Tensions, Ties, and Coalitions among Local Activists in American Peace and Environmental Movements

By Zisk, Betty H. | National Forum, Winter 1990 | Go to article overview

Tensions, Ties, and Coalitions among Local Activists in American Peace and Environmental Movements


Zisk, Betty H., National Forum


Tensions, Ties, and Coalitions Among Local Activists In American Peace and Environmental Movements

The human species is one of millions threatened by imminent extinction through nuclear war and other environmental changes. And while it is true that "human nature" revealed by 12,000 years of written history does not offer much hope that we can change our warlike, greedy, ignorant ways, the vastly longer fossil history assures us that we can change. We are that fish, and the myriad other death-defying feats of flexibility which a study of evolution reveals to us.... The change that is required of us is not some new resistance to radiation, but a change in consciousness. Deep ecology is the search for a viable consciousness.(1)

Like a growing number of ecologists, John Seed explicitly recognizes the environmental threat of the nuclear arms race. Similarly, some peace and arms control activists have begun to add environmental issues to their agenda. And a few movement groups--Greenpeace, the Green Committees of Correspondence, and others--have long proclaimed, to a not-very-attentive public, the interconnections between peace and environmental causes. At the same time, tension remains. This tension arises, for the most part, because some single-issue groups fear that a broader agenda will alienate "conservative" supporters. These groups also fear that at the very least a broader agenda will dilute their influence on policymakers who are receptive to the group's expertise and arguments on one, but not all, causes.

There are many clear connections between environmental and peace issues. At the lowest or most-concrete level, environmental activists may worry about toxic leakage from a military base; similarly, arms control advocates may work with environmentalists to close nuclear power plants that produce weapons-grade nuclear waste. At a slightly higher level of abstraction, environmental groups may realize that funds cut from defense could support the high costs of toxic waste cleanup or wetlands preservation. Finally, peace groups may decide that arms reduction is pointless if the planet is uninhabitable by the time agreement is reached, just as advocates for endangered species may come to see the irony of their efforts if a nuclear war soon destroys the species in question. (Thus, as of mid-September 1989, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists will modify their logo to superimpose the famous doomsday clock on the planet. Given the importance of symbols in modern political communications, this is an important shift.)

Such insights may ultimately force a broad recognition that seemingly narrow "economic," "strategic," or "technical" choices have consequences far beyond those included in a present-oriented, cost-benefit analysis. In light of the present ecological crisis, I would argue that we, as activists, scholars, and citizens, must work--and indeed work quickly--to bring about the "change in consciousness" to which Seed alludes so eloquently. My present task, however, is to analyze what seems to be the beginning of a new era of local and regional cooperation between scattered peace and environmental groups. This beginning may, in fact, be a prelude to that higher level of ecological consciousness.

What political, economic, or social factors can explain the variations--from locality to locality--in the degree to which movement and public interest activists recognize and act upon their shared concerns? The partial answers I shall offer to this question are based on intensive interviews and field observations of 166 local peace and environmental groups in five states (Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, California, and Oregon). About half of these groups were peace-oriented; thirty percent were environmental; the remaining twenty percent were active on both issues.(2) There are, of course, two different levels of constraints or facilitating factors that are relevant in explaining varied responses to shared concerns by movement groups: the defining characteristics of the group itself (for example, does the group's charter or parent organization forbid moving beyond current group priorities? …

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