From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part One.

A guest essay for today and the next two days.

A few days ago, I remarked that for the time being posts on Learning from Dogs were frequently going to be based on the material of others.  It was the only way that I could keep this blog going yet at the same time edit (code for re-write!) a 60,000-word novel that was completed, as a first pass, last November.

Martin Lack is one major step ahead of yours truly.  Not because he, too, writes a blog but because, unlike yours truly, he is a published author!  His book is called The Denial of Sciencehe blogs under the name of Lack of Environment.


Thus I was extremely grateful when a short while ago, Martin offered a major essay of his as a guest post for Learning from Dogs.  Better than that, Martin happily accepted my recommendation to send me his essay in three parts.

It may not be the easiest read out in the ‘blogosphere’ but, trust me, Martin’s essay is profoundly important.


Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 1)


Although it might well be assumed that one does not have to define what is meant by ‘socialists’ or – in UK terms at least – ‘conservatives’, it is certainly necessary to define ‘ecologism’: For the purposes of answering the above question, therefore, the latter should be understood as including thinking, behaviour, and the pursuit of policies that are concerned with the environment; but which are not merely or predominantly anthropocentric (i.e. those concerned with human needs and interests).

In a way, the question is nonsensical because use of the term ‘ecologism’, as coined by Andrew Dobson, appears to pre-suppose that ecological politics is indeed a “new political ideology” (2000: 163). If so, to respond to the above question by saying, in effect, ‘just because both socialists and conservatives (can) lay claim to ecological politics does not change the fact that ecologism is a distinctive political ideology in its own right’, would clearly be tautological. Therefore, to provide a defensible answer “Yes” to the above question – as is the intent herein – it is necessary to explain how and why:

  1. both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics;
  2. the majority of both socialists and conservatives do not do so; and
  3. the ‘ecologism’ that both find so challenging must therefore be considered as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.

The Socialist claim

One does not have to be an eco-socialist in order to believe or appreciate that there is a great deal of common ground shared by socialist and environmental politics. Socialism is a broad left-of-centre church that, it could be argued, includes everything from social democrats to communists. However, if socialism can be summed-up in the tripartite “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” motto of France (with its origins in the French Revolution of 1789-99), whose English translation would be “Freedom, equality, and brotherhood”, then it is not hard to see why socialists would find common cause with those whose goal is, in effect, to seek equal rights for the environment.

The “four pillars” of ecological politics are – as cited by Neil Carter – those devised by the German Green Party in 1983: ecological responsibility, grassroots democracy, social justice, and non-violence (Carter 2007: 48). Clearly, grassroots democracy and social justice are part of the socialist agenda. Therefore, despite the global dominance of free-market economics, Mary Mellor has asserted that far from being a challenge to socialism, “ecology greatly enhances the case for a redefined and refocused socialism” (Mellor 2006: 35).

The Conservative claim

Although by no means a monolithic entity, environmental politics is usually seen as being a predominantly left-of-centre entity (e.g. Carter 2007: 78); and it is often seen as being easier to define what it opposes than to define what it seeks. If so, ecological politics is essentially a reaction against anthropocentric thinking and the selfish pursuit of individual gain without regard for others or the environment. However, some philosophers such as Roger Scruton have therefore tried to distinguish between such selfish, libertarian, goals and those of traditional conservatives who, as their name suggests, seek the preservation of the status quo for the benefit of both the current generation and those that will follow (Scruton 2006: 7-8). Indeed, as early as 1993, in the wake of the Rio Earth Summit, Scruton was advocating the need for a radical re-think of right-wing politics:

Conservatives need to explore, with greens and others, as yet unthought-of dilemmas of life in societies which are no longer buoyed up by the prospect of incessant economic growth or by modernist pseudo-religions of endless world improvement” (Scruton 1993: 173).

However, in 1993, the idea that there might be limits to growth was hardly new; being based on Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons article (1968); the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Limits to Growth report for the Club of Rome (Meadows et al., 1972); E. F. Schumacher’s highly influential book Small is Beautiful (1973). For example:

The illusion of [mankind’s] unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production… based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most… A businessman would not consider a firm to have solved its problems of production and to have achieved viability if he saw that it was rapidly consuming its capital… (Schumacher 1974: 11).

Therefore, although the dilemmas were not “as yet unthought-of”, Scruton had, nevertheless, identified the source of the challenge that does indeed, it is here argued, begin to transform ecological politics into the distinctive political ideology that is ecologism.

