The Ecocentric Left and Green Electoralism

                                                                                                                                        By David Orton               

            In the June 2004 federal election, the Green Party polled over 4 percent of the votes. There is a discussion going
        on about this newly emerged "green" political force in Canada, about its social base and what policies it should
        be putting forth. This commentary is a contribution to the debate.

            What should be the overall character of parties which call themselves Green and advocate, as does the
        Canadian party, that the public should embrace them as a way forward out of the Earth-threatening ecological
        crisis? According to Saskatchewan Green John Warnock, the Canadian party is "most right wing" of Green
        parties in the English speaking world. (1)

            If one accepts participating in electoral politics (which is a discussion in itself), then what the federal Green
        Party accomplished was quite an achievement - that is, running candidates in all the federal ridings; and
        qualifying for the federal electoral subsidy of $1.75 per vote, each year until the next election. The Green Party
        has clearly for the first time become part of the federal political landscape in Canada. The current leadership
        of the party and party activists must be given credit for this achievement. But, more importantly, the emergence
        of the federal party reflects a developing green consciousness and base in Canadian society, to which many
        environmental and other non-party green activists have long contributed.

            What should be the attitude of Greens towards conservatives who are sympathetic to ecological
        considerations, illustrated perhaps by the support for David Orchard in the old Progressive Conservative Party?
        Orchard had about one third of the members mobilized behind him, for an anti-free trade, pro-environmental
        platform. There are not only Red Tories but also Green Tories. The late German deep green philosopher
        Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997), spoke of an ecological politics cutting across all the ‘isms’ of bourgeois society and
        spoke of a “radical conservatism” or a “conservative anti-capitalism.” (2) In Canada, Robert Bateman, the
        wildlife artist, who is also a conservative, recently spoke out against the neo-conservatives, who in his view are
        not conservatives at all because they destroy “cherished institutions” and wreck “havoc on our human heritage
        as well as our natural heritage.” (3) A green political formation will therefore theoretically draw from
        conservatives who truly want to “conserve” the natural world, but this does not mean the resolution of the
        ecological question is possible within industrial capitalist society. For Bahro, it clearly was not - and also not
        for left biocentrist greens like myself.

            What is the role of the green Left? Leading the move from a human-centered to an ecocentric consciousness
        is fundamental. We need to place the welfare of the Earth and all its life forms first. “Community” has to include
        not just humans, but other animals, plants and the Earth itself. In past animistic societies, this was the situation.
        We need to bring their sense of Earth spirituality back. There is not only a liberal democracy, with all its
        limitations for deeper Greens, but there is also an ecocentric democracy and governance. Ecocentric justice is
        much more inclusive than human justice. A Green Party has to decide about all this, not just how to run its
        affairs democratically, from a human-centered perspective.

            The federal Green Party says it endorses deep ecology in its Election Platform. This support for deep
        ecology is very significant, even if much of the hurriedly thrown together Platform for the recent federal
        election goes against this endorsement in practice and sucks up, in quite a disgusting manner, to a corporate,
        supposedly self-regulating environmentalism. Green Party dissidents, critical of this rightward direction with
        its overall emphasis on economic growth, e.g. boosting “job creation and productivity”, “increased
        prosperity for all”, and “increasing our global competitiveness”, call it “blue light”. When the national business
        newspaper, The Globe and Mail, editorially speaks favourably of the Green Party, as it did in the past
        federal election, it means they correctly read the reassuring corporate signals being sent out.

            Ecology cannot be an "add-on" to a general leftism, while remaining human-centered in basic orientation.
        Joan Russow, a leftist and former leader of the federal Green Party, who defected to the New Democratic
        Party and became a very public attack dog for them against the Green Party in the run-up to the last federal
        election, showed such a social justice-focussed consciousness, in her past tenure in the federal Green Party.

            For the deep green, or ecocentric, Left, what it means to be a “deeper” Green, is the primacy of ecocentric
        consciousness - that is deep ecology, and that social justice, while very important, is secondary to such a
        consciousness. The left-right distinction is therefore secondary, and mainly concerns anthropocentric politics
        and regimes which are framed in “liberal democratic” terminology. John Warnock closes his article saying
        that history will judge the Greens “by whether they stand with the world's poor.” This viewpoint is called one
        of “human-welfare ecology” by Judith McKenzie in her recent book, Environmental Politics In Canada.(4)
        One thinks of why this is not a deep green quote, when remembering the Dedication for the 1993 book
        Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall. This book, with its pictures and text
        about clearcuts throughout North America, has armed countless opponents of industrial forestry. The book's
        Dedication has always moved me and put our own human environmental and social struggles in a larger Earth
                “This book is in memory of the plantlife, birds, insects, animals, and indigenous cultures that have
                been driven to extinction by the greed and delusion of human arrogance. All of us in the Industrial
                Growth Society must take the responsibility for this condition and make it our duty to halt the
                continuation of economic and social structures that perpetuate this ‘death of birth.’” (5


            I have some rather fundamental questions about the alleged green parliamentary road forward, which prevent
        me taking out a Green Party membership.

