Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

2020-01-13 12.17.33

The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world.  That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America.  In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?

Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope.  They therefore require global initiatives to solve.  But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.

Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction.  Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action.  The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.

Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain.  At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting.  Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”.  He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party.  There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments.  And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.

Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning).  China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining.  It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.

Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project.  The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think.  I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.

Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward.  That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time.  But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”.  And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation.  It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance.  Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..

Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment.  I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“.  However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record.  In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation.  The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of.  Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.

It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive).  Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney  has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels.  Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“.  Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman  has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda.  Soon!

I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing  their country’s environmental impact.  The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.

The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”.  The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address.   Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious.  That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services).  Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.

If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems.  Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.  I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of  metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:

2020-01-13 14.48.59

But we have to act fast.  Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.

10 Comments

Filed under Australia, Biodiversity, Charles Darwin, Climate change, IPBES

10 responses to “Neither left nor right, but international environmentalism: Australia reflections part 8

  1. Tom Oliver

    Hello! Happy New Year. I agree – and like to think our brief dialogue is a case in point – specially given its origin!
    Tom

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on Symptoms Of The Universe and commented:
    I’m reblogging this compelling post by Jeff Ollerton, Professor of Biodiversity at the University of Northampton. I share Jeff’s immense frustration at the relentless demonisation of “The Other” that not only characterises so much of our political discourse but has come to define how we communicate with each other in general. Not everyone with whom we disagree politically is, as some would have it, a sociopath or a simpleton (https://telescoper.wordpress.com/2019/12/07/postal-voting-par-avion/). It is refreshing to see that Jeff — whose politics, like my own, are very firmly left of centre — foregoes the usual “Boris is a buffoon” sloganeering to remind us that some members of Johnson’s family have strong environmentalist credentials.

    As Jeff puts it so well,

    “…there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing their country’s environmental impact. The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. **Thank you**, Jeff, for writing and posting this. As you clearly point out, we have got to move beyond the toxic (and so often very childish) holier than thou/”purity checking”/”cancel culture” attitude that not only defines left vs right but also has a particular tendency to divide the left.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Friday links: advice for white academics mentoring students of color, a personal view of the Australian bushfires, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. The trouble is that, in the end, political parties are all right wing, because people with better things to do with their lives just let the narcissists take over. George Washington predicted the current situation in the USA right down to all but the names, in his farewell letter to the American people on stepping down as president. And Adam Smith had given a similar warning against leaving important decisions to what we would now call ‘businessmen’ years before, in his closing paragraph of Book 1 of ‘Wealth of Nations’. Neither parties nor businesses have anything but their own interests at heart in the end, and this is especially so when there is a duality of parties identical in all but name in a perpetual fight to play ‘king of the hill’ as there is in most democracies that have been captured by parties in the present day.

    You started to give an example from India, yet they already cannot feed their growing population without the protein that comes from lentils imported from Canada, and Modi is busily handing out ever more concessions to businesses and developer land grabbers in a desperate attempt to keep ‘the economy growing’, for no apparent reason than to show how good they are at making bonfires of resources faster than anyone else. Typically, a ‘Professor of Economics’ in ‘The Conversation’ is still preaching that this infinite growth paradigm is the only economics:

    https://theconversation.com/indias-economy-how-the-worlds-fastest-growing-nation-went-off-the-rails-129714?

    *”Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works.”*

    Sadly, no: that’s what we’ve been doing for ever, and for every ‘good’ organisation you set up, ten more ‘Spiked’s’, ‘Science Media Centres’, ‘Climate Coalitions’ will be sponsored by the ‘billionnaires’ (milliardaires) with nothing better to do with their money than to shoot down anyone who tries to derail the ‘infinite growth gravy train’ before it hits the buffers and blows us all up. Even the NHM let its beloved main hall be renamed for a climate change denier!

    The ‘other side’ have all the money, and they have no scruples. The fake news is sponsored by the ‘bad guys’ and made available for free, while the good guys are always begging for money, and having to pay for publicity, and even to read their own true science; and they are forever being cut off from routes to achieve accountability, whether it be the ever moving goalposts on what is laughably called ‘The Planning System’, or on access to funding for legal support in legal systems that are perpetually being ‘reviewed’ and rewritten to make public dissent impossible to be aired successfully in courts–while the ‘enemy’ holds governments to ransom in secret court cases we never get to hear about until they are over.

    And that’s just in the states that still hang on to the trappings of civilisation. Elsewhere, troublesome ‘greenies’ just disappear, or appear full of bullet holes.

    As for ‘ecofascists wanting to wipe out populations’: I’ve never seen anything about this that didn’t come from the coterie of contrarian PR groups spun off from ‘Spiked’, ‘SMC’, ‘The Institute of Ideas’, etc. etc. of which there are now incalculably more since they were joined by the myriads of deliberately provocative click-baiters and trolls that now make up the majority of most comment streams to be found on line.

