Environmentalism or death: that's the choice?

by | Sep 10, 2008 | Articles

The UK Green Party – formerly the Ecology Party (1975-1985), formerly PEOPLE (1973-1975) – once rejected the conventional party structure of ‘leader and followers’ in favour of a model of ‘participatory politics’, comprising six ‘principal speakers’.

But discipline soon became an embarrassing issue. David Icke, former footballer and TV presenter, famously failed to represent the party when he was one of its spokesmen, preferring instead to talk about himself as the Son of God. In 1992, the party compromised its idealism to settle on two principal speakers; one male, one female. In a referendum held last November, the party decided that not having a leader was impeding the job of saving the planet. Last week, on 5 September, Caroline Lucas, the party’s member of the European parliament for the south-east region of England, beat her election rival, Ashley Gunstock, by a wide margin, and became the first leader of the Green Party.

These compromises on its constitutional ideals reflect the Green Party’s inability to identify a coherent political perspective. The party has latterly been understood to be on the left, but as erstwhile male principal speaker Derek Wall’s surprisingly honest biography of the party reveals, its anti-growth agenda was established by former Conservatives during the post-industrial economic gloom of the 1970s. According to Wall, ‘the theme of survival marked the bleak evolution of Green politics’ (1). This same sense of urgency and necessity has since attracted various disorientated anarchists and socialists to join former conservatives and members of society’s upper-crust, such as Edward (brother of James, and uncle of Zac) Goldsmith, and Jonathon Porritt.

Unlike radical parties of the past, the Green Party did not emerge from a grassroots movement with particular interests and philosophy. It has instead represented those alienated from mainstream politics as the left collapsed, and as the Right lost contact with the values of its past. Thirty-five years on, the success of the party has been limited to capturing disillusionment with the politics of post-industrial Britain, rather than convincing the masses of their imminent demise.

Unable to form a synthesis from differences within the party and to develop a coherent and cohesive political vision, the Greens have been unable to move beyond being the party of catastrophe. As Wall explains: ‘The founders of PEOPLE believed that the collapse of society was imminent unless swift action was taken.’ In spite of Britain emerging from the 1970s doldrums, there has been little change in the party’s outlook and its arguments remain preoccupied with Armageddon.

Consider, for instance, Lucas’s position on European policy to restrict aircraft emissions, to which there is only one dimension: impending doom. ‘When you hear scientists say that we have about eight years left in order to really tackle climate change, I don’t think what the public actually want is cautiousness, what they want is real leadership, and that is what the EU is promising to give, and yet that’s what we’re failing to do here’, said Lucas. (2)

But is being tough on climate change and the causes of climate change enough to make Lucas a leader? How will she reconcile the differences within a party only unified by its sense of doom, and take its message to the public? After all, being committed to taking a stand against economic growth, Lucas is unable to make convincing promises to transform people’s circumstances for the better. Instead, she can only offer to stop our circumstances from getting worse.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Word of Mouth about the language of environmentalism, Lucas recently said: ‘I think we need to get much better at painting a really positive picture of what a zero-carbon future could look like. Because climate change isn’t essentially an environmental problem, it’s a problem of security. We need to be using language, I think, around security in order to mobilise the kind of resources and the kind of urgency that we would get if we were talking about some kind of foreign invasion into Britain.’ (3)

It is telling that the only way Lucas can construct ‘really positive’ language is by fantasising about an invasion – an allusion to the apocryphal ‘war footing’ of the Second World War, where the public was united by a common spirit and purpose. But Lucas’s desire for such powerful moral authority is beyond her means. Lacking an invading enemy, she has to invent one. As Alex Gourevitch argued last year in n+1 magazine, the environmental movement’s reframing of impending doom in terms of security is not so much an alternative, nor even challenge to the ‘politics of fear’, as it is a reinvention of it:

‘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.’ (4)

Although the Greens have failed to establish a political philosophy, they have managed to turn their anxieties about the future of the climate into a system of ethical imperatives. At the UK Observer’s 2007 Ethical Awards ceremony, Lucas was given the title ‘Ethical Politician of the Year’ on the basis that she ‘spent the last 20 years campaigning on ethical issues, from GM, climate change and localised food production to mobile-phone safety’ (5). All you need to do to be ‘ethical’ in today’s world is to stand against things. The consequence of this is that it precludes discussion on how GM might be used to benefit – rather than merely protect – humanity, and climate change adapted, rather than submitted, to; such nuances are anathema to environmental ethics, and, of course, raise questions that relate to politics. Thus the Green Party is a party with ‘ethics’, but without politics.

