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Victim of success: Green Politics today

This essay was originally published in a book entitled What is radical politics today?, edited by Jonathan Pugh and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009


A few years back, I taught a class in environmental politics at a London college. I started the class by drawing a large circle on the blackboard. This, I told the students, represented industrial society. Within this circle I drew two smaller ones. One of them represented the political left, one the political right.

I then drew another circle, just outside the first one but meeting it at the edges. This, I said, was where green politics sat. It was not part of the conventional argument about how to divide up the spoils of industrial progress. Its purpose was to argue that the definition of progress itself was the problem to be solved: that industrial society, as currently constituted, was a threat not only to the individual freedom cherished by parts of the right and the social justice cherished by parts of the left, but also to the global ecosystem – what both sides referred to as the ‘natural world’, as if somehow humans were ‘unnatural’ and apart from it –which both were frantically destroying in the name of that progress. In this sense, I said, green politics was more radical than the teachings of either Marx or Hayek.

In explaining this, I was outlining one of the founding concepts of the green movement, as it had begun to take political form in the 1970s: that from an ‘ecocentric’ perspective – one which puts the wider world, rather than human interests, at its centre – the similarities between left and right are greater than their differences. This idea was, for example, outlined nearly a quarter of a century ago by Jonathon Porritt in his book Seeing Green, which introduced the then fairly novel concept of environmentalism to a wide audience:

Both [capitalism and communism] are dedicated to industrial growth, to the expansion of the means of production, to a materialist ethic as the best means of meeting peoples’ needs, and to unimpeded technological development. Both rely on increasing centralisation and large-scale bureaucratic control and co-ordination. From a viewpoint of narrow scientific rationalism, both insist that the planet is there to be conquered, that big is self-evidently beautiful, and that what cannot be measured is of no importance.

This argument is – or should be – at the core of green politics. It is a political and ethical philosophy which sees humanity as part of the web of life, not as a separate entity which can control and direct something called ‘nature’ with no consequences for itself. It stresses the ecological limits within which humans operate, and the need for an ecocentric – Earth-centred – rather than an anthropocentric – human-centred – standpoint. Finally, it stresses that human politics as currently constituted is fundamentally ill-equipped for this task – and that what is often regarded as political ‘radicalism’ is in fact a reordering of the same anthropocentric ‘development’ paradigm, in which the fruits of the destruction of global ecosystems are simply distributed to more humans than before.

Whatever happened to ecocentrism?

Today, forty years after green politics began to coalesce into a serious political force, its case has been spectacularly proven. The fallout from industrial progress is all around us, and it is tragic: a quarter of the world’s mammals are currently threatened with imminent extinction; an acre and a half of rainforest falls every second; humanity consumes 25% more of the ecosystem’s products than the Earth can replace – a figure which is predicted to rise to 80% by mid-century; 75% of the world’s fisheries are on the verge of collapse. And above it all looms runaway climate change, which threatens to render all human political projects irrelevant.

While socialism languishes sullenly in the shadows, communism remains in fatal shock after a century of brutal failure and capitalism undergoes its biggest structural crisis for at least half a century, it is easier than ever to argue that environmentalism is the most urgent and relevant political movement of the age. Yet in its current success may lie the seeds of its potential destruction.

In less than a decade, environmentalism in the West has moved from being a fringe concern to a fashion statement. Its influence can be seen everywhere: from burgeoning farmers markets to organic food on supermarket shelves; from daily newspaper headlines about climate change to ‘celebrities’ hymning their new Toyota Prius. Recently, the Independent on Sunday treated its readers to a list of ‘Britain’s top 100 environmentalists’. Highlights included media mogul James Murdoch, model Lily Cole, a former head of the CBI, Page 3 girl Keeley Hazell and the Queen. The greens, it seems, are being tamed. Capitalism, always so effective at absorbing and defanging dissenters, is transforming an existential challenge into yet another opportunity for shopping.

