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Environmentalists: nature’s conservatives

Environmentalism has an image of being the politics of the left but in reality it is the most conservative political ideology imaginable. Centred on a disgust with the masses, environmentalism’s primary concern is locking the domestic working class and foreign poor into the chains of poverty that keep them from consuming the fruit of their labour. It could hardly be otherwise – after all, environmentalism sees the poor as being of lower worth than abstract, ahistorical and unscientific notions of ‘the environment’.

The American right’s shrill attacks on environmentalism, accusing it of being a left wing conspiracy, are deeply unhelpful. How anyone can cast the likes of multi-millionaire tobacco heir Al Gore as a friend of the working person is a mystery, but unfortunately, his role as poster boy for the green movement has given a propaganda victory to those who seek to restrict the growth in incomes, allowing them to portray themselves as being on the side of those they seek to hurt.

The history of environmentalism is the history of the right. From its beginnings in Romantic opposition to the Enlightenment through the Nazi party of Germany, Europe’s first green party, to the Club of Rome in the 1970s, environmentalism has always been the political expression of the elite’s hatred for the masses.

The Club of Rome, a conservative think-tank founded by industrialists and diplomats, predicted in its 1972 manifesto ‘The Limits to Growth’ that tin reserves would be depleted by 1985, zinc by 1988, that petroleum oil would run out in 1990 and natural gas in 1992. The Club of Rome’s crude Malthusianism proved to be entirely incorrect – and yet its ideology lives on in endless scares about resource scarcity, scares that misunderstand the nature humanity’s relationship with resources: uranium was not a resource to Victorians, for example.

The root of green demands to restrict consumption is a distaste for the ‘lower orders’. British readers will, of course, be familiar with the figure of David Attenborough. Attenborough, brother of film director Richard, was the television naturalist who inspired generations with a sense of wonder at the natural world. His documentary films are the touchstone for natural history, each and every one a classic.

Sadly, Attenborough has now joined the ranks of the bossy greens who want to save the planet from humanity, signing-up to front a repugnant political cause. By becoming patron of the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), Attenborough has put his sights squarely on the seething mass of humanity. The OPT opposes immigration, seeking a one-in, one-out policy it calls “balanced migration” and says “there is no unlimited right to have children,” views shared by the loathed British National Party which is regularly pilloried as fascist or even “Nazi” by liberal commentators.

The BNP’s policies of ‘blood and soil’ are anathema to right-thinking people, but strip away the crude racial caricatures and similar prejudices are common dinner party fodder in the leafy suburbs of every city in the Western world. Suburbs, incidentally, that are considered in some essential way different – and superior – to newer suburbs where the working class have settled, finally able to buy their own homes. Screeds against ‘unsustainable development’ are simply warmed-over rehashes of the anti-working class scares over so-called ‘ribbon development’ from the 1920s.

Green assaults on those with no money take on even more overt forms abroad, though. Rich Westerners are greedily buying-up potentially productive land in the Second and Third Worlds, land that could feed people, in the name of saving the planet. Green charity Cool Earth has bought-up 121,713 acres (49,256 hectares) of land in the Amazon despite opposition from local tribal leaders including Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. Cool Earth was founded by Johan Eliasch, the chairman of sporting goods manufacturer Head, and former adviser on ‘green conservatism’ to one-time British Conservative party leader William Hague. Eliasch’s project is colonialism, pure and simple.

No-longer merely a folly of the super-rich, such carbon offsetting schemes are one of the few growth ‘industries’ around today and, like all industries before them, get around the tendency of the rate of profit to all by expanding into new markets. Carbon offsetting schemes now allow the West’s guilt-ridden middle classes to take productive land out of use in order to grow trees, often in developing countries such as India.

Increasingly, that land which is used for production is used in the least efficient way possible. Organic farming, which ignores almost all food science not to mention the amazing humanitarianism of Norman Bourlag’s Green Revolution, is in the process of moving from being a semiotic prejudice of the well-fed to a real danger to the well-being of the starving. By whipping-up an unjustified panic about the safety of genetically modified crops, organic fanatics are condemning millions of people to, at best, lives of penury and squalor – and, at worst, to death.

