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I’m an unabashed Greenie and have been so from the moment I first became conscious of the world around me and developed a civic and political awareness in my early teens. I think that ecology is the foundation for most other issues, because all our human activities depend on a healthy and balanced ecosystem. What is conveniently filed away as “externalized costs” in capitalism as we know it — all the trash, pollution, overconsumption, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, poverty, and human suffering — I believe to be the single biggest cause of the social, economic and environmental injustice and upheaval we are currently experiencing on this planet.

I’d like to take this opportunity to explain why I think voting for Democrats and Barack Obama in the 2012 election rather than sitting out the election or voting for a third party will be the most effective way to give the U.S. — the country that consumes 22% of the world’s oil and emits 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases with 5% of its population — a realistic and fighting chance to address this systemic imbalance and set a new course, step by step, upon which a more sustainable future can be built.

The web if life vs the web of Baracknaphobia

All Greens are not created equal

The first election I ever voted in, I voted Green. It was in 1987, I was back in my native Germany, and the Green Party ended up with 8.3% of the vote. It wasn’t enough to form a governing coalition with the Social Democrats and unseat then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl and his conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) coalition with the free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), but it was enough to affirm the Green’s growing influence and representation in German thought, politics, and government.

198x 80-er Jahre - 80s - Aufkleber - Stickers - 14 - Die Gruenen - Alternative
Photo by Harald Haeusler.
Nobody accused me of wasting my precious first vote or said that a vote for the Greens was a vote for Kohl, simply because Germany’s parliamentary system does not take a winner-take-all approach, thus enabling third parties not only to coexist but be vital elements of governing and opposition coalitions. Also known as Mixed-member proportional representation, the way it works in Germany is that any party that gets over 5% can send members to the Bundestag (parliament) and be part of a governing coalition. Which is what happened in 1998, when the Green Party for the first time became a governing partner, with then-Chancellor Schroeder’s Social Democrats.

To put it in other words, if the 2000 U.S. election had taken place in Germany, Democrats and President Gore could have formed a coalition with the Green Party, with perhaps a Treasury or Labor Secretary Ralph Nader. We wouldn’t have had to endure eight years of horror and incompetence, and a lot of folks with common goals but slightly different ideas on how to get there would still be friends, having refrained from calling each other traitors or sellouts. Who knows, Markos may never have started Daily Kos, which perhaps might be the most underrated accomplishment of George W. Bush.

However, the election took place in the USA, a country that uses a winner-take-all form of democracy, wherein the ticket that wins a plurality of votes wins all of each state's allocated electoral votes in presidential elections. Good arguments can be made for both the representative and direct forms of democracy, and many, including here, have done so. But the fact is, whether we like it or not, the U.S. is not going to adopt a parliamentary system any time soon, probably ever, for reasons that go beyond the scope of this post, but mostly because that’s not how the U.S. constitution was conceived.

Green in the USA

Sign from the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from Comedy Central.  On the National Mall in Washington DC, October 30, 2010.  Photo by Mark Noel ( will be a winner-take-all presidential election, and it will be Democrat Barack Obama against, well, whoever the horror show that is the Republican primary will spit out and perhaps a handful of third party challengers. But remember, even if one of the third party challengers were a progressive demigod, a vote for him/her would do nothing to further their cause, and in fact, as we saw in 2000, hurt it.

So for those who are disappointed in some of the decisions that President Obama has made, I think the specter of any of these “corporations are people” and “drill, baby, drill“ Republicans slipping into the White House should be enough of a reason to vote for Obama/Biden, even if it’s begrudgingly so.

However, the reason I’m writing this is to make the case that the Obama presidency is a good example of how the American winner-take-all system can be used to shift national policy in a greener, more progressive direction, if not equally as effectively as in a parliamentary system, but at least not far behind. I’m here to say that I’m actually quite amazed at how much and how quickly Barack Obama has been able to move this country toward better environmental stewardship, and that I’m excited to give him my second vote as a newly minted U.S. citizen to continue the process. (I became a U.S. citizen in 2005)

To understand how much President Obama and Democrats have been able to accomplish, it’s very important to first take Germany and its political system off the almost mythical pedestal it sometimes gets hoisted on by American progressives.

