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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Who is the Most anti-Science of Them All?

A fascinating debate was recently aired by the Canadian public affairs program The Agenda With Steve Paikin featuring Michael Shermer, Chris Mooney and Mark Lynas.

The topic under discussion was whether the charge of being “anti-science” was just as valid for the Left as for the Right.

Shermer, a libertarian skeptic thinks yes- there is Liberal War on Science; Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, disagrees. In a strongly entitled piece for Mother Jones There is no such Thing as a Liberal War on Science he argues that although liberals and the Left certainly reject science on specific topics such as vaccines and GMOs, these positions have been marginalised by the mainstream Left/Liberal political establishment, while on the Right, “Republicans today are majority creationist (58 percent, according to Gallup) and majority climate denier.”

As Lynas says, the political spectrum is not clearly divided along these lines in Europe; the alignment of the US Republican Party with creationist religion does not really have a parallel here, so while there are some similarities, this discussion is no doubt colored by my Euro-centric bias.

Mooney goes on to say

polls alone don’t tell enough of the story. Evolution denial and climate denial on the right are much more politically problematic—because conservatives, not liberals, are going around trying to force these wrongheaded views on children in schools. Oh, and by the way: By denying global warming, they also jeopardize the planet and the well-being of humanity. In my view, not all wrong beliefs are equally harmful—rather, wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences.

There is a couple of things wrong with this position I think, as Mooney fails to distinguish between very different kinds of scientific issues, and their policy implications.

Firstly, the issue of conservatives trying to force “anti-science” views on schoolchildren made me think immediately of an instance of this from the Left: Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth was incorporated into the school curriculum in the UK, leading to a court action by a concerned parent. The judge upheld the complaint that the film contained many scientific inaccuracies, including that

The film said a sea-level rise of up to 20ft would be caused by melting of either west Antarctica or Greenland in the near future; the judge ruled that this was “distinctly alarmist”

I am not suggesting that this is directly comparable to teaching creationism or denying evolution; on the other hand, it seems inescapable that this is indeed an example of politics masquerading as science, and as such its placing in schools in this way is highly questionable. There is no scientific debate about evolution vs Intelligent Design, but to pretend that everything about man-made global warming is “settled science” – including what to do about it (Gore’s film implies that changing your lightbulbs might be an appropriate response to ensuring Manhattan is not inundated with sea water) is itself political.

(Ironically, Shermer used to question climate science himself, and cites An Inconvenient Truth as one of the influences that made him change his mind.)

Secondly, Mooney does not really address Shermer’s point that Republicans only reject science on these specific topics because they conflict with specific beliefs they have. While Creationism is a core belief of many right-wing Christians, and climate change skepticism a reaction to what they see as a ruse to impose more government regulation on every aspect of their lives, they do not take an “anti-science” position per se.

On the Left however, despite scientists and academics being overwhelmingly liberal themselves as both Mooney and Shermer agree, there tends to be an underlying current of suspicion of science in and of itself. The liberal mind wants purity of nature and purity of their bodies, and is prone to suffer excruciatingly from the naturalistic fallacy; they are more likely to be anti-technology which they distrust as leading to yet more environmental destruction and an aspect of increased corporate control- even when being introduced for humanitarian reasons as with Golden Rice.

This callousness of progressive activists towards the poor who really need access to better technology also calls into question Mooney’s claim that they are motivated emotionally by sticking up for the underdog and fighting against injustice: all too often, the main priority seems to be just to kick “science” or “technology” or “corporations” where it hurts, and to hell with the poor (who, let’s face it, are much happier anyway just being poor).

Mooney points to research showing that the trust in science has declined precipitously in recent years- but I am just wondering whether this itself can be partly explained by the clear liberal bias amongst scientists and scientific institutions- particularly when they are seen, rightly or wrongly, to promote left-wing policy responses to complex scientific issues like climate change. Of course, this is often translated into a suspicion of the basic science of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but there is no reason for the Right (or anyone) to have particular position on this but for the implications of left-wing policies being promoted as to remedy the situation: as I say, questioning CO2 as a greenhouse gas is not a core belief in and of itself for the religious right in the same way creationism is- it is purely a reaction to the policies of the Left.

I am not defending the misrepresentation of science by any side in this- merely pointing out that Mooney is misreading the context and mis-diagnosing the underlying causes.

What about Mooney’s contention that “wrong beliefs are harmful in proportion to their bad consequences”? He claims that opposing the “science” of climate change will lead to a “global disaster that we are going to regret for all time- so how could it be bigger than that?” This seems to be an ideologically loaded statement that is a far remove from the “consensus science” on global warming, which can only give us different scenarios of how much warming based on different emissions trajectories, none of which there is any great certainty about as Mooney is implying. He seems to have slipped seamlessly from the science of CO2 as a warming gas and that humans are contributing to warming, to just the kind of alarmist rhetoric that Gore was guilty of.

The fact is, we don’t know what to do about global warming, or at least the solutions offered seem themselves to be split down political lines: on the one hand, more government regulation and the creation of powerful supra-national organisations which can usurp national governments’ ability to determine their own energy policy;
on the other hand, the potential for technological innovation to move much faster at reducing emissions than treaties have been able to, as we are seeing with the failure of Kyoto and the success of shale gas in the US.

A good example of this is the Keystone XL pipeline which has been a figure-head for “climate action” recently, but which has no real bearing on climate change regardless of whether you “deny” or “accept” the consensus scientific position.

This is what happens constantly in the climate debate which renders such discussions about who the the most anti-science fairly redundant: the science quickly merges into questionable policies or activist causes; question the policy, you become a “science denier”.

So it seems to me highly questionable- and certainly not scientific- for Mooney to suggest that “science denial” to the extent that it does exists on the Right can really be blamed for putative future global catastrophe; claiming certainty that the science is wrong for political reasons is of course damaging, but in this case we simply don’t know precisely what the correct course of action will be and we have to weigh it up against other considerations including the obvious need to keep the lights on and warm our homes.

It is possible then that thwarting certain liberal policies on climate could actually turn out to be the best thing to do- even if for entirely the wrong reasons.

Compared with the damage already done by opposing GE crops the damage done by questioning climate science, even in an extreme way, seems speculative at best, and in fact entirely unknown.

As Shermer points out, the left doesn’t seem to care what the actual solutions to global warming are anyway- which is why a strong contingent of the grassroots at least (whatever about Obama’s stance) is fundamentally opposed to both fracking and nuclear: they just want to impose “more government”, or, as I would prefer to say, they just want their solutions.

I have often argued, and still do, that the Left’s apparent pro-science stance on climate change is really just opportunistic, since they are so anti-science on some of the obvious and most promising solutions.

Mooney is correct that the Left and the Right are promiscuous with the science in different ways- but he just seems to be scoring political points in claiming the Left is worse- a rather obvious trap to fall into when claiming to understand the psychology of the opposition, but not your own.