Paul Anderson, review of of Green Political Thought by Andrew Dobson (Unwin Hyman, £7.95), Tribune, 8 June 1990
At the core of Andy Dobson’s lucid account of the political thinking of the Green movement is a distinction between environmentalism and ecologism. Environmentalists are “light ‘Green”: although enthusiastic about banning chlorofluorocarbon-emitting aerosols, encouraging bottle banks, taxing polluters and so forth, they believe that solving environmental problems doesn’t require a particularly drastic change in the way society is organised. Ecologists. on the other hand. are “dark Green”: although they normally support many of the policies and actions of environmentalists, they have a deeper critique, believing that only a truly radical transformation of industrial society can possibly save the planet from disaster.
Dobson’s book is about ecologism, which he considers as a distinctive ideological current of the past 20 years ( although it draws on older ideologies, notably anarchism and other libertarian socialisms). It is characterised by its critique of Industrialism” and instrumental rationality, and by its assertion that there are natural limits to economic growth that make the creation of a “sustainable society” imperative.
“While most post-industrial futures revolve around high growth, high-technology, expanding services, greater leisure, and satisfaction conceived in material terms. ecologism’s post-industrial society questions growth and technology, and suggests that the good life will involve more work and fewer objects.”
Much of the Green Political Thought is taken up with exegesis of this world view, but there are also ,excellent passages on the relationships between ecologism and other radical ideologies, notably socialism and feminism. Dobson shows that, with very few exceptions. British encounters between ecologism and its rivals — particularly the red-green debate — have so far been disappointingly superficial and inconclusive.
On one hand, very few ecologists have recognised that much of their critique of modern society owes a lot to some sorts of socialism. More important, even fewer self-styled socialists have gone beyond accusing ecologists of lacking “class analysis”. Economic growth is assumed to be an uncomplicatedly good thing by the overwhelming majority of socialists. Despite the current fashion for concern for the environment. ecologists’ ideas still aren’t taken seriously.
One reason for this. Dobson believes, is that ecologism is actually marginalised by the growth of environmentalism. Just as democratic socialists are torn between endorsing social democracy as a better evil than Leninism or unfettered capitalism and denouncing it as a means of propping up capitalism, so ecologists have the choice of working for environmentalist goals or denouncing environmentalists as a palliative for the cancer of industrialism. Most ecologists take the option of backing environmentalism, on the principle that small successes are better than none. But the result is that the voice of ecologism is submerged by the clatter of environmentalist tinkering.
So what can the ecologists do? Dobson doesn’t say. But I have a feeling that a little study of the past hundred years of socialism might be a pretty good start — if only as a source of warnings of how not to proceed.