Judging from the title, one might expect this piece – and its author – to be sceptical of climate change and opposed to environmental legislation and the political parties that support it. This is not true. I am fully aware of the danger climate change poses, and am generally in favour of legal action designed to curb that threat. My problem is with the way Green politics operate in our current system, and how environmental issues are portrayed in the media.
If you go on the main website of the Green Party of England and Wales, it is not always easy to find references to the environment or nature. Looking at their “What we stand for” page, the “#safeclimate” policy is only 4th out of the 6 core values listed. I will focus on the Green Party of England and Wales for the purposes of this article, but if you look at the websites of Green Parties around the Anglosphere a similar picture emerges. Despite being titular “Green” environmental parties, these organisations don’t seem to put much emphasis on Nature or the environment at all.
If one is asked to place the Green Party on that most irritating of political concepts, the left-right political spectrum (my venting of frustration at this spectrum will have to await another article), everybody would put them on the Left. The Green Party is typified by such supposedly-leftist ideals as grassroots democracy, progressivism, the welfare state and Europhilism, and generally seen as the most left-wing of Britain’s major parties. Their target voters tend to be young lefty-liberal Millennials and students – i.e. my lot. Most of those target voters are urbanites (like myself) who, frankly, don’t know that much about Nature.
And herein lies the problem. In order to become a more viable mainstream party, the Greens have sacrificed a lot of their ‘green’ credentials. Nobody really thinks their core issue is conservation of the environment any more, and neither do they, as their website shows. Yes, they tend to advocate more-forceful environmental legislation than the other parties, but this is rarely played up by the Greens, especially now that in Britain almost all of the major parties (perhaps excepting UKIP) advocate some form of environmental protection. Instead, the core Green Party policies are standard-issue lefty-liberal fare – taxes on the evil corporations and bankers, renationalisation, more money for “our” NHS – as this appeals to their target audience of young urbanites. The environment seems to have been pretty-much forgotten.
That the Greens are thought of as a left-wing progressivist party does perplex me somewhat. To me, environmentalism seems to be an inherently conservative concept – after all, it concerns the conservation of the natural world. This goes deeper than mere semantics however.
We must remember that the original ‘greens’ in the UK were the Tories, with their support for rural agrarianism in the face of the forces of progressivism, which ushered in the modern age of industrialism and commercialism (my apologies for the number of -isms in that sentence). In the early 20th century, it was the “High Tory” wing of the Conservative Party who promoted the defence of England’s natural landscape, as it was eaten up by the growth of dirty industrialised cities. This was of course associated with support for traditional hierarchical society and the yearning for a mythical “Merrie England” that probably never existed, but nevertheless love for the countryside was a part of that traditional belief system. Elements of it can be seen in the works of T.S Eliot and J.R.R Tolkien.
It was the forces of progressivism that caused the industrial polluting of the planet, so it is ironic that the political organisations that currently in favour of reversing that trend are now seen as ardently progressive. Part of this is due to the shift – perhaps since the 1980s – to an extremely economic-centric politics. Conservatism is now identified more with free market liberalism than anything else, while the Left are seen as the inheritors of the socialist tradition. Neither of these two economic ideologies have much to do with Nature.
The Green Party obviously downplayed its environmentalism in order to attract new voters. This is a shame, and speaks to the general failure of the environmental movement to really grip the hearts of the voting public. I feel that this is perhaps due to the way humanity’s environmental impact and climate change are portrayed.
The environment is now generally seen in a very scientific way. We talk of the ozone layer, of global warming, of degrees of temperature, of deforestation, of polar ice caps melting. I do not wish to belittle these problems in any way – they are extremely important and potentially terrifying. However, they instill in us little love of the environment. We are not asked to care because Nature is weeping, but of the potential destructive impact on ourselves. People grumble about environmental legislation because it just seems like a list of penalties – recycling charges, fuel taxes, higher prices. The environment seems to be an engine that is breaking down and constantly requiring attention. We have forgotten the key element of environmentalism – love of the Natural world.
I generally don’t bother with Nature documentaries. The exception is of course anything done by the BBC’s Sir David Attenborough. His magisterial documentaries are so popular not just because they are so well filmed, but because they instill in us a love of Nature. It reminds us that Nature is, in essence, life – the beautiful and heroic struggles of beings in the universe. Nature is not just the ‘environment’, seen in terms of ozone layers and tsunamis, but a mutualistic harmony of living individuals.
The only potential problem with Attenborough’s documentaries – from a British perspective – is that he focuses a lot on Nature abroad. This of course seems perfectly sensible – wildlife is so diverse and impressive in different parts of the world, compared to boring old Britain. However, British people have forgotten how beautiful their own countryside is. We tend to think of the environment as being somewhat marginal, something on the far reaches of our globe – the ice caps in Antarctica, the forests of Brazil. However, some of the prettiest countryside in the world resides just beyond the borders of our cities. I think a more local perspective would help the environmental movement specifically. Rather than focusing on distant outcomes which mean little to the average Brit, they should focus on local impacts – how global warming might affect the fields of Hertfordshire, the hills of Wales, the highlands of Scotland.
This localism doesn’t sit easy with progressivist parties, who generally like to pretend that local culture doesn’t exist and who are extremely international in outlook. However, it is so easy to tie together Green issues with English – or Welsh, or Scottish, or Irish – culture. Traditional pubs, morris dancers, real ale, highland games, etc. This of course does not have to be by excluding newer elements of British culture – the mistaken belief of a lot of Lefty-liberals who therefore avoid traditionalism like the plague. Instead, the old and new can happily coincide or even be fused. I have been to incredible local rural pubs run, for example, by West Indian immigrants, who combine serving traditional beers with West Indian food in the middle of the English countryside. The Greens have at times advocated a form of localism – usually of the economic rather than cultural variety – but this seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years.
I would like to see a new form of Green politics, one which accepts elements of its conservative roots, and tries to set itself apart from the Left-Right spectrum and form a true “Third Way”. Progressivists often forget that not everything of the Past – especially the English Past – is bad; much is great and worth preserving. Finally, the way we view environmentalist issues should start to change. Nature should be seen not as the emotionless “environment”. Instead, it should be seen as it used to be personified – as Mother Nature, a living, breathing super-organism who needs to be loved for her own sake.
Note: This article was prompted, and partly influenced by the writings of Paul Kingsnorth, a sterling author whose essays and novels I recommend you all read.