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.

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23 thoughts on “Greens to the Left- or Greens to the Right?

  1. Skepteco,

    You’ve thought about these issues at far greater depth and scope than any other commentator I’ve recently seen, and I applaud your efforts.

    I believe you’re absolutely accurate in your discussion of how ‘Green’ mixes components of Right and Left, both historically and currently. I’ve often wondered, and would invite you to consider, that this is because fascism is at work.

    Please bear with me a moment. ‘Fascism’ is such a popular pejorative that it has lost all of its meaning in common parlance. But, it is possible to define the term, and in this context I find it meaningful to refer to a short article by Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, titled ‘Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt’. You can find it at http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_blackshirt.html

    Among the 14 elements you will find a curious mixture of Right and Left ideologies, and it may be that such an ideological mixture indicates a third thing — fascism — may be the most predictive and explanatory approach.

    Again, please do not mistake my purpose in pointing this out. I am not using the term ‘fascist’ in its pejorative sense, but in an analytical sense in hopes that it may be helpful in gaining an understanding of what it means to be ‘Green’.

    I would be interested in learning if you find this approach to be instructive.

    • Thanks Bestruger
      that is a really interesting article- Umberto Eco’s first few points at least seem particularly relevant to understanding the Green mindset 1) The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition; 2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism; 3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake; 4. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism; (this is seen in the anti-science approach of many greens); 5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity (I wouldnt say greens are necessarily racist per se, but there is definitely a terror of the apostate or critical approaches- anyone who doesnt toe the line is an outcast);
      the others, to do with leadership, power and nationalism seem less relevant to Green thinking, but they may still be there in different forms or guises- in particular, my allusion to fear of the “:Yellow Peril” underpinning neo-Malthussianism, which is again derived from traditionalism and convictions that the poor are better off being poor, even that we should be fighting for their right to stay poor! Anyway lots to think about there, something I shall return to again Im sure, thanks again!

      • “As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth already has been spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.” This is particularly relevant to traditional beliefs and movements such as Anthroposophy and the organics movement- they are hampered by an inability to innovate and develop new terchniques because they are based on a conception of being “Natural” and therefore un-improvable. A big problem!!

  2. Geert De Jaeger

    Strong Statement, thanks!!! Now, the case is of course more complicated of what actually forces Europe in a stand still concerning plant biotech. Therefore, I am still waiting for the journalist who dares to intrude in EU headquarters and analyse the lobbying power of conventional pharming industry. Greens can shout and block, but in the end nore organic pharming, nore plant biotech get a chance, the third dog runs with the bone.

  3. – Today your students have GREEN dogma, before it was Nationalist/Fascist/Communist dogma
    – rather than just left or right ..any viewpoint can latch onto DOGMA, RELIGION STYLE particularly if it provides simple magic answers & a false dichotomy of good “us” & nasty “them” … so we can have a complete view of the world without having to think too hard.. (conspiracy as well ties up all those loose ends)
    – 1917 There is an evil conspiracy against “us” the brave workers: the CAPITALISTS, follow Mr Lenin/Mr Stalin etc. and we have a workers paradise !
    – 1939 There is an evil conspiracy against “us” True Germans : the Jews, follow Mr Hitler and everything will be great !
    – 1990’s There is an evil conspiracy against “us” True Muslims : the infidels, follow the great mullah & we will all go to eternal paradise !
    – 2013 There is an evil conspiracy against “us” True Protectors Of Mother earth : the big corporations (and they fund “Deniers!”), follow Multinational Eco-charities and attached “super heroes” & we will SAVE THE F’g PLANET !

    – note how any debate style is characterised by emotion and anger, rather than facts and slow cool logic.
    – challenging anyone who has religions like that is impossible , cos they are not going to debate logically, they are going to defend the magic “cause” for fear it all may come crumbling down .. which they all do eventually
    ..and then people say “I can’t understand how we all believed in that ..life is more complicated”

  4. You can show the horse water but you cannot make him drink. Ignorance is bliss. What StewGreen says, “…we can have a complete view of the world without having to think too hard” is something I have seen. The paradigm’s strength is amazing.

  5. Sastra makes a comment over at Respectful Insolence (http://bit.ly/17T4aQ5) that seems to be on point to the discussion here:

    “In my (limited) experience, telling people who are against GMOs that the studies they cite are faulty is every bit as effective as telling alties that the studies they cite are faulty. They assume bias because they assume a war — a battle between different ways of thinking and being.

    “On one side you’ve got the Good Guys who care about living with Nature, harmony, and love. On the other side you have the Bad Guys who care about acquiring Power, money, and control.”

    Sounds right to me.

    • Given that fascist ideology is built upon the notion of a state of war/conflict, it should not be surprising that disagreement with the Greens results in an accusation that you are leagued with ‘the opposition’, i.e., ‘a shill’. The Greens are always more interested in ‘what side you are on’ than on who is making sense.

