"Putting the Politics of Hope Above the Politics of Fear"

by | Jan 24, 2011

If environmentalism does nothing else, it forces you to stop and wonder, do words still mean anything?

When the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas was elected to Parliament earlier this year, she made the following speech, with these words for her voters:

Thank you so much for putting the politics of hope above the politics of fear.

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So what does the politics of hope actually look like? According to Lucas, it looks like this

The Imperial War Museum in London may seem like a strange place to launch a report on climate change. But that’s where I am this morning, along with speakers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Research, the Women’s Institute and the museum itself.

Why? Two reasons. First, climate change is one of the greatest threats to our country since the last world war. It’s not only environmentalists who are saying this. Business leaders, prime ministers, major charities and generals have all recognised the level of risk.

Second, if we are to overcome this threat – and the alternative is simply too awful to contemplate – then we need to mobilise as a nation in a way we haven’t seen since 1945.

There could not be a more precise expression of the politics of fear than this.

A politics of fear demands that we sacrifice normal ways of life and our ambitions for the sake of survival. That is to say the politics of fear demands not only that we accept austerity, but that we accept fewer political and civil freedoms, and that we put up with a government whose legitimacy is solely premised on the claim that it — and only it — can see us through some crisis. On top of this, Lucas promises catharsis:

People put up with so much disruption and deprivation because they knew there was no alternative, and because they believed society would emerge stronger at the end of the war.

As far as I am aware, the people who believed that society would emerge ‘stronger at the end of the war’ were the ones who used gas chambers and ovens to purge society of what they saw as holding it back. But let’s not confuse environmentalism and Nazism; Lucas is simply thick in the head, not a fascist.

WWII appeals to Lucas for several reasons, each of them a mythology. First, it exists as a story of moral absolutes. Thus re-inventing it creates the possibility of a favourable comparison to the leaders that won the war against unspeakable evil. Second, it harks back to an era of deference to authority, and of a country united by a shared purpose. Third, it creates a baseline for statements about the possibility of annihilation, against which comparisons could be made.

This is nothing all that new or unique to the Greens attempts to mythologise the war. Informal discussions with those of a hysterical, Leftist mentality will often result in unfavourable comparisons to fascism, if for instance, you don’t hold with a particular (i.e. their) anti-capitalism. And more recently, many identifying with the Right have mirrored the tactic. Many discussions about the climate these days seem to inevitably draw somebody to claim that the Nazi’s were in fact a Left movement because, National Socialism has the word ‘socialism’ in it (d’uh), and because it’s a ‘collectivist’ ideology, whereas the Right is more concerned with the individual… This stop, Obama-care; next stop, death camps. Both forms of historical revisionism forget what is historically particular to fascism and nazism, and so reveal the poverty of perspectives in the present, never mind on the past.

Reinventing the complex geopolitics of the 1930-1940s to create a black and white moral universe is the expression of a completely exhausted argument. During the other most recent expression of a politics of fear, the War on Terror, countless attempts were made to make Saddam Hussain ‘Hitler’, thus casting the leaders of the Coalition of the Willing as the Churchill or Roosevelt of the 21st Century. (No one wanted to play Stalin in this re-enactment). Lucas plays the same game of make-believe.

Previously on this blog, we’ve called this phenomenon pastiche politics. You take a moment from history — WWII, the Moon landing, slavery… — and you find some superficial way of attaching it to the climate debate. Some go even further, dressing up as ‘climate Suffragettes’. The irony being, of course, that democracy is the problem for these protesters: everyone has the vote, but are not voting the right way. Democracy isn’t doing what the climate Suffragettes want it to do. It’s a peculiar, postmodern phenomenon, that environmentalists — in the broadest sense of the word — epitomise, even if it isn’t particular to them. Environmentalism, then, says something about society and politics more broadly.

In the report itself, Lucas explains its origins.

We have been here before. That’s why I commissioned this report from the leading writer and analyst Andrew Simms, to explore what lessons history may be able to give us. There appear to be many.  In the 1930s, some politicians of all parties ignored the threat of war brewing in Europe and failed to take the steps to deter aggression or prepare early enough to defend ourselves. At the time, the two main excuses put forward to justify inaction and appeasement were that there was not enough money to pay for proper defences, and that the British public would not support a government that took tough measures.

