Green leftism or ecocentrism

Dobson (2000) and Eckersley (1992) argue that ecology provides the base on which the green superstructure of egalitarianism and democracy can rest. Robyn Eckersley defines ecocentrism as 'a picture of reality ... in which there are no absolutely discrete entities and no absolute dividing lines between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate, or the human and the nonhuman' (1992: 49); whereas anthropocentrism, the basis of all other ideologies, views humans as having superior interests to the rest of nature. Extending this point, she argues that green politics includes emancipation but extends it to the nonhuman world. Radical green politics can be 'grounded in a broader defence of autonomy (let us say for the moment, the autonomy of human and non-human beings to 'unfold in their own ways and according to their "species-life") and by association, a broader critique of domination (of humans and other species)' (Eckersley 1996: 226). Ecocentrism can be seen as the third wave of emancipatory politics, extending emancipation to nature, following the liberal championing of civil and political freedoms against feudalism, and the socialist drive for greater equality between humans. But, while ecocentrism is new and distinctive, it might not be the only basis on which the greens can claim to be new.

There are occasions when actions by greens can only be explained as motivated by ecocentrism. For instance, when US direct activist Julia Hill endured a year on a platform in northern California to protect a giant redwood tree she did so not because of the impact of her action on global warming or to challenge a promethean approach to science - both of which could be justified on the basis of human-centred concerns - but because she believed that the forests had a right to protection and that they should be able to 'unfold in their own ways and according to their "species-life" ' (in Eckersley's terms). However, the important question is not are such actions green, but are non-ecocentric ecological radicals insufficiently green?

First, even in their ecological politics, it is not so clear that all greens must necessarily be ecocentric. It can be argued that several themes in greens' ecological discourse are potentially independent of ecocentrism, such as the need to be cautious about technology or interventions in nature whose effects are unpredictable, the argument that a sustainable society must be based on reduced rates of consumption, and the importance of the idea of sufficiency as a basis on which to develop a less materialist and less productivist vision of the good life. Of course, ecocentrism, as defined by Eckersley, does not contradict these aims, but nor is it necessary to them. All can also be defended on the grounds that they are better for humans.

Greens' egalitarianism and green commitments to democracy have also been argued to stem from ecocentrism, but they need not do so. The French ecosocial-

ists such as René Dumont, André Gorz, Jean-Paul Deléage and Alain Lipietz, all of whom have been significant figures with the French Green movement, have developed distinctive theories linked by the themes that the new conditions in society, of which the ecological crisis is one, require radical political and social changes towards greater democracy and global redistribution of wealth. None could be regarded as ecocentrics and ecocentric language is almost non-existent within the French green movement (Faucher 1999).Yet, they are characterised as much by their break with traditional socialist ideas as by continuities (see Whiteside 1997), and all share a commitment to the ideas outlined as green above.

A different example comes from activists involved in environmental direct action networks in Britain. Many said that the use of Earth First! as a label for their network was inappropriate. They rejected the idea that the interests of the earth could be placed above those of people and were worried that Earth First! meant people last. However, changing the label was difficult because even if there was little support in Britain for the kind of deep ecological ideas that had shaped the commitments of the early founders of the US Earth First! network, the name itself was still part of their common history.

This also seems to have changed in Australia. As Doyle says:

Until as recently as five years ago, the environment movement in Australia reflected a particularly narrow definition of 'the environment' ... In the more radical groups 'wilderness' agendas dominated, with their concomitant 'ecocentric' arguments about the rights of 'other nature' ... More recently, the environment movement in Australia has been challenged to reshape its agenda into something more reminiscent of broad-ranging green movements elsewhere ... Reflecting the change in the social movement's agenda is the inclusion of issues relating to urban and rural environments. the rights of indigenous peoples, other issues of social equity, non-violence and democracy, while still advocating the rights of the non-human.

While ecocentrism might provide the strongest basis for a green claim to be distinctive, it is not the only basis for such a claim. There are other ways to be green and radical without being simply 'environmentalist', or a hybrid of existing ideologies. This also means that while green ideology can include ecocentrism, it is not essential to it. 9

One of the concerns about ecocentrism then is that if seen as foundational it might be privileged over egalitarianism and democracy when conflicts arise between the interests of humans and those of nature. Of course, not privileging one principle over another does not mean that conflicts between them can be avoided. But if, when such conflicts arise, they are kept distinct, it will at least be clear which principle is being favoured.

