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“At the heart of everything is what must be called a change of consciousness…. This is what the new generation has been searching for, & what it has started to achieve. Industrialism produced a new man (sic)—one adapted to the demands of the machine. In contrast, today's emerging consciousness 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.” Excerpt from Charles A. Reich, ‘The Greening of America,’ The New Yorker, September 26, 1970

Charles Reich

It will change everything, we thought. Energetic and idealistic we were, just-graduated sociologists, working on graduate degrees. Reich’s words—eloquently phrased and presented—were our professorial anthem. His book—with distinctive green and white cover—graced our bookshelves. “This is the revolution of a new generation,” words on the front cover promised. “It will change the political structure as its final act.”

Charles Reich died last Saturday. He was 91.

Reich’s vision didn’t become reality, at least not entirely. The response from allies like me, although full of intent, was tempered—bounded and constrained by matters Reich identified with precision. We professed, but society needed more. We were complicit, and society needed something different.

The baton has passed. Reich’s ‘new generation’ is the young people of today. And it doesn’t matter whether some (or even many) of those young progressives acknowledge Charles Reich and know his work. What matters is that they know about today, which is pretty much the same situation that Reich addressed nearly a half-century ago.

Reich pinpointed ‘culprits’—hypocrisy, corruption, distorted priorities, abuse of power, the eclipse of community, poverty, loss of self, and more.

How so? Reich pinpointed ‘culprits’—hypocrisy, corruption, distorted priorities, abuse of power, the eclipse of community, poverty, loss of self, and more. He wrote that “the corporate state in which we live is an immensely powerful machine…indifferent to human values.” He cited immoral expenditures on defense, environmental destruction, and the like, concluding that “the system is deranged.”

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We are trapped, “encased,” is the way Reich phrased it. He called for ‘The Greening of America’ to be our response. Like “flowers pushing through concrete,” he wrote, we’ll show the world that it is not “irretrievably encased in metal and plastic and sterile stone”—construction materials of modern life. But organizing won’t be enough, he warned. “The American crisis seems clearly to be related to an inability to act.”

So here we are, almost fifty years later, having the same thoughts, embracing the same aspirations, and talking about the same things—albeit with some new word choices, like Climate Change. The context, though, is generally static.

Nearly a decade ago—on the 40th anniversary of the publication of “Greening”—Reich was interviewed by Daniel Schwartz of CBC News. Toward the end of the interview, Reich told Schwartz:

I see self-destruction now on a grand scale. That is, the unwillingness to pay for the things society needs. That's the most basic kind of self-destruction. That we're not prepared to pay for schools, we're not prepared to pay for highways. That is self-destruction. What are we doing to ourselves? It is nuts.”

And so it was, and so it is. That’s why Reich’s words resonate still. He beckons us: ‘The Greening of America’ awaits.

I dedicate this contribution to Professor Stuart H. Gage, distinguished professor emeritus, Michigan State University, who passed away last week. Like Charles Reich, Stu “got it,” and he shared that understanding with generations of students and faculty, including me—influencing us every step of the way. Among many things, Stu showed me how to be an academic. His influence immense, his contributions many, and his spirit pervasive, Dr. Gage earned—and carried with distinction—that revered title, 'professor.'

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Frank Fear