The Greening of America turns 40

The Greening of America, a No. 1 bestseller by Charles Reich, was published 40 years ago. A Q&A with the author
The Greening of America was partially inspired by author Charles Reich's experiences in San Francisco during the "Summer of Love" in 1967. To celebrate the start of summer, a crowd of hippies gathers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, on June 21, 1967 . The large painted ball represents the Earth. (Associated Press)

When it was published 40 years ago, The Greening of America received a reception that was phenomenal.

The New Yorker ran an excerpt of nearly 70 pages in their Sept. 26, 1970, issue. The magazine received more letters about it than they had for any other article.

The book was No.1 on bestsellers lists and sold in the millions. Media interest was over the top. Within a year a book was published about the book.

Yet The Greening of America is little known today.

Charles Reich, unlikely author of The Greening of America

The cover of the 1971 paperback edition of The Greening of America. Random House published the hard cover edition in 1970.

Author Charles Reich was then a little known but highly respected 42-year-old Yale law school professor. He had clerked with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and his articles had been cited by the court in some of its decisions.

He was, in other words, an unlikely author of a hugely popular book that proclaims on its cover, "There is a revolution coming … the revolution of the new generation."

The book combines history, sociology, political science and prophecy. The first two-thirds of the book features a critique of modern American society and its consumerism and conformity. In that, it was far from unique.

But Reich also wrote about three categories of consciousness. Consciousness I was the traditional self-reliant outlook of early America. It was replaced by the New Deal conformism of organizational society, Consciousness II.

Consciousness III and the '60s generation

It was Consciousness III, the counterculture of '60s youth, that attracted the most controversy.

Reviews were mixed but mostly negative. For some reviewers, when it came to Consciousness III, Reich was politically naive and excessively romantic. He celebrated the hippie lifestyle and the use of psychedelic drugs. Marijuana "is a truth serum that repels false consciousness," Reich wrote.

Charles Reich in his office at Yale law school in this undated photo. Reich graduated from the prestigious institution in 1952 and was on the faculty from 1960-1974. ((courtesy Yale law school))

Reich was praised for capturing the spirit of the counterculture and struck a chord with parents by making it understandable and non-threatening.

The book was written "with the rigour of an intellectual and the enthusiasm of a teenager," wrote law professor Rodger Citron in a 2007 biographical essay on Reich.

After the '60s

In 1970, the '60s rebellion was nearing its end and Reich's idea that people changing their lifestyle and being true to themselves would bring about a revolution faded with it.

Before that happened, Reich achieved icon status when the Doonesbury comic strip added the character Prof. Charlie Green, modelled on Reich.

Reich left Yale in 1974 and moved to San Francisco, where he still lives. He did return to teach at Yale law school, the world-renowned institution located in New Haven, Conn., from 1991-95. At 83, he will be back at Yale in February to teach a mini-course on the late U.S. Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas and legal realism.

We spoke to Reich by phone from his home in San Francisco.

Charles Reich: Q&A

How did you come to choose the title The Greening of America?

I was thinking of the blossoming of many different kinds of people, and many different kinds of cultural pursuits, many kinds of music and art and so forth. 

The Thinker, a portrait of Prof. Charles Reich, was painted by Daniel Mark Duffy in 2002 for the Yale law school. The original oil on canvas measures 116.8 X 152.4 cm. ((courtesy Yale law school))

I wasn't really thinking of the way it's now thought of: everything becoming uniformly green in the ecological sense. I intended it to be multi-coloured as the '60s always was to me, so it was an exuberant title for me.

The book was a huge success, No. 1 on bestsellers lists.  For people today, 40 years later, please explain why the book was so popular then.

It gave people a great leap of hope, made people feel good. This was a world that could get better, a whole lot better. I might say to those who stuck with it in some way or other they will still swear by the values of the '60s.

It is interesting you mention hope. Reading The Greening of America nowadays, the hopefulness for the future comes through clear.  But things did not or at least have not unfolded the way you hoped. What happened to Consciousness III?

It's lost its credibility, it's not taken as a piece of reality, it's taken as a sort of fantasy that is unreal. 

It could still be reality but at the moment it's viewed as something like a fantasy or a dream that people woke up from with a headache. So I can understand how they feel. I don't share their feeling, but I do readily understand it.

In 1970 you were a Yale law prof, friend of Supreme Court justices, you had met the previous president of the U.S., L.B.J., you were older than the generation you were writing about. That is not the description of someone who would write a book like The Greening of America.

