Historical specificity

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The issue of the history of ecologism has been the focus of considerable disagreement in recent commentaries. What is generally accepted is that there are three views in contention (Vincent, 1992; Dobson, 1993a). The first attempts to trace ecological sentiments back to the dawn of the human species, at least to the palaeolithic or neolithic period; the second 'dates the ecology movement from the 1960s and 1970s'; and the third 'identifies the roots of ecological ideas in the nineteenth century' (Vincent, 1993, pp. 210-11).

The first position is often associated with the view that many thousands of years ago there existed a golden age of peaceful coexistence with nature which ended - on Max Oelschlaeger's reading - with the onset of the neolithic era (Oelschlaeger, 1991, p. 28), and which we have (in the modern industrial world) failed to recapture to this day. Apart from the insecure nature of the evidence for such claims (disputed with some success in Lewis (1992, pp. 43-81), for example), the links between what human beings thought tens of thousands of years ago and modern ecology seem too tenuous to tell us much about the nature of a contemporary ideology.

The third view - that ecologism has its roots in the nineteenth century - is probably the most widely accepted (see e.g. Heywood, 1992; Macridis, 1992; Vincent, 1992), and is often based on a reading of Anna Bramwell's seminal Ecology in the 20th Century (1989). Among the similarities between nineteenth-century thinking (some of it, anyway) and contemporary ecologism, Vincent notes: 'a critical reaction to the European Enlightenment tradition . . . [E]cologism looks sceptically at the supreme value of reason', a denial of 'the central place of human beings and [the belief] that nature is without value and can simply be manipulated by humans', and finally the impact which Malthus and Darwin made for the integration of a 'strongly materialist and scientific perspective with an immanent and naturalistic understanding of religion and morality' (Vincent, 1992, pp. 211-12).

We might want to quibble over the detail of these claims, but it would be foolish to deny the broad parallels between the combination of scientific rationalism and Romantic arcadianism in both the nineteenth century and today's ecology movement. These (and other) parallels have been reaffirmed by Bramwell in the belief that the import of her earlier work has been largely accepted (Bramwell, 1994, pp. 25-33). Vincent believes that these parallels have been deliberately overlooked due to the reactionary political views associated with such positions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Basing his argument largely on Bramwell's work, he suggests that the carriers of ecology in this period were primarily conservatives and nationalists (particularly of a 'folkish' persuasion) and, later, fascists and Nazis - it is by now de rigueur to point out that Himmler established an organic farm at Dachau concentration camp, and that both Himmler and Hitler were vegetarians (Bramwell, 1989, pp. 204 and 270, fn. 1). These, argues

Vincent, are embarrassing skeletons for today's predominantly left-leaning political ecologists, and so they are confined to the cupboard by the simple expedient of dating ecologism from, say, 1966 or 1973 rather than from 1866 or 1873 (the main contenders for when German biologist Ernst Haeckel first used the word 'ecology'; Bramwell, 1989, p. 253, fn. 2).

Quite how much there is in this political reason for making ecologism very contemporary rather than merely modern is hard to determine, but we do need to distinguish the search for the roots of ecologism from a description of the ideology itself. It is undeniable that ideas similar to those entertained by modern greens may be found in late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century industrial and industrializing societies - and although Vincent does not mention the 'energy economists' of France, Britain, the USA, Russia and Germany in the first quarter of the twentieth century, he might have done so (Bramwell, 1989, pp. 64-91). This is not, though, the same as saying that ecologism - as ideology - existed at that time, and two modern-day factors have served to bring ecologism fully into focus since then.

First, the scope of concerns in the modern age is new. Most of the resource, waste and pollution problems that were raised in earlier times had a fundamentally local character. Modern ecologism rests a large part of its case on the belief that environmental degradation has taken on a global dimension - most obviously in cases such as global warming and ozone depletion, but also in view of the potentially global climatic implications of deforestation (Dobson, 2004). Human beings have always interacted with their environment, of course, and not always wisely (Ponting, 1991). But greens believe that in the modern age the scale of human activity relative to the biosphere's capacity to absorb and sustain it has increased to the point where long-term human survival and the biosphere's integrity are put in doubt. This view - right or wrong - helps to distinguish ecologism from its more ad hoc environmentalist past and present.