What are the consequences of making egalitarianism and democracy essential features of green ideology, along with ecological rationality? The first is that green authoritarianism and right-wing green ideology become oxymorons. Conservative inclinations attributed to green thought include the suspicion of progress and the association of history with the growth of destructive human rationality. Yet, on the question of progress, there is little evidence from green movements of hostility to progress, beyond the advocacy of caution with regard to developments that might threaten environmental stability. This can be defended as much on rational grounds as any other given the evidence of ecological crisis and green arguments that scientific research and particularly technological development reflect the interests of those with most power. Although there may be other logical and theoretically interesting possibilities for a politics based on ecology to proceed in a conservative or authoritarian direction this is not green politics as it exists, or is likely to exist, within green movements.

A final alternative means of defining green ideology as based on ecology is Mary Mellor's suggestion that the logics of different ideologies can be kept distinct. She says that a feminist green socialism should be:

Feminist because it acknowledges the centrality of women's life-producing and life-sustaining work and focuses upon the predominance of men in destructive institutions. Green, because it argues that we should act and think globally to regain a balance between the needs of humanity and the ability of the planet to sustain them. Socialist, because it recognises the right of all the people's of the world to live in a socially just and equitable community

(Mellor 1992a: 279)

Commenting on this, Freeden (1996) points out that in cases of conflict it might be difficult to establish which of feminism, ecology and socialism has priority. This point also applies to the relationship between emancipation and the interests of nature in Eckerlsley's (1992) definition of ecocentrism. For Eckersley ecocentrism is based on the assumption that questions of humanity's relationship with nature are logically prior to questions of social organisation. This suggests that in cases of conflict, the interests of nature will be decisive. However, I am not convinced that many greens would go this far. In some cases, such as experiments on animals for medical research, greens might be prepared to run the risk of failing to alleviate human suffering by refusing to make animals suffer. However, there are also cases where nature may lose out to human interests. For instance, few greens would back the shoot-to-kill policy used against poachers in African wildlife parks10 if poverty is a major cause of poaching. Nor would they want to punish poor farmers who burn rainforests. If egalitarianism, democracy and ecology come into conflict, the priority given to each will have to be negotiated politically. In such conflicts greens will take different positions, while remaining identifiably green.

Mellor's position is perhaps the most persuasive alternative to the definition argued for thus far in this chapter. It avoids the problem that might arise in too broad a definition of green ideology, that of subsuming different ideological positions under one general heading. For instance, greens do not all agree on every form of equality. The forms of feminist discourse differ within and between different green parties, even though their policies on civil rights and male violence and measures to reduce inequalities of gender are similar. And few greens would want to be defined as socialist, even if many would be prepared to be defined as anti-capitalist. Yet, while grouping diverse green discourses under equality, democracy and ecology hides much disagreement, this disagreement is not greater than that in other ideologies. Dobson says (2000: 4) that while we use terms such as social liberalism to signal diversity within ideologies, we still want to retain a sense of the differences between ideologies. Thus greens' distinctive-ness rests on their ecological politics. If greens based their other egalitarian and democratic arguments on ecological rationales, such as the view that nature can provide us with guidance about the social world, it would be possible to show that green ideology was ecologically based. Although a few greens do this, most do not, not least because it is so unconvincing to see in nature guidance about the social world, given that nature has also been used to support inequality and even racial superiority and since the interdependence of species in nature does not prove that social equality between humans is necessary. Interdependence might also be said to characterise hierarchical social relationships such as that between master and slave. Thus, it seems that if we are to define green ideology in a way that includes both the most ecocentric greens and a larger number of non-ecocentric green activists, who themselves feel ideologically distinct from other political groups, we need to see ecology, egalitarianism and grassroots democracy as all essential elements in green ideology. And, even if the ecological politics of the greens are their most distinctive feature, they do not define green ideology in full. Thus, as Barry says (1999) green politics is ecologically centred but not ecologically based. Moreover, it is distinctive because it combines ecology, egalitarianism and democracy in a radical form that challenges taken-for-granted features of current society in ways that are not done by any existing ideology.

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Responses

  • semere
    What is ecocentric movement in environmental systems?
    7 years ago
  • james
    Are materialists ecocentric?
    6 years ago

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