It is true that greens do rail against capitalism, but not because the anarchic nature of capitalist production is incapable of satisfying human need and desire. Instead, green critiques of capitalism are aesthetic and moralising in nature. Support for ‘local producers’ and ‘small shops’ expose the reactionary and petit bourgeois nature of environmentalism – any student of the twentieth century will tell you that the localist and petit bourgeois agenda is driven primarily by the fear of being squeezed from above by capital and below by the working class. It is on this bedrock of feared immiseration that fascism was built.

However, capitalism isn’t actually anti-green. Nor are greens really anti-capitalist. What they are is opposed to the sole progressive features of capitalism: its tendency to universalise development through the division of labour and increasing capital investment resulting in lower prices for mas produced goods.

The latest green wheeze, carbon trading, is the most astonishing of all: selling thin-air. The inevitable result of carbon trading will be unemployment as it encourages a further retreat from industrial production into the ‘post-material’ exchange of legal titles.

In fact, green scaremongering has given today’s capitalists cover for their ongoing retreat from production. The creation of farcical carbon trading markets is simply the next logical step in the process of deindustrialisation which has seen the creation of increasingly unstable economies built on the replacement of manufacturing with complex but unproductive financial instruments. The defining characteristic of the current global recession is that, unlike those that preceded it, it is not a result of capitalism’s periodic crises of ‘overproduction’. Rather, today’s collapse is a result of the cold, hard reality of underinvestment productive forces – making money from the fantast of the financialised ‘weightless’ economy could only go on for so long.

István Mészáros pointed out as far back as the 1970s that what is now called ‘sustainability’ is merely an apologia for the current socio-economic order and it is becoming increasingly clear that the prejudices that inform the sustainability agenda are just that. No-one wants to live in a polluted environment and nobody should have to, but people must come first – and exaggerating threats to ‘the planet’ do nothing to serve the needs of humanity.

16 thoughts on “Environmentalists: nature’s conservatives

  1. Erik,

    There is not a single sentence in the above piece that could be construed as a defence of capitalism. I would point you to the last paragraph in particular.

  2. Whoa there.

    This is a massive overgeneralization. While there have traditionally been strains within environmentalism that minimalize poverty, they are not in the ascendant today.

    First, you totally ignore environmental justice. Second, you totally ignore urban gardening and attempts to get poor people access to grow their own food. Third, you totally ignore the connections activists are making between climate change and the global poor. Rising sea levels are likely to make 50 million Bangledeshis refugees in their own country and this is a top concern of the environmental community. Fourth, you totally ignore environmentalists around the world who are poor themselves.

    The claims that somehow capitalism is good for nature completely lacks evidence, either in the past or the present. As an environmental historian, I don’t see a single piece of evidence to back this statement up. In fact, nothing in this deeply irresponsible article passes even the slightest standards of evidence.

    Finally, as a scholar I am deeply critical of how the environmental community has traditionally marginalized the poor, both in the past and present. But this article goes way too far, is nothing but an overgeneralization of environmentalists designed to annoy rather than inform, and paints an unapologetic defense of capitalism through rose-colored glasses using false claims of caring about the poor.

    After all, if improving the life of the poor is really what you want, why not write an article demanding a global minimum wage, the enforcement of safe working conditions, and other demands of the working class? Or is this nothing more than an ad hominen attack on environmentalism? I think we all know the answer.

  3. Wrong says you, right says I. And round and around it shall go.

    Listen, I’m working today but if you give me some time I will respond in full.

    As for why I’m not arguing for a global minimum wage etc., that’s not really in the scope of what I wanted to talk about – and is never going to happen under the current socio-economic order anyway.

  4. Who is it that Jason Walsh thinks “loathes” the BNP? Perhaps those “liberal commentators” who regularly pillory the BNP as fascist or even “Nazi”? – but they are a tiny minority of Marxist cranks who constitute the media appointed elites. A million people voted BNP in the EU elections. “The BNP’s policies of ‘blood and soil’ are anathema to right-thinking people” asserts Walsh, yet what can be more natural than indigenous people wishing to preserve their own ancestral lands for future generations? Surely the opposite would be “anathema to right-thinking people”?

  5. This article is factually incorrect.
    The charity Cool Earth does not buy land. It sponsors land and works directly with indigenous peoples to improve their land tenure rights. Land only remains in the hands of local communities. None of the land we sponsor is owned by Cool Earth.
    If Jason Walsh would like to contact Cool Earth then he can learn more about our projects which prevent thousands of acres of pristine rainforest from being deforested, preserving the rights and homeland of many communities.