This ethical system, albeit divorced from human values, arms Lucas and her party with a moral purpose – ‘saving the planet’ – which the major parties have difficulty emulating with such sincerity and conviction. So with its new leader, what kind of alternative is the new Green Party to the old mainstream parties?

Asked whether the Labour Party was suffering a leadership crisis on BBC TV’s Question Time in June, Lucas replied: ‘It’s not just a leadership crisis; it’s a crisis of direction of the whole Labour project, quite frankly. It doesn’t know where it’s going any more. It’s lost its way. It doesn’t have any values. [Gordon Brown] is a man who has said, for example, that climate change is the greatest threat that we face, and yet this is a man who is giving a green light to a massive expansion of Heathrow Airport.’ (6)

Lucas rightly points to the major parties losing contact with both their values and the public. But this is no stunning new insight. The defining feature of the major parties since the 1980s has been their indistinctiveness. They have reinvented their images, and searched for charismatic leaders and novel policy initiatives in the hope that they will help them overcome their political exhaustion. The Green Party is no different. In the debate about the party’s leadership, Wall, a Zen-eco-socialist, had argued that ‘top-down traditional politics turns voters off’. Lucas, the pragmatist, disagreed, arguing that: ‘Most people don’t relate to abstract concepts; rather they relate to the people who espouse and embody them.’ (7) She said that picking a leader was ‘not about weakening our principles; it’s about strengthening our effectiveness’. (8)

If Wall’s idealism could be described as naive, Lucas’s self-aggrandisement and cynicism of the public’s ability to engage with political ideas demonstrate contempt. But can you not imagine Gordon, Dave, and… er… the other one, saying much the same thing as Lucas? And might this cynicism of the electorate go some way to explaining the electorates’ growing cynicism towards politicians?

As the major parties have struggled to identify themselves and connect with the public, so they have dramatised and escalated the crises that the world faces in order to avoid facing up to their own. In April last year, the Labour Party committed Britain to a reduction in CO2 emissions of 60 per cent by 2050. Shortly after, the Tories upped the stakes to 80 per cent. Not to be outdone, the Liberal Democrats promised a carbon-neutral Britain by the same time. This is politics by numbers. And there is no challenge to this process in British politics, with each party only positioning itself to appear to be taking any given issue more seriously than the rest. Lucas, in spite of her prominence in the anti-war movement, does not challenge the dominance of ‘the politics of fear’, as much as she wraps herself in it entirely.

The Green Party’s environmental ethics are values that are estranged from human experience, and are premised, not on an understanding of how humans relate through social and economic structures, but through a fragile ‘biosphere’, to which human interests must take second place.

Doom is a stand in for the Green Party’s political vision, and environmental ethics are a stand in for its political philosophy. Rather than constructing a fresh new challenge to the failures of old political parties, the Greens have done little more than to make a virtue of them. And by abandoning politics altogether, in favour of a bogus system of ethics, they reflect today’s widespread disengagement from politics, and the mutual cynicism of politicians, the media, and the public. It is in this atmosphere that Lucas has been able to achieve such a high profile by pretending to be radical. Her rise to prominence in the European Parliament was granted, not by the will of a mass movement standing behind her, but by the votes of just 2.9 per cent of the electorate of her constituency in the south-east – 63.2 per cent of whom were not interested enough to register their vote. It seems that the proposition ‘Environmentalism or Death’ is not quite as rousing as Lucas and the Greens believe

(1) A short history of the Green Party of England and Wales, Another Green World, 9 October 2006

(2) Today, BBC Radio 4, 13 November 2007

(3) Word of Mouth, BBC Radio 4, 26 August 2008

(4) Whatever Happened to the War on Terror?, Alex Gourevitch, n + 1, 30 October 2007

(5) The Observer Ethical Awards in association with Ecover – winners revealed, Observer, 15 June 2008

(6) Question Time, BBC1, 28 May 2007

(7) Leading Edge, Guardian, 12 September 2007

(8) Green party decides it should have a leader, Guardian 30 November 2007


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