Limits to Growth – a political and economic challenge

Although much disputed (by those that point to the fact that commodity prices have generally fallen over time, or that dire predictions have not yet come true), the Limits to Growth argument is based on the reality of the physical constraints of the planet on which we live.

For example: “Infinite growth is impossible in a closed system. With continued growth in production, the economic subsystem must eventually overwhelm the capacity of the global ecosystem to sustain it” (Daly & Farley 2004: 64). However, this is merely a comparatively recent re-statement of (former World Bank economist) Herman E Daly’s longstanding belief in the need for steady-state growth.

Furthermore, Daly and Farley cite Rudolf Clausius has having “coined the term ‘entropy’ for the Second Law [of Thermodynamics], derived from the Greek word for transformation, in recognition of the fact that entropy was a one-way street of irreversible change; a continual increase in the disorder of the universe” (Daly & Farley 2004: 65).

This is a fundamental tenet of modern physics; one that Daly has been repeating (like a “voice in the wilderness” proclaiming a message that nobody wants to hear) for a long time: It was over 35 years ago that he began an article entitled ‘The Economics of the Steady State’ with a quote from the famous scientist Sir Arthur Eddington, who once said, “But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation” (as cited in Daly 1974: 15).

With this in mind, perhaps, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) issued the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” on 18 November 1992, from which the following excerpt is taken:

The earth is finite. Its ability to absorb wastes and destructive effluent is finite. Its ability to provide food and energy is finite. Its ability to provide for growing numbers of people is finite. And we are fast approaching many of the earth’s limits. Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair (UCS 1992).

Today, we are now well beyond these limits. According to the Global Footprint Network (GFN), humanity is now using the resources of at least 1.5 Earth’s (GFN, 2010). The most recent update to the Limits to Growth report was produced in 2005 and, in a section entitled “why technology and markets alone can’t avoid overshoot”, the authors suggested that:

…the more successfully society puts off its limits through economic and technical adaptations, the more likely it is in the future to run into several of them at the same time… the [model] does not run out of land or food or resources or pollution absorption capacity, it runs out of the “ability to cope” [i.e. too much industrial output has to be diverted to solving problems]… Given enough time, we believe humanity possesses nearly limitless problem solving abilities. [However] exponential growth… shortens the time for effective action. It loads stress on a system faster and faster, until coping mechanisms that have been adequate with slower rates of change finally begin to fail (Meadows et al 2005: 223).

Arguably, it could be said that the evidence for this is already becoming clear in the form of widespread social unrest around the globe, as a result of the increasing cost of – or difficulty in gaining access to – food, water, and energy.

For Robyn Eckersley, the reality of limits to growth and the magnitude of the ecological challenge is something from which we need to be emancipated; and it is also the raison d’être for environmentalism:

The environmental crisis and popular environmental concern have prompted a transformation of Western politics… Whatever the outcome of this realignment… the intractable nature of the environmental problems will ensure that environmental politics… is here to stay (Eckersley 1992: 7).

The latest UN projections for global population (published on 3 May 2011) suggests that stabilisation at about 10 billion by 2100AD is still most likely; but use probabilistic methods to account for the uncertainty in future fertility trends. Therefore, depending on changes in fertility rates in differing countries, the press release also indicates that global population could also peak at 8 billion in 2050 and then fall to 6 billion in 2100, or reach 10 billion by 2050 and continue to rise to 15 billion by 2100 (UN 2011: 1).

The key question the UN press release does not address is, “How many humans is too many?” Furthermore, although it depends on average rates of resource consumption, it is quite probable that there are already too many. However, this raises philosophical and/or ethical issues that form the other main aspect of ecological politics, which ensures that ecologism is a distinct political ideology in its own right.

From Environmentalism to Ecologism – the philosophical and ethical challenge

What’s in a name?

In the introduction above, ‘ecological politics’ was, in effect, defined as being environmentally-friendly and ecocentric (i.e. ecologism). For the avoidance of any doubt, therefore, it should be noted that this implies that it is possible to be concerned for the environment but be anthropocentric (i.e. environmentalism). It is precisely because the two things are not the same that Dobson has asserted that “…environmentalism and liberalism are compatible, but ecologism and liberalism are not” (2000: 165). The reason for this is examined below. (Ed. As in tomorrow!)


Carter, N. (2007), The Politics of the Environment (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Daly, H. & Farley, J. (2004), Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. Washington DC: Island Press.

Daly, H. (1974), ‘The Economics of the Steady State’, The American Economic Review, 64(2), pp.15-21.

