Environmentalism and Socialism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 1

A friend asked me recently about the connections between environmentalism and politics – is it naturally left-wing? Is it naturally at home with a certain ideology? Or is it neutral, a separate issue that all sides can or should adopt? I thought this was quite an interesting question, so I immediately shouted ‘to the blogmobile’ inside my head silently.

Now obviously there are attempts to ‘claim’ environmentalism from all sides – rather neatly illustrating this, the ‘Labour for Climate Action‘ blog, which in general seems to be a fairly worthy endeavour, says on its ‘about’ page that “We believe in justice, fairness and equality…Climate change places the greatest costs on those who have the least historic responsibility for the emission that cause it.That’s not just. The actions of the few harm the opportunities for development for the many. That’s not fair.

Having so nicely presented an attempt to link socialism (or whatever it is the labour party are talking about nowadays) with environmentalism, one of their posts then says that “Right-wing philosophers such as Roger Scruton  have argued that restoring harmony between society and its environment requires respect for a supposed ’social ecology’ with its own order of nature, harking back to 19th century societal hierarchies.” So there is, so to speak, everything to play for.

The most obvious issue is that one can endorse environmentalist goals without holding environmentalist values. Even if you hate the forests passionately, if you find out that without them your farmland will become desert, you’re liable to seek their protection. This sort of ‘instrumental environmentalism’ is probably more connected with intelligence and integrity than with ideology.

Or at least it would be if ‘humanity’ were a simple mass, but of course its not, and environmental issues are typically those where the actions of one group have a bit effect on the lives of ‘bystanders’. We might roughly classify these as 1) effects on others of a similar social situation, e.g. one multinational’s pollution imposes costs on other multinationals, 2) effects on others of a different social situation, e.g. one multinational’s pollution imposes costs on the indigenous people of Papua New Guinea, and 3) effects on future people by the actions of the present generation.

Now these three all have influences on what sort of politics finds environmentalism easiest. The first will align environmentalism with all advocates of economic planning, including socialists with their democratic planning, pseudo-socialists with their state planning, and also more stability-and-order minded conservatives – while putting it in conflict with more free-market flavours of capitalism.

The second will align it specifically with social justice and equality style affairs, and in particular with advocates of ‘global justice’ and supporters of pre-literate societies and developing countries – which is on the whole a fairly respectable collection, although it would include the various tyrannical rulers of developing countries, if their desire to avoid devastation outweighs their desire to rapidly industrialise.

The third will align it with anyone who’s keen to encourage (or compel) people in general to consume less, which to my mind tends to be a less respectable collection, having an affinity for asceticism, religion, and what I read somewhere described as ‘middle/upper-class hair-shirtery’. I’m certainly no fan of hair-shirtery – on the contrary, I advocate a luxuriant warm-forkery wherever possible.

So if we keep environmentalism at this purely instrumental level, we find it ambiguous – most aligned, I think, with socialism, because of its connection with equality and with planning, but containing elements amenable to other visions as well. So while I think the case made by those such as ‘Labour for Climate Action’ is strong, I would add that this sort of environmentalism isn’t essentially aligned with any sort of politics – becase, being purely instrumental, purely pragmatic, it has no essence.

But what then about ‘environmentalist values’? Hear again there are different possibilities, and their diversity has I think been obscured both by the relative novelty of modern environmentalism and by its resemblance to the instrumental position already discussed. But I think we might discern three sorts of ‘environmentalist values’, the first two environmental in their objects, the third in its ‘mentality’.

So firstly, it might simply mean that sentient animals are seen as having the same sort of value as sentient human animals: those forms of life that can think, perceive, feel, and so forth deserve to have their lives protected, to not be caused pain or distress, etc. This position, animal rights, which I of course hold, is ‘environmentalist’ in that it concerns itself with natural environments not for their own sake, and not for the sake merely of their human inhabitants, but for the sake of all their sentient inhabitants, human or not.

Now in practice this will amount to something very similar to valuing them for their own sake, except in the case of almost lifeless environments, such as deserts and mountains (and even they have some inhabitants). But it is still distinct from the next possibility, which is to value all life for its own sake, from plankton to whales, from bacteria to redwood trees to humans to mushrooms. This might even include some non-living things, like rivers or mountains.

Now, I actually think this would be a very mistaken position. In principle, I think it is flawed because in attributing rights (say, ‘the right not to be harmed’) to something without sentience, we cannot appeal to its own desires and feelings in order to give that right content (say, to specify what counts as ‘harming’ it). So we have to pick something based on our own inclinations, which is the opposite of what valuing something for its own sake is supposed to involve.

And in practice, how this would work out usually is that people decide that ‘being alive’ is valuable for bacteria, despite the bacteria holding no opinion on this, nor having any desires that might imply it. And then they either make ad hoc adjustments (a human’s life is billions of times more valuable than a bacterium’s) to ensure that they remain within common sense, or they don’t, and come to value the abundant growth of living things more than the happiness or understanding of living things. This, in fact, is the ‘view’ that evolution ‘takes’, and I think it’s abominable, having given us such things as parasitism, disease, cannibalism and predation.

Note, incidentally, that concern with ‘protecting endangered species’ is more along these lines than it is along animal rights lines: a species is nothing like an individual. A supporter of animal rights will see the preservation of a rare species of animal the same way a supporter of human rights will see the preservation of a rare ethnic group (‘preservation’ meaning, among other things, preventing ‘miscegenation’): perhaps of some slight value, but beside the point as long as so many real people are in such need.

I’ve got a good deal more to say, but I think this post is long enough, so I’ll stop for today, even though this isn’t a particularly neat point to do so.

3 Responses to “Environmentalism and Socialism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 1”

  1. jamesstafford12 Says:

    I would beg to differ on our attempt to ‘claim’ environmentalism for the Labour party; strong and consistent environmental action requires consensus across all parties, since few stay in power forever. At present this consensus is nowhere near strong enough. What we’re attempting to do is get the leadership of our own party to wake up to the fact that prevarication on climate action is fundamentally incompatible with Labour values, and that whatever they trumpet in White Papers etc there will never be any room for complacency on this.

    There are certainly arguments to be had with other parties about the ideological hue climate action should take, but adopting a collectivist viewpoint on that is not the same as claiming environmentalism for one party.

    Thanks for the mention regardless, and I look forward to the rest of your series.


  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ah, fair enough if I misread your intention. It’s an interesting issue nontheless, so I was just looking for an example to launch off from.

  3. Environmentalism, Socialism, and Feminism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 2 « Directionless Bones Says:

    […] Environmentalism, Socialism, and Feminism – who owns ‘Green Politics’? Part 1… […]

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