Today's date:
  Fall 2004

Preempt Eco-Disaster

Daniel COHN-BENDIT (a.k.a. "Danny the Red" of May '68 fame) is a leader of the European Greens. This article appeared in the Fall 1999 issue of NPQ.

Strasbourg--For the Greens, which are now present in the governments of the strongest European countries, the project of building Europe is the project for a new society that is fraternal, ecological and multicultural.

To that end we support not only stronger European integration and a speedier enlargement of Europe; we also support the emergence of a vigorous transnational civil society that can be a counterforce within Europe to both the state and the market. Greens in Europe also seek to elevate the idea of "co-development" to equal status with that of free competition in world trade, paricularly as Europe set out its position in the World Trade Organization "Millennium Round" negotiations that began in Seattle in November, 1999. Co-development means sharing wealth and resources, especially energy, globally.

The principles that must guide the building of this new Europe are precaution--taking action now to avoid risks in the long term--and preservation of the European way of life.

Although precaution has become the latest watchword in the wake of mad cow disease, the "affair" of the dioxin infested chickens in Belgium and genetically modified organisms, food safety only represents the visible part of the iceberg. The principle of precaution is meant by ecologists to encompass a whole range of human activities.

The nuclear accident at Tokamura in Japan as well as the frequent nuclear pollution of agricultural products from the Eastern European countries will remind those who may have forgotten that the principle of precaution must be applied to nuclear energy. That is why we favor the phasing out of nuclear power plants all across Europe.

The catastrophes of the Mont Blanc Tunnel and the train crashes in London in the late 1990s reminded us of the necessity to apply this principle to transportation. Precaution places the reduction of air pollution in Europe's cities high on our agenda. Climate change makes it urgent to implement the decisions taken at the Rio and Kyoto conferences to curb gases that warm the atmosphere. Precaution also compels Europeans to stand by our idea of the "cultural exception" and reject the imposition of American hormone-fed beef into our food supply.

Another major concern for the Greens is preserving peace and stability in Europe in the face of the gales of the global market.

In the West, the increasing intertwining of economies requires a stronger convergence of economic, social and environmental policies and regulations. Yet, in the absence of any minimum agreed standards across Europe, economic change is left to the sole logic of market forces. The consequence is mass unemployment and weakened schemes for social protection--in brief, a breaking up of society and the loss of the familiar anchors of social life.

The inability of the Social and Christian Democrats to offer any solutions to this crisis has led to the sudden emergence, most recently in Austria, of populists, nationalists and groups of extreme rightists or extreme leftists with overtones of xenophobia and racism. One even observes today an outbreak of asocial behavior--"little" daily acts of senseless violence in our cities.

In the East, the situation of the former Communist countries is worse. Ten years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, their economies still must be rebuilt. Even those who have progressed are only weakly linked to the Western economies. There is little or no coordination of policies and regulations. Social and environmental dumping as well as unemployment are the rule. Compared to the "security" of communism, whole populations have been set adrift, full of anxiety, from their moorings.

In the absence of real and sufficiently integrated democratic experiences, the dangers of returning to nationalism and authoritarianism are very real. We saw this in Bosnia and Kosovo. Russia is a potential time bomb.

It seems obvious that the speed of change triggered by the sole logic of market forces is as incompatible with social protection as it is with environmental precaution.

Market regulation is therefore indispensable and intervention is unavoidable--not at the level of the nation state, or even at the weak level of the coordination between states, but at the level of Europe as a supranational entity.

Yet, one cannot and must not rely entirely on the state to foresee, regulate and control everything. The downfall of the Soviet system has given us ample proof that this does not work. (And it is not a matter of the state calling on "experts," for it was precisely they who brought us GMOs and the problems of nuclear power).

Rather, civil society must now become the third actor between the state and the market. Raising individual and collective awareness, civil society can act as a counterforce through its associations and citizens' groups as well as by the weight of public opinion.