Dobson, A. (2000), Green Political Thought, (3rd edition). London, Routledge.

Eckersley, R. (1992), Environmentalism and Political Theory. London: UCL Press.

GFN (2010), Living Planet Report 2010: Biodiversity, Biocapacity, and Development. [Online] GFN. Available at> [accessed 18 April 201].

Hardin, G. (1968), ‘The tragedy of the commons’, Science, 168, pp.1243-8.

Meadows D, et al (1972), The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.

Meadows D, et al (2005), Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update, London: Earthscan.

Mellor, M. (2006), ‘Socialism’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.35-50.

Schumacher, E.F. (1974), Small is Beautiful: A study of Economics as if Small People Mattered, London: Abacus.

Scruton, R. (1993), Beyond the New Right. London: Routledge.

Scruton, R. (2006), ‘Conservatism’, in Dobson, A. and Eckersley, R., Political Theory and the Ecological Challenge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.7-19.

UCS, (1992), World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity. [Online] UCS. Available at <> [accessed 14/04/2011].

UN (2011), World Population Prospects: The 2010 Revision – Press Release. [Online] UN. Available at <> [accessed 11/05/2011].

31 thoughts on “From Environmentalism to Ecologism, Part One.

  1. Thanks for publishing this, Paul. The original title for this essay was phrased in a negative way, i.e.: “Does the fact that both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics mean that ecologism cannot be regarded as an ideology in its own right?” As you can see, I tried to simplify this. However, in so doing, I must apologise for any unnecessary confusion caused by my failure to replace ‘No’ with ‘Yes’ in the final sentence of paragraph 2. Given the inversion of the question posed in the title, this sentence should read as follows:

    ‘Therefore, to provide a defensible answer “Yes” to the above question – as is the intent herein – it is necessary to explain how and why:’

    I hope there are no further confusion arising from this change in the original question (but almost dare not read on to find out).


  2. This was a magnificent article, which I actually read from start to finish! Being very much interest in the environment and the all too human tendency to destroy it with every opportunity that becomes available,
    it was interesting to see how the scientific community views the situation and what might possibly be done about it. Thanks for publishing this very informational piece, Paul. mag


    1. MaryAnne, you bring joy to an old Brit! I’m so pleased that you found the essay of interest and, more than that, magnificent.

      (Martin, MaryAnne, and husband Ed, are a couple that Jean and I got to know well when we were living in Payson, Arizona. I have no doubt that MaryAnne would love you to read her response to your work.)


    2. Many thanks, MaryAnne(?). I am delighted to know that the academic context and style in which this essay was written did not prove too impenetrable. I also hope you were not too confused by the typo in the second paragraph (i.e. see my initial comment, above).


      1. Martin…Thanks for taking the time to respond to my note. Clearly this subject matter is not my strong suit, but it is interesting. Hopefully the more exposure to it via Paul’s blog, the better understanding I’ll have.
        Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the ride!


  3. Socialism? Unfortunately, experience teaches us that the evangelist zeal of “socialists” dwarfs their political competence, except possibly in Scandinavia. This is a pity. There is no point having good intentions if you always bankrupt your county and leave “capitalists” the pieces to pick up and stick together again.

    You’d think by now that some sort of “socialo-capitalist” party would have evolved, combining the best of these extremes, but I am not personally aware of any such philosophy or grouping. However, evolution may one day surprise us. All I know at the moment is that the rich are getting richer in almost every country, and while the number of “poor” may be diminishing overall, the gap between them and the rich gets ever greater – like the universe, in which everything is accelerating away from the centre and the furthest bits are accelerating the fastest (the blowing up of a balloon analogy) …… this usually ends up in bloody revolution or dictatorship, depending on how efficient the super-rich are at defending their wealth and the plebs at getting some of it back off them. Either way it is never pretty.

    The problem with politics at the moment is that the choices come down to A) being socialist, moral and bankrupt or B) capitalist and immoral but at least with a chance of avoiding poverty and chaos.


    1. I think I am very much in agreement with you, Chris. It says a l lot when a practicing Catholic can admit that his Church needs to ditch its anthropocentric bias and stop treating the Earth as if we are the only species that matters…

      Anthropocentrism also leads straight to the absurd assumption that the entire world can be turned into a feed lot for humankind with loss of all wildernesses and the extinction of tens of thousands of species.


      1. One of the big questions for me is this. Is the world of our perceptions ONLY what we see, hear, smell and touch or is there another dimension which we cannot sense?

