What's Left About Green?

Our stance on the climate debate is often assumed – with approval or derision, depending on who’s doing the assuming – to reflect a wider Conservative outlook. We wouldn’t want people <cough> to go around thinking that Climate Resistance is some sort of Conservative reply to Environmentalism. Because it isn’t.

Steve McIntyre made a similar point after that very amusing voting malarky at last year’s Weblog Awards. McIntyre usually avoids the politics, believing that the best contribution he can make to the debate is to audit the science. And very good at it he is too. We doubt that the problem is at root a scientific one. But we are certainly intrigued as to why the Left and Environmentalism are assumed go together like the Right and Denial.

Many critics of climate orthodoxy argue that Environmentalism is the continuation of various left-wing ideologies. The argument is that the Left – following the collapse of Communism – has had to find new ways and new reasons to regulate. This is true to an extent: Anti-Capitalism and Environmentalism appear to be interchangeable in the words of protesters and activists at G8 protests and the like. But just as often, the language of the protesters is the same the establishment’s. After all, it was Margaret Thatcher – no Commie, her – who put climate change on the mainstream political agenda in the UK. The current leader of the UK’s Conservative Party, David Cameron, goes to considerable lengths to appear greener than Brown, to the extent that he’d get into bed with Greenpeace. If Environmentalism were truly an antithesis to the Right, why would Greenpeace be so willing to give Cameron an edge? The mainstream political parties are hardly distinguishable from each other or from fringe parties when it comes to Green policies. The Labour Party has not gone as far as to replace its logo with a green tree, but Tony Blair was apparently quite keen to use his relationship with George Bush to get the US into line on the Kyoto Protocol. Equivalently, there are people on the Left and the Right who dismiss climate alarmism on their own terms, whilst disagreeing about the nature of capital, and the best way to proceed into the future. Left and Right simply do not define the global warming debate, but two perspectives that are struggling to positively define themselves.

Things are, of course, divided differently in the USA. It has been harder for Environmentalism to establish itself there. But it would be hard to argue that Environmentalism has not gone mainstream in a country where Al Gore wins Nobel Prizes and Oscars, and John “The climate debate is over” McCain gets the Republicans’ Presidential nomination. So, what has Environmentalism really to do with the Left?

Our view is that the rise and rise of Environmentalism is not the result of the reinvention of Red as Green, but because politics as a whole is in crisis. Increasingly, policy areas are becoming detached from the Left-Right process. Not that the Left-Right axis is necessarily worth returning to, as it is evident that it is exhausted. The problem for politicians is in defining something new. As we put it in our opening statement: “Environmental concerns are serving to provide direction for directionless politics”. The inability to define themselves in such a way as to achieve public engagement is something that both the Left and the Right struggle with in today’s world, and Environmentalism is an expression of that disorientation, not the cause of it. Challenging environmental orthodoxy is a way to address that disorientation.

Alex Gourevitch puts it all rather well in an essay in N+1 mag called The Politics of Fear:

Imagining ecological collapse as an overweening crisis demanding immediate action and collective sacrifice, with emergency decisions overriding citizens’ normal wants and wishes, is not really a politics at all, but the suspension of politics—there is no political choice, no constituencies to balance, nothing to deliberate. There is no free activity, just do or die. It seems we will have traded one state of emergency for another.

But Environmentalism is not the only expression of directionless politics. On both sides of the Atlantic, and on both sides of the political spectrum, the agenda is set by the Politics of Fear. That is to say that politics is legitimised by the terrifying scenarios that politicians promise to protect us from. We would agree with Gourevitch when he draws parallels between the climate change movement and the War on Terror as the Left and Right’s deployment of the politics of fear:

… in conditions when conventional political ideologies fail to inspire, there is a temptation to resort to the politics of fear as a way of restoring the power and authority of elites. The hope is that the quest for security, rather than anything higher, can become a unifying political principle in its own right.

Moreover, it’s very hard to draw a comparison between the philosophies of the traditional Left and Environmentalism. Unlike Environmentalism, the Left is not characterised by opposition to economic growth; its goal has been to distribute its riches more rationally amongst those who actually generate capital, rather than just those who simply own it. This new disregard – antipathy even – for production distances Environmentalism from the Left. It might sometimes be Anti-Capitalist, but it is more the kind of Anti-Capitalism that the Taliban offer, not the old Left. Furthermore, across the range of Green arguments are plenty of economic ideas which depend on the market creating the solution to environmental problems; ‘fair trade’, for example, or creating markets to encourage the growth of “new technologies” (the Greens’ very own techno fix) in renewable resources. Meanwhile, the working class – the very group that the Left aimed to rouse, so that it could realise its potential – are the object of Environmentalism’s demands that we “Reduce! Re-Use! Recycle!” – they are, according to the Green ‘left’ the unthinking consuming masses, whose pleasures are base, destructive and need to be controlled.

In summary, we are not Conservatives. But please don’t let that put anyone off.