A new approach to green politics

European Business Review

ISSN: 0955-534X

Article publication date: 1 October 2004



Rankin, A. (2004), "A new approach to green politics", European Business Review, Vol. 16 No. 5. https://doi.org/10.1108/ebr.2004.05416eab.003



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A new approach to green politics

A new approach to green politics

Keywords: Politics, Environmental management

When ecological or green parties entered the electoral arena, they pointed towards a new paradigm beyond the traditional "right" and "left" divide - "neither left nor right, but in front". Green politics was intended to provide a more rounded or holistic approach to environmental and social issues. In practice, green politicians and activists have tended to adopt the confrontational approaches associated with the left, in particular, and the "either you're with us or against us" mentality of adversarial politics. In the first of two papers, Aidan Rankin looks at the problems facing green politics and explores possible solutions.

Progress, as we have known it, is old-fashioned. The linear view of human development, long dominant in Western, industrialized societies, is increasingly perceived as spiritually and philosophically limited, as expressing only half-truths. For, in spite of the creativity it has inspired, and the real advances it has underpinned in science, the arts and social reform, the linear world-view omits some of the most pressing of human concerns. In particular, it lacks a spiritual dimension, dismissing spiritual concerns as backward looking or seeking to neutralize them into a bland, politically correct mush. Thus a whole area of human experience is marginalized or distorted. Linear thinking forces individuals, and whole societies, to make narrow and artificial choices: to be "for" or "against" issues, to be "right-wing" or "left-wing", "conservative" or "liberal". It is about either/or, omitting the possibility of both/and.

The interpretation of progress as an inexorable march forward - "things can only get better" - is often contradicted by real events, as any student of 20th century history will know. But it is also ultimately unsatisfying because it is one-sided. It tells only half of the story of human aspirations, because it elevates the desire for innovation and change over the equally real desire for continuity and stability. Applied to politics, the linear view of progress creates a culture of division, simplification and above all, disconnectedness. Linear thinking disconnects individuals and human groups from each other and humanity from "the rest" of nature.

This pattern of alienation is manifested in bigotry, hatred and conflict, in environmental despoliation and the throwaway culture that goes with it. It finds expression in doctrinaire certainty at the political level and anxiety at the personal level, anxiety exacerbated rather than calmed by material advancement. The proliferation of fundamentalist movements, religious and political, is also a symptom of disconnectedness. Some of these movements pride themselves on being "anti-modern", but in their restless militancy in pursuit of narrowly defined goals they are true products of modernism and a mockery of the traditions they claim to represent. Indeed, philosophical and religious fundamentalisms express in dramatic form the deficiencies of political modernism, with its emphasis on narrow certainty, on either/or, on simplicity instead of complexity, on division instead of wholeness.

Politics, at its best, is about balancing the profound human desires for continuity and change. Edmund Burke, the 18th century conservative parliamentarian and thinker described the best approach to political and social reform in these terms: "In what we improve, we are never wholly new, in what we retain, we are never wholly obsolete". Many would argue that he took an unduly sanguine view of the British constitution of his day, unwritten then as now and based on precedent or "accumulated wisdom". However, it was his belief in balance, and in fairness, that led him to support the American Revolution and oppose the French Revolution. He championed the American cause because it arose from justified grievances and sought to build upon existing structures and customs rather than eradicate the past, to improve and open up the political culture instead of destroying it. The French Revolution, by contrast, sought to create a wholly new culture and refashion humanity by force.

It is no coincidence that the left/right paradigm that has dogged modern politics derives from that revolutionary tradition, being based on the seating arrangements in the post-1789 National Assembly. Today, the doctrines primarily associated with "right" and "left" are both based on linear progress and the imposition of universalistic principles to which human beings - and their planet - should be obliged to conform. On the right, the prevalent ideology is based on the supremacy of market forces, a curiously superstitious belief in an economic "hidden hand" and a regard for free enterprise as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.

This ideology has been described as "market fundamentalism" by George Soros, who knows more than most about the complexities of capitalism. It is essentially a recycling in simplified form of the liberal economics of the early to mid-19th century, then associated with the radical left! Associated with conservative, or sometimes "neoconservative", social and political attitudes, market fundamentalism is in reality a most un-conservative doctrine, reducing individuals to mere units of production and consumption, at the mercy of abstract economic forces. Thus, the free-market ideology that underlies the present phase of corporate capitalism has much in common with the ideologies of the radical left, which are equally linear and universalistic, equally scornful of tradition or custom, equally reductionist in their view of human beings and human cultures.

In the political arena, therefore, right and left are not polarities, as they at first appear, but intersect with, borrow from and feed off each other. The more virulent their mutual hostility, the more apparently opposed their platforms and slogans, the more the movements of right and left have in common psychologically. Adherents of "left-wing" and "right-wing" doctrines make the same mistakes about politics and uniformity. Where they should allow for diversity, they seek to impose uniformity and where there could be unity, they create divisions. Politicians and activists of right and left both see the solution to human problems in material terms, or more specifically in terms of limitless economic growth, which increases humanity's alienation from nature.