        Personally, I believe the former, which is why I cannot believe in: God, aliens, ghosts, an afterlife, fairies or indeed a sensible socialist economic policy.

        I sometimes feel this makes me boring (or if you like, it just another feature of my boringness), but on the other hand I feel more or less in tune with what I understand “The Enlightenment” to have meant.

        It would be much moree reassuring to know that there is a God (caring if possible, though it iis hard to see how he would be) and indeed aliens, as long as they were friendly. But until there is some sound evidence, I cannot. And there IS no evidence that would stand up in court, is there?

        So, we are alone; the universe is as it is; how it came into being we do not know and it is perhaps unknowable; the planet Earth cares not a jot about us or our feelings; we have no particular right to exist: we just do, by natural accident (until proven otherwise). I am not a fan of the “There are billions of stars in the universe, so there must be other forms of life elsewhere.” argument. “must be” is not “is”.

        So if WE do not ensure our survival by looking after the planet then nobody or nothing will.

        As for “ecology”, good people are trying to do a lot of things, but as far as I can see;

        A) It is too late and too little. Even if we were doing all the right things NOW (which we obviously are not), the time lag before our actions start to correct othe damage done will be too great; we may well have died out by then.

        B) Despite all that is being done, CO2 emissions are going up, countries have STILL found no economic model that does not insist on growth and you cannot have growth without increased energy use, which for the moment and foreseeable future means fossil fuel extraction. And THIS of course continues apace with many countries now desperately trying to frack their way to growth, in the case of the USA rather successfully.

        It is not really my intention or wish to be gloomy, but sticking one’s head in the sand seems pretty silly.


      2. All very interesting, Chris, although I am not sure why your atheism necessitates rejection of socialism. For many people the two are inextricably linked. However, this is all off-topic… All I wanted to point out was that anthropocentrism is a mistake that can be made by both theists and atheists alike; and that it is good to see the former admitting they have made this mistake.


      3. I recently bought the series “Cosmos”, with Carl Sagan – a wonderful presenter. I loved this series the first time I saw it – in the 80s, was it?

        Well, one of the early chapters was about the genius of Johannes Kepler (in a brilliant bio-pic of his life and achievements), who proved once and for all that the Earth was not the centre of the Solar System, and thus logically inferred that the Sun was not the centre of the universe.

        You would have thought that any vestiges the church had of Anthropocentrism would have died out then, several centuries ago, but the power of superstitition is extraordinarily strong in many Humans.


  4. Chris/Martin,

    To my way of thinking, there is a more fundamental issue at work. That is the corrupting effect of power. I’m certain you know the famous saying.

    Thus whatever fine motives propel a person to enter politics, that person seems unable to avoid the call of power and its corrupting effect.

    The only hope is that key countries, and none so key as the USA, evolve a better, more representative, political process. Otherwise, I fear for the coming years.


    1. I agree with Paul 100%. I saw the call of power. Unimaginable. People just get insane. There are also filtering systems to insure they get that way (it starts right away with one week retreats in extremely posh resorts; does not matter if you are capitalist, socialist, blueist, reddist, ecologist, independentist, etc.).


      1. Agreed. It has been clear time and time again throughout history.

        Well, so much is obvious, but WHAT TO DO about it?

        A) We must end the practice of having career politicians: you serve a maximum of TEN years, at the end of which you go.

        B) Inherited wealth allowing the building up of immensely powerful family dynasties over generations must be ended. It is simply untenable. The rich-poor gap is getting obscene everywhere, and money is of course power. My “Abolish inheritance” idea will be wildly unpopular because we are naturally acquisitive and “greedy” and of course would hit those with most to lose who also therefore have the most power.

        Britain’S Eternal Disgrace:

        Our place in the Universe:


  5. With all due respect, Chris and Martin sound rather naïve… Huge wealth and power is where it’s at. And it attracts to politics first, foremost, and soon uniquely, those it attracts most, namely the basest sort.


    1. Yes, one could come to the bizarre conclusion that anyone interested in a career in politics should be disbarred from becoming a politician because such an interest offers clear evidence that they are unsuitable!


      1. A) All a question of balance: SOME ambition is essential; it is when there is too much that it is dangerous.

        B) I would have maximum terms for political service. plus:

        C) Nobody should be allowed to be a public representative until they have fulfilled certain conditions, for example (but to be debated): worked in the private sector; some experience of life in a factory; nobody under 30; high achievement in some industrial, commercial, academic or social field, and so on

        Ed Milliband grew up in a Marxist family, went to a posh school and then straight to university from where he went straight into politics as an “advisor”, thence to become a Minister and now leader of the opposition and possible OM.

