A Commentary on

Green Political Thought

                                                                                                   by David Orton

 “How far can radical green politics be achieved through the
parliamentary context if its ‘structural imperatives’ demand the
progressive abandonment of the principles of such politics?”
                                                                  A. Dobson, p. 129
    I just finished reading Green Political Thought by Andrew Dobson, third edition (paperback, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, ISBN 0-415-22204). This is a very interesting book, well worth purchasing and reading.

    It shows what Dobson calls "ecologism" (deep green thinking) as a distinctive theoretical framework for the 21st century that differs from, and cannot be added onto, liberalism, conservatism, socialism and feminism. In other words, ecologism is a political ideology in its own right. None of this is new, but what is interesting is that Dobson discusses many of the issues all of us deep ecology supporters struggle with. I do not want to review the book here. (I did review the first edition, it was published in the May-June 1994 issue of Canadian Dimension.) But Dobson's recent update  has helped me refocus on some ideas and concepts (democracy, green electoralism, anarchism etc.) that I have been thinking about for several months, stimulated by various discussions. I consider Dobson, along with several others, as significantly contributing to defining what a left tendency in deep ecology is - although he calls this "ecologism," not left biocentrism.

    There are some criticisms of his book, from my perspective.  Dobson writes from a rather "know it all," "calling the shots on high" position, speaking, for example, of the "basic nostrums" of the green movement. (p. 79) He also seems detached from practical involvement, as some of  his comments on the US branch of Earth First! clearly show. (See, for example, Dobson's old hat and dismissive comments on pp. 54 and 81-82.) Although he points out that what sets ecologism apart from other political ideologies is "its focus on the relationship between human beings and the non-human natural world" (p.36), his book seems quite human-centered. There is little sensitivity to other species and their needs/habitats, which is curious because of the deep ecology perspective that Dobson writes from. I also think that the ecologism/environmentalism (or the dark green/light green) distinction which is the major focus in this book, derives from the shallow/deep distinction drawn back in 1972 by Arne Naess. But this ancestry is not directly acknowledged.

    Dobson's contribution is to bring out, in a convincing manner, the revolutionary implications of ecologism. As I noted in my original review, Dobson has an essentially negative view of the environmental movement. He does not seem to see the "mainstream vs. radical" struggle within the movement, although, of course, most environmental activity does not challenge the basic dominant industrial capitalist paradigm. So, for Dobson, environmentalism somehow comes to be equated with light green and contrasted with ecologism. I would also not agree with Dobson that all greens believe nature is female and that "Ecologism claims feminism as a guiding star..." (p. 26)

    This is not a review then, but a commentary on some issues which have been preoccupying me recently. Reading Dobson's overall  thoughtful and enlightening book has helped in focusing my thinking, when I have been in a "mulling over" period of my life. I believe this book can help others concerned with theoretical questions, who seek a sustainable society (but we need to be clear on what is to be sustained), who are willing to look at themselves critically and who are interested in how to get there.

    Those who support deep ecology, left biocentrism, ecologism, etc., and who seek a sustainable society, have to establish, it seems to me and also to Dobson, what are the limiting core beliefs to which they subscribe:

    - It is in the context of such limiting core beliefs that one can only then outline, for example, what "democracy" should mean for supporters of left biocentrism and deep ecology - given that, as Dobson points out, existing democratic structures are based on the nation-state.

    - Or, given these limiting beliefs, should one attempt to fuse ecocentric philosophy with anarchist politics, the main philosophical thrust in the Earth First! Journal? (See for example, "Ecocentric Anarchy" by Daktari in the Earth First! Journal 20th Anniversary Edition, November-December 2000). Perhaps I am unaware, but there is only one deep ecology philosopher that I know, who claimed to be an anarchist - the brilliant and iconoclastic Richard Sylvan, who unfortunately died in 1996.

