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“Ecology as a Political Dwarf and an Organisational giant” – A Book Review of the “Manifeste des Écologistes Atterrés”

The state of the French Greens, Europe Écologie Les Verts, is in disarray, and the paradoxical gap between a shrinking Green electorate and ecologically conscious citizens and movements grows. However, the grass is always greener on the other side, especially in the case of Italy, where Green prospects in comparison are bleak. A book review of “Manifeste des écologistes atterrés”.

It may seem paradoxical, but as an Italian environmentalist I view with envy the crisis that has been plaguing the French Greens for months. They squabble and split up; prominent leaders leave slamming the door behind them and, as shown by the disappointing regional election results, they seem unable to turn the growing popular weight of environmental concerns into solid political consensus. Despite all this, however, the French Greens remain real and vibrant leading actors in the public debate and they are listened to. This has been my first impression after reading “Le Manifeste des écologistes atterrés”, in which three exponents of the party born years ago from the union of “Les Verts” and “Europe Ecologie” – Lucile Schmid, Édouard Gaudot, and Benjamin Joyeux – recount their bitterness at this sort of “collapse” of the French Greens and put forward a radical reformation path “for an autonomous ecology” – as the subheading states – “far from the political circus” (“pour une écologie autonome loin du politique circus”).

Yes, I envy the difficulties besetting my French Green friends and fellow campaigners. Because in Italy, more simply, the Greens have had no political role for nearly a decade. Formally they exist, but in reality they are out of Parliament, out of almost all regional and local elective assemblies and out of the public debate. And yet the Italian Greens have an important history. Italy was one of the first European countries to elect Green MPs (it was 1987 and the Green Lists won 13 seats in the Chamber of Deputies), the first country to have a Green minister (Francesco Rutelli, Minister for the Environment in 1992) and to elect a Green mayor in its capital city (Francesco Rutelli again, in 1993, who was mayor of Rome until 2001). But after these first promising results, the Italian Greens embarked on a rapid decline. This negative trajectory has more than one cause. One influence has undoubtedly been the unfortunate dynamics of the last two decades in Italy, where politics and public opinion have almost entirely polarized “for” or “against” the Berlusconi issue, thus considerably reducing the scope for different political “offers” away from traditional right-left dialectics. But this is only one explanation. Others, no less plausible, relate to the mistakes and limitations that have negatively affected the behaviours, choices and profile of the Italian Greens. Their first and most serious shortcoming was that at a time when society’s awareness of green issues was growing and involved ever-increasing needs and interests marked by fewer political connotations, the Italian Greens held on to their “radical left” small party identity, unpalatable to a large section of the electorate that was potentially sensitive to the environmental message. In other European countries environmental forces were able to adapt to this changed scenario, as in Germany, where Joshka Fischer’s “realos” prevailed over Petra Kelly’s “fundis”. This, at least, is my perception as an outside observer, which also applies to France where, however, the Greens’ identification – and self-identification – with the Left has always been weaker.

In their manifesto book, Schmid, Gaudot and Joyeux emphasize the huge and growing gap between the political weakness of environmentalists and the ever-increasing spread of environmental ideas and actions within society. As they rightly point out, this contradiction is not just a French phenomenon. Here again Italy leads the way, so to speak. In my country, the environment is a political dwarf and an organizational giant, with large associations like Legambiente, WWF and Greenpeace numbering hundreds of thousands of members and with myriads of groups and civic committees engaged in local battles and actions. Italy also has extraordinarily large and successful national campaigns, such as the 2011 referenda in which 95% of voters, accounting for over 50% of all electors, again said no to nuclear energy (after it had been rejected in a previous referendum in 1987) and opted for full public management of water resources.

What is the reason for this large gap between the obvious crisis besetting environmental politics and the evident progress being made by social and cultural environmentalism? According to Schmid, Gaudot and Joyeux, this essentially stems from the fact that Green parties, in France as elsewhere, end up resembling too much their “rivals” – with small, self-referential groups of party leaders and officials, poor communications with and involvement of activists and more focus on the personal ambitions of a few individuals than on broadening the party support base – and not enough the radical change they were set up to represent and build upon. According to the authors, “the problem with these alternative parties is that for the most part they are incapable of applying to themselves the principles which they advocate for all” (“le problème de ces partis alternatifs c’est qu’ils sont pour la plupart incapables de s’apppliquer à eux-mêmes les principes qu’ils défendent pour tous.”). In conclusion, a voter convinced of the importance of the “environmental cause” does not identify naturally with parties and often with leaders who, as political actors, do not sufficiently live up to the solidarity, inclusion, sobriety and conviviality ideals that are at the base of environmental ideology.

