Oregon State UniversitySpecial Collections & Archives Research Center
Unpublished Manuscripts by William Appleman Williams
Page 1

The Politics of Ecological Balance

Believed to be a speech manuscript written circa May 1970.

William Appleman Williams, ca. 1950s.
William Appleman Williams, ca. 1950s.

This is one of those situations in which the truth is painful.

That is because, to begin with, the politics of environment - of the politics of an ecological balance - is not at all limited to dealing creatively with a grave physical problem. An ecological balance involves - requires - a balance among the people, as well as a balance between the people and their physical environment. If we save the rivers and lose the poor, then we shall have failed. For there can be no ecological balance without creating a human community. Indeed, we cannot save the environment unless we create a community. It cannot be done on the basis of business as usual.

Hence the truth that is going to hurt.

If we commit ourselves to creating and maintaining an ecological balance, then we define ourselves as subversive. Squirm and wiggle as we will, we cannot free ourselves from that logic. For if we are to live ecologically, then we must change - and change fundamentally - the following things:

We must change our conception of ourselves, and of the way we fulfill ourselves as human beings.

We must change our conception of our fellow man, and of our relationships with him.

We must change our conception of nature, and of our relationship with nature.

We must change our very conception of commitment.

To be blunt about it: we must change our way of life. And that means we must change the existing American Way of Life. That is the politics of an ecological balance - the politics of changing the existing American Way of Life.

To use the four letter word, that means we must be subversive. That does mean we must change a very great many American ways of thinking and acting. It does not mean that we must abandon all American ideals. To understand that point, let us explore the politics of an ecological balance in terms of three subversive propositions. They were first advanced, two centuries ago, by a New England Congregational minister named Jonathan Edwards. Edwards was our first practicing subversive, as when he refused an appointment as president of Princeton to go instead to live in peace with the Indians.

Jonathan Edwards.
Jonathan Edwards.

Edwards was subversive because he recognized that Americans were even then beginning to destroy the ecological balance in the name of the individual's freedom to do his own thing. In response he offered - and struggled to honor in his own life - three axioms for restoring that balance.

First: "Necessity is not inconsistent with liberty." Like man, if we are going to change the existing American Way of Life, we do not have to memorize Mao's Little Red Book while swimming the Columbia from The Dalles to Astoria. But we do have to change our conception of liberty so that it allows natural fulfillment to other men who are different - and to nature.

Second: the only one of our senses that we can trust unreservedly is the one that tells us when an action "is in agreement with the nature of things." That is not just the sense that says NO when you drive by that monstrous smoke machine north of Albany. It is also the sense that says NO when someone tells you that the character-building virtue of playing football is dependent upon shaving every morning. And it is the sense that says NO when an administrator tells you it is necessary, in order to preserve higher education, to call the Police when some students want to hold an experimental seminar on the subject of why good teachers are being force-fed the freedom to seek employment elsewhere.

Third: like it or not, and change your life as it will, it is necessary to honor this axiom: the things that go together do in truth go together. Let us be cruel about that one, for it is the irreducible truth of ecological politics: no man is an end in and of himself - by himself for himself. Like, if you want to balance the Supreme Court, you do not appoint a southern white male who is a mediocre judge and a gentile racist. You do not even appoint a sane talented northern white male. Instead, you appoint a woman who is red, black, or brown, and who is dedicated to justice for the poor and the lost and the lonely. Or, like, the politics of an ecological balance does not start with nature, it starts with people. Keeping that in mind, let us apply the ecological principles of Jonathan Edwards to our modern predicament.

First: the subversive politics of ecology is poetic simply and fundamentally because ecology is poetic. Undisturbed, meaning given a chance to honor its own principles, nature creates a dynamic system of tensions that move to the primary rhythms of life and death. And, unlike the operational American Way of Life, nature insists upon the fulfillment of Life as well as upon the inevitability of Death.

Second: that dynamic system of tensions, including fulfillment for the crabgrass as well as for the lion, has been artificially distorted by a minority of people - an elite - in a way that extends (and otherwise favorably distorts) their own natural rhythms of life and death.

In the basic sense, that elite is composed of all of us in the Northern Hemisphere. Poor and powerless as some of us are in our immediate environment, we are nevertheless emperors in Egypt, princes in Peru, and viceroys in Vietnam.

The truth of ecological politics now becomes more personal. Within the Northern Hemisphere, we, Americans are the elite. And, within America, we whites are the elite.

For, third, the overwhelming majority of us Americans have thus far acquiesced (if not eagerly joined) in the destruction of the ecological balance. Most of us have been whoring after the power to distort the poetic balance of nature in our favor. Most of us have been playing God and asserting that we can conquer nature. And too many of us are now proposing - consciously or unconsciously - to solve the lack of such ecological balance in a way that will guarantee the high hand we hold.