            - Is a political party playing by rules set up to favour an industrial capitalist status quo, within what is perhaps
        misleadingly called “liberal democracy”, not doomed to eventual absorption and neutralization? As Judith
        McKenzie, points out in her book, “Canada's constitution is silent on the rights of non-human forms of life.” (6)

            - Does Green Party activity not become a deceit, perpetrated against those living in liberal democracies,
        because of the very rules of conduct set up for the participants? As McKenzie says, the “liberal democratic
        tradition” encompasses “anthropocentrism or domination over nature, individual self interest and competitive
        lifestyle, capitalism and the primacy of science and technology, representative democracy, the nation state and
        centralization.” (7) To this McKenzie counterposes Ecologism/Deep Ecology/Ecocentrism: “ecocentrism
        (harmony with nature), communalism/co-operative lifestyle, sustainability, grass-roots/direct democracy,
        bioregions and decentralization.” (8)

            - How does one reconcile the "oversell" or exaggeration of electoral politics, well shown by the leadership
        of the federal Green Party in the last election, with speaking necessary ecological truths about the end of
        industrial society as we know it? The truth, for example, that material life, regarding consumption of industrial
        consumer goods, will be much worse in the future? As Saral Sarkar pointed out in his book Eco-socialism or
, the ecology movement promises the shrinking of economic growth and a “lower standard of
        living.” (9) This means that if a green party does not promise a lower material standard of living, it is practising
        electoral deception.

            - If green parties claim to be a political arm of the green and environmental movements, why is it, for example
        in Canada, that this is just a verbal claim, with no discussion of actual content?

            - Why do green party members seem to believe that what has happened to other green parties, e.g. the
        German Green Party, has no seeming relevance for Canada and is basically ignored in policy discussions?

            - Why are long time green party activists often so intolerant and dismissive of any criticism which call into
        question party activities?

            I am a movement Green and never was a party Green. I voted for the Green Party in the recent election
        and have been interested for many years in what would be the appropriate political vehicle for the embryonic
        green movement in Canada. My problem is, as long suffering Green friends know, that I feel that the history
        of social democratic and green parties is one of ultimate absorption to the industrial status quo. Rudolf Bahro,
        one of our heroes (at least mine), showed this in the early 80s with his resignation from the German Green
        Party. Yet the Green Party, warts and all, is a huge step forward on the Canadian political map for those
        seeing the necessity for an Earth-centered consciousness.

                                                                                                                                        August 2004

        Published in the Socialist Studies Bulletin, Number 74, Fall/Winter 2004; also published in Synthesis/Regeneration
            #36, Winter 2005.


        1. Warnock, John, “‘Neither Left Nor Right But Ahead.’ What is a Green?” Posted on various
        green-oriented internet discussion groups. It was posted by Stuart Hertzog on the list serve on July 21, 2004.

        2. Bahro, Rudolf, Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation,
        (Bath, Gateway Books, 1994), pp. 164-165.  The term “conservative anti-capitalism” was used in a
        personal letter by Bahro to me, dated December 20, 1995.

        3. Bateman, Robert, December 13, 2003, “Comment: I am a conservative, I conserve”, The Globe and

        4. McKenzie, Judith, Environmental Politics In Canada: Managing The Commons Into The Twenty-First
, (Don Mills, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 14.

        5. Devall, Bill, editor, Clearcut: The Tragedy Of Industrial Forestry, (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books
        and Earth Island Press, 1993), p. 3.

        6. McKenzie, p. 22.

        7. Ibid, p. 17. See Table 1.4 “Green Thought and the Liberal Democratic Tradition.”

        8. Ibid, p. 17.

        9. Sarkar, Saral, Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism? A critical analysis of humanity’s fundamental choices,
        (London and New York, Zed Books, 1999), pp. 226-227. I do not accept that the choice is between eco-
        capitalism or eco-socialism, as the title of this book implies. The shape of the future economic formation for an
        ecocentric and green sustainable society is yet to be determined.

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