        THAT is not the proper background for a national leader, but the House of Commons is full of such people. The % of MPs from “working-class” backgrounds is going down and down and down. In the USA, Congress is over-represented by the rich, famous and/or connected. Where are the mailmen, bus drivers and burger-servers?

        “You need more intelligent Congresspeople than that.”

        Sorry, I can’t take that argument from a country that elected Dan Quayle, George Bush and Sara Palin!!!!!


      2. Right. Glad to see every body agrees. It’s even worse than that. “Representative” politics is intrinsically demonic, as it vests great power in some individuals. That, per se is not just a crime, but absolutely corrupting.


  6. Chris, huge thanks for your three comments. I shall add my own thoughts when I’m in front of my PC and can use a keyboard, as opposed to a ‘wand’ on a tablet screen that is constructing this reply.


  7. Chris &al. : My own site is full of analysis, and remedies. So I wish I see you there more often.

    Representative politics has got to be eliminated. Switzerland has eliminated it at the legislative level. Why can’t all other countries of the West do the same? Because the present plutocracy rules through the representatives, esp. in the USA?

    After we have done the legislative, the executive could be handled along Roman Republican lines and Athenian lines.

    Roman Consuls, for example, had full power only for one month at a time. In Athens enormous quora (say, 8% of the potential electorate) had to be found, before any decision.


    1. Inevitably, your reply invites the question: Do you see any chance of these sorts of changes appearing in the USA in the next, say, ten years?

      Plus, would be delighted if you could drop me an email with links to your blog posts that you would recommend others reading. Would love to republish them in this place.


    2. Excellent synopsis, Patrice. All of the things you mention would be made possible by a return to localism and/or bioregionalism, which may well come to pass by default (i.e. as a result of those in power now being in denial about what is happening to our planet).


      1. We can only hope. Must say, Martin, that your essay has generated a very interesting discussion. One of the best in this place for years.


      2. You are very kind, Paul. I just wish I had the time to spend reading blogs like this (and those of Chris, Patrice, et al.) I am sure I will be much more content once I have settled into my new life as a PhD student. However, just at the moment, I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all. Time, perhaps, to put some of that NLP and/or CBT into practice…


    3. “Switzerland has eliminated it at the legislative level. Why can’t all other countries of the West do the same? Because the present plutocracy rules through the representatives, esp. in the USA?”


      There seems little interest in any so-called “developed” country I know of to evolve their Constitution into something more fit for the common world – as in Switzerland, of course, where the people are entrusted with more say on key issues.

      As you indicate, this is because the political elite (and the financial elites behind them) have no INTEREST in changing a system which currently works to their personal advantage. This seems especially true in the USA, Britain and France, where you even have dynastic families of elite leaders emerging, not dissimilar to Syria and North Korea!

      In the UK, many people do not vote, so ossified do they feel the system has become. This is of course allied to a general plebian disinterest in politics, which is not taught in schools as something absolutely fundamental to a civilisation – and of coruse one’s personal well-being – but as some sort of extra afterthought you can get involved with if you have time or can be bothered.

      What staggers me is that the plebs themselves – many fed up with their politicians to one degree or another – do not look at Switzerland and say: “Well, they seem to manage OK – year after year of boring stability and excellence while the rest of the world is in chaos” and demand the same. I really don’t get this.

      Of course, there are special reasons for Switzerland’s success – not least in keeping out of the war while the Anglo-Saxons (and Yes, Patrice – the Free French, too!) were saving Europe, but even so.
      Everything evolves, but the US and British constitutions in particular evolve at snail-like pace, and many would say are not fit for purpose. The British system NEVER returns a parliament that is representative of the people’s wishes. This is partly why many do not bother voting, but it cannot be right, even if PR also has its drawbacks.


    4. Thank you for the compliment Patrice. I dunno about you, but there is so much to read, think and write about that I can’t find time for everything – even though I am ALSO retired now!. However, I will try to drop in more often, though some of your reasoning is above my head! Having limited time and cerebral capacity, I try to “cut to the chase” as I think the Americans quaintly say – to synthesize out and summarize the key points so that I and the masses can have a chance of grasping them …..

      … without of course going so far as to end up with a mere series of soundbites, such as:

      “Two legs bad; four legs good”, which even Tony Blair would have been proud of!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.