Simms is better known for his monthly countdown to Armageddon in the Guardian. In August 2008, the New Economics Foundation, which Simms is a policy director of, published a report and a campaign website, claiming that within 100 months, the world would cross those fabled ‘tipping points’ unless immediate action was taken to drastically reduce emissions. This kind of environmental reasoning is typical of the NEF’s claims. For instance it argues that economic growth is no longer a possibility without environmental degradation and catastrophe, and calls for a new model of economics, focussing on happiness instead. And so it becomes clear that the ‘foundation’ for ‘new economics’ is disaster. That is to say that the NEF embody the politics of fear absolutely. It’s dressed up in token, progressive gestures about regard for human ‘well-being’, but without the promise of doom, these latter day Noahs are with Ark, but without flood.

The emphasis that the NEF have placed on well-being has become increasingly influential amongst the political establishment. David Cameron, for instance, has absorbed the NEF’s nonsense, and is set to create a ‘happiness index‘ to rival the UK’s economic performance measure, GDP.

To make the point then, that this is not new, not unique to environmentalists, and symptomatic of some broader phenomenon, it’s worth pointing out that the New Labour government attempted to create a ‘quality of life barometer‘ in 1998.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has revealed a set of 13 indicators which will be published each year. The index will comprise facts and figures, ranging from housing to wild bird populations, which can be used to judge the government’s progress.[…] He said: “This is the first time any country has tried to put these indices – the social and the environment – alongside the economic and I’m quite proud to be doing it.” […] He said: “We are used to judging the economy’s performance on the basis of the GDP, inflation and employment figures. I want these headline indicators over time to become just as useful and familiar, reported regularly on TV, radio and in the newspapers.” The areas covered will include not just social investment, but also water quality and numbers of wild birds, to show the severity of hedgerow destruction.

The seemingly radical impulse to de-emphasise economic growth in matters of public life, therefore, do not emerge from radical movements, but as we can see, emerge from the establishment themselves. Yet more curiously, the promise to deliver ‘well-being’, happiness, and ‘quality of life’ comes with the threat of ecological crisis. The politics of fear will make you happy. What on earth is going on? Lucas gives the game away in the conclusion to her introduction:

Our aim is to help forge the national consensus that will support this or future governments in sustained, radical action. This is an ambitious project: but only if we show ambition can we hope to resolve the threats to our country that the changes in our climate are bringing.

Only a crisis can create the basis of a ‘national consensus’. Environmental politics, then, is not about protecting the environment, but about protecting a political establishment that has lost contact with the public. Whether or not ‘climate change is happening’, today’s politicians need it. What else could they use to ‘mend’ ‘broken Britain‘? The irony, of course, is that neither the climate, nor Britain is broken, but its political leaders are. They project their crises onto the atmosphere.


  1. Mooloo

    Their lack of any concept of historical contingency always appalls me. Try changing the date of her period of reference:

    In the 1950s and 1960s, some politicians of all parties ignored the threat of war brewing in Europe and failed to take the steps to deter aggression or prepare early enough to defend ourselves.

    I doubt Ms Lucas believes the West should have tooled up with more weapons in the 1950s and 1960s.

    (In fact very few politicians “ignored” the threat of war in the 1930’s. There were lots of different solutions posed, including appeasement, but pretty much everyone saw that war was likely. But let’s not let facts get in the way of a nice idea.)

  2. George Carty

    I think the main problem in the 1930s is that there were TWO evil dictators to worry about — one called Adolf Hitler and the other called Josef Stalin. The $64 million question was “How can we make one lose without the other winning?”

