In a time of ecological uncertainty in a swiftly changing society, it is important that as Greens, we lend an ear to the public mood. However, change cannot be brought about if we ourselves also do not change – from a negative tone, to a positive one…
The times, they are a-changin’
For several years now, political movements and organisations have been carefully observing the rise of the extreme right and populism in Europe. There has not been a shortage of attempts to analyse the reasons behind this. Allegedly, we are in a time of deep democratic crisis, which has protracted the social and economic crises with which we have been grappling since 2008.
Concurrently, a number of different local initiatives – so called transition initiatives – are taking form in Belgium and around Europe. They mark a break with the traditional approach to local, economic or even political action. These debates and projects for structural societal change are testimony to a desire to offer an “alternative”. It is an approach that breathes fresh air into a desire or will to work for collective betterment.
Political ecology seems a bit lost in the face of all of that. Many ecologists feel that the current period is characterised by deep disorder affronting an inability to influence all that is real. Yet, if we take a fresh look at ourselves we will see that we confront an amazing opportunity to reinvent ourselves and overhaul our political platform. For that, we will need to find a way to dare to debate certain topics within the party and with our interlocutors from without. Here are a few ways to accomplish that.
People have the power
First, we have to understand that our societies have updated their software. It is not so much the widening gap between the elected and the electors that is at fault but rather the narrowing of said space: information is being exchanged; there is constant scrutiny; expectations are high and disappointments too. New forms of media make it easier to expose the lies or omissions of officials. Something of an “open source” democracy is taking form. Political belonging is no longer vertical, i.e. with activism focused within a party or political movement. It has become a horizontal process. Citizens change their votes from election to election depending on current events or his/her feelings at the time. The demand for participation is also undergoing change. It is no longer a foregone conclusion that a majority of people would like to be a part of decision-making, whatever the uptick in participatory democracy mechanisms.
So, the primary task is the (re)socialisation of people. One of the main ways to achieve this is through promoting freedom. In this case, freedom means the ability for individuals to take back control of their lives. The notion of freedom is therefore fundamental in the case of political ecology. Freedom, both individual and collective, is a fundamental principle of believing in the need to transform society. Also, it is a way to address the dangers of the restrictions that climate change and the scarcity of resources will inevitably mean. Finally, it requires establishing a message and dialogue that moves away from experts and elites and towards society, citizens, and electors.
The problem, however, is that as things stand, freedoms are pitted against each other. The freedom to choose a future, training, or a job longer exists. Dominant neoliberalism has become a profound freedom killer. This dogmatic economic school of thought defended by its advocates is increasingly fundamentally restricting individual freedoms. Global surveillance, deregulation, killer austerity in social spaces; such is the litany of standards being given in the name of economic “laissez-faire” extremism.
Ecologists must first address the issue of how to empower people to once again be master of themselves and their destiny. This will require a re-evaluation of collective instruments available to all and a great deal of farsightedness.
Revitalising policy? Reinventing government!
In the face of all of these dangers, political ecology is assisting in reinventing democracy. If swift action is not taken to tackle the environmental problems that lambast and will continue to lambast our societies, authoritarianism will be quick to intervene. The real challenge exists in extending participation meant to respond to these democratic and environmental challenges – throughout a population that repudiates these principles. A culture of maximising individual interests weighs greatly on certain swathes of the population on issues of great importance on which they will have to make choices. Similarly, extending participation to all citizens does not necessarily mean the participation of all citizens. The defiance, de-politicising, and apathy in the face of the complexity of questions to be addressed cannot be ignored. Furthermore, citizens are lax and may even decide that they do not want to be involved at all.
Therefore, the role to play should materialise in the form of a political platform which re-frames the place of the economy in society and modernises the organisation of government whilst factoring in new initiatives. This debate will need to take place in the relatively near future: in a far from hypothetical no-or-negligible growth scenario, the question of financing the welfare state will become increasingly pressing. The traditional welfare state was based on 2% growth. This means that it currently finds itself stretched to the limit. Moreover, it is stuck in a tough spot between neoliberalism and social-democracy. This means that the prevailing idea is one of decreasing spending through a slow winding down of mechanisms for solidarity.
The role of political ecology is crucial. In addition to deep thinking about the economy-nature nexus, the next big contribution in political ecological thinking was, in the example of André Gorz, on re-evaluating of work. In order to renew our societies we will need to empower them. Another area for thought is the role given to private, public and autonomous realms. What role should be given to the public authorities? And the shifting of the welfare state into a social-ecological state (for lack of a better term)? Also, how to continue to uphold the mechanisms of solidarity amongst citizens who are active in transition alternatives, and those who have been left to the wayside? These are all subjects that will hopefully open up new and riveting debate.
Action: renewing collective commitment to the common good
How can we have a real effect? That is the question. Combining different political strategies will require working within the confines of political dynamics in the broadest sense of the term. It is precisely there that a number of different impasses exist.