This is not to say that ‘radical’ has to mean marginal, nor that environmentalism should be the preserve of hatchet-faced puritans exhorting the proles not to go on holiday in the name of Gaia. But there have always been two kinds of environmentalism: the ‘deep green’ vision and its ‘shallow’ cousin. The former sees the global ecological crisis as a symptom of humanity’s isolation from the rest of the natural world, and of the gigantism and materialism of the industrial civilisation it has built to insulate itself from ‘nature’. The latter sees it as a managerial issue, which can be solved by a judicious use of technology and a sprinkling of celebrity endorsements.

It’s not hard to see which approach is dominant today, and neither is it surprising. Deep green politics presents a radical challenge to existing mores, which has the disturbing effect of undermining the philosophical basis of human civilisation (indeed, the very concept of civilisation: the word stems from the Latin civilis , meaning ‘townsman’ – it is an idea rooted firmly in the urban). Neither James Murdoch nor Keeley Hazell – nor, for that matter, Friends of the Earth – is ever likely to be enamoured with this approach

The green challenge

Shallow green politics – what we might call managerial environmentalism – is taking over the world. From a conventional standpoint, this is not such a bad thing. It is better to attempt to manage industrial society in a ‘sustainable’ manner than not to give a stuff about its wider impacts, and it is a good thing that millions of people in the rich world now give greater thought to the impact of their actions on the wider natural world than they ever did before (even if thought does not always translate into action). But it is not enough, and neither is it the point. An economic system – now almost universal – which makes paper profits by externalising its real-world costs onto a global ecosystem of limited size and capacity is headed for disaster. Every indicator suggests that that disaster is nearer than ever.

In this context, radical environmentalism – or deep ecology or whatever you prefer to call it – has a crucial role to play. Humanity’s creaking relationship with the rest of the natural world is too important to be left to pop stars and the smooth-tongued pushers of ‘ethical consumption’. Managerial environmentalism is too often a figleaf for business-as-usual, hence its current popularity with everyone from development NGOs to oil company executives. It promises salvation without effort, solutions without pain. It is unlikely to be able to fulfill its promises in the long run – but it can keep people quiet in the present.

The challenge today is to keep that original deep green vision alive in a shallow green world which seems determined to make it look idealistic, naive, misanthropic or simply old-fashioned. In doing so, proponents of that vision need to negotiate two major obstacles to their success.

Challenge 1. Green versus left

The first is the enthusiastic accommodation which green politics has been tempted to make with the political left. ‘Environmentalism’ is today widely considered a left-wing (or ‘progressive’) position. At least nine out of ten working environmentalists – those employed in green pressure groups, for example, or working for green political parties – are likely to self-identify as left-wing. They want to prevent ‘injustice’, whether to other humans or to other species. The motivation is noble, but the result can be that green politics ends up looking less like a radical challenge to industrial society and more like soft-focus socialism fitted with a catalytic converter.

From the point of view of realpolitik, this is a problem because it confines the greens to the overcrowded ghetto in which the radical left has been penned for decades without ever breaking out, and greatly limits its appeal to those (inevitably, most people) for whom that ghetto contains little or nothing of interest. But there is also a more important consideration.

The original aim of green politics was to rise above the left/right dichotomy – to speak up for the wider world, for its own sake, because no other ideology would. An accommodation with the conventional left undermines the entire point of green politics: ecocentrism. The left, though it likes to lay claim to the ‘green’ mantle, has no interest in ecocentrism. By definition it cannot have, for the point of the left is to struggle for ‘social justice’ for human beings. ‘The environment’ will always come a poor second to the achievement of this historical mission. In this context, greens who see themselves as part of ‘the left’ are effectively surrendering the fundamental point and purpose of deep green politics; they are accepting that human interests, as ever, will always come first.

The point is not that greens should instead make an accommodation with the political right. The point is that any such accommodation on either side of the traditional spectrum will limit, if not destroy, that ecocentric vision. There is a tension between the political left and political ecology which will occasionally require a green to choose sides.

