The NASA Earth Observatory reported this week that “explosive fire activity” has caused smoke from the Australian bushfires to enter the stratosphere and be carried half way around the world. That smoke is currently creating hazy skies and colourful sunrises and sunsets across South America. In the coming months the smoke will complete a full circuit and arrive back in Australia, and then continue onwards … for who knows how long?
Nothing I’ve read this week sums up better the fact that the world’s environmental challenges, including climate change, are global in scale and scope. They therefore require global initiatives to solve. But as I’ll argue below, equating “green” politics with the left and “anti-environmental” policies with the right is an unhelpful characterisation.
Despite the need for global action, the world’s political landscape seems to be going in the opposite direction. Inward-looking, right-wing populism is on the rise, and governments are hunkering down into a siege mentality of denying that there are any environmental problems that require serious, long-term action. The Australian government, bolstered by the Murdoch-owned media empire (see Michael Mann’s recent piece on this in Newsweek), sees the bushfire crisis as “business as usual” even though all the evidence is to the contrary – demonstrated in this interesting piece from two Australian climate scientists.
Elsewhere in the world, Presidents Bolsonaro in Brazil and Trump in the USA are tearing up environmental regulations and “green tape” and allowing “the people” (or at least big business interests) to ransack the natural world for their own gain. At the same time, one of the less-well-reported elements of Boris Johnson’s various speeches over the past few months has been its emphasis on the environment (he even used the word “biodiversity” in one of them) and the pressure he put on the other leaders of the G7 countries at their most recent meeting. Perhaps that should come as no surprise given that Boris’s father, former Conservative MEP Stanley Johnson, has sound credentials as an environmentalist, particularly during his time with the European Commission. Indeed, in the mid 1980s Stanley Johnson received an award from Greenpeace for “Outstanding Services to the Environment”. He’s even written for The Guardian, which is not the natural home for a member of the Conservative party. There are other Conservatives with sincere pro-environmental attitudes (Zac Goldsmith and Rory Stewart come immediately to mind) and whatever you may think about their views on other topics, you can’t doubt their sincere environmental commitments. And of course there are pro-environmental politicians in the Labour Party, and the Liberals and the SNP and Plaid Cymru and…..well, just about all of them.
Globally, both right- and left-governed states have variable environmental policies. Two countries recently reported that they had made extraordinary progress in tree planting restoration schemes: India (a right-wing, populist government) and Ethiopia (much more left-leaning). China (communist in name but who knows what we should call it?) has a very mixed record on the environment, with huge investments in both solar power and coal mining. It’s hard to get firm environmental data out of communist North Korea but the evidence so far suggests that they are not doing well: see this piece from 2009 by journalist Peter Hayes.
Closer to home, in the last few months on Twitter I’ve been called an “eco-loony” by a farmer; told that my objections to the High Speed 2 (HS2) rail infrastructure project were providing support for climate change deniers by a couple of train buffs; and accused of “sleeping with the enemy” by an environmental activist who didn’t like my stance on another large project. The latter also tweeted a made-up quote from me to emphasise just how morally corrupt I was. Irony was lost on them I think. I don’t know the political allegiances of those individuals but if I was a betting man I’d be fairly sure of a good return – definitely a mix across the spectrum.
Hopefully these examples make something abundantly clear: the relationship between politics and environmentalism is not straightforward. That’s been obvious to me, and many others, for a long time. But I’m not sure how widely understood this is because the impression that is presented to the public by both the right- and left-leaning media, is that “green equals left”. And whilst there may be some truth to that currently in relation to the political alliances formed between various Green Parties, there is no historical basis for this correlation. It’s even mixed up in the minds of the modern-day socialists. A few months ago a left-wing journalist opined that the left had “always” been pro-environmental, yet the (supposedly) socialist website Spiked has been publishing pieces arguing that environmentalists are against the working class and that de-carbonisation strategies will cost jobs – see this piece for instance. Before anyone comments, I’m aware that Spiked has an odd and paradoxical history…..
Historically, both the far left and the far right have a mixed track record on the environment. I read an appalling story recently about the Soviet Union whaling fleet killing whales simply to meet targets, not because they were of value economically; the author described it as “the most senseless environmental crime of the 20th century“. However, communist Cuba set aside 10% of its area as national parks and biosphere reserves, and has a strong environmental track record. In the 1950s, Maoist China had a policy of killing sparrows and other “pests” that was partly the cause of the Great Chinese Famine in which tens of millions of people died of starvation. The first National Parks in the world were set up in the USA by what we could broadly consider conservative presidents, but the American legacy of nuclear testing and the fossil fuel industry is nothing to be proud of. Finally, there is a long history of “green” fascism, from the environmental policies of the Nazis (I’ve not read this book but it looks fascinating), to individuals such as Jorian Jenks who was a founding member of the Soil Association, to modern day “eco-fascists” whose justification for carrying out mass-murder and domestic terrorism is rooted in arguments about reducing population growth in order to “save the Earth”.
It’s telling that Big Capitalism is starting to think more seriously about global environmental problems, how they can be solved, and at the same time create jobs and prosperity (and a buck or two for investors – I’m not naive). Outgoing head of the Bank of England Mark Carney has argued that firms and banks need to stop investing in fossil-fuels. Many are following his lead, or are ahead of that curve, including the bank Goldman Sachs and the $7 trillion investment firm BlackRock which has recently stated that “climate change will become the centre of the firm’s investment strategy“. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has argued this week that Australia is showing us “the road to hell” and that governments and businesses of all political stripes and inclination better get on board with the environmental agenda. Soon!
I firmly believe that neither the left nor the right are the friend nor the foe of environmentalism: there are plenty of historical and current examples of rapacious right-wing and left-wing governments, and also examples of such governments being highly pro-active at reducing their country’s environmental impact. The one thing that seems to me to be environmentally damaging is a rigid ideology that is followed through regardless of where it is positioned.
The title of this piece is a word play on a slogan adopted by the Socialist Workers Party: “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”. The environmental challenges facing our planet, our species, and the species with which we share this biosphere, are international in scope and it requires international, multi-partisan political action to address. Whatever your personal political leanings, if you care about the planet, that statement must be blindingly obvious. That’s why I’m so supportive of organisations like the UN’s IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services). Now, more than ever, the world needs this level of pan-national leadership.
If I’ve learned one thing as an ecologist it’s that the world is a complex, historically contingent and often unpredictable place: simplistic notions of socialism = good/bad and capitalism = good/bad are not going to solve the current crisis of climate change, loss of biodiversity, pollution, and a host of other environmental problems. Only thinking outside of narrow ideologies is going to do that, and using the tools and strategies that are available to us, including market forces, open democracy, local activism, global movements, and whatever else works. I’m still optimistic that the world can provide humanity with the kind of metaphorical “pleasant walks” that Charles Darwin wrote about when he visited the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney:
But we have to act fast. Otherwise the ruins of civilization, and of the biosphere, may be our species’ legacy: that’s why I chose the image that opens this piece.