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February 6, 2010

‘Greening’ of America could be greater

Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

— Who would have thought, 40 years ago, that being ``green’ would come to this? For ``this,’’ of course, you can substitute the fact that just about everybody and everything wants to be seen as caring about the environment.

Not that it’s a bad thing. It’s just that Charles Reich should have patented the title of his ``The Greening of America’’ book back in 1970 when it began its cycle of numerous printings. But if there’s too much green, does the word or the color lose its meaning?

If someone today were to see the book on a library or bookstore shelf for the first time, he or she obviously would think it was a book about the spread of environmental awareness. And the non-violent ``revolution coming’’ Reich refers to in a quote on the cover of my edition no doubt would be thought to refer to environmental activism. But no, as many of you may know, Reich’s book overtly had little to do with the dawn of environmentalism, which, contemporaneously, was launched with the first Earth Day in 1970.

Reich, at the time a 40-something law professor at Yale, had latched onto the 1960s counterculture and youth rebellion as offering a chance for society to advance itself to a higher level of consciousness. He saw it as one that ``seeks a new knowledge of what it means to be human, in order that the machine, having been built, may now be turned to human ends; in order that man once more can become a creative force, renewing and creating his own life and thus giving life back to his society.’’

And the title of the book emerged in his last sentence: ``For one almost convinced that it was necessary to accept ugliness and evil, that it was necessary to be a miser of dreams, it is an invitation to cry or laugh. For one who thought the world was irretrievably encased in  metal and plastic and sterile stone, it seems a veritable greening of America.’’

Though not to the extent that Reich had in mind, there has been a ``greening’’ of America over the past four decades, one focused more narrowly on the Earth, the environment, conservation and energy and other renewable resources. Working with the meaning of   ``greening’’ up until his time, Reich saw (with wishful thinking) America going through a rejuvenation process or growing pains to achieve a higher social and political plane. It obviously went through something, but certainly not the profound transformation that Reich diagnosed.

And he knew better than anyone that the major shift he foresaw had not come to fruition. Writing in 1995 in the preface for the 25th anniversary edition of his book, he said, “If there was any doubt about the need for social transformation in 1970, that need is clear and urgent today. … I am now more convinced than ever that the conflict and suffering now threatening to engulf us are entirely unnecessary, and a tragic waste of our energy and resources. We can create an economic system that is not at war with human beings or nature, and we can get from here to there by democratic means.’’

Though probably no consolation to Reich, his use of the word ``greening’’ and its ``green’’ derivative have led to new meanings that are  associated with the most influential movements of the last few decades _ environmentalism and sustainability.

Never again in this country will we see rivers on fire because of the extent of their pollution. Never again will factories, steel mills and power plants be allowed to foul the air unchecked.

Today, new developments of any kind _ whether clear-cutting forests, drilling for natural gas or building a mall _ are usually met with an opposition from people concerned about the environment. Most every municipality and household is conscious of the value of recycling and tries to practice it. No questionable practices seem to be immune from ``green’’ watchdogs, from road crews spreading salt to golf courses spraying herbicides to factory farming.

Yes, it seems like America has been ``greening’’ quite well in the narrower sense, though you wouldn’t know it because of all the battles still be waged over such issues as global warming, nuclear power and food safety. It is important to note, however, that words such as ``green’’ and ``sustainable’’ can reach a saturation point where they lose their meaning, much in the same way that the meaning of ``natural’’ has become meaningless, especially concerning food. Let’s face it, using ``green’’ is good marketing, and corporations have not and will not hesitate to use it.

So, as we celebrate our ``greening’’ advances over the decades, we have be aware of how much more we could have done, and also maintain some skepticism about what’s really ``green’ and what is just being painted that way.

CARY BRUNSWICK, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of He can be reached at