  3. geoffchambers

    Mooloo, George Carty
    I don’t think Caroline Lucas is really interested in 20th century geopolitics. She and her guru Andrew Simms just want us to learn first hand what can be learnt from survivors, i.e. the art of surviving. It’s all about suffering:- she has nothing to offer us but blood, sweat, tears and a tiny carbon footprint. Survivors of the Irish potato famine or the Black Death would do just as well, if there were any around.
    Her and Simms’ great idea fails on grounds of arithmetic and common mortality. Anyone with adult memories of 1940 is now over ninety. Simms’ menstrual outpourings in the Guardian continually tell us that we’re nearly too late. This time he’s right.
    Their appeal to the folk memory of survivors is presumably a recollection of something they felt during their own adolescence – sometime between marching against nuclear weapons and watching Dad’s Army. If they are really interested in the social history of the period they’d do better to buy an illustrated book and a matching tea towel at Past Times.

    Ben, you omit from your list of reasons for Lucas’s love affair with WW2 the appeal to the egalitarian spirit of wartime. It’s a source of embarrassment to us lefties that people seem better at sharing suffering than sharing wealth. It’s one of the mysteries of modern politics that the fall of communism, instead of liberating democratic socialism from the embarrassing association with Stalinism, seems to have paralysed it, leading to a Blairite counter-reform practically everywhere. Lucas claims that hers is the only socialist party, yet she has to appeal to the Ghosts of Suffering Past to make her case.

    I like the idea of the number of wild birds being a factor in our “quality of life” index. The Guardian is complaining this week that the birds are getting earlier because of global warming. Obviously the number of worms will have to be included in the index to feed the early birds.

  4. Mooloo

    Geoff: I see your point, but one quibble.

    Anyone with adult memories of WWII is likely to think Lucas is full of it. They will remember the political strife before it and know that today is very different. They will also HATE rationing with a passion.

    It’s folks like my parents – 75 and 70 – who didn’t actually fight who are likely to be a bit more rosy about the war. As it happens my folks aren’t fond of the era: my Dad remembers seeing Coventry bombed in the distance and my Mum recalls how she barely got to see her father. (I should note they live in NZ now.)

    But I know others of that generation who think it was Britain’s greatest era. To them Churchill was fabulous – they weren’t of the generation who voted him out after the war!

    So WWII is just far enough back to have lost those who actually suffered, but not so far back that no-one cares.

  5. Philip

    We all know there have been a series of proposals similar to Lucas’s calling for suspensions of democracy or putting us all on a war footing – I do think they are just a little bit scary. I assume that the key difference between now and Germany in the 30s is that there is very little public support for these suggestions and little chance of that changing in the near future. However, this also seems to be the case for wind-farms and yet the government is still pursuing that as a solution to our climate problems. What is it about the situation that enables the government to pursue one unpopular and damaging climate-related policy whilst steering well clear of the other?

  6. Stephen

    Are we meant to believe for even the briefest fleeting moment that Ms. Lucas and her supporters would have been clamouring for us to arm to the teeth in the 1930s in preparation for war? I rather think she would have been on Stop the War marches and calling for appeasement. She is a sickening hypocrite. She would have had us roll over in the face of a real existential threat (Nazi Germany) and would subject us to privations in the name of a non-existent threat (catastrophic man-made climate change). Do she really think that the public is so stupid that they can’t see this?

  7. Alex Cull

    To me it’s another instance of policymakers (or would-be policymakers, in this case) selling us the “sizzle” (as per Futerra’s “Rules of the Game”) in order to effect behavioural change. What they are doing is attempting to “reframe” measures that are potentially very unpopular (and thus dangerous for the implementers) as necessary steps which have positive aspects and outcomes. Negative aspects are not much dwelt upon, the message being that 1) these measures are inevitable, 2) there may be some initial inconvenience but 3) look at these positive outcomes that outweigh the negative!

    The following is an interesting read, if you haven’t seen it already, and I think has some relevance to the above post. It’s David Fleming’s paper The Lean Economy: A Vision of Civility for a World in Trouble.

    I found it via the Lean Economy Connection website.

    Which in turn I found via this site.

    “The cross-party committee suggests the nation’s adult population would each be granted an equal free quota of energy units, which would be traded in every time gas and electricity was purchased and even when filling the car with petrol.

    Under the Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) scheme, the amount every adult received would be equal but not necessarily enough to meet their needs – forcing people to directly think about their energy use.

