Why Are Greens On The Left?

Why-are-greens-on-the-left?

Around the world green politics is more closely aligned with the left than the right.  It has been said that greens are like tomatoes.  They start green but they always end up red.  Why is this?  There doesn’t seem to be any particularly strong reason why people who believe in the free market shouldn’t also believe in protecting the environment.  Even fascists can like trees.  So why are greens not only pretty consistently liberal, but are also generally liberal even by liberal standards?

I think the main reason is simply historical contingency.  The current environmental movement dates back to the sixties and was first picked up on and developed by scientists like Rachel Carson.  Scientists tend to be well educated and to have fairly liberal views.  And in the sixties liberal views were fashionable.  It was therefore natural that the advocates of environmental activism would frame their arguments in terms that were current at the time. Our mental pictures of a hippy and an environmental campaigner are pretty interchangeable.

But the environmental movement is not simply a branch of science.  It has picked up a whole load of baggage and most of its adherents are now not much more scientific in outlook than society as a whole.  And its distinctly liberal leanings have put off people from a more conservative viewpoint.  There is also the indisputable fact that most of the solutions proposed by Greens tend to be on the collectivist side of the spectrum, often involving regulations.  These are just the kinds of things that free marketers in general and libertarians in particular object to.  But none of this was necessarily inevitable, and it still might be cured.  One way is to look back beyond the sixties to what went before.

The rise of environmentalism was not possible until society had developed enough to control its environment.  Nobody was protesting about the protection of wild animals in the days when wild animals were an actual threat to human’s lives.  And when we were struggling to find enough to eat nobody was interested in the wilderness.  It was only when people became detached enough from nature to be able to be sure of looking forward to three square meals a day that we could afford to take a romantic view of nature.  This didn’t really happen until the nineteenth century.

The romantic view of nature, which you can still see in the attitudes of modern greens and the  worship of nature in marketing copy, was one that was intimately linked with the idea of individualism.  Medieval Europeans had been members of a community which while unequal had shared values.   Christendom was a very inclusive sort of thing.  But the modern world was one where an individual could just climb up a mountain and come up with his own sublime experience.  These ideas are compatible both with libertarian conceptions of economic freedom – rather than having an artist expressing himself unrestrained by rules and social conventions you substitute the entrepreneur whose business activities have a similar air of importance as a means of self expression.

In fact although it doesn’t really make it onto the political agenda there is a strand of thought that allies free market philosophies with environmental activism.  There is a thing called carbon trading.  Countries have come together to agree on emission limits for carbon dioxide, but have allowed these limits to be bought and sold like any other commodity.  Even more market friendly is the trade in ‘green’ palm oil.  This is a purely market based initiative with no government involvement at all.  A certain amount of palm oil is grown in a sustainable and non polluting way.  But rather than go to the trouble of seeking out the actual palm oil from these farms, a corporation can just buy a certificate to say that they equivalent amount of palm oil to what they have used has been produced.

Green palm trading sounds like a capitalist con trick to me, but I am a socialist at heart.  If you buy into the neoliberal worldview you might well regard it as a great example of how the free market allows you to freely choose how you spend your money and if you want to live in a world where palm oil production is degrading the ecosphere then here is a chance to use your wallet power to get the reforms you want.

It seems to me that there is an entirely valid debate to be had here. Does the free market is inevitably lead to overexploitation, habitat loss and pollution.  In which case there is little wonder that greens and socialists will be allies of sorts.  Or are there ways that market mechanisms can be used as tools for protecting the planet.  If that is what you think you are heading for a world of pain trying to convince the current green politician.  You probably need to start your a new political party.  I won’t be joining myself, but I wish you luck.

3 Comments

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3 Responses to Why Are Greens On The Left?

  1. Good points!
    I’ve always been puzzled why many conservatives here in the States seem to be “anti-conservation” when it comes to the planet. Teddy Roosevelt, one of our greatest U.S. presidents made that one of his priorities during his administration. Then again, they call him a “socialist” now. While I am not particularly a ‘socialist’ politically myself, I am afraid that some in the press here in America are having us see “commies” in our breakfast cereal.

    -E.J.

  2. Roosevelt doesn’t really fit into our ideas of left or right, or not into mine at any rate. He sure as heck wasn’t a socialist though.

    • I think most of what they call the “Old Right” today don’t fit into what we think of as right and left today. That’s why to modern conservatives, they seem to be “liberal”; and to modern liberals they seem to be “conservative”.

      To which I say, when people don’t know what you fit into, that means you are beginning to make sense.

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