Impasses in negotiations first and foremost. Unless the global situation were to collapse, plunging western societies into the unknown, transformation will have to take place through political action. However, the current situation of political ecology is very different from that of majority parties. Entering into a governing coalition requires political compromise. This requires defining priorities to be set and defended and sacrifices to be made. This might seem harmless, but it has proven quite challenging within the Greens. The example of the French speaking Belgian Greens, Ecolo, is a case in point. Opposition between the Green party and ecological-environmental movements often comes to light when the Greens are a part of a governing coalition. To many, entering into a governing coalition is viewed as an act of treachery. This attitude undermines the ability to transform policies that are implemented into sustainable policy. This leaves a side vulnerable to attacks by the liberal-productive system proponents who do not miss a chance to profit from these divisions to dismantle decisions that have been taken. We should take on this criticism directly and from within the movement. Far too frequently, we neglect dialogue with Green movements whilst in power. The tension becomes lasting and takes form between two stances within the same Green family: “us” and “them”.
It is right to rethink these alliances and strengthen them. It is crucial to move beyond the impasse surrounding alliances with non-Green movements, unless the decision is made to forever remain in the minority. Moreover, it is through alliances that the transition away from and the reduction in artificial needs – that the Greens denounce – will be achieved.
Couching the message: breaking free of newspeak
To achieve this will require a repossessing of the most “traditional” ecological concepts and stripping them of liberal-productivist contamination. Prosperity, progress and liberties should be refocused on the concept of well-being, and away from economic growth. Debate, collective rights, common good, professions, users…are all terms to be purified. Our liberal-productivist societies have been moving for far too long towards an increased technicisation of societal terms and tools. Citizens have become clients of the State, with all that is harmful and goes along with it: the State demands the client to be profitable, growth, and productivity to finance an economically gluttonous system, disengaging of the State in areas that are considered of no utility in the face of the need for economic growth.
We must also stand up with conviction for our terms, those which have been picked up by a good portion of society. In a world which is unmoved by environmental stakes, the few driving rallying elements such as “sustainable development” must not be abandoned. Recapturing them will require a new way of couching the issues that combines opposition to cynicism of the system and adherence to the few Green terms that have been adopted by the majority. We still spend far too much time in-house squabbling about the meaning of the terms to use, the risk being that we might let a public receptive to these terms slip through our fingers. These ideas are our ideas and it is up to us to protect them.
This brings us to the second impasse: why ecologists struggle to make their discourse mainstream. In Ecologica, André Gorz underlined the challenges of translating the notion of de-growth on a large scale; the main culprit being resistance to change. There are many examples of this, but they are not often studied by the Greens. Only a minority are on a quest for sobriety of discourse and that quest has yet to connect to the classes in precarious circumstances – whom are overly stuck on unsustainable lifestyles and consumption patterns. In fact, far too frequently the Green message is one that revolves around giving up things for which a majority of the population has worked and even around which they have built a life. This must be kept in mind in attempting to reach the widest public possible if political ecology ever is to ever hope be in the majority. What’s more, as Ulrich Beck pointed out, the society in which we live is both highly conservative and highly informed about the risks that are abound. There is much information about the dangers that will we face because of climate change and the depletion of resources. Nonetheless, the behaviour of a great majority of western society has not budged. If we are to move out of this deadlock, we, as ecologists, must reflect on the environmental message that has been used and the resistance to change that has persisted.
Light my fire
Several current and future crises have combined that require a new approach to our message. There is a true crisis in trust and therefore the organisational model of our societies must be reinvented. Liberals and social-democrats are stuck to a model that has failed miserably. Marxists, meanwhile, offer a model that changes nothing in terms of behaviour. What is needed is a plan that is fundamentally different from the traditional parties, which defend business as usual.
The Greens must therefore stop stating what they do not want and start clearly and concretely stating what they do want. This is what must begin to take form and body. The only way for this to happen is to leave aside timid talk, which has become a comfort area for some.
The fundamental question that the Greens will have to face in the near future is how to widen their base. Projects and proposals made by the Greens are too frequently confined to small circles of expert or sections of the population that are working on projects of transition. Any plan for reconstruction for the Greens must inevitably factor in this reality in order to surmount it once and for all.
All spaces must be bridged. The negative image – far too often attributed to proponents of political ecology as those who guilt or advocate for what is prohibited – must be combated. In the next few years a major stake and challenge will be to demonstrate the direct or indirect positive effects of ecological policies. And to be able to do that, inter alia, through alliances with non-Green entities. That is the only way to achieve forcing the realisation on the majority parties of the failure and impasse of the current system. That is, after all, what Lewis Carroll suggested in Alice in Wonderland: “But if the world has no sense, who’s stopping us from inventing one?” The time has come to begin to conceive of this positive Green Society horizon in which we so firmly believe.