  6. The above article was amended to include a reference to Davi Kopenawa Yanonami’s opposition to Cool Earth.


  7. Perhaps I overstated what I originally stated as a defense of capitalism, but if you were going to respond, I wish it had been to the more substantive part of my critique, where you are wrong about everything you say.

  8. I look forward to your reply. I’ve provided you with plenty of evidence suggesting the opposite. I know that you can probably find examples of environmentalists who say terrible things; so can I in the U.S.

    But that’s the old environmental movement. The problem with your article is that it treats environmentalism as a entity of singular thought that hates people and doesn’t care about poverty. And while that might have been more true in 1990, it’s definitely not today. I teach environmental history at a university and my students very much care about poverty and very much care about sustainable living and assisting the poor at the same time.

    Like any movement, environmentalism has multiple, often conflicting strains. That’s no different than labor or civil rights or the women’s movement. If you pick one and damn the whole movement for that, you aren’t engaging in complex thinking. What you’re doing is not so different from saying that all Muslims who disapprove of Israeli policies are terrorists, all unionists are commies, etc.

    Moreover, the causes of the working-class and the environment are closely linked, as a majority of young environmentalists are beginning to understand. Your argument just doesn’t hold water empirically.

    But I do look forward to your response later in the day.

  9. Erik,

    No doubt there are eco-socialists. Derek Wall is one, for example, and he is a thoroughly nice guy that I enjoy discussing things with.

    The meat of the matter:

    If sea levels are threatening Bangladesh the problem is capitalist underdevelopment. The Dutch polders are below sea level but the Netherlands, a rich, industrialised nation, has flood controls and the expertise and money to engage in the engineering to make it a non-problem. If Bangladesh had developed then rising sea levels would be a mere technical problem. Uneven capitalist development is inevitable – it’s a flaw of capitalism, not humanity’s works or technology. The problem then is a lack of development, not “overdevelopment”.

    Why is people growing their own food a good thing? If people want to do it, more power to them, but people doing it out of need is inefficient. The division of labour gave us efficient production and doing things yourself at home is tedious and time consuming. If you want to do it, fire away.

    As for getting poor people to have access to food, the quickest way to do that is to raise incomes. Again, development.

    I’m not really happy with the entire concept of “the poor” anyway, as I have written here: http://forth.ie/index.php/content/article/who_are_you_calling_poor/

    I’m not saying that capitalism is good for nature. Unplanned production is unlikely to ever be an a priori good. What I am saying is that environmentalist rhetoric (both sincere and ‘greenwashing’) allows capitalists to defend the fact that, in the West, the past three decades has seen a tremendous retreat from capital investment in productive industries – capital has instead flown into financial markets, property speculation and other decadent forms of rentier capitalism.

    This is all pretty straightforward Marxian analysis, you know.

  10. As a little example, let’s consider a mythical person.

    Let’s say it’s a woman. Let’s say she’s 22 years old. Let’s say she lives in Viet Nam.

    Now, accepting that neither is actually good, is it better for her to work in a field for her father or husband or in a shoe factory?

    I say the shoe factory, despite the fact that the conditions are, without doubt, appalling it does represent some limited liberation – she is earning an income of her own, no longer subsistance farming and not under the cosh of her husband or father as she would be in the “sustainable” alternative.

  11. To me, this sums up the greens, anarchists, phoney self-styled ‘Maoists’ and other ‘anti-capitalists’:

    “The lower middle-classes, the small manufacturers, the shopkeepers, the artisan, the peasant, all these fight against the bourgeoisie, to save from extinction their existence as fractions of the middle-class… they are reactionary, for they try to roll back the wheel of history.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto”, London, 1848, pp. 9, 11.

  12. Mór,

    I don’t understand your point about the UK. Please elaborate.

    No-one really wants sustainable development, they want development. Sustainable development really means no to minimal development: treadle pumps and the like.

    As for the dams, plenty of people supported them too.


    I don’t think all environmentalists want to keep people in poverty. I think they would happily do it to preserve the environment, though.

    Nevertheless, that is not my point. My point is that as an ideology, environmentalism puts the desire to protect the environment above meeting human need.