The common response to this is to claim, as many environmentalists do, that ‘environmental justice and social justice go hand in hand’ – or even that ‘you cannot have environmental justice without social justice.’ Both such claims make explicit the left-wing nature of mainstream green politics today. Both claims are also patently false. While there is certainly often a connection between poverty and social exclusion on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other (toxic waste dumps, polluting factories and the like have long been shown to impact much more heavily on the poor than the rich; meanwhile, wealthy societies and individuals have a much better chance of adapting to climate change than poor ones) there is also an obvious tension at the very heart of any claim that ‘the environment’ is, at heart, an issue of human ‘social justice’.

For a start, ‘social justice’ is a contested term (everyone has a view on what is just and unjust, and those views differ widely). More importantly though, looked at from a deep ecological perspective it is impossible to get away from the fact that the interests of human beings – or at least, the interests of human industrial society – will often conflict with the interests of the wider natural world. If that were not the case, we would not now be bogged down in the greatest ecological crisis in millions of years.

The most obvious example of this potential clash is the elephant in the room at all environmental gatherings – human numbers. The Earth’s human population has grown from 2.5 billion in 1950 to almost seven billion today, and is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. The equivalent of the population of London is added to the Earth’s already-teeming human melting pot every year, with the obvious consequent impact on everything from water supplies to wilderness to carbon dioxide emissions. Yet population growth is an issue which no mainstream environmental organisation will touch with a sustainably-sourced bargepole.

Why? Because any efforts to reduce population growth may have a negative impact on social justice. China, for example, saved itself from possible environmental meltdown by enforcing a one-child policy on its citizens. Democracy, social justice and human rights took a backseat to wider concerns. This is not something which we in the West would want enforced upon us, nor would most of us want to impose it upon others. Yet if some form of action is needed to prevent human population numbers from reaching the point where the impact on both the natural environment and human misery becomes irreversible, that action is likely to clash with our cherished notions of human rights, social justice and individual freedom of choice. This is why environmental groups and political parties, which rely on wide public support, square the circle by simply refusing to talk about population growth at all.

A second example of the tension between people and planet comes not from population growth but economic growth. Mainstream environmentalists, politicians and business leaders regularly insist that there is no tension between economic growth and environmental health. We can have both, they say; hence the eager adoption of the currently fashionable notion of ‘sustainable development’, which might be better described as ‘having your cake and eating it.’ Tory leader David Cameron exemplifies this view, common now to both left and right, when he exhorts us to:

... put to bed the notion that the environment and economic growth are somehow necessarily at odds. It is a view that belongs to the last century. What we need now is green growth.

Unfortunately, there is precisely zero evidence that a growth-based economy, in which profit is predicated upon the ability to externalise costs onto the natural world, can ever be ‘sustainable’ in an ecological sense. We may wish to believe it is so, but there is no obvious path to it becoming so. In fact, all the evidence we have points in precisely the opposite direction. In the meantime, improving material living standards for many human beings often depends directly on destroying ecosystems.

When settlers pan for gold in the Amazon or hack into virgin rainforest to create farms they are doing so to improve life for their families – something we all do; the most basic human instinct. When hunters in the Congo shoot endangered gorillas for bushmeat or trawlermen in northern Europe overfish the seas, they are doing so to make a living; to improve their lot, to pay the rent. Often they have no choice. But the conflict is clear: human need or ecological integrity. Given the choice, every human will meet their own and their family’s needs before anything else. To prevent them from doing so is an affront to social justice and to basic human rights. To allow them to do so is often an affront to the global ecosystem. Sometimes the circle is hard, if not impossible, to square; and this is when deep ecology and shallow environmentalism often find themselves in direct conflict.