We have not only destroyed the ecological balance of nature, but we have come very near destroying the ecological balance of the reds, the blacks, the browns - and even the poor whites.

I do not think it helps, at this point, to get uptight about the question of collective guilt. For in truth most of us Americans have acted the way we have because we unconsciously accepted - as received Truth - the anti-ecological premises of Western capitalism. There are four such principles:

  • 1) man is primarily an economic creature;
  • 2) nature can be conquered, and is there to be conquered;
  • 3) nature is so bountiful that once forced into unconditional surrender it will provide enough for all of us to do our own thing; and
  • 4) each of us doing our own thing will create an increasingly prosperous general welfare.

We now know, not only that those principles operate to destroy the ecological balance, but that each of us doing our own thing does not produce an increasingly prosperous general welfare. Such action has instead produced a society characterized by extremes of wealth and poverty, of power and powerlessness, and of estrangement among its citizens.

Hence the necessity of changing our conceptions of ourselves, and of the way we fulfill ourselves; our conception of our fellow men, and of our relationships with them; and our conception of nature. Let us examine what that means in terms of the three issues usually associated with an ecological balance: population, pollution, and production.

I would suggest that the solution to the population imbalance in America involves something far more central to our way of life than the pill, the IUD, or the vasectomy - or even the income incentive. Indeed, given our love of gadgets that appear to conquer nature, those answers are classically American. The truly subversive solution for us is to stop getting married before we know who we are as human beings. For, if you get married before you know who you are, then you will almost surely try to find out who you are by having children. And that, in turn, is one of the gravest handicaps you can give a baby - as well as being a devastating blow to the ecological balance between people.

Hence the necessity of changing our very conception of commitment. One of the best ways to find out who you are is to commit yourself, in association with other human beings, to an effort to achieve a positive social goal. That means a commitment to pool your energy and skills to acquire the information and to formulate the alternatives necessary to attain such a social objective. That enables you to confront those who block the achievement of the positive social good with hard facts and real choices, as well as with outrage. That in turn provides you with the confidence and ability to take legal and political action if the opponents do not respond to reason and morality. That kind of commitment means also that you will build a social movement involving men and women from all parts of society. And that enables you to continue your commitment even if you leave the place of your initial involvement.

Such a social movement is the only effective foundation for a politics that can deal effectively and creatively with the ecological problems of pollution and production.

As for pollution, I suggest very strongly that it is the precipitating symptom - not a primary cause - of the ecological imbalance. Pollution is a result of acting on those four premises of Western capitalism. Listen again to those rules of thumb: nature can be conquered; you cannot be free unless you are free to act on your own self-interest in the marketplace; build a better gadget and the suckers born every minute will build a superhighway to your door; and success in the marketplace is the fulfillment of your nature as a human being.

If you act on those principles, you will pollute the environment - and destroy the ecological balance between the people of your society. The heart of the matter, therefore, involves what we produce and how we produce it. Ecological production depends upon:

First: producing only what we need to help us express our nature as reasoning and feeling and moral creatures, and to relate to other human beings. We must produce to meet social needs, rather that to fulfill individual ambitions.

Second: producing what we need in ways that cooperate with nature - including our nature as much more than economic creatures - instead of in ways that destroy nature.

Those changes will be subversive of the existing American Way of Life, and they cannot be made unless we build a social movement that is based on knowledge and alternatives, that includes people from all parts of American society, and that has confronted and resolved the final problems of the politics of ecological balance.

These last issues involve a drastic change in the existing pattern of distributing what we produce, and a very clear understanding that tactical victories cannot be purchased at the cost of strategic defeat.

We cannot solve the problem of local or even regional pollution simply by shutting down the offending industry, or simply by stabilizing or reducing the Gross National Product. True enough, that might clear the air and the rivers, and slow the depletion of the resources we have traditionally used. But it would also create many more poor people.

Some of that poverty can be avoided by the coordinated replacement of anti-ecological industry with ecological employment in health, education, and welfare services. And some of it can be avoided by creating new and ecological production of food and shelter.

But the only way to deal with the remaining poverty - including all that now exists - if for us who have so much to do two things. We must give over much of what we now have; and we must learn to fulfill ourselves as people far less through the accumulation of material possessions and far more through honoring our true nature as human beings.

For starters, I offer two suggestions.

First, for one month, buy nothing you do not need to fulfill your true nature as a human being. Give the money you save to the Minority Services Program at OSU. It will help, in discovering your true nature, to begin to know your fellow human beings who are not connected with the University.

Second, for one day, eat nothing you do not need to live, and use that money to support the effort to force the government to honor its ecological rhetoric by destroying the nerve gas on Okinawa.

Those two acts will give you a taste of the feel, and the excitement, and the sense of purpose, that the politics of ecological balance can bring to your life. They will also get us started on restoring the ecological balance.