The concluding Part Three of Martin Lack’s guest essay.
Can ecologism be regarded as an ideology in its own right? (Part 3)
Therefore, having now surveyed all the relevant “territory”, we shall now consider the third and final part of the answer to the question as proposed in the Introduction.
Ecologism – Neither left nor right, but out in front?
According to Philip Shabecoff, it was members of the European Green parties that were the first to assert that they are “neither left nor right but out in front” (2000: 109).
For this to be true, ecologism would have to represent a new paradigm that rejects (or at least challenges) beliefs central to conventional politics (of any orientation). This, it is here argued, is indeed the case: In a discussion of the libertarian ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, William Ophuls observed that they “…have not gone unchallenged, but with very few exceptions, liberals, conservatives, socialists, communists, and other modern ideologies have taken abundance for granted and assumed the necessity of further growth” (Ophuls 1977: 145).
What is the problem with modernity?
As suggested by Anthony Giddens, modernity encompasses “…modes of social life or organisation which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence” (Giddens 1991: 1).
The problem is that the accumulation of personal wealth has become the sole objective of many people in modern society; and perpetual growth is posited as a means whereby even the poorest might achieve it.
Karl Marx (as cited by Jon Elster) coined the term “money fetishism” to describe the belief that money (and/or precious metals) have intrinsic (use) value rather than just instrumental (exchange) value, which Marx felt was as misguided as the religious practice of endowing inanimate objects with supernatural powers (Elster 1986: 56-7).
However, whereas Karl Marx saw capitalism as the problem, the ideology that he gave his name to is just as guilty of Daly’s “growthmania”. For example, whereas Jack Goody accepts that capitalism has been “…connected with the growth of rationality and of secularisation; more recently with urbanisation and industrialisation”, he also notes that for Marxist regimes “…modern meant industrialisation without capitalism” (Goody 2004: 6).
The terms “use value” and “exchange value” were first put forward by Aristotle (384-322 BC) who, according to Daly, also recognised the danger of focusing on the latter (i.e. whereby the accumulation of wealth becomes an end in itself) and, alluding to Marx’s criticism, Daly suggested that the paperless economy (where no useable commodities actually change hands) is the logical end-point for money fetishism (Daly 1992: 186).
Finally, on the subject of the consequences of “the problem”, although the centrally-planned economies of the former USSR and China would appear to have had their day, the flaws of the capitalist system they seem so keen to embrace have also revealed themselves in recent time. For example, when John Gray came to write the introduction to the second edition of his book “False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism”, he included the following comment:
In the first edition of this book, published in March 1998, I wrote: ‘Today’s regime of global laissez-faire will be briefer than even the belle époque of 1870 to 1914, which ended in the trenches of the first world war’… Not much more than a decade ago this seemed outlandish, but there have since been many signs that global capitalism was heading for a fall (Gray 2009: xii).
Does ecologism provide the answers?
The starting point for ecologism is the concept of carrying capacity (the maximum population of a species) that an ecosystem can support in perpetuity (Dryzek 2005: 27). In this instance, the species is Homo sapiens and the ecosystem is the planet Earth. Therefore, in 1968, Hardin suggested that these limits exist and must be faced. In 1993, frustrated by the absence of discussion on population growth in international politics, he pointed out that:
Two centuries of intermittent wrestling with population problems have produced useful insights about the reality and nature of limits… Four centuries of sedation by the delusion of limitlessness have left humanity floundering in a wilderness of rhetoric… From this it must be inferred that someday political conservatism will once again be defined as contented living within limits. The limitless world view will have to be abandoned (Hardin 1993: 5-6).
In 1968, his solution had been “...mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon by the majority of the people affected” (Hardin 1968: 1247). However, in an apparent reference to the work of an array of scholars including Malthus, Hardin, Meadows, Ehrlich and others, Daly lamented that:
Anyone who asserts the existence of limits is soon presented with a whole litany of things that someone once said could never be done but subsequently were done… Continuing to study economies only in terms of the [exchange value of money] is like studying organisms only in terms of the circulatory system, without ever mentioning the digestive tract. (Daly 1992: 185-186).
Much more recently, Daly has reminded us that, “Ecological limits are rapidly converting ‘economic growth’ into ‘uneconomic growth’-that is throughput growth that increases costs by more than it increases benefits, thus making us poorer not richer” (Daly 2007: 39).
So, it would seem that the challenge of living “within our planet’s means” remains significant; one that few politicians are willing to discuss (because there are no votes to be gained in doing so). It is this fact that the environment cannot speak for itself (i.e. it is disenfranchised) that led Goodin to the conclusion that “nature has interests… as deserving of protection as anyone else’s, which must be ‘encapsulated’ as part of a discursive participatory democracy” (Goodin 1996: 835).
Similarly, whereas Goodin used the term “encapsulated interests” (to describe how one party’s interests are incorporated in those of another), Dobson suggested that non-human animals and future generations of humans (and maybe even other species) are “new environmental constituencies” requiring human representatives to look after their interests (Dobson 1996: 125).
