The 2020s have begun with images of the planet in flames, from the Amazon to Australia. Never before has so much CO2 been emitted, so many natural resources extracted, and so many species endangered. The withdrawal of the United States under the Trump presidency signals a new climate regime. Today, ecology is at the base, shaping the contours of political divides. The climate imperative demands an alternative system of consumption and production, and a new way of governing human societies and their ecosystems.
Since their emergence in the early 1980s through their strengthening in the late 1990s, only Green parties have brought the impetus for such reform to the public sphere, a “politics of civilisation” in the strongest sense of the term. Seen from 2020, the early indications that spurred their foundation – from The Limits to Growth report to the 1970s’ oil crises and the first cracks in the Western production-obsessed model – have become distress calls. It is questionable whether Western modernity can understand, let alone resolve, the link between three centuries of linear material progress and irreparable damage to earth systems. The model is trapped by its own immutable cleavages: nature versus culture; individual versus collective; environmental versus social; and national versus planetary.
So, what is to be done? Built in opposition to the neoliberal dismantlement of society, Green parties must now pivot to become central players, capable of governing and taking the initiative.
Yet a page has turned and a historic moment is before us. The advent of scientific rationalism and the Enlightenment brought centuries of industry and iron. Socialist, conservative and liberal strands of thought are all facets of that modern project, sharing an often blind faith in technology and affording the human the same absolute centrality. Political ecology, on the other hand, is built on and at the limits of that project. Without abandoning the values of humanism, it fully and sustainably takes the planet into account. A tradition notable for its lack of canon, political ecology’s diversity is both a strength and a weakness. Unbounded, it surges forth like a river, evolving and drawing from different realities on the ground, the many tributaries feeding its relevance and sensitivity. The common thread is a concern for the living world. In this edition, the Green European Journal explores this strength and uniqueness by delving into the evolving and multiple worlds of political ecology.
Today, Green parties are met by other forces on their own ground. The ecological emergency is recognised across the political spectrum, whose many shades of green pose new problems and opportunities. Two tendencies emerge as challenges for progressive Green parties. On the one hand, a diluted environmentalism in the guise of green growth that maintains the socially unjust status quo. On the other, a populist and authoritarian wave that feeds off inequality and injustice to offer a great leap backwards to the reassurance of past certainties.
So, what is to be done? Built in opposition to the neoliberal dismantlement of society, Green parties must now pivot to become central players, capable of governing and taking the initiative. The first task will be leaving the comfort zone of opposition and the politics of electoral niches behind without compromising on their values. The second will be reaching beyond the middle class and broadening their appeal across society. Addressing geographic inequalities and healing the painful urban-rural divides feeding the resentments exploited by the far right offers a clear path to do so. The third will be building a strong and inclusive narrative that can rise above past political squabbles. The undertaking goes beyond questioning the orthodoxies of post-war industrial society: it is about redefining the conditions for progress, to move from a conception based on capitalist and patriarchal domination – if mitigated for a short while by the welfare state – to a vision of non-material freedom, social justice, and abundance.
The groundwork will have to be laid away from the electoral cycle. The fundamental question posed by green intellectuals and activists, from Gorz to Starhawk, from Jonas to Klein, requires an answer. What world do we want? The priorities will change based on where you are, but the goals are the same: taking on a destructive economic model that generates social and environmental inequality; making nature an absolute value rather than an external constraint; revitalising democracy as a shared project; rethinking the market and the state; reconnecting public institutions to society; and a constructive approach towards technology. Getting there will mean thinking about the Green narrative and leadership strategically, as well as understanding how, rather than dispersing forces, different movements (even the most unruly) contribute to shifting the Overton window of what is politically possible.
Time is running out, but political ecology has the answers. A different world, a good life for all.
Recognising the pertinent level for both action and thought is essential for political ecology. Despite its current limitations, Europe remains the most appropriate scale. The principles that inspired European integration are fundamental to green thinking: reconciliation, cooperation, sharing, and looking beyond short-term interests. That said, defence of this framework does not imply defending its institutions and their political agenda. While European institutions and their supporters are trumpeting the European Green Deal as a solution to the climate crisis, only Greens are proposing anything that goes beyond this belated attempt at greenwashing.
But calling for an ecological transition will lead nowhere unless it is tied to a real industrial and geo-economic response. At a time of fundamental global shifts – seen in the trajectories of the United States and China – and political alliances based on fossil fuels and emissions – as in Australia and Brazil – the Greens are the alternative almost by default.
Finally, to make the 2020s the decade of transition, Greens must fight an internal battle against the complacency of institutional success and the temptation to confuse cultural hegemony with electoral gains. Otherwise, the 2019 “green wave” will be limited to the few countries with a functioning green party. In southern and eastern Europe, people are environmentally aware. But the voices of environmentalism express themselves in their own manner, and according to their own reality, be it through the libertarianism of pirate parties, the urban movements of Mediterranean cities, or community-level cooperatives and commons. For Greens, there is much to learn from the many worlds of political ecology.
The challenges are immense, as is the responsibility. The climate imperative and the reality that it dictates require a political DNA that is fundamentally different from that of traditional parties. A DNA rooted in the 21st century. Time is running out, but political ecology has the answers. A different world, a good life for all.
This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.