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Environmental politics
Straight Goods, June 5, 2007
Somebody needs to say out loud that environmentalism isn’t ideologically neutral.

The next time I read that some important political matter is beyond left-right political strife, I’ll gag on the pretension.  Claiming to be above left-right ideological argument is, in almost all cases, just an artful evasion. 


We know the device.  A politician denounces the left and the right in the same sentence, to make it seem that he or she is above politics and therefore to be especially trusted.  Or pundits try burnishing their credibility in the same way.  “Look, ma, I’m without ideology.  I’m above those squabbling left-wingers and right-wingers and, if you want to get at the truth and understand what has to be done, you need to be, too.”


It’s a device that has come to be particularly used in discussing the environment.  Stephen Hume in the Vancouver Sun, for example, recently declared that “in the ideological polemic of climate change, left is right [and] right is left.”  We’ve got to get beyond that, he argued.  He then went on to say some quite useful things, but did so as if ideological understanding only impeded acting on them.


Aspiring Green Party advocates, like Elizabeth May, have resorted to the same device.  As they put it, questions of the environment have outstripped old-style politics of left and right and have outstripped socialism.  They dismiss in the process the NDP – usually that’s the point - although the NDP has been a leader in environmental politics.


This mantra of “beyond left and right” on the environment might sound good, but what if it’s badly misconceived – is in fact a blinkered and convenient dogma? What if saving the globe from environmental devastation is profoundly a left versus right question?  What then?


Somebody needs to say out loud that environmentalism isn’t ideologically neutral.  It is left-wing and it is socialist.  It is the opposite of right-wing market doctrine, which is environmentally amoral.  By the same token, if we’re going to make significant progress on the environment, we’re going to have to realize just how much of a political and ideological battle we’re facing.


To understand that environmentalism is socialist, we have to first understand what democratic socialism really is.  To explain it, I’m going to borrow a page from Karl Polanyi, the late Hungarian historian and economic anthropologist, and author of the epic work, The Great Transformation.  Polanyi is to democratic socialism what Adam Smith is to market liberalism and Karl Marx is to communism.  As it happens, he spent his last years in Canada, in Pickering, Ontario, where he died, in 1964.


Polanyi saw, from his work, that people are first and foremost social beings, not economic creatures.  They and the land they live on – and, by inference, we can say their communities and their cultural self-expression - are primary and have their own rules.  Economies and their devices should serve them rather than vice-versa. 


This is especially pertinent for markets.  Polanyi documented how markets are traditionally “embedded” in society  - that is, subservient to it – and that those brief times when the market imposed its rules on society were aberrations that weren’t sustainable.  To cite a Polanyism: The market is a wonderful servant but a terrible master.


This, in a few phrases, is the essence of democratic socialism: People, their communities, and land are primary.  Now fast forward from the 18th and 19th centuries extending into the 1930s and the Great Depression – the years Polanyi wrote about in The Great Transformation - to the world at the beginning of the 21st century.  Updating Polanyi, we would say, “Communities and the global environment are primary.”  This is the same as declaring, as leading environmentalists do, that “nothing is more important than the environment and our survival in it,” which is also a classic socialist statement, whether we’re comfortable calling it that or not.   


This is more than just an anthropological observation.  It explains why the NDP, with its left-wing roots, is a naturally environmental party, whereas the Conservatives, with their right-wing roots, are threatened by having to deal with global warming and have to fake it.  (Remember that bellwether assessment by Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, during the federal election in 2004, showing the NDP even slightly greener than the Green Party itself?)  It explains, too, why the Liberals in government, for lack of even trace elements of socialist conviction, failed so badly on the environment, and why Stéphane Dion is either remarkably Machiavellian in his environmental protestations or remarkably naïve. 


Unless your point of departure, understanding, conviction – or ideology - is that community and the land are primary, and unless that conviction runs deep in your political genetic code, you’re not likely to have the necessary backbone when the going gets tough, as it will.  The role and latitude we allow the market and corporations that drive most markets today are going to have to radically change if we’re to turn global warming around, not something that will happen easily.  Even a first-stage move in that direction – say, curbing the oil companies in their heedless expansion in the Alberta tar sands – requires the courage of a larger conviction, so far totally lacking in our federal governments.


All of this means, finally, a real political fight, which is how change happens – at least change that will occur fast enough and be substantial enough to get ahead of environmental decline – and this fight, again whether we’re comfortable with the notion or not, is a left versus right fight by its nature.   Hume and May, not wanting to be seen as left-wingers, might still deny it.  They should come out of the closet.

Copyright © Herschel Hardin 2005
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