The philosophy of Green politics

Russian dollsOn 27th January I gave a talk to Liverpool Green Party on the philosophy of Green Party politics. The full text is here . This post aims to summarise the main ways it differs from today’s dominant left-right debate.

One way to describe it is as a set of three tensions, arranged like a set of Russian dolls. The outer one provides the setting for the middle one, and the middle one for the inner.

Humanity and the environment

The outer one appeared around 500 years ago. The usual consensus of environmental philosophers takes us back to the later Middle Ages. The Black Death hit Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, and for three centuries there was a succession of plagues. This changed the way people thought of nature.

The new attitude was best expressed by Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century. By bringing together science and technology, Bacon proposed, we should be able to control nature and make it more amenable to human well-being.

Others filled out the picture. For Descartes, the whole physical universe is just atoms pushing each other. Value resides in the human mind, which stands outside it. We become detached observers, looking down on it from outside.

This produced anthropocentrism: a value theory in which only humans have value. The whole physical universe is just there, to be used. This is how modern industrialists today conceive of the natural environment, and it is why so many environmentalists oppose ‘development’.

Since then science has moved on. Relativity and quantum theory now make the universe look incomparably more complex than the human mind will ever understand. We cannot remake the world to suit ourselves. From the perspective of the philosophy of science most of our politicians are a century out of date; we still struggle between Bacon’s instrumentalism and the need to look after our physical home better than this.

Individuals and communities

The outder doll provides the space for the middle one. On the one hand value now lies within the mind of each human, and nowhere else. What is worth doing is to be decided by each individual. On the other hand, controlling the environment is to be done by scientists and technologists. They know best. Another tension.

Politically, the main response has been social engineering. People don’t know what’s best for them. On the other hand we do know. It’s a complete contradiction but is still very influential.

The old British Liberal Party had its roots in individualism, the Conservative Party has its roots in communitarianism. If you ever listen to Prime Minister’s Questions, Corbyn asks questions about people who are homeless or starving, and Cameron replies with statements about managing the economy.

Today social engineering wins hands down, and the main form of social engineering is managing the economy. From this perspective it makes good sense to invest heavily in experts who know what to do, while depressing the incomes of the poor to make them work harder. As for the unemployed, they are just a drain on the economy; as little as possible should be spent on them. The original purpose of improving the lot of humanity in general keeps getting postponed to a future which never arrives.

Rich and poor

The middle doll provides the space for the inner one. Of course there is always a tendency for the rich to seek power and the powerful to seek riches, but the project of maximising the size of the economy provides a new ideological justification.

Capitalism began as a reaction against premodern restrictions on personal wealth. To improve conditions for all, wealth must be allowed to accumulate in the hands of business owners and ‘wealth creators’. Socialism and communism reacted against capitalism, arguing that wealth is created by the workers.

The difference is a question of who deserves to be rewarded. Both sides, at least in the dominant discourses, work within the concept of ‘the economy’. This is a major weakness. The size of the economy is measured by the Gross Domestic Product, which merely adds up how much money everyone has received and spent. It says nothing about how much was spent on something worthwhile, or how it is distributed. A growing economy is consistent with increasing poverty, and with an overall deterioration in the quality of life.

In other words the current discourse of ‘wealth creation’ misses any useful criteria. What we should be talking about is how to enable people to contribute to the common good, regardless of whether money changes hands.

Green responses

Green philosophy rejects the largest of the dolls and thereby relativises the others. It is now clear that humanity cannot control the forces of nature, let alone improve on them. Our attempts to do so are so damaging that they are endangering our future.

Within this Green perspective the middle doll ceases to represent a tension. It was a mistake to think all value resides in the individual human mind. It was also a mistake to think in terms of elitist programmes of social engineering. We are individuals in community, and the richness of life is enhanced the the ever-changing relationship between the two. There is no need to set them against each other.

Finally the inner doll, the left-right spectrum, presupposes the control agenda with the constant need, imposed by the social engineers, for everybody to be as busy as possible in order to create wealth.

Green policies often chime with the left, but sometimes for different reasons. This is a case in point. Wealth is primarily created by nature. It is true that human muscles and brains add to it, but they too are products of nature. None of us has done anything to deserve our life. The fact that nature provides for our needs is virtually ignored in current political debate, with the result that many attempts to ‘create wealth’ destroy wealth.

Putting Green philosophy like this will of course provoke the response that we are going back to the past. This response constitutes perhaps the most dangerous dualism of all. By contrasting two options it implies that there are no others: either we go back to the past or we carry on as we are.

Greens insist that there are plenty of other options. It is quite clear that the industrialised West is destroying the quality of life for future generations; yes, in this sense, we have a lot to learn from less destructive societies, past and present. But in the meantime we have also achieved many good things, and we hope to retain and enhance them. Like, for example, the internet and this blog post.

Contrary to the busyness the dominant political discourse imposes on us, we do not have to reinvent the world. It already provided what we needed when we first evolved. There is a limit to how much work needs to be done. It could be shared out more fairly. We could then spend more time enjoying ourselves.

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