    Remaining units would be free to be bought and sold, while businesses and Government would have to buy their units in a regular auction which would generate money to help fund the transition to a low-carbon economy.

    The total number of credits on the market will gradually decline over a 20 year period to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuel energy.”

    Caroline Lucas: “TEQs have long been Green Party policy, as we believe that we need a fair and transparent system to reduce energy demand and give each person a direct connection to the carbon emissions associated with their lifestyle.

    The TEQs scheme would guarantee that the UK’s targeted carbon reductions are actually achieved, while ensuring fair shares of available energy.

    I am very curious as to how they might sell this particular “sizzle”. Perhaps as a way for poor people to afford a little more food or medicine by not heating their houses, using their cars or travelling anywhere and selling their energy units to the better off? Anyone?

  8. Alex Cull

    My last link doesn’t seem to have made it – it was this news item.

  9. Philip

    Hi Alex –

    Thanks for the Fleming link, very interesting. I wonder if there is any justification at all in drawing a parallel between modern society and the state of earlier civilisations just prior to their collapse? I was certainly a little surprised by an implication that Roman decline was (in part at least) caused by economic specialisation. I also would have thought that aspiring to a “closed system” was exactly what we should be trying hard to avoid.

    I quite like the idea that fear leads people to have an idealistic response. Others see the response as a new reason for fear, because it implies the need for authoritarian measures, and in turn their own idealistic response leads them to the Nazi comparisons or climate denial or whatever. Somewhere in-between there exist realistic fact-based positions, in which individual situations (or individuals) are dealt with on their merits. It just seems rather difficult to notice it, especially when so many are so busy shouting at the top of their voices.

    I wonder also whether the polarisation is a reason why many scientists take such an unreasonable position on climate change? They only notice the extremes and support the one that seems least antagonistic to their idea of science.

    Regarding the TEQ scheme, I don’t see how they can possibly sell it politely, unless events prove that we really are now on a war footing (or they can successfully convince people that the necessary events are already occurring!). Failing that, Pielke Jr’s “iron law” would apply (I hope).

  10. George Carty


    I’d say the reason why democratic socialism declined after the end of the Cold War is that previously, democratic socialists were the “good cop” and totalitarian communists were the “bad cop”. After the USSR fell the democratic socialists lost that leverage against the right-wing.

  11. Ben Pile

    “After the USSR fell the democratic socialists lost that leverage against the right-wing.”

    Surely democratic socialism was, by the late 1980s, already completely exhausted.

  12. geoffchambers

    George Carthy:
    “the reason why democratic socialism declined after the end of the Cold War is that previously, democratic socialists were the ‘good cop’ and totalitarian communists were the ‘bad cop’.”
    So now we have no cops, much to the delight of criminals, and the more naive type of anarchist.
    In what way was democratic socialism “exhausted” by the late 80s? It was shafted by a patriotic war in the Falklands and the defection of the SDLP from the Labour Party, but every opinion poll continues to show a majority in favour of just about everything which democratic socialism is for, and against what conservatism is about. People just don’t like what they’re being offered by the party which used to call itself socialist.
    I’d be interested to know when you consider politics became “vacuous”, since it would help to understand why it was environmentalism which filled the gap, rather than anything else.

  13. Ben Pile

    Geoff. I think a better delineation can be offered by observing the old vs new left, the latter emerging in the post-58, giving us three distinct phases: old, new, and the era described by Fukuyama as the ‘end of history’ (or the post-ideological, or post-political era). In this era, ‘the left’ abandons politics. Of course parts of the old remain alongside the new, parts of which remain near the post-political. As you point out, the Labour Party is no longer socialist, but attempts a kind of social-democratic-cum-communitarianism-cum-free-market chimera. You could look at it as politically central, economically right, culturally left. There’s no progressive or transformational agenda worth speaking of; just programmes of intervention where the excesses of the market are most visible.

    DS was exhausted in every sense by the late 1980s. Institutionally, politically, morally. There may well have been, and still may be a desire for some of the values of DS. But nice ideas don’t get established by themselves. If those ‘ethics’, so to speak, aren’t somehow embodied institutionally, and broadly, too, in what sense can we say socialism of any kind ‘exists’?


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