Critiques of the modern nation-state have been growing in recent decades, due to the abysmal failures of the capitalist, neoliberal order. In particular, conservative-libertarian arguments are tinged with isolationist and protectionist trade rhetoric, low taxes and regulations, and supply-side economics. On the other side, the mild leftism of social-democratic reforms promote endless government spending, increases in social programs and minimum wages, increases in taxes for the rich and the corporate world, and supra-national governmental organizations with endless bureaucracy and profligate waste. Neither of these models offers anything new, nor do they address the many crises that our world will inherit: they are simply band-aids for the festering wounds that our oligarchic system has created.
Green political theory offers a way out of this dialectical impasse. By viewing the world through a transpersonal and holistic lens, the truth of our industrial system can be seen for what it is: a morally bankrupt system which exploits the less fortunate in the name of private property and profit, a machine which grinds down and destroys cultural and biological diversity. The Western states are presented as shining beacons of freedom and democracy, while in reality they scheme by trade liberalization (globalization) to lord over the developing world. They bend and corrupt the ideals of universal human rights to suit their agendas, invading other nations directly or using proxy fighters/terrorists to achieve strategic objectives. Proponents of green politics transcend these baser instincts, and advocate for nonviolence, eliminating poverty, and conserving the natural world for the greater good.
Contemporary green theorists are influenced by indigenous wisdom and the sustainable practices of diverse tribal societies, as well as modern science. The roots of Green theory can be found in the scientific disciplines of conservation biology and ecology, as well as their precursors, the environmental advocates of the 19th and 20th centuries. The list is vast and includes such notables as Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, Rudolph Steiner, Rachel Carson, Donella Meadows, James Lovelock, and Fritjof Capra.
Green politics is based on a few bedrock principles: one is that the moral and political community should be extended to provide for the rights of non-humans and future human generations. (1) (2) Another principle is that horizontal governance and forms of direct democracy must have a say in governing: some issues should be decided by plebiscite, even if technical details of the legislation are left to our representatives and specialists in science and engineering. Also, sustainable development practices must be enforced in any green society, even if it goes against a democratic mandate. If a hypothetical majoritarian government in power decided to exploit and destroy ecosystems under a Green constitution, that ruling party/coalition could be stripped of power.
Green political theory, or ecologism in Andrew Dobson’s parlance, is a relatively new political ideology, and stands apart from liberalism, conservatism, and socialism, as Dobson explains in his book Green Political Thought. (3) Green politics does not contain the hubris of liberalism, and does not promote private property and market fundamentalism as unassailable principles. Dobson invokes Mark Sagoff, who correctly states that “the liberal state does not dictate the moral goals its citizens are to achieve; it simply referees the means they use to satisfy their own preferences”. (4) Of course, this adherence to moral neutrality is a cop-out: by pretending to be pluralistic and democratic, the liberal state uses the law to uphold massive inequality, structural racism, absurd consumer trends, addiction to fossil fuels, and environmental destruction.
Green theory is also distinct from conservatism, as it rejects the pessimistic and deterministic view of human weakness and original sin. Ecologically minded theorists chastises conservatives who focus on “preserving… the past; ecologism is interested in conserving and preserving for the future”. (5)
Also, Green political theory has many precise criticisms of mainstream socialism: its anthropomorphic-centered approach towards protecting the environment, the forms of pervasive narrow-minded utilitarianism, and the apologetics on display when socialists are confronted with the environmental record of the former Soviet bloc. Further, it rejects the bias of socialists who express that eradicating poverty and redistributing money and land to the poor will be in itself enough to end environmental destruction and harmful industrial practices. (6)
Unlike liberals, conservatives, and socialists, Greens do not view nature instrumentally. Rather, many Greens respond to nature in an intrinsic, spiritual way: it is part of their “ground of being”, to borrow a Paul Tillich term. Many tribal societies, of course, do not even have a word to express the concept of nature, as it is completely embedded in their consciousness and way of life. Moral value towards nature is given unconditionally by those who understand ecology: this idea is central to what Arne Naess called ecosophy. Greens and political ecologists speak of the “ethical relationship which should hold between human and non-human nature”. (7)
If there are to be nation-states that persist long into the 21st century and beyond, they will be green states, ecologically minded states. There is no complex argument needed, as it is a matter of survival: we can collectively form nations based on sustainable development, zero-growth, run with renewable energy, with abundant food, health care, housing, and basic incomes for all, or our societies will perish, and international relations will devolve into a Hobbesian nightmare.
Civil society will have to be included in green governance to some degree: whether through referendums, public positions drawn at random, community based leadership councils, etc. Regarding environmental questions about land development, industry, and agriculture, the precautionary principle will rule: the burden of proof will fall on those who intervene in the environment to prove that there is minimal risk to ecosystems, rather than on scientists, activists, green NGOs, and the public to prove that serious and definite environmental damage will occur. Publicly funded elections must become mandatory, and also, no corporate-backed candidates should be allowed again, ever. Deliberative democracy should be encouraged, and elements of James Fishkin’s Deliberative Polling (8) should be included to encourage thoughtful and rational debate in the civic sphere.
Following this basic framework, along with deep and rigorous ecological education for our youth, is essential. Also, the re-education of adults who have forgotten their connection to the Earth is critically important. Unlearning the dirty tricks and propaganda that we’ve unconsciously internalized, and disowning the immoral and callous liberal ideology are among are most important tasks as well. Being a true progressive means making hard decisions, and seeing beyond the veil of what our industrial based consumer society has to offer. The only option our nations have going forward is to begin forming a state system based on ecology, which has the potential to radically transform our views and reorient societies towards lasting peace, egalitarian democracy, social justice, and sustainable living.
William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. You can find his ebook, Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire, here. His articles have appeared online at Global Research, Countercurrents, and Dissident Voice. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
1.) Robyn Eckersley. The Green State. MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2004. 120-122.
2.) Mike Mills. “Green Democracy: The Search for an ethical solution.” Democracy and Green Political Thought: Sustainability, Rights, and Citizenship. Eds. Brian Doherty and Marius de Geus. London and New York: Routledge, 1996. 97-114.
3.) Andrew Dobson. Green Political Thought. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2007. 149-176.
4.) Ibid., 151.
5.) Ibid., 163.
6.) Ibid., 168.
7.) Ibid., 171.