Adrian Williams: Ideology and Ecology

During over two years of activity in this country, the environmental movement has attracted support from minorities in all the major ideological groups. As usual each minority thinks its political programme best and the others are mistaken, and each minority seeks to convert firstly its own political group. This survey of attitudes is intended to show similarities between the different minorities and promote cooperation.

The authoritarian right wing is mainly interested in promoting a disciplined society which maintains its newer and influence. Those who recognise constraints on the use of resources realise that you cannot maintain your power if your society is poisoning itself and squandering minerals. No ecological sub-group can appear because the whole group values conformity above all, and challenges to the leader’s ideas are not tolerated. However, the right ideas are there and can be developed, so this group should not be written off by the rest of the eco-movement.

The normal right-wing, consisting of Conservative and Liberal parties, value tradition and free enterprise. The Conservatives are more oriented to big business and hierarchies, but they expect big business to conform to “the rule of law” like everyone else and they are quite capable of putting environmental constraints on those businesses. The Liberals value freedom of conscience more and try to protect small businesses and individuals from pressure from big business and big trade unions. They appear to be slowly moving to the position of saying that this concern makes them the only large political group not to be tied to a growthist pattern. Both these parties have Ecology Groups within them whose members acknowledge that resources will have to be shared more with poorer parts of the world to maintain free enterprise economies here as well as elsewhere. Insofar as they pursue this idea they are using left-wing attitudes for their large-scale long-range thinking without realising it.

All the groups of the Left use ecological arguments as a stick to beat private industry, with the Marxists taking the strongest line. Since Marxists are dedicated to “class struggle” they do not officially divert their energies to side issues like.ecology, but a few will be found acting through other organisations.

The Labour Party contains the sub-group SERA, whose members like to refer to William Morris and their Utopian vision of an ecological society. When it comes to putting their ideas into practice they firstly approach the trade unions and try to sell the ideas in terms of jobs and quality of life. It ought to be recognised that Marxists and SERA members who do this are using right-wing attitudes for short-term small-scale thinking, and they achieve results to match. This process has never been shown to increase commitment to the left-wing aim of social change, but succeeds in slowly spreading the conservationist message.

Anarchists have a corresponding vision of an ecological society derived from Kropotkin. No doubt it would be similar to Morris’ if it were put into practice, but it is never likely to be. There are too few anarchists for a start, and they are people who insist on thinking for themselves and accepting no authority. In these circumstances there is no way the eco-movement can incorporate these people in an organised way.

The Ecology Party does not fit the obvious pattern seen so far. It attracts people from slightly left or right of centre who prefer working in a small party because they do not see how the major parties can detach themselves from their traditional growth-oriented power bases, not even the Liberal Party. The left-of-centre potential Labour Party supporters differ from the usual, SERA members in not attributing any special virtue to the working class.

In fact this attitude is shown by other left-wing eco-activists in pressure groups. They follow the usual pattern of the Left in wanting social change and being more interested in social problems than practical problems, but they are soliciting support from all members of society rather than one class. Perhaps they already realise that traditional left-wing formulations cannot be put into practice on the smallest scale. Whenever it has been tried a left-wing state has reduced incentives and caused a catastrophic drop in production (even more than we want), after which authoritarian methods have been used to increase production.

The point of this article is not to end with a plea that the whole environmental movement should meet in the political centre, but to point out that there is no intrinsic ideological message in the movement. Left or Right, authoritarian or liberal, you can find a version of the conservationist message to suit you.

I would like to predict that the eco-activists will be the first major group to recognise that left-wing attitudes are more suitable for long-term decision making about global resources, while right-wing attitudes have to be used by individuals or small organisations looking after their own interests within the frame-work of an organised society. There is a prospect now that the environmental movement in its different forms could lead to a new political structure which satisfies more people than the present one.

from Ideological Commentary 6, March 1980.