I had, as you describe, a fairly conventional career. I fitted in reasonably well. I had a second self that took a look at this with despair and said this isn't going to work out, there's a disaster coming. It's that second self that comes to the fore during The Greening of America.

Reich's students: Bill and Hillary Clinton

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton were both students of Charles Reich's at Yale law school when he was writing The Greening of America

Reich: "They were both in my class and also I found mention of me in both of their biographies, so I know they remember as well."

"Hillary was a most exceptional student, the kind the professors rarely get and they cherish when they do. She was a very, very fine student. She is a very able person and I like her a lot. She's one I have followed with admiration."

"I have to say that I hardly ever saw Bill Clinton in class. I think he was quite an absentee student, to tell you the truth."

I first offered a class in Yale College [beginning in 1966] that was called "The individual in America." That was the original title. And it was one that undergraduates were allowed to sign up for. It became very popular. 

The question was what's happening to the individual in America? Is the individual going the way of the environment, being destroyed? In other words, were we becoming the creatures of the machine?

That was the way people thought in the '60s. Now maybe that's passé today but that's the kind of thing people thought about. Are we turning into machines? They wanted to rebel against that. 

Their rebellion cannot be called a success by any means, far from it. Those of us who tried are very grateful that we tried to the degree we did. Anybody who achieved any success against the machine feels good about it. 

Let's move ahead to 2008 in the United States: "The machine begins to self-destruct." But that was also a chapter title from The Greening of America. It sounds like you see some parallels.

U.S. President Bill Clinton, a student of Charles Reich, laughs and points as he notices that a portrait of himself being unveiled by Yale law school Dean Guido Calabresi depicts him holding one of his favourite books, The Culture of Disbelief, by Yale professor Stephen Carter. ((Mike Theiler/Reuters))

I can certainly see it. 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.

I think that chapter deserves the nice word 'prescience' for it's very accurate describing what's happening this minute. (Laughs)

Also in 2008, the U.S. elected Barack Obama as president, partially on the wave of a new youth activism. But almost two years later it seems like it did not go anywhere, did not become a movement like in the 1960s.

I feel the expectations were way, way too high from the beginning; that he did not bring with him a new ideology or a new set of beliefs. For example, he accepted the ideology of the Defence Department about Afghanistan. 

Charles Reich speaks during a panel at Yale University's alumni weekend in 2008. ((William K. Sacco/Yale University))

Over and again he seems a more conventional candidate rather than a great agent of change. He seems an establishment candidate to me. That is, he's a product of Harvard law school. 

The smartest guy in the world, Larry Summers [chief economic advisor to Pres. Obama], is going back to Harvard because he doesn't know what to say about the economy. But the fact of the matter is, the guy is stumped. The wise men in Washington are stumped. I am saying the machine is self-destructing and it is quite a spectacle. 

I detect some Harvard-Yale rivalry there.

Well why not? I've always enjoyed a little of it.

But what about the youth who were so active in supporting Obama?  Why didn't that become more of a force today?

Folk singer Joan Baez sings at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, serenading hippies and tourists during the Summer of Love in 1967. ((Associated Press))

What is lacking today is that people are not in any way experimenting with a different way to live, a different way to feel, a different way to be.

The things that troubled young people in the '60s and the things that trouble young people today seem quite different, in the sense that the troubles today are mostly material trouble — I can't get a job; I can't support a family; whereas the complaints in the 1960s were more spiritual — I don't feel like a real person, or something like that. However, they are related.

Whether you're complaining about spiritual emptiness or material emptiness, you're ultimately complaining about the same system that's creating both kinds of emptiness. That's the link between The Greening of America of 40 years ago and the way young people are feeling today. 

The material needs to take precedence over spiritual needs so a person whose stomach is empty doesn't worry about their guru.

The Greening of America is very straightforward about what's the matter. One is, we're using up material resources at an unacceptable rate. So it advocates a less materialistic way of life, which turns out to be fun for some people.

Win Butler of Arcade Fire performs on the final night of Lollapalooza in Chicago, Ill., Aug. 8. Charles Reich says he's looking forward to the Montreal band's new album, The Suburbs. ((John Smierciak/Associated Press) )

They would rather dance and sing than use material things.

What music or musicians are you listening to these days?

I just ordered Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and I just can't wait for it to come because I have followed them for quite some time and they are exciting.

I'm interested in the music that comes out of suburbia. Suburbia is where the '60s came from, if I can put it that way.