George Walford: The Green & The Blue

The greenists try to establish their principles in place of the ones now dominating society, but if the preservation of the environment depends on their success we face a grim prospect. The green parties, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the others have lost much of the impetus that once made them seem set for victory, and in this they follow a well-trodden route. A new reformist or revolutionary movement grows rapidly as it attracts the numbers who had been thinking along similar lines themselves, but once the pool of ready-made support has been taken up, this triumphal progress slows towards a halt. The establishment incorporates into its routines the parts of the programme with popular appeal, the former system re-establishes itself with minor adjustments, and the newcomer gets relegated to the protesting fringe. Look at the course followed by communism. From Marx’s time on this movement grew steadily, and from 1917 until late in this century it looked like the future; no country taken over by a communist movement returned to professed capitalism. Yet the communists remained everywhere a minority; for much of the time their progress lay in geographical extension, picking up the pre-existing support in further countries, and sometimes seizing control of further states, rather than increasing their strength in Soviet Russia. Even in the last days of Stalinism there were more Russian Christians than members of the Communist Party. Now the attractive feature of communism, social action against oppression and deprivation, has been absorbed into the standard practices of capitalism without seriously disturbing the system. John Major talks of a classless society, in the advanced nations the unemployed live at a level which by historical standards is rather high than low, riotous protest provokes no very serious backlash and even the notorious Poll Tax had hardly been proposed before its intended uniformity was adjusted to take account of differences in income. While these changes are being incorporated the communist movement shrinks back within the confines of the discussion groups. This is the standard trajectory for reformist and revolutionary movements; communism has followed socialism along it, and recently the ecological movements also have been getting pushed out towards the margins.

Yet the greenists cry real dangers. They may be exaggerating the urgency, they may be overlooking the flexibility of sophisticated society (London has not been buried under horse-dung as its traffic increased) but this little planet has limited resources and industrial growth consumes them at an increasing pace. This cannot continue indefinitely, and the sooner we accept restraints the less severe will they need to be.

The problem can usefully be seen as one of communication. On the one hand, the environment (well capable of maintaining itself but likely, if provoked too far, to eliminate humanity in doing so) with the greenists as its voice. On the other, the people operating industry; the top bosses providing overall direction and the workers at lower levels, the lorry-drivers, foresters, power-station workers, fishermen, farm workers and the rest, the people who directly do the polluting, all making decisions within their smaller spheres. Attention fixed on their jobs, afflicted with the psychotic deafness of the preoccupied, how are these to be made to hear the message?

The damage has seldom been intentional; the people operating industry do not put their efforts into trying to warm up the planet, destroy the ozone layer or pollute air and rivers and oceans. These things happen as unintended side-effects, and in trying to cope with them we have precedents for guidance.

The industries of early nineteenth-century England inflicted terrible damage on part of their human environment, and this also without particularly intending it; no capitalist has yet set up in business for the purpose of inflicting deprivation. In the early days of industrialism little was done to avert this incidental consequence of its activities and the result was the horrors of the early manufacturing towns. No need to rehearse the details; Engels set them out in his Condition of the Working Class, other writers have done so more recently, and anybody likely to be reading this will know them only too well. Today the British working people live under far better conditions, and while humanitarian impulses undoubtedly played a part in this, a stronger motive was self-interest on the part of those, on whatever levels of society, who made and influenced the decisions. For their own sake they had to control the infectious diseases (cholera and typhus among them), and this meant sanitation, medical care, decent housing and adequate nourishment even for those without votes.

Another example is provided by changes in the mental environment. From the first appearance of literacy and numeracy the great majority were deprived of them. Again, not from intention but simply because no particular effort was made at general education. Now this has changed over great parts of the world, and again not, for the most part, from any generous or humanitarian impulse. A society using advanced technology needs both educated workers – operative, technical, scientific, executive, administrative – and educated consumers; this has brought general literacy and numeracy, and although the need for this diminishes with the advent of radio, television, computers and electronic calculators, yet these bring their own requirements. You cannot, for example, work a fourteen-hour day and still pay proper attention to the advertisements.

Those in control of the advanced nations were damaging their bodily and intellectual environment, the rulers exercising overall control and people on the lower economic levels taking part within their smaller spheres. They continued the destruction so long as it benefited them to do so, but when this changed, when they realised it was harming them, they reversed course, becoming caring and constructive. They did so for their own benefit, their own safety, their own financial, physical, moral and emotional comfort, and we can reasonably expect them to respond in the same way when they find the destruction of the natural environment harming them. The eidodynamic greenists, with their interest in theory, general questions, the long term and the whole (the whole that embraces nature as well as humanity), have seen the danger first. As it grows larger and closer some of the eidostatics, Mrs. Thatcher as one notorious example, have already begun to see that support for environmental conservation promises to benefit them. As the danger grows and this awareness spreads we can reasonably expect them to move beyond cosmetic statements to taking effective action here as they did in the earlier cases. After all, it was mainly they who created the industry that is doing most of the damage; is there anything strange in expecting them to control it, once it becomes obviously in their interests to do so?

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.