    • Thanks Norm yes that is a very good comment that, sadly, does seem to some up the situation. I keep myself going by feeling when talking to a class or group, even if what I say leads to just one person taking pause for thought it is worthwhile! There is no hope for the zealouts, but I have faith in the Undecided.

  6. IN the quoted portion: “This overlooks the fact – recognized 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.”

    This looks to me “fundamentally” insane.

    The fact that “what we consider to be … resources changes,” is not opposite to the glaring fact that the Earth is finite; that, for example, the amount of hydrocarbons in the crust cannot exceed the mass of the Earth, even though we might not have a clear picture of what that quantity is. That our ideas changes does not mean the Earth isn’t finite.

    In other words, the quotation articulates a false dichotomy.

    Malthus also gets a bad rap because some of his PREDICTIONS were just wrong. His principles were correct, and he work is forever associated with Darwin, who acknowledges Malthus as an inspiration. It doesn’t matter what a twit Malthus was in other areas, or that his predictions failed.

    This sort of toggle/Cornucopia, toggle/Catastrophe thinking has to go. One can acknowledge Malthusian principles and a finite Earth without having to subscribe to Catastrophic consequence.

    My own view is agnosticism: We simply cannot know the future.

    • Malthus’ principles are clearly inseparable from his predictions: that population growth will rapidly outstrip food production. This clearly has not happened- in fact, the exact opposite! viz the Green Revolution trebling food production, while the world;s population growth is slowing far more rapidly than anyone had predicted, and will likely begin to decline by around 2050 due to falling birth rates, not overshoot and collapse. Failed predictions surely suggest that the principles on which they are based may be flawed.
      In absolute terms of course the Earth is limited; however, humans have never “run out of” a resource, since we are adept at adding value (qualitative innovation- like GE) and substitution ( we didn’t run out of wood, we substituted coal oil and gas) and innovation (fracking and many other drilling/exploration innovations continue to increase the accessible resource base even as we consume more).
      The doomster argument depends on an unfalsifiable belief that these things will only postpone the moment of collapse, that Malthus and Ehrlich et al are merely wrong about the timing. But as Julian Simon argues, what reason is there to believe that from this point on the future will be any different? Occam’s Razor tells us we should go with what is most likely- ergo, the future will be much like the past. We will continue to find substitutes and increase our resource base, not overshoot and collapse.
      Essentially you are arguing that Malthus’ principles were basically sound because theoretically we might “run out of stuff” thousands or millions of years into the future; this ignores the point my quoted passage argues, that the whole basis of Malthus’ principles was political. For human beings, they are for all intents and purposes meaningless in reality.
      You are of course correct that we cannot know the future in any detail see my post The Perils of Prediction.

      • One (of the many) reasons the organic movement have against artificial fertilizers is that they will some day run out. So we should stop using any resource that has a finite capacity and just er, leave it there.

        • apparently so, but the odd thing is, you yourself along with everyone else in the developed world need fossil fuels for maintaining pretty much every aspect of your lifestyle, including many on-farm/garden activities. You are not going to give them up for love nor money, so why should fertilisers be any different. In any case we certainly can make ammonia using wind or any other “renewable” energy source that generates electricity, so there is no absolute reason why synthetic fertilisers should be a limitation. It is a very odd proposition: we may have decades or centuries of natural gas, we keep getting better at finding and extracting it, yet because theoretically sometime in the far-distant future it might “run out” you say we should stop using it now! You might as well say we should give up using polytunnels because they too are made of oil.

  7. Is the left the new right ? – You know how kids always rebel against their parents attitude, could their be a bit of that ?
    – 30 years ago the left was telling that the capitalists were exploiting the workers. Now
    it’s the age of the individual ME. They are all asserting their rights (like little capitalists). The left are effectively saying “I am not someone working for a large org. No the orgs all work for ME”
    – Like with the internet how much does the left want people to be charged for music, for written material etc ? Oh now “everything has to be free”. Poor Graham writes for nothing ( except for the bonus you drop him every year). Meanwhile someone is collecting all our micro-data and selling it ..and they are all large corporations that profit from our data.
    – Whereas in the past the left would have been fighting for him to be paid and stopping large corps getting the fruits of all our labours. A recent podcast told how it was a plan of the early internet that there would be micropayments for all blog writers .. (if I become a millionaire I will sponsor a scheme to double the someones donation to a blogger)

    – Also strange how 30 years ago the powers were in the control of the right, but now much of it has come into the hands of the left. The state broadcasters, the Guardian, countless lobbying NGO’s often sustained by EU handouts , so effectively the EU lobbying itself. And the guilt trip of Climate Change Alarmism has provided a gravy train, co-sponsored by government directly and indirectly via subsidies to Green businesses flogging solar panels, windpower, eco-consulting etc.

  8. i just published this very related article the other day http://www.swans.com/library/art19/barker134.html

  9. Yokohama Michael

    Skepteco,

    Your points are well-made and challenging to my world-view, and I enjoy your posts immensely. I would once, as a young man, have sided with your current students. Yet now it is obvious to me that their opinions are ideological and not reality-based.