The paradox, and the tragedy, of progressive politics is that it takes on the characteristics of the authoritarian structures, practices or attitudes it opposes and often surpasses them in absolutism and zeal. This is because the thinking behind progressive politics is stuck in a left-wing groove and so bases its strategies on conflict and struggle, and appeals to the emotions of anger and hate. For this reason, it is often hard to find anyone more belligerent than a peace campaigner or more "macho" in values and goals than a campaigning feminist. The movement towards racial equality descends, too often, into a movement to enshrine racial classifications and the tolerance promoted by the gay movement is frequently belied by the strident harshness of that movement's activists, at times harsher towards homosexuals who disagree with them than with the heterosexual "enemy". Progressive campaigners use the word "enemy" without self-consciousness because their approach is, like the right's, still primarily adversarial. They emphasize "identity politics" at the expense of a shared human identity lpar;let alone an identity with the planet!rpar;, a "gender war" instead of partnership between men and women, along with recognition of positive and creative differences between them. Spirituality and humanism are placed in opposite camps rather than seen as complementary principles that rely on each other. This approach is identical in character to the right-wing admonition of "either you're with us or against us" and the corresponding belief in a "clash" of civilizations, instead of a search for common spiritual and human roots.

All too often, progressive campaigners find their good intentions thwarted or transformed into something repressive and monstrous. This makes them cynical or disillusioned, or it tips them from good will towards humanity to hardened fanaticism. This disappointment arises because most "progressives" are locked into a one-sided view of progress, and a thought process based on fragmentation and conflict. Their reforming ambitions become eclipsed by the will to power, which intensifies rather than lessening as that power proves illusory. For much of political power turns to be an example of what Hindu philosophy - in particular the Vedanta tradition - calls Maya. This is generally translated merely as illusion, but in fact it means something subtler: the distorted perception of reality that leads to false and destructive attachments. Adversarial politics, whether of left or right wing provenance, are an example of Maya. They equate superficial "winning" with success, crude power with authority and they lack a vision of the whole, relying on disconnected parts.

In this sense, the discipline of politics lags behind both science and spirituality. Physics, cosmology and neuroscience today are less about narrow rules and classifications and more about discerning complex patterns with underlying continuities. They are concerned with subtlety of perception rather than mechanistic "models", with the interconnectedness of living systems rather than a series of disconnected parts. Spirituality, meanwhile, is valued increasingly in its own right, and not necessarily associated with "organized" religious structures. Indeed the revival of interest in spirituality, at both popular and scholarly levels, illustrates the truth of Pascal's wise advice to the rationalists of his day: "The heart has reasons which reason does not understand". Three hundred years after Pascal, it is becoming clear that rationalism, left to itself, does not solve human problems at the political or the personal level. When it is not allied to intuition, it does not make for more rounded, or more enlightened human beings, but can instead intensify neurosis and repression. Intuition, left to itself, is equally unsatisfying. When not guided by reason, it can point us easily towards irrationalism and prejudice. The need for balance, or rather rebalancing, of reason and intuition, does much to explain the growing interest in the philosophies of the East, which emphasize the whole, in dialogue between faiths, and the growing convergence between spirituality and science. But politics lags behind, stuck in 19th and 20th century patterns of thought, in narrow, linear views of "progress" and a psychology of conflict, "winners" and "losers".

It was not always thus. Burke's approach to reform, cited above, was not exclusively conservative, as opponents claim, but a balancing of continuity and change, the passive and active principles or, in increasingly familiar Daoist terms, the "yin" and "yang" of politics. Both are of equal value and one cannot survive effectively without the other. Likewise, Benjamin Disraeli, Britain's first party leader and Prime Minister of Jewish origins, defined his political mission as "the elevation of the condition of the people". This aim, in contrast to supposedly "liberal" identity politics, is based on a recognition of "the people" as an interconnected whole. Individuals are not isolated from each other, but depend on each other, communities might differ in character, but are united by their common humanity, not locked in a win/lose struggle. Aristotle, who is often cited as the originator of "either/or" logic, nonetheless advocated a politics of balance, a "golden mean" based less on compromise than synthesis of radical and conservative impulses. In more recent times, the green movement has sought to heal the wounds between human beings, and between humanity and nature, by looking at politics from a holistic point of view. But like other "progressive" movements, green politics have fallen into the win/lose, conflict-based trap. This is because the inspiration behind the green movement has come largely from the left, and from the currents of political and social protest that began in the 1960s and have developed traditions on their own. For too many greens, "ecology" has become in practice yet another single issue, a green stripe in a "rainbow" coalition, rather than the new paradigm that it promised to be. Michael Page, a British psychologist, describes the problem at the heart of green politics in practice in an interesting, but unfortunately little-known book called The Tao of Power:

  • Unwelcome change is almost always met with cries of "Fight!" "Fight the Motorway". "Fight for the Green Belt". "Unite and fight for your rights". This is to oppose yang with yang, and not with yin. Instead of raising cash for banners and fly-posters, it could be used to present the encroaching authority with tress with which to embellish the motorway, to create a children's playground: in other words, to exercise responsibilities rather than insist on rights. Much energy will thereby accrue rather than being dissipated, for the effort will gather strength from the forces in the cosmos that keep the dynamic tension within creative bounds[1].

Green politics has not fulfilled the promise of holism because its main advocates have not disentangled themselves, emotionally or politically, from the negative, leftist emphasis on struggle against "enemies". The key to a new, and badly needed, approach to green politics is to learn to be at once radical and conservative. Being radical, after all, does not really mean constant and frenetic agitation for change. That too is Maya. Radicalism in its true sense means the ability to explore an issue or a problem to its roots. Conservatism, in its true sense, means recognizing the need for rootedness. By combining the two approaches, we might find our way out of the present political impasse. And that, in itself, would be real progress.

Aidan RankinLondon, UK

Notes1. Michael Page, The Tao of Power: An Eastern Way to a Greener World (London: Green Print, 1989), p. 59.