    As far as I know, the only country that has been judged to be environmentally sustainable, is Cuba. The political epithets that are attached to each country’s leadership are meaningless: a system is either environmentally sustainable, or it is a failed state. That is the only name that matters.

    I know of no way to get the political party turkeys to ‘vote for Christmas’, and hand democracy back to parliaments and the demos, but, even if they did, how would you beat the fake news propagandists, and get people to vote for the ‘good guys’, when all the publicity is being given freely to the ‘bad ones’?

    I’m afraid that the future does not look bright for Humanity.
    But I will keep writing, because I can’t do nothing.

    Adam Smith’s warning (sorry, I copied this manually years ago and do not have an easy link):

    “It is the stock that is employed for the sake of profit, which puts into motion the greater part of the useful labour of every society. The plans and projects of the employers of stock regulate and direct all the most important operation of labour, and profit is the end proposed by all those plans and projects. But the rate of profit does not, like rent and wages, rise with the prosperity, and fall with the declension of the society. On the contrary, it is naturally low in rich, and high in poor countries, and it is always highest in the countries which are going fastest to ruin. The interest of this third order, therefore, has not the same connexion with the general interest of the society, as that of the other two. Merchants and master manufacturers are, in this order, the two classes of people who commonly employ the largest capitals, and who by their wealth draw to themselves the greatest share of the public consideration. As during their whole lives they are engaged in plans and projects, they have frequently more acuteness of understanding than the greater part of country gentlemen. As their thoughts, however, are commonly exercised rather about the interest of their own particular branch of business. than about that of the society, their judgment, even when given with the greatest candour (which it has not been upon every occasion), is much more to be depended upon with regard to the former of those two objects, than with regard to the latter. Their superiority over the country gentleman is, not so much in their knowledge of the public interest, as in their having a better knowledge of their own interest than he has of his. It is by this superior knowledge of their own interest that they have frequently imposed upon his generosity, and persuaded him to give up both his own interest and that of the public, from a very simple but honest conviction, that their interest, and not his, was the interest of the public. The interest of the dealers, however, in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public. To widen the market, and to narrow the competition, is always the interest of the dealers. To widen the market may frequently be agreeable enough to the interest of the public; but to narrow the competition must always be against it, and can only serve to enable the dealers, by raising their profits above what they naturally would be, to levy, for their own benefit, an absurd tax upon the rest of their fellow-citizens. The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order, ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

    George Washington’s (Brilliant!) warning of the dangers of political parties, and how they would eventually lead to a tyrant taking over the new Republic, with the aid of an enemy foreign power:

    “…The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.

    All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.
    However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. …

    … I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
    This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
    The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
    Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
    It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
    There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume. …

    … Excessive partiality for one foreign nation and excessive dislike of another cause those whom they actuate to see danger only on one side, and serve to veil and even second the arts of influence on the other. Real patriots who may resist the intrigues of the favorite are liable to become suspected and odious, while its tools and dupes usurp the applause and confidence of the people, to surrender their interests. …

    … In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated. …”

    George Washington
    Extracts from his Farewell Address 1796

    http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp

    Sadly, before you can even begin to expect anyone in power allowing any serious moves to solve the world’s environmental problems, you have to undo these political and economic changes that governments and thinkers alike were very clearly warned not to let happen a quarter of a millennium ago.

    As you can see: we have been doing exactly the opposite of what was advised by the founder of Economics, and one of the greatest political minds in history, just as our leaders have ignored, and will continue to ignore the best advice of scientists and environmentalists.

    Science, compassion, sustainability, Humanity’s survival, are all going to be branded as ‘eco-terrorism’: all depend on removal of the political and ‘economic’ elites we have allowed to commandeer our governments for their own exclusive use. They are not going to let go without a fight, and, largely, they have nothing else to live for.

    Sorry: but that’s the way it is.

    😦

    Like

    • Too much here to really respond to in detail – you need to set up your own blog! But two things jump out at me:

      – there are plenty of “green” philanthropists out there who are funding alternative technologies, sustainability initiatives, etc. Elon Musk and Bill Gates are just two, there are others.

      – “ecofascism” is certainly a thing – see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecofascism

      I can’t be as pessimistic as you: read Steven Pinker’s book “Enlightenment Now” for a dose of optimism (though the environment chapter is the weakest).

      Like

  6. Peter Bernhardt

    Readers of this specific entry may be interested in the autobiographical,
    “The Plant Messiah” (2019) by Carlos Magdalena. It describes Spanish policies causing environmental degradation under Franco. You can listen to a recent book review… https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/scienceshow/the-plant-messiah-–-reviewed-by-peter-bernhardt/11918346

    Liked by 1 person

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