This is the fourth of a 6-part series. You can find Michael Dowd’s audio recording of his reading of the entire series here.
MANY YEARS AGO, I taught a class in environmental politics at a London college. I started the class by drawing a 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 was supposed to sit.
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 – and much older – 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 the similarities between left and right are greater than their differences.
This argument is at the core of green thinking. It is a philosophy which sees humanity as part of the mesh of life, not as a separate entity which can control and direct something called ‘nature’ with no consequences for itself. It stresses 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 more fairly than before.
Today, forty years after green politics began to coalesce into a serious political force, its case has been spectacularly proven. But environmentalism is today widely considered a left-wing (or progressive) position. The result can be that green politics ends up looking less like a radical challenge to industrial society and more like soft-focus socialism with a catalytic converter.
From a pragmatic point of view, 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. Its confinement makes the greens unappealing to those (which means most people) for whom that ghetto contains little or nothing of interest. But there is also a wider consideration.
One of the original aims of green politics was to go beyond the left/right dichotomy – to speak up for the wider world, for the non-human world, for its own sake, because no other ideology would. An accommodation with the left undermines the founding ethos of radical 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.
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. And there is a reason they are made. It’s been noted that a certain type of nature-loving politics is often found on the far right, and it is true also that the early, pre-green conservation movement often perpetrated injustices to humans whilst trying to protect nature. Understandably, and rightly, intelligent greens want to avoid association with this kind of thing.
There is often a connection between poverty and social exclusion on the one hand and environmental degradation on the other, for example 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 may have a better chance of adapting to climate change than poor ones. But 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.
Sometimes, circles have to be squared, and sides have to be taken. Sometimes the desires (sorry, the ‘needs’) of humans need to come second, not first. The greens exist to make that case. But the green left rarely, if ever, does.
More widely, the takeover of the greens by the reds has helped to torpedo some key green causes. How have we got into a position where an issue like climate change, which it is clearly in everyone’s interests to work towards preventing, or at least adapting to with minimum damage, has become so divisive? One reason is that environmentalism is perceived, often correctly, as a ‘left wing’ cause, and that climate change is seen by many as an excuse for lefty greens to impose their real, underlying political agenda. The paranoia present in that worldview nevertheless has a root in reality.
The greens are, today, broadly a faction of the left. My point is not that greens should instead make an accommodation with the right. The point is that any such accommodation on either side of the traditional spectrum limits our vision and ability to look beyond the needs and desires of humans alone. We could do with taking some advice from the American poet Robinson Jeffers: “We must uncentre our minds from ourselves / We must unhumanise our views a little …”