Challenge 2: Heart versus head

In 1798, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads. A bomb thrown into the heart of the literary establishment, Ballads, though slow-selling at first, was to begin a revolution in English poetry. It was to begin another revolution as well, for it was in the Ballads that William Wordsworth’s deep green vision was first on display. Perhaps it was seen most clearly so in the last three verses of a poem entitled The Tables Turned:

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things –
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

What does this ‘Romantic’ vision have to do with today’s environmentalism? Many greens would probably hurriedly insist that the answer is ‘nothing at all.’ For in The Tables Turned, as in his later writings, Wordsworth was laying down an explicit challenge to the Enlightenment legacy of which he, as a keen supporter of the French Revolution, was himself a product. He talked, unashamedly, of ‘Nature’ as a living entity. He saw ‘our meddling intellect’ as the problem rather than the solution. He blasted both human science and human art as being too distanced from the real world of mud, grass and sky to be able to see that world as it really was. Wordsworth lived during the age of industrialisation. The year of his death, 1850, was also the year in which Britain’s urban population exceeded its rural population for the first time. He could see what was coming, and his solution was a re-engagement of the human senses with the non-human world

Try explaining that to many of today’s environmentalists. Today’s environmental debate is technocratic, scientific, economic; entirely focused on ‘realistic’ ‘solutions.’ Politicians, businesspeople and professional sustainability junkies get on with the sombre business of greening modern life, and the undertone is clear: we are serious people now, and environmentalism is a serious business. Ecosystem collapse threatens our economic competitiveness. There is no time for ‘romance.’ We are not interested in ‘nature.’ We have a ten-point plan. We have ‘solutions.’

The technocratic takeover of modern environmentalism is almost complete, and those who do not buy into it are left with nowhere to turn but the fringes: well-meaning hippy eco-settlements or the self-defeating identity politics of ‘protest.’ Managerial environmentalism is a matter of the head and not the heart. As such, however, it has bypassed another of the main drivers of the original green movement – the need to reconnect emotionally with the real world outside the cities and the motorway junctions. The need to feel; the need to belong.

By way of example, consider the mainstream green narrative on the most obvious ecological story of our age: climate change. Managerial environmentalism sees climate change as a ‘problem’ to be ‘solved.’ The challenge is how to keep the level of carbon in the atmosphere below 350 parts per million, for example; or to prevent warming climbing above two degrees by reducing global emissions by 80% within fifteen years. We know what to do – we now need to do it. We have the technology. The urgency is apparent.

This narrative ignores many wider issues. How much, for example, do we actually ‘know’ about how the climate works? (very little judging by the rate of change, which has already moved way beyond most predictions.) What are we ‘saving’, and for whom? If we did, by some miracle, prevent climate change, would it simply empower us to continue destroying the eocosystem as before? As a society, does climate change not tell us something deeper about where we are going? Is it really just a matter of parts per million – or is it something which goes to the heart of the world we have built?

Deep green politics would want to explore these questions; managerial environmentalism to dismiss them and get on with ‘saving the planet’ – which really means saving human civilisation. What matters in the latter world view is that the myth of human ‘progress’ should remain unsullied. And if, in order to do this, we need to industrialise the world’s remaining wild lands – layer the mountains and oceans with giant wind farms, cover the deserts with solar ‘factories’, grow biofuels on the prairies, harvest every river – then this is a price worth paying in order to protect civilisation from the results of its own actions. The only impulse from a vernal wood which we can realistically afford to think about is one which provides zero-carbon electricity for our ever-growing economies.

Green politics has become, at once, the most successful and the most threatened contemporary political movement. Managerial environmentalism is late capitalism’s last-ditch effort to save itself from what it has done to what we still insist on calling our ‘resource base’. It is likely that it will fail. When it does, this may cause those greens who have made an accommodation with it, in order to save civilisation from itself, to question both their motives and their effectiveness.

Alternatively, of course, it may not. Deep green politics may be relegated to history: just another naive radical movement done down by reality. But I suspect that its time is yet to come. Because what happens next is – and how we hate to admit it – probably now entirely beyond human control.