Although there is much that is true in this analysis, I believe that it is not enough to explain why environmentalists – with notable but rare exceptions such as, first and foremost, Germany – have not yet managed to secure a stable, meaningful and far-reaching space in the political landscape of our societies.

“Manifeste des écologistes atterrés” shows a very clear road ahead, the same road – the authors remind us – that was shown nearly thirty years ago by the philosopher Felix Guattari. As Guattari warned then “to bring about the promotion of a new global conscience” we need to “contribute to deliver values systems that would eschew the moral, psychological and social flattening operated by capitalism” (“faire réémerger des systèmes de valeurs échappant au laminage morl, psychologique et social auquel procède la valorisation capitaliste.”).

According to this vision, environmental politics can only become established on the basis of a “conversion” by individuals and communities, of an almost anthropological change that brings emotions closer to the criteria governing human actions – or, in Guattari’s words, “Joie de vivre, solidarity, compassion towards others” which are almost alien to today’s prevailing individualistic, materialistic and consumeristic logic.

There is no doubt that environmental politics subverts many constituent paradigms of the very idea of modernity, starting from the “myth” of unlimited beneficial economic growth. But as stated by Alexander Langer, one of the fathers of green ideology, this profound radicalism on the one hand has to be also cultivated at the level of political action and, on the other, it must be protected from any millenarist temptation. For an environmental reconversion of society and economy to take place – which is Larger’s lesson to us and which, I believe, is still the decisive test bench for today’s environmental politics – it must be perceived as “socially desirable” by the majority of people. For environmentalists and Greens to win the challenge of consensus democracy, therefore, they must propose very concrete solutions and changes capable of meeting the needs and aspirations of “real” women and men, away from any illusory and unacceptable myth of a “new environmental man” to be moulded according to the instructions of a coterie of sages.

The future of environmental politics, therefore, will be played out on two complementary fields. One, defined very ably by Schmid, Gaudot and Joyeux, is based on an open, light and anti-bureaucratic model of political representation – the direct opposite of many small and large Green parties. The second, on the other hand, relies on a much greater willingness to identify with current social and economic forces. Environmentalism, for instance, must update its views on the economy. Born as an ideology that proposed a wider and deeper rationality than mere economic convenience, environmentalism is now faced with an economy that is starting to be integrated into the choices and strategies of this richer rationality under the thrust of environmental ideas. An example of this is the fact that 2015 will be, after many centuries, the first year seeing a reduction in man-made climate-changing emissions. This would have been unthinkable only ten years ago and represents and extraordinary symbolic – as well as concrete – victory for environmental causes. Today, therefore, Greens can and must aim to represent not only cultural values and social needs based on environmental principles, but also the economic interests of an ever-increasing audience of businesses identifying with the tenets of environmental economics.

And to come, finally, to a topic that is most central to the agonizing debate currently afflicting the French Greens, I think that in order to stay “contemporary” environmental politics must free itself of an eternal doubt: whether to define and present itself as part of the left, or whether to cultivate “another” identity away from the traditional right-left dichotomy.

I believe that Langer was right on this point too. Environmentalists, as supporters of an ideal based on solidarity and interdependence – the solidarity of man to ecosystems and of current to future generations, as well as the interdependence of all life’s phenomena – are closer to left-wing than to right-wing sensibilities. However, their analysis criteria and their intentions for transforming society were, and still are, very far from those of the traditional reformist and far left. For the Greens, as for any political family, the quest for alliances and collaborations is a vital necessity, but if they give up their “difference” they risk more than defeat: they risk futility.

“Manifeste des écologistes atterrés” is a concerned book, but it is not a desperate or a pessimistic book. It captures with ruthless clarity the current crisis of the French Greens, but it also goes beyond it. I fully share its confidence. I believe that, as an idea, environmental politics is essential for addressing the tragedies and problems of todays’ world. It is also essential for facing the environmental crisis and building a fairer and more balanced system of relations between individuals and peoples. As with any idea, this too walks on the legs of men and as such it can fall, stumble and hobble. But in little over forty years – a short time in the history of political ideas – it has put down deep roots in the conscience of humankind. The decade-long hibernation of the Italian Greens, or the hint of implosion of their French counterparts, will not be enough to sever them.

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“Ecology as a Political Dwarf and an Organisational giant” – A Book Review of the “Manifeste des Écologistes Atterrés”

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