All that glitters is not green

Yes, it’s nice to vote Green with a good conscience and as a constructive expression of your democratic hopes, but just because you vote for the Green Party doesn’t mean they always can or will do what you want them to. Ever since they first entered the Bundestag in 1983 (with 5.6% of the vote), they were plagued by a split between the Realos (realists) and the Fundis (fundamentalists). The Realos were the more pragmatic bunch who wanted to serve as a constructive opposition and ultimately exercise power. The Fundis thought that real change couldn’t happen without a fundamental restructuring of society and politics; to them, sharing power and compromising with the Social Democrats would be tantamount to selling out and perpetuating a fundamentally corrupt political system.

Sound familiar?

"Green capitalism is a lie.
While the Fundis' idealism never completely withered, over time it became clear that the best and perhaps only way to enact change through the political process was to go the Realos' gradual and often painfully compromising route. In many ways, they had no choice; here they were, sitting in parliament all of a sudden instead of screaming from the sidelines, having to deal with all these much more mainstream politicians who still held large majorities in the Bundestag. So, you can either pound your fist on the table and demand that all nuclear plants will be shut down immediately and laughed out of the room, or you can start forming relationships and coalitions, talking to those who might be inclined to listen and learn from you if approached in the right way.

The biggest clash between the two factions came in 1990, when The West German Greens chose not to form an electoral alliance with their eastern counterparts, Alliance 90 (Bündnis 90), because of their opposition to unification. The party took a beating in the first unified election that December, with the West German Greens getting less than 5% and no representation in the Bundestag. It was a real crossroads and led to an ultimate showdown between Realos and Fundis that saw the Realos emerge victorious at their party conference in April 1991. From there, the Green Party kept growing and gaining in influence, culminating in the 1998 SPD/Green governing coalition featuring Defense Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin. Today, the Green Party is a mainstream staple of German politics, with Green mayors and even governors across the country that are considered far from radical. In fact, many people on the left are pretty fed up with the Greens and have resorted to voting for parties like The Left or The Pirate Party.

It's not easy being green

The point I’m trying to make here is that real change takes time and is messy, no matter what system you’re in and what party you’re voting for. In order to govern and move the center of power in the long term you have to accept occasional setbacks and compromise while keeping a strategic long view. The rigorous discussions about what ratio of idealist and pragmatic ingredients will lead to the best possible result is an ongoing, important, and constantly shifting one, no matter what country or democratic system you’re in. In Germany you can vote Green, but that doesn’t mean all your progressive dreams will come true. A Green Defense Minister may send troops to Afghanistan or the party may go into a statewide coalition with the conservative CDU  and Libertarian FDP.

What really matters is that overall public opinion and the political center gradually shifts to the point that even mainstream politicians adopt progressive policies. But you have to do a lot of footwork, laying one brick upon another, before you get to see your ultimate vision realized. Case in point: It took 20 years from when the Greens first entered parliament in 1983 on a anti-nuclear platform until the Schroeder government decided to phase out nuclear power in 2002. (Just for the conservative Merkel coalition to reverse the phase-out and then reinstate it in 2011).

Abolish nuclear weapons ... Nuclear power? No, thank you.

Basically, the reason you nowadays have conservative politicians as champions of renewable energy is because a bunch of Birkenstock-wearing, flower-waving hippies brought these issues into the political discourse 30 years ago, little by little changing the collective consciousness of the country, and after much infighting and many setbacks, they managed to make their issues mainstream to the point where Green politicians can now get outflanked on the left by their conservative colleagues.  

So that’s how it worked in Germany to bring issues of environmental, social and economic justice into the center of the political debate. The seeds were sown in the grassroots, they germinated through the vehicle of the Green Party, and then spread through the big-tent parties and society at large. Here in the U.S., the grassroots part is the same, all new ideas and movements start with the people making their voices heard. However, instead of germinating progressive ideas into the political process through a third party, the seedlings have to spread through the big-tent party most amenable to growing and shaping them into tangible, mainstream policies, and that party, we all know, is the Democratic party.

