groups" put together by public relations firms hired by corporations to make it look like the outlandish piece of legislation they’re trying to get passed has genuine "grassroots" support.

Yet I’m beginning to wonder whether, in the world of American politics, there really is such a thing as "grassroots" any more.

The other day my partner brought home a lost puppy she had found wandering along the road on her way home. He was a nice little hound with a brand new nametag that said "Buddy" on it, and we figured that he’d come from the new subdivision near where she found him. There was only about an hour to go until dark, so Buddy and I got in the pickup and headed over to his neighborhood to see if anybody knew where he came from.

There were a couple of guys mowing their lawns, but they didn’t know who he was. I stopped a car driving into the subdivision, but neither of the occupants recognized Buddy either. Finally a little girl standing alongside a cul-de-sac knew that he belonged to her friend who lived in the mobile home across the street. As I pulled into the driveway, I saw the friend sitting forlornly on a swing in the backyard. When Buddy and I got out of the cab, she rushed over, obviously relieved to see him.

She took him into the house, and as I pulled out of the driveway, her dad was just getting home from work. He glared at me from his truck, so I stopped and explained what I was doing there, and his demeanor changed. He smiled and thanked me, and I headed home, satisfied with my good deed. But I was also a little saddened by the experience, for what it said about 21st century America.

For one thing, both the guys who were mowing their lawns lived just a couple of doors away from Buddy’s house. Why do we know so little about our neighbors? Not a single soul I spoke to expressed a hint of curiosity about either me or the puppy -- except Dad, whose only interest was what the heck I was doing in his driveway. Even worse, as I questioned the little girl who finally recognized Buddy, I couldn’t help but worry that her mother was looking out the window and frantically dialing the police about the strange man who was talking to her daughter. A legitimate concern, in this day and age, even in this rural county.

In a recently published book, "Bowling Alone," sociologist Robert Putnam documents the fragmentation and alienation of contemporary American society. The title refers to the decline in the number of bowling leagues in this country, which Putnam sees as a metaphor for the larger phenomenon of withdrawal from civic life. This phenomenon can be observed not only in the shrinking memberships of civic associations, like parent/teacher groups and social service and political clubs, but even in the fact that people are, for example, having fewer picnics and informal visits with friends.

There are a number of reasons this is occurring. Americans are working longer hours than they used to -- more hours annually than the workers of any other industrial nation. The average American two-earner family is putting in more than 160 hours more per year than they did just ten years ago. Commuting time is longer, too. Putnam calculates that every ten minutes added to the daily commute equals one less civic activity for the commuter.

Of course a major factor contributing to the widespread disengagement from civic life is television, which manipulates the viewer’s emotions in the service of commerce, and substitutes a simplistic and glamorous celebrity culture for the subtle complexities of actual relationships. Instead of the real world, you have MTV’s "The Real World." Instead of friends, you have NBC’s "Friends." We’ve become a society of people sitting around in big boxes, watching little boxes.

Or communicating through them. For many people, the Internet and email have become cyberneighborhoods, where kindred spirits can meet and share ideas. Electronic communication has become a valuable organizing tool for activists of all stripes -- including the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. It is especially valuable for international organizing on global issues, because it allows people to communicate without having to pass through the filter of the corporate media.

Yet in the sense that the most the electronic web can offer is "virtual" community, the impression that real "grassroots" organizing is taking place is on one level an illusion. We environmentalists, of all people, with our love of nature, should recognize the importance of place, of real, geographic, physical space. Because this is the sense that we as a society, living in a globalized economy, are losing. It is the void at the center of modern culture. The philosopher William Irwin Thompson titled a book on this subject, "The American Replacement of Nature."

We should never forget that whether we are thinking globally or not, we need to act locally. Sometimes that means we need to slog around and meet our neighbors -- the uncyber ones. Sometimes that means going out at night to some community meeting on a subject which may not be our primary concern, but is important to others. Often it means working with people with whom we have very little in common or some of whose values may even be opposite our own.

But I am convinced that our national loss of the sense of place offers a political opportunity to those who would reclaim it, and environmentalists have a unique message with which to stake that claim: we all live in nature. If we work hard enough, and smart enough, we can make the grassroots come alive.