Greens to the Left- or Greens to the Right?

“You’re so Right-wing!” So I was told recently by one of my students who took exception to my pro-fact pro-evidence- based stance on things like genetic engineering and nuclear power. Another blurted out at me when I suggested her complaints about my course were mainly political “no it doesn’t matter how much of a fascist you are- if only you teach the course properly!”- which apparently means not presenting any facts or information unless they have been vetted and blessed in advance by her.

This kind of feed-back suggests that many prevailing views within the environmental movement are traditionally- even unquestioningly- considered to be “left-wing” and “progressive”: the struggle to protect pristine Nature and keep nasty chemicals and other such horrors out of our food and water share common cause with defending the rights of the common man against the ravages of untrammeled corporate capitalism.

Is this really the case? Or does environmentalism have its roots in the far-right? Or is it a strange hybrid of both Left and Right?

In a radio presentation last year Brendan O’Neill calls the more recent alliance between Green and Red a “historic betrayal”:

in going green the left has signaled abandonment of values that distinguished it from more conservative static views

This betrayal can be seen most clearly in the the original environmental cause of over-population, which comes of course from Malthus. But Malthus was an arch-enemy of Marx and Engels: Marx described him as ‘a professional sycophant of the landed aristocracy’ who was intent on ‘building the capitalist case for the inevitability of poverty’ (quoted by O’Neill here)

In other words, Malthus’ theory was entirely self-serving: the threat of a “population bomb” in the phrase of his more recent successor Paul Ehrlich, was invented in order to refute the radical idea that the poor and down-trodden would be able to overthrow their oppressors and that humanity in general- not just the ruling classes of whom Malthus was a member- would be able to improve their lot and aspire to greater things than just subsistence.

Marx and Engels disagreed with Malthus’ basic premise that over-population was a result of the Laws of Nature: rather, they saw the negative consequences of rapidly increasing populations as being the result of the social system, with specific causes according to the state of evolution of the society: in developing nations, it was a result of the legacy of colonialism; in capitalist nations, tied in with the Principle of the Reserve Army of Labour: in Marxist theory, capitalism required a large number of unemployed to draw on in times of rapid economic growth.

According to socialist theory, human problems are more social than natural; far from being the prisoner of Nature or Divinity, O’Neill argues there are no natural limits, but merely limits to our social imagination. He quotes Francis Bacon who stated that our mission is “to put nature on the rack and extract her secrets” and Sylwia Pankhurst who said “socialism means abundance for all… a great production that can provide more than we can consume.”

“How times have changed” laments O’Neill: through environmentalism, the Left is now at the forefront of arguing for natural limits; “Nature” is depicted as sentient force that punishes, and we see a return to 19th Century ideas of mankind as prisoner of nature.
Some even say we cannot end poverty:
Mark Lynas has claimed “the struggle for equity within the human species must take second place to the struggle for and intact and functioning biosphere.”

Although some greens, like Lynas, have repudiated the more obvious shortcomings of Malthus and distanced themselves from his incipient racism, O’Neill argues in his review of Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake that they have really just re-phrased the reactionary case for limits by claiming it is not population per se that will be our undoing, but consumption:

Pearce describes Earth as a ‘finite planet’ and bizarrely claims that we are ‘consuming 30 per cent more resources each year than the planet produces’. This overlooks the fact – recognised by true humanists – that there is nothing fundamentally finite about Earth or its resources, since what we consider to be, and use as, a resource changes as society itself develops. The Malthusian idea that nature’s limits mean people must inevitably live in poverty is here. ‘It is of course true that poor people with small ecological footprints may grow rich… eventually assuming footprints as great as ours. If they do that, it is hard to see anything other than disaster ahead’, says Pearce.

How did this come about? While some from the Right have claimed that environmentalism is really just the new guise of socialism, trying to come in unnoticed through the backdoor as it were, Rupert Darwall, in The Age of Global Warming argues rather that after the Berlin Wall came down, the Left was simply too insipid to resist the rise of neo-Malthussians from the Far Right, with their Limits to Growth philosophy, and simply became subsumed by it.