Green as all get out

As you can see from the German example, big change doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why I’m even more impressed by how much the Obama administration has been able to accomplish in such a short period of time, considering it is basically coming on the heels of a 30-year rightward drift that started when Ronald Reagan yanked Jimmy Carter’s solar panels off the White House roof in 1981.

Chevy Volt recharging at the Solar Living Center in Hopland, CA.Photo by Sven Eberlein
Chevy Volt at the recharging station
From addressing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants and refineries through the Clean Air Act to new federal standards on toxic pollutants and mercury emissions from coal power plants, from new CAFE standards increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for cars and light-duty trucks by 2025 to denying a permit for the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline, this administration has forged ahead on important pieces of the environmental puzzle that would have been unthinkable a few short years ago. (For those who don't think these are major milestones, I would refer you to my friend who's been working at the EPA for over 20 years to explain the difference in light years between working under a Bush and Obama administration).

On the renewable energy front, the Obama administration has been doing an admirable job in trying to catch up with countries like Germany who weren't handicapped by eight years of a know-nothing, do-nothing warmongering knucklehead. In 2010, the country’s first-ever offshore wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod that will produce enough clean electricity to power more than 200,000 homes, was approved. Just in the past 18 months, the Department of Interior has approved 20 major renewable energy projects, including 13 commercial-scale solar energy facilities that combined will create about 8,600 construction and operational jobs and produce nearly 5,000 megawatts of energy, enough to power approximately 1.5 million American homes.

Knowing how ingrained and powerful the fossil fuel industries in this country are, with their chief lobbyist sitting in the Vice President's chair until 2008, I concur with the statement that "the Obama administration is dragging the country, kicking and screaming if need be, into a renewable energy future."

Wind turbines create energy near Rio Vista, California. Photo by Elaine Lindelef.

Rolling up the Greensleeves

So there it is: I, the old Greenie, am absolutely blown away by how much Barack Obama has been able to accomplish in three short years, and I honestly think this is just the beginning. This is the Realo in me speaking, knowing that it's impossible to get everything you want, recognizing the limitations of the political system, and acknowledging the difficulty in moving the goal posts in a complex federal bureaucracy, with fierce resistance from big-moneyed interests, a broken political system, and an opposition party devoted to sabotaging any efforts that don't entail burning massive amounts of fossil fuels.  

People protesting the tar sands pipeline waiting to be arrested at the White House in Washington, DC, August 31, 2011.  Photo by Mark Noel ( Fundi in me, of course, is fully aware that there is much work to be done, and a lot of it comes from us, the people, the grassroots. Bill McKibben and friends' direct actions to bring the negative effects of the Keystone XL pipeline to the President's attention is a prime example of how to shift the debate and give political leaders the cover to do the right thing. But in order to even stand a chance for progressive or environmental voices to reach our leaders' ears we have to have leaders who are at least willing to listen because they share in the basic belief that all people, no matter their background or status, have a right to clean air and water, and deserve to live on a planet with healthy natural systems.

In Germany, I can vote for the Greens or other third parties to shift the debate and hold the big parties accountable. In the U.S., I vote for Democrats and work at the grassroots toward creating the right mood and condition that enables Democrats to be greater in number and greener in action.

Rally against Keystone Pipeline during Obama fundraiser in San Francisco

Update: cotterperson has some more in the comments:
A great big thing Obama has done for the environment gets little notice. As commander in chief, he has the military has testing and using renewables. That will lead to standardization, lower cost, and faster change. The Army has been using solar backpacks in Afghanistan to save lives and money transporting fuel trucks. Now, it's building a solar power plant in California, as are the Air Force and the Navy. The Navy has also just bought 450,000 gallons of biofuel. In Colorado, the Air Force has tested jet fuels and has some solar at work. It's been so under-reported, so I put all those links in there. Just going on memory, commercial airlines got permission to use biofuels here. This week a biofueled Navy destroyer was launched to test biofuels along the California coast.

Originally posted to I Vote for Democrats on Thu Jan 26, 2012 at 02:00 PM PST.

Also republished by J Town, SFKossacks, DK GreenRoots, and Dream Menders.

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