    Yet as to your argument that the Green movement is right-wing, you seem (to me at least) to be pushing it to its limits just for the sake of it, and it is not entirely clear that you believe it yourself. Naturally many ideologies will have complex origins, but you appear for example to have omitted the entire counter-cultural movement of the sixties, from which much of the modern green movement originates. Were the hippies of the communes not left-wing, with their anti-war protests and radical social ideas?

    I also feel obliged to defend mikeb609. I understand that many of the concerns of environmentalists are misplaced, even highly irrational, and that Malthus has so far been proven wrong. Yet it does not follow that humanity doesn’t face serious environmental challenges.

    I’m guessing that you don’t agree with the world-view of people like Jared Diamond. Yet with his descriptions of population collapse in Norse-Greenland, Easter Island etc, is there not evidence that humans can exhaust the capacity of the local environment? Or that mismanagement and poor decisions can lead to disaster for human populations?

    • Thanks Michael
      yes there are many roots and strands in Green thinking; as I said in the first paragraph, maybe it is a mix of Left and Right. I was specifically talked about mystical aspects and New Ageism, its influence on the Organics and anti-GE movements and its far Right origins. There are of course many environmental commentators from the Left- eg Staudenmaier who I quote re Biodynamics and the Nazis; another would be Bookchin, whose Re-enchanting Humanity is a blistering attack on Deep Ecology and other New Age aspects of Green.

      The other point is even if you take the mystical aspects out you are left with Malthussian thinking, which seems to drive much Green advocacy, Limits to Growth and population reduction. I think these have both Right and Left aspects, in the form of Statism and wish for supra-governmental control for environmental issues (as conservatives would say about Green- viz watermelons). So Im not sure really what ideas the Left has really contributed to Green Thinking- other than to claim the needs of humans and nature to be the same- but in some ways, depending on how you think of “nature” they may not be the same at all, that is the point. Bookchin blames capitalism for destroying the environment, but humans have always had an impact, and wealth allows us the luxuries of environmental protection- so the idea of environmental transition, Green thinking is a consequence of development not a reaction against it.
      Re communes- lots of Left influences o doubt, but also Right as Adam Curtis explored in Machines of Loving Grace see my post here.
      For a critique of Diamond see Lynas on Lipo and Hunt’s The Statues that Walked. That kind of “hares and lynxs” collapse and die-off only works in specific circumstances in nature, never mind in humans. Humans are different- we innovate our way out of the bind of Nature’s limits. I think this was part of the original Left vision, not limits thinking.
      Yes of course we shall probably always have serious environmental problems to contend with but they are not Malthussian problems and they dont need Malthussian solutions.

  10. – observe how this “We know right, we have to act now, shut up ‘denier’ ” seems like green-totalitarianism .. green becomes right-wing

    Also see the change of attitude over the ages
    – 1950 individual responsibility, group rights.
    – 2013 individual rights, group responsibility.
    – 1950 Graham bosses the students
    – 2013 The students boss Graham .. maybe leads to lower standards ? (actually my teachers knew nothing about real world electrical work,I wish I’d had to pay for Uni.

    – Apply to green
    – 1970 – greens can live offgrid on a farm unsubsidised, we pollute the air
    – 2013 greens can consume & fly like everyone else, WE all have to pay the extra

  11. Paul Matthews

    Very interesting post. Perhaps in Part 2 you can look at the other side of the coin, that you only touch on here, “Are climate sceptics right-wing?”
    Exhibit A could be the climategater’s email from March this year,
    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2013/03/13/climategate-3-0-has-occurred-the-password-has-been-released/
    “… what happens among the poorest …”
    “Those millions and billions already struggling with malnutrition, sickness, violence, illiteracy, etc. don’t have that luxury…”
    There’s also Pointman’s statement on his ‘about’ page,
    “[green movement] is causing death and misery amongst the eighty percent of humanity not fortunate enough to live well above the poverty line…”

  12. I’ve found this post helpful in understanding the ideological basis of ‘ecopragmatism’, but your analysis of Marx and Malthus is questionable I think. I offer a different interpretation at http://smallfarmfuture.org.uk/?p=383.

  13. Graham, your last paragraph strikes a chord with me; being traditionally left-ish, it really has been a strange experience being labelled right-wing for supporting technological progress and being sceptical about climatic catastrophe.

    There’s a transcript of Brendan O’Neill’s piece on ABC here, by the way:
    https://sites.google.com/site/mytranscriptbox/home/20120904_ab

  14. […] There are more details of his conversion from green ideology  in this post on GMOs, and more on this one, where he writes  “By baring all once again I hope my past delusions may serve as some kind of cautionary tale to the young radicals just getting going in life who may be open to some kind of guidance in making sense of the klaxons of environmental alarm that have scarcely quietened in the intervening years” before reposting an old blog entry  from his former self expressing “peak oil” fears. He has also written some interesting posts on political orientation. […]

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