All that needs to be decided is who we shall admit into the “community of justice” (i.e. how radical you want to be).
Citing Low and Gleeson (1998) and Baxter (1999), Derek Bell therefore distinguishes environmental and ecological justice as follows: Environmental justice concerns the distribution of environmental benefits and burdens among human beings. Whereas ecological justice is concerned with justice between human beings and the rest of the natural world (Bell 2006: 208). Furthermore, Bell also spells out the importance of this distinction (just in case any reader has not appreciated it yet) as follows:
Advocates of environmental justice merely insist that the instrumental value of the environment to humans should be recognised in a theory of social justice or justice among humans. Ecological justice makes the much more radical claim that justice extends beyond relations among humans so that we can talk about ‘justice to nature’ (Bell 2006: 208).
The question that has been addressed herein is whether or not ecologism can or should be regarded as a political ideology in its own right given that both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to some aspects of ecological politics.
In order to provide a defensible answer to this question, it was necessary to define what is meant by ecological politics (i.e. the pursuit of policies that are concerned with the environment; but which are not merely or predominantly anthropocentric) and ecologism (i.e. the pursuit of environmental policies that are biocentric or ecocentric). This therefore highlighted the fact that the two are not the same thing; and that ecological politics also includes anthropocentric environmentalism.
However, it has been demonstrated that, rather than being a simple dividing line within the field of ecological politics, anthropocentrism and ecocentrism represent opposite ends of a spectrum along which it is possible to adopt a variety of philosophical positions. Furthermore, although it has also been demonstrated that it is very difficult to be entirely one thing or the other, when faced with difficult policy decisions, almost everyone (both socialists and conservatives included), tends to favour self-preservation. Therefore, the default position of all humans tends to be towards the anthropocentric end of the spectrum.
Nevertheless, to avoid the tautological response to the question (“ecologism must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right because it is!”), it was deemed necessary to demonstrate how and why both socialists and conservatives can lay claim to ecological politics (although the majority of both socialists and conservatives do not do so) and, therefore, how and why the ecologism that both find so challenging must be regarded as a political ideology in its own right.
In so doing, it has been shown that some socialists find common cause with those that seek equal rights for the environment; whereas some conservatives may do so in pursuit of maintaining the status quo. However, both generally assume the necessity of further growth (Ophuls); what Daly called ‘growthmania’. Furthermore, capitalism is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may consume; whereas Marxism (an extreme form of socialism) is fixated upon the inherent value of things we may produce. However, ecologism insists that nature has inherent – if not intrinsic – value in and of itself; independent of our finding a use for it.
Ecologically-minded scientists and economists have pointed out that the Earth is finite and its capacity to accommodate humans is finite; whereas the evidence of at least the last 40 years is that many prefer to refuse to accept this reality and, as Schumacher pointed out, are spending environmental capital as if it were income. Therefore, because ecologism demands justice that is ecological (ecocentric) – not just environmental (anthropocentric), it represents a fundamental challenge to conventional politics and, as such, must be regarded as a distinctive political ideology in its own right.
Baxter, B. (1999), Ecologism: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Bell, D. (2006), ‘Political Liberalism and Ecological Justice’ [online], Analyse & Kritik 28, pp.206-22. [Paper originally presented at ECPR General Conference, Marburg, 18–21 September 2003]. Available at <http://analyse-und-kritik.net/2006-2/AK_Bell_2006.pdf> [accessed 18 April 2011].
Daly, H. (1992), Steady State Economics (2nd edition). London: Earthscan.
Daly, H. (2007), Ecological Economics and Sustainable Development, Selected Essays of Herman Daly. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.
Dobson, A. (1996), ‘Representative democracy and the environment’, in Lafferty, W. and Meadowcroft, J (eds), Democracy and the Environment: Problems and Prospects. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, pp.124-39.
Dryzek, J. (2005), The Politics of the Environment (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ehrlich, P & Ehrlich, A. (1996), Betrayal of Science and Reason. New York: Island Press.
Elster, J. (1986), An Introduction to Karl Marx. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Giddens, A. (1991), The Consequences of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Goodin, R. (1996), ‘Enfranchising the earth, and its alternatives’, Political Studies, 44, pp.835-49.
Goody, J. (2004), Capitalism and Modernity: The Great Debate. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Gray, J. (2009), False Dawn: The Delusions of Modern Capitalism, 2nd edition. London: Granta.
Hardin, G. (1993), Living Within Limits: Ecology, Economics, and Population Taboos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Low, N. and Gleeson, B. (1998), Justice, Society and Nature: An Exploration of Political Ecology. London: Routledge.
Malthus, T. (1798), An Essay on the Principle of Population. London: J Johnson.
Ophuls, W. (1977), Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity. San Francisco: Freeman & Co..
Shabecoff, P., (2000), Earth Rising: American Environmentalism in the 21st Century, Washington DC: Island Press.
I know a good number of readers have followed Martin’s essay since Tuesday and I would like to thank Martin, on my own account and on behalf of all LfD readers, for giving me the opportunity to republish the essay.