    - Finally, given such limiting fundamental core beliefs, is there an electoral path to a deep/dark green society? Does green electoralism advance us, or does it create some kind of light green false consciousness and become an obstacle to the needed industrial transformation? Mass participation is excluded by representative democracy. Does green electoralism mean that the message can only be reformist, as the existing green electoral record seems to show? (This is also the socialist electoral record.) Dobson asks, using Petra Kelly's phrase, whether the Greens are to become "merely ecological Social Democrats." (p. 127)

Limiting core beliefs

 "There is no doubt that ecologism's stress on 'limits' of all sorts amounts to the potential curtailment of certain taken-for-granted freedoms, particularly in the realms of production, consumption and mobility." - Dobson, p. 165

    Here is my own partial list of limiting core beliefs for dark green sustainability, but influenced by Dobson's book:

    1. Anti-anthropocentrism as number one priority, that is, accepting the intrinsic value of the non-human environment, the Earth and all its species. All policies in a dark green sustainable society must uphold this non-human centeredness as a first principle. This would mean for example, "rewilding" and relocating humans so that non-human animal and plant species can have space to continue their evolutionary unfolding.

    2. Opposing all increased economic growth policies. Popularizing and acting on the basic "limits to growth" thesis for the planet. In order to advance this, social equity and the redistribution of wealth considerations for the human species must be brought to the foreground in any deep green political formation. (Dobson notes [p. 94] how social security systems are built around the assumptions of growth economies.)

    3. Advocating and advancing policies for the dismantling of industrial society. The scale of the changes are indicated by Rudolf Bahro's mid 1980s call for industrialized countries to reduce their Earth impact to about one tenth at that time. We are long past the point, made in Our Ecological Footprint by Wackernagel and Rees: "If we are to live sustainably, we must ensure that we use the essential products and processes of nature no more quickly than they can be renewed, and that we discharge wastes no more quickly than they can be absorbed."

    4. Calling for major reduction in human populations and advocating specific policies towards this end.

    5. Calling for an end to consumerism. Initiating a large scale discussion of what are vital needs in a context of preserving the planet and other species, and calling for abolishing the advertising industry.

    6. Advocating the necessity for an Earth-centered spiritual transformation, so that human interests become placed in a context of respect for all other species, e.g. animism.

    7. Opposing all conceptions of "private property" as social fictions used to justify the exploitation of the Earth. Advocating usufruct rights, but making this use responsible to an all-species community of life forms.

    8. Asserting that a sustainable ecocentric society cannot and will not be based on sexism, racism or any form of structural discrimination.

    9. Supporting the general organizational principle that "nothing should be done at a higher level than can be done at a lower level," hence being biased towards participation at the local level. Yet dark greens are conscious of the steamroller effect towards globalization which is being fuelled by the multi-national corporations. They realize that negative ecological and social issues often have national and international manifestations and causes. Greens must be prepared to intervene at non-local levels. Dark greens only support bioregional forms of organization that are democratic. It has been pointed out by Dobson (p. 103) and others, that bioregional forms of organization are not necessarily democratic. Dobson also shows that the economic practices of dark green societies "would be built substantially around protectionism." (p. 90)

    10. Advocating the ending of all fossil fuel exploration and extraction, because of global warming and the reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that greenhouse gas emissions must be cut 50-70% if the atmosphere of the planet is to remain hospitable. Similarly with the production and use of chemicals that remain toxic to the environment.

    Democracy, meaning the opportunity for widespread participation in all policy matters, is supported. (Participation must include the representation of the interests of non-human life forms.) Apart from being morally just, different ideas must contend to move our understanding continuously forward. However, for dark greens, such above limiting core beliefs would be basically accepted tenets. It is difficult to see how, given these interventionist beliefs, the black flag of anarchy - however personally appealing, can be the flag that we gather under. The flag must be dark green.

    What attitude to take towards the State, and what political, economic and social arrangements should be supported to put in place these fundamental beliefs, are pressing questions for us all. What we are to retain from the past, in our post-industrial sustainable societies, is also a pressing issue. Dobson notes how deep/dark greens are Utopians and believe that human beings are capable of radical transformation. Revolutionary hope to guide our practice is important.

                                                                                              David Orton
                                                                                              November 07, 2000

        (Printed in the Socialist Studies Bulletin, No. 61, July-September 2000)

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