The timing of the demise of Marxism as a living ideology meant that global warming never had to contend with opposition from the Left of the political spectrum.

Without even being aware of what had happened, the post-Soviet Left took on the mantle of much darker forces of environmentalism, inspired as they were by the early eugenics movement in Britain and the nature-worship and occult mysticism of the Nazis.

These origins can be most clearly seen today in the retro-romantic organics movement, still shaped and inspired by the cult of Steiner and his occult version of farming called biodynamics, which found common cause with the Blood and Soil- Blut und Boden- philosophy of the Nazis, as Staudenmaier has documented:

we find that the “ecological scene” of our time -with its growing mysticism and anti-humanism- poses serious problems about the direction in which the ecology movement will go…these reactionary and outright fascist ecologists emphasize the supremacy of the “Earth” over people; evoke “feelings” and intuition at the expense of reason; and uphold a crude sociobiologistic and even Malthusianbiologism. Tenets of “New Age” eco-ideology that seems benign to most people in England and the United States – specifically, its mystical and anti-rational strains- are being intertwined with ecofascism in Germany today.

Likewise the leaders of the anti-GMO movement and their allies, far from being representative of the Common Man or the rights of workers, are instead emanating from the privileged classes, lead by figures such as Goldsmith and Prince Charles, in the tradition of Schumacher, with paternalistic view of humanity that would not be so far from the contempt expressed by Malthus.

The fear of over-population, of the Yellow Peril or its equivalent, is still evident behind much anti-technology thinking amongst today’s Greens. Once, after a class discussion on global poverty and development, in which I expressed the hope that through technology and other factors, the bottom billion in the world might sometime improve their lot sufficiently to have at least some of the benefits that we have in the richer parts of the world, one earnest young student, no doubt considering himself radical and “left-wing” made a point of coming up to me afterwards to say emphatically: “No. We must stop them! They are much better off being poor.”

This blurring of the Left into the Far Right is also evident in the figure of the darling of the anti-GMO movement Vandana Shiva.

According to Noel Kinsbury in Hybrid:the History and Science of plant breeding

Meera Nanda, a leading Indian critic of what she calls “reactionary postmodernism,” points out, “the populist left opposition to the Green Revolution, GM crops, and other science intensive initiatives, is routinely co-opted by the ultra-nationalist, autarkic, elements of the Hindu right.” Shiva has been interviewed and favorably quoted by The Organiser, the journal of the Rashtriya Swayamsavak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization, the sight of whose members marching in formation wearing khaki shorts, is a powerful and frightening reminder of its original inspiration—Hitler’s brownshirts.554 Identity politics is the natural playground of the political Far Right. In rejecting the universality of Enlightenment values, antiscience critics on the Left have found themselves sharing a bed with those on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Despite Shiva’s best efforts at condemning the poor farmers of her country to remain in their “natural state” of peasantry forever, many Indian farmers showed they had other ideas:

Shiva’s “Operation Cremate Monsanto” had spectacularly failed, its anti-GM stance borrowed from Western intellectuals had made no headway with Indian farmers, who showed that they were not passive recipients of either technology or propaganda, but could take an active role in shaping their lives. What they did is also perhaps more genuinely subversive of multinational capitalism than anything GM’s opponents have ever managed.

Greens often seem far more concerned that a corporation like Monsanto might make filthy profits than ordinary farmers might actually benefit from the technology they have developed, just as green activists themselves seem only too happy to use technology such as computers, cars and airplanes, and organic farmers to use polytunnels and tractors and pop to the supermarket for cheap industrial food when it suits them.

There are of course many political causes that one might want to support. Today’s mega-corporations should be held accountable for their workers’ conditions, and should be compelled to pay their taxes. I am more than willing to hear good well-thought out political arguments concerning social justice etc; unfortunately it is very rare if ever these days that I hear any such argument from Greens, so completely dominated they seem to have become by eco-fascist ideology and back-to-nature woo-woo naturalistic beliefs.

