Saturday, 17 August 2013

Knowing ourselves: The Core of Green Political Philosophy

In ancient times the words inscribed in the forecourt to the temple of Apollo at Delphi were: “Know thyself”. Part of the meaning of this aphorism was that we should know that we are mortal men and women, not gods, and behave accordingly. The ancient Greeks condemned the arrogance which they called hubris.
In later centuries Europe adopted a different faith whose god gave man dominion over all living creatures as if he was not one of them. This faith, like the other Abrahamic religions, stressed the special nature of humanity and saw the right goal of humanity as something apart from the everyday world and often to be achieved only after death.
Yet we are living creatures – specifically mammals – and we share the planet with millions of other species. And we do, more than most species, need food, warmth and shelter. This is at once a commonplace of country living and the message of modern science which sees us as one species, evolved from others and connected to others. New research shows these connections to be more intimate than we thought. For instance, our health depends on that of the bacteria that we all carry in our guts.
This ecological understanding is the basis of all Green philosophy. It has some direct implications:
1.     We are part of nature and not apart from it.
2.     We have no moral right to grab the lion’s share of the land, sea and air.
3.     We owe respect to other species and should value them for their own sakes.
4.     Since we depend on other species in many ways – probably more than we yet understand – we should protect the living world for our sake as well as its own.
The green philosophy has consequences for how we live and work and for our politics for all of them have to be decided in the wider context that it gives us. That context sets some limits and its immediately apparent that we have greatly overstepped the those limits, showing the hubris deplored by the Greeks. This is obvious from our destruction of the rainforests, from the number of species recently made extinct or threatened with extinction, from the still growing greenhouse gas emissions that drive climate change and even from the increased congestion in so many major cities.
Now Greens differ in how they understand these follies. Some point to increasing population as the ultimate cause. Yet our impacts on the rest of nature have, in recent decades, increased much faster than our population. In this period it is increasing prosperity that has multiplied our impacts.
Others blame the greed of individuals for consumer goods. Yet much of the world’s consumption is for ordinary things. It does not seem greedy to want a fridge, a house or a car and the impacts are only unsustainable because there are so many of us to want them and because our industry is so wasteful.
Still other Greens blame the greed of industrialists and bankers. Now there are certainly industrialists and bankers who are greedy, irresponsible and corrupt. But even the most honest are constrained by a financial system that demands ever-increasing sales and profits. Industrialists and bankers who don’t deliver will soon cease to be industrialists or bankers. And this system is itself bolstered by newspapers, universities and governments many of which are subject to similar pressures or are simply the paid agents of the corporate world. Nor must we forget that for most of the last 25 years most politicians and commentators in the developed world have sincerely believed that the ‘capitalist’ system was the best possible economic system.
Arguing about blame can be fun but it can easily be a distraction from the real question: What shall we do about the problems? Some answers are obvious:
·       We need to stop the most environmentally destructive activities.
·       We should discourage population growth and must find ways of supporting an aging population.
·       We need to make industry less wasteful. In particular we must cut back greenhouse gas emissions sharply. We may need to actively remove such gases from the atmosphere.
·       We must free the economic system from the tyranny of growth targets.
We have to be honest about the implications of the last two. They imply a fundamental restructuring of the economy and of the governance of major corporations so as to reduce the rights of shareholders and increase those of workers and the community. Also, some way has to be found to represent the interests of the rest of nature and of future human generations in public and corporate decision-making. This will be a revolution – though not the one that traditional Marxists talk about.
They also imply a real reduction in the amount of economic activity dedicated to providing people in the developed world with goods and services. We can take up part of this reduction by producing fewer but longer-lasting products. Even so, we in the West will get poorer in material terms. This is necessary both to reduce total impacts and to give the world’s poorer people a fairer share of the planet’s bounty.
Now the citizens of the developed countries will not accept this unless they are persuaded of the need and that they will get some benefit. Happily some benefits – more leisure, better health, greater well-being from greater equality and stronger communities – are entirely consistent with consuming fewer goods and services. And those are the benefits that matter most in a Green philosophy.
So here we have one of those happy coincidences that are so rare in politics. The very policies that are needed to moderate our impact on the rest of nature – social justice, shorter working hours, stronger community institutions – are policies that most Greens already believe in for their own sakes.
The ecological understanding of the relationship between humanity and the rest of nature lies at the centre of Green politics. It is both the most important and the most distinctive feature of our politics. But it is not and must not be the whole of our politics. There is room for the traditional values of community and mutual respect. And there is room for the enlightenment values of equality, liberty and reason.
There is not and perhaps will never be a Green creed or a universal Green political programme. Either would be a recipe for tyranny. Healthy Green politics consists precisely in the interplay of our knowledge and values in the light of our ecological perspective. And that is stronger than the ideologies of left and right which must always suppress truth and dissent in the interests of political purity.