As we enter a watershed moment, and talk of a Green New Deal begins to permeate mainstream public discourse, the Left must utilise its historical monopoly on Green Politics, and push forward proposals that ensure a ‘just transition’ to a new eco-centric economy.
Since its inception in 2018, the climate protest group known as Extinction Rebellion have not so much etched, but hammered their name into the history textbooks.
Emerging initially as a reactionary movement to the IPCC Report on climate breakdown in October 2018, civil disobedience groups carrying the Extinction Rebellion banner now number around 130 in the UK, and over 300 worldwide.
On Wednesday 1st May, protesters from Extinction Rebellion joined the UK Student Climate Network and political pressure group Momentum, in a mass rally outside the Houses of Parliament.
Inside, the House of Commons was making history, becoming the first national parliament in the world to declare a state of ‘climate emergency’.
The Watershed Moment
This official recognition of the climate crisis is long overdue, but it is just the latest in a tide of achievements by those clawing at the edges of the Overton Window, and crying out for a reexamination of our social priorities.
This week alone, we have seen a monumental shift in the mainstream of political rhetoric.
On Monday (29th April) evening, Green politics played a necessarily central role at the European Parliamentary Candidates’ debate in Maastricht, with Bas Eickhout (centre) of the European Green Party performing particularly well with the voting public.
At this debate, the Social Democratic candidate for Commission President, Frans Timmermans (second from the left), told the audience: ‘Go vote, go vote green. Green is not the sole property of the Green Party, green is what the unified left does, it is what we do, and we will do it together’. ‘I will be personally accountable to the European Parliament and the European Council for concrete results in the years to come’.
Also on Monday, Pedro Sanchez’s PSOE party won the most seats in the Spanish general election, elected on a commitment to scrap fossil fuel subsidies, disincentive the manufacture of diesel and petrol vehicles, and invest €200 billion into the transition toward green energy over the next decade. Sanchez cited the Green New Deal agenda of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the US as inspiration for these policies.
Meanwhile in London, members of the Extinction Rebellion group met with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
On Tuesday (30th April) , ex Labour leader Ed Miliband told The Guardian that ‘we are in a war against climate change’, and, along with Laura Sandys and the leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas, announced that he would co-chair a new cross-party commission on Environmental Justice from the Institute for Public Policy (IPPR).
On Wednesday (1st May), Westminster followed in the footsteps of the devolved parliaments of Wales and Scotland, to declare a climate and environment emergency, and on Thursday (2nd May) the Green Party outperformed expectations in the UK’s local council elections.
It has taken a monumental effort from the bottom-up, but finally, Green policy has arrived into the mainstream of political discourse.
Green Theory and a Left Politics
Despite these immense breakthroughs, a change in rhetoric is only the first step. If we are to achieve an equitable and ‘just transition’ to a new eco-centric economy, there is a much longer, broader fight ahead for ownership of a Green New Deal.
As the window of discourse shifts, there is no doubt that environmental policy will play a foundational role on the doorsteps of the next election. Traditionally, this should benefit the Left, which has historically presented the political outlet for the practice of Green Theory.
Stemming from the Romantic movement, a reaction against the First Industrial Revolution, traditional Green Theory challenges the post-Enlightenment rationale that humans are superior to nature, and denies humanity the right to the positivism of unencumbered scientific progress.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, Green Theory developed as a reaction against imperial colonialism, grounding itself in global ecological justice and stressing the ecological debt owed by post-industrial nations to developing ones. As the 20th century moved on, it began to focus more specifically on the notion of finite natural resources, challenging capitalism’s narrative of ‘infinite want’.
In this way, the politics of Green Theory is innately anti-capitalist, because it defines limits to the extraction and allocation of resources, as well as patterns of production and consumption. Whereas Green Theory understands the natural world as an end in itself, as being of spiritual and experiential worth, capitalism works only in commodification and the pursuit of exchange value. Thus, traditionally, Green Politics finds its home in the folds of Left anti-capitalism.
This critique of capitalism, and alignment with the Left, is still the dominant guiding force behind Green Politics today.
It was Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that called for the declaration of the climate emergency, and the progressive socialist movement in the US that gave impetus to the Green New Deal. In the EU debate photo above, the only Parliamentary candidate not raising his hand is that of the European Conservatives and Reformists.
Likewise, Extinction Rebellion finds its intellectual roots in Marxian literature; following in the traditions of Marcuse’s ‘Great Refusal’,and the Situationist idea of ‘Détournement‘, ER locates itself amongst the movements of 68, Occupy and Indignados.
On the group’s website, you will find the claim: ‘we follow in the tradition of nonviolent civil disobedience movements like the civil rights movements and the movement to end apartheid’.