    RE resources, you’re making a Malthusian error.

    “n fact, we are saying they must have jobs. Jobs with decent wages and safe conditions and in factories that don’t pollute, yes, but is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.”

    Under current economic conditions it’s either job or no job.

    Both of you,

    Why are you finding it so strange that someone should argue these points from the left?

    I accept it’s pretty hard to even imagine a political party today that would share any goals with the left of the past, the left that wanted to see jobs and prosperity for all. More often than not, what passes for left wing politics today is a collection of managerial exercises and simple pseudo-religious morality plays on the vices of wealth and “excess”. Former British prime minister Harold Wilson’s vision of a country remade in the white heat of technological revolution would get pretty short shrift today, never mind Karl Marx’s Victorian optimism that saw the radical bourgeoisie as architects of a technical revolution that “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals [and] conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.”

  13. We can safely say that Bangladesh and other developing nations suffer greatly from colonial and neo-colonial underdevelopment.

    The question is: What do environmentalists propose should be done about that? I was in Johannesburg in 2002 when the international ‘Sustainable Development’ conference was on.

    The conference was centred around the cricket ground, where a mock ‘African village’ of picaresque mud huts had been set up, in which African women were making dolls and other handicrafts.

    The message to the one billion population of Africa was that they should rely on ‘traditional’ cottage industries to make money by selling arts and crafts to tourists or exporting them to the developed countries, as some charities in Britain already do.

    Doesn’t that just reproduce colonial underdevelopment? Is it not just patronising (in the full sense of the word) and frankly racist?

  14. I disagree with your thesis. Environmentalism is not what you describe.

    Centred on a disgust with the masses, environmentalism’s primary concern is locking the domestic working class and foreign poor into the chains of poverty that keep them from consuming the fruit of their labour.

    Having worked on environmental sustainability projects with local populations in Cambodia (one of the poorest countries in the world) one message was clear. People want economic sustainability but also environmental. The people in the Se San (tributary of the Mekong) basin have suffered drought and hunger because of China and Vietnam’s “capitalist” damns.

    Local people with assistance and capacity building set up environmentally and economically sustainable industry. They suffered from other people’s lack of environmentalism and so did not want to increase the burden of those lying down river.

    I don’t know much about environmentalism in the UK so perhaps your arguments make sense there but the “foreign poor” are quite capable of making up their own minds about the subject.

  15. Jason,

    Let’s say what you say is true. I don’t see how any of it is the fault of environmentalists.

    You seem to make an a priori assumption that all environmentalists want to keep people poor and that this is central to environmental ideology. This essentialism is totally absurd. All environmentalists aren’t even anti-development. Blaming environmentalists for this poverty is the equivalent of the police violently breaking up a labor march and blaming the bystanders protesting the violence for the violence itself.

    The same goes for your example of the Vietnamese woman–what does any of this have to do with environmentalism? I don’t think anyone is saying that Vietnamese women shouldn’t have jobs. In fact, we are saying they must have jobs. Jobs with decent wages and safe conditions and in factories that don’t pollute, yes, but is that too much to ask? I don’t think so.

    So your arguments seem like complete non sequiturs in relation to environmentalism. Or maybe you don’t really understand what environmentalists believe in. Because your arguments in comments really aren’t addressing this.

    What most environmentalists do believe in is sustainable development. And as Mor points out, people in the developing world express plenty of agency in making these projects work or not work, depending on what they want.

    You also seem to assume that environmentalists have all this power to keep people in poverty. And we don’t. In almost all countries of the world, we are a desperate minority, including here in the United States. And even if we did have power in the US, we wouldn’t romanticize poverty and try to lock people in.

    Climate change is going to exacerbate poverty. Fighting climate change is also fighting poverty. Fighting unnecessary development like Mor describes in the Mekong is about empowering local people to express political power in developing their own regions.

    Finally, sustainable development also recognizes something that you don’t seem to–there are limited resources in the world. We are at or near peak oil, peak lithium, peaks in the many minerals that are in computers, peak many things. Look at what a slight rise in the price of oil did to food prices. And look at how many governments nearly toppled because of these food prices. Unsustainable development might lift people of poverty–but only briefly. What’s going to happen when we run out of these resources? Maybe that’s 100 years from now and we’ll all be dead, but shouldn’t we think a little bit about the future?

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