Second, political ecologists believe that single-issue approaches to dealing with environmental problems do not address their seriousness at a sufficiently fundamental level. Greens campaign against acid rain, deforestation and ozone depletion, of course, but they do so by arguing that these problems stem from basic political, social and economic relations that encourage unsustainable practices. This systemic analysis leads to systemic prescriptions for change, and the interrelated and wide-ranging nature of the critique is a characteristic of modern ecolo-gism missing from its nineteenth- and early twentieth-century progenitors. It is somewhat ironic that Green parties are criticized for being single-issue parties when the ideology - ecologism - from which they draw their inspiration is devoted to showing how it is the connections between various aspects of social, political and economic life that produce environmental problems.

It may be ill advised to try to be precise about dates in this context, but The Limits to Growth report of 1972 is hard to beat as a symbol for the birth of ecologism in its fully contemporary guise. As Eckersley has put it: 'the notion that there might be ecological limits to economic growth that could not be overcome by human technological ingenuity and better planning was not seriously entertained until after the much publicized "limits to growth" debate of the early 1970s' (Eckersley, 1992, p. 8). This is how the report expressed its principal conclusion:

We are convinced that realization of the quantitative restraints of the world environment and of the tragic consequences of an overshoot is essential to the initiation of new forms of thinking that will lead to a fundamental revision of human behaviour and, by implication, of the entire fabric of present day society.

The sense of the radical change proposed by deep-greens is captured in the final phrases of this quotation, and clearly goes beyond the managerial environmentalism that I am keen to separate from ecologism proper.

Recognizing the historical situatedness of the ideology helps us to understand the nature of the ideology itself. We are provided with a boundary beyond which (in the past) ecologism could not have existed, and therefore any movement or idea behind that boundary can bear only an informing relation to ecologism as I think we ought to understand it. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring (1965; first published in 1962), then, can only inform ecologism rather than 'be' it due to the absence of an overriding political strategy for dealing with the problems it identifies. My suggestion is that, in 1962, ecologism (and therefore the possibility of being radically green) did not exist, and that Rachel Carson's book and the period in which it was written are best viewed as part of the preconditions for ecologism. Looking at it in this way we shall avoid the mistake made in many commentaries on and anthologies of socialism, say, which talk of the cleric John Ball (who spoke on behalf of English peasants during the rebellion of 1381) as if he were a socialist. The most that can be said of him, living as he did well before the French and Industrial Revolutions that gave birth to socialism proper, was that his sentiments were socialistic. Similarly, the pre-1970

ideas and movements that have an affinity with ecologism are 'green' rather than green.

The final important consequence of historicizing the ideology is that it enables us to emphasize the novelty of its analysis. It has been remarked that, despite its claims to the contrary, the green movement's perspective is merely a reworking of old themes. Thus, for example, its warnings about population growth are substantially contained in the work of Thomas Malthus; its reluctance fully to embrace the mechanistic reason characteristic of the Enlightenment was a recurrent theme in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century; and even its apocalyptic tone has been prefigured on countless occasions in countless Messianic movements. Such critics generally take these observations to indicate that, as has happened before, the subordinate themes associated with the green movement will eventually be submerged by their dominant and opposed counterparts. This interpretation fails to take full account of the historically specific nature of ecologism. For it is precisely the ideology's point that, while the terms of its analysis are not new in themselves, the fact of their being posited here and now gives those terms a novel resonance. So the critique of mechanistic forms of reason, for instance, cannot be directly mapped back on to similar critiques made in the nineteenth century. The additional factor to be taken into account, argues the green movement, is the potentially terminal state to which slavish usage of this reason has led us. In this way history defines the context within which ecologism operates (and therefore helps define ecologism itself), and provides the ground on which old themes acquire new resonances, coalescing to form a full-blown modern political ideology.

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