Likewise, a key demand of Extinction Rebellion is for a ‘citizens assembly’ to debate action on the climate and ecological crisis. These participatory assemblies are the traditional ‘folk politics’ of the horizontalist left, which looks to rebalance the weight of policy expectation from the markets, and toward democratic governance.
At the school student protests back in March, the mantra ‘system change not climate change’, was writ large for all to see. The traditional Red-Green alliance remains as strong today as ever before.
The Spectre of Eco-Nationalism
On the other end of the spectrum, the innate antagonism between Green Theory and capitalist ideology has meant that traditionally, the Establishment has been loathe to take on the baton of climate politics. However, as it becomes an increasingly decisive electoral factor, the Left monopoly on Green politics will undoubtedly undergo a siege from the Right.
Despite having few historical roots in Green Theory, the political right has a well-established and versatile ideological architecture. It is one that plays on a politics of fear and anxiety, stirring up emotional antagonisms toward the lesser-known ‘other’, the inward minority or those beyond the local frontier. The locus of this identity is the nation-state, which acts as the stalwart, the ever-present defender of the local subjective.
There is a central dichotomy that characterises Green Politics, which makes it vulnerable to this ideological framework: It is people with time and energy that are best-placed to take part in environmental activism and civil disobedience; yet it is those wealthy members of the middle and upper class that have the most to lose from radical anti-capitalist action on climate change.
In contrast, it is those consistently tied to wage-labour, those least able to take part in activism, that have the most to lose from climate breakdown. In our world today, Green Politics is a luxury past-time.
A good example of this is the Extinction Rebellion group, which self-confesses a ‘regenerative culture’, in which it asks ‘people to look after themselves as part of being involved’.
This is not a fault of the movement, but of wider-society, which precludes political activism by virtue of its paralysing live-to-work mentality. Under this atomised ideological structure of individual responsibility, we are already seeing the Right infiltrating the crevices of Green Politics.
In the United States, President Donald Trump is firmly in the camp of the climate change deniers. But his desire to build a wall across the Mexican border is not irrelevant to Green Politics. If predictions on climate breakdown hold out, we can expect exponential levels of immigration in the years ahead.
The rhetoric of “threats to tradition” and “stealing our resources” form a new kind of Green Politics. One which manipulates environmental breakdown to justify increases in military spending or authoritarian data controls, all the while protecting monied interests in fossil-fuel consumption.
Climate breakdown can engender fear, anxiety and sense of hopelessness. If they are allowed to perpetrate the discourse, these are the preconditions of right-wing Green Politics.
The strength of traditional Left Greenism here becomes also its weakness – it relies on those disenfranchised by capitalism, those seeking radical yet simple solutions. As scary as it sounds to people on the Left, populist Green Politics is just as likely to build walls as it is windmills. This is the looming spectre of eco-nationalism.
Green Politics Beyond the Watershed
The Establishment taking on the mantle of environmental politics is not a negative, but a necessity. If immediate and serious action is going to be taken to deal with climate breakdown, it will need the support of the most powerful actors in society.
However, if we are to ensure a ‘just transition’, it is critical that any progressive Green New Deal is intrinsically democratic, and provides a positive narrative for a post-capitalist future.
If the history of the last 40 years teaches us anything, it is that neoliberalism is unable and unwilling to deal with the problems of climate breakdown. Consequently, the burden of environmental and social reform must be entrusted to our democratic institutions. The resulting policies must be transparent, and elected representatives accountable for their implementation.
Within this system, the Left must offer a broad-thinking, long-term and ambitious politics of positivity, hope and action. If all that a radical progressive Left can offer is a politics of sacrifice and supplication, it leaves itself vulnerable to the easy scapegoating of the new eco-nationalist Right.
The intellectual architecture behind a positive, progressive Green agenda is already offering tangible results. In 2008 the New Economics Foundation launched the original Green New Deal:
“The Green New Deal will rekindle this vital sense of purpose, restoring public trust and refocusing the use of capital on public priorities and sustainability. In this way it can also help deliver a wide range of social benefits that can greatly improve quality of life in the future” – The New Economics Foundation
This document provided a politics of promise, a platform on which the progressive Green movement could build. In February 2019 the Green New Deal was revitalised by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, who tabled her own Green New Deal Resolution to the 116th session of Congress.
With the coming of the Green Watershed, we have seen a range of new institutions take up the mantle of progressive Green Politics. In the UK the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) have recently launched a Commission on Environmental Justice, whilst Common Wealth is working on new models of ownership to deal with climate breakdown, and Autonomy is researching how reducing the working-week could help decarbonise our economy.
Extinction Rebellion have been instrumental in pushing Green Politics into the mainstream of parliamentary rhetoric, but it is movements such as these that will define the practical agenda of any Left Green New Deal. Their work is pivotal, if we are to avoid the spectre of eco-nationalism, we must have tangible plans for a positive Green Politics beyond the watershed.
Image courtesy of Freddie Stuart.