And thus I find myself in the peculiar situation of being insulted as being “right-wing” for defending ideas that are in fact far closer to traditional Marxism: that progress and innovation and technology are generally forces for good, and that human creativity is, almost by definition, something that uniquely can break the chains of natural limits.

EcoFascism Revisited

Book Review
Ecofascism Revisited
Lessons from the German experience

Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier
Pbck; 188pp
New Compass 2011
First published 1995

The historical connections between fascism and environmental movements remain relatively unknown in the contemporary world where “Green” issues are more generally associated with the Left and liberal values.
In Britain, early environmentalism was strongly influenced by eugenics and concerns about the burgeoning human population. A good overview of this can be read in Fred Pearce’s PeopleQuake. This in turn had been influenced by Malthus and his dire warnings of population outstripping the food supply- perhaps the original single issue defining the course of the environmental movement.

First published in 1995, this updated work by Peter Staudenmaier provides a powerful historical analysis of the how environmental thinking was adopted by some quarters in the Nazi party in 1930s and 40s Germany, and how this alliance between romantic environmental thinking and far-right politics may still be significant today.

The book consists of three essays, the first two reproduced unchanged from the original, and a new essay by Peter Staudenmaier reflecting developments since the mid-1990s.

Staudenmaier is an Associate of the Institute for Social Ecology and a Professor of modern European history at Marquette University, Milwaukee, and has been active in anarchist and green movements in the US. In 2010 he completed his dissertation Between Occultism and Fascism: Anthroposophy and the Politics of Race and Nation in Germany and Italy, 1900-1945 at Cornell University.

As a social ecologist he takes a pragmatic and rationalist approach approach to environmental problems, but keeps them rooted firmly in left-wing politics and issues of social justice: for the social ecologist, environmentalism is as much a struggle against structures of oppression of people as of the environment, and this is in stark contrast to the romantic and Malthussian, anti-human wing of environmentalism, which sees the enemy to be not capitalism and the profit motive, which exploits people and nature equally, but the human race itself- or more accurately perhaps, certain racial groups.

In the Introduction, Staudenmaier explains:

In Europe as in the United States, most ecological activists think of themselves as socially progressive…For many such people, it may come as a surprise to learn that the history of ecological politics has not always been inherently and necessarily progressive and benign. In fact, ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and laced in the service of highly regressive ends- even of fascism itself….

important tendencies in German “ecologism”, which has long roots in nineteenth-century nature mysticism, fed into the rise of Nazism in the 20th Century. During the “Third Reich”…Nazi “ecologists” even made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes into key elements not only of their ideology but in their governmental policies.

Moreover, Nazi “ecological” ideology was used to justify the destruction of European Jewry. Yet some of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today.

(more…)

The Prince, Schumacher and Orwell: more from the College of Woo

In the last post I pointed to the course offered by the Schumacher college in Devon and how the philosophy promoted there is closely linked to Rudolph Steiner and Anthroposophy, “Goethean Science”, and all manner of other woo based on the fundamental idea that environmental problems are a result of a materialistic view of the universe and consequent loss of “spirituality”.

As “S” has pointed out in the comments, one of the champions of this world-view is HRH the Prince of Wales, connected to Schumacher through his Duchy College, where Steiner’s mystic biodynamic agriculture is promoted.

Charles also has a chapter in the Lorimer book A New Renaissance: Transforming Science, Spirit and Society entitled ‘Restoring Harmony and Connection: Inner and Outer’. As mentioned in the last post, the book has several chapters by authors who run courses at Schumacher.

Lorimer is also the author of a book about HRH called “The Radical Prince”; he is also the Chair of the Wrekin Trust, which The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions describes as “A New Age movement established in Britain by Sir George Trevelyan (1906–96), who became an advocate of ‘alternative spirituality’ after hearing a lecture on Rudolph Steiner’s anthroposophy in 1942.”

It is well-known that Charles has a penchant for alternative medicine and various forms of occultism, and this seems to underpin his environmental concerns. Just this week, science writer Simon Singh has said the Prince is “ideologically fixated” with alternative therapies such as homeopathy, and refuses to accept the overwhelming scientific evidence that these treatments do not work. (more…)

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