“The principal defect of the industrial way of life,” wrote a group of British scientists in 1972, “is that it is not sustainable.” “Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today,” they go on to suggest, “is inevitable—unless it continues to be sustained by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.”
These prescient words — written long before the terms “global warming” or “climate change” meant what they mean today — came when the ‘New Left’ movement of the 1960s made its first strides in politics. The New Left based itself in part on the failures of previous socialist movements to address the environmental degradation of the modern age. Its proponents suggested a reinterpretation not only of the relationships between different classes of humans, but of humans and the planet. When New Left activists entered politics, they often did so through Green parties.
In 2001, in Canberra Australia, adolescent Green parties from over 72 countries signed the ‘Global Greens Charter’. From then on, Green parties shared not only a name and a colour scheme, but six core values: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, nonviolence, sustainability, and respect for diversity. Still, Green parties vary tremendously from country to country. There are conservative Greens, eco–socialist Greens, anarchist Greens, and everything in between. Some fit neatly alongside other parties on the ideological spectrum. Many do not. What then is a Green party? What function do they all have?
The roles Green parties play in politics vary wildly in different countries. No party has ever been popular enough to lead a government, but several have been part of governing coalitions — as in Germany, Austria, or Finland. These parties are often non-ideological, or willing to subsume ideology to the end of “greening” the agendas of the larger parties they form coalitions with. The Austrian Greens, in a coalition government with the right-wing People’s Party, supported an agenda of tax cuts, opposing immigration, and ambitious climate targets. But the appropriate response to the climate crisis cannot be understood non-ideologically. Many would argue that centrism or conservatism negates one’s “green credentials.” Climate justice is inseparable from racial, economic, and social justice.
For that very reason, some Green parties focus on the climate crisis as a vehicle for other ideologies. The Green parties of Egypt and Portugal, among others, are avowedly ecosocialist. The Mexican Greens have taken such conservative positions as opposing same-sex marriage and supporting the death penalty — they might be labelled as ecoconservative or even ecofascist.
Still more are consigned to irrelevance in byzantine electoral systems. The U.S’s two-party system means that the American Greens’ greatest influence on politics (even more than introducing the idea of a Green New Deal) may have been splitting the vote such that George Bush could win Florida in the 2000 presidential election. Still, without the burden of electoral potential, the American Greens are at least more honest: openly espousing a “communalist” ideology. This is reminiscent of the “New Left” roots of the movement.
The Canadian Greens, barred from influence by the country’s first-past-the-post system, have at times desperately staked out their position on the Canadian political landscape with slogans like “Not left, not right, forward.” The ideological divide between “pragmatic” centrists and the ecosocialist wing of the party have contributed to internal turmoil that has badly damaged the party. Many on the Canadian left have questioned the necessity of a Green party, given the existence of other left-wing parties with “credible” climate plans.
Greens for the Twenty-first Century
The short answer is yes — Green parties are still necessary, even when there are other parties that oppose capitalism as the principle cause of the climate crisis. Ideologies are frameworks for understanding the world ultimately based on the prevailing political issues of the time. It is really worth asking whether or not eighteenth and nineteenth century ideologies are adequate for the twenty-first century or its problems. Just look at the generational divide between Germany’s left-wing parties: The world’s oldest and most successful Green Party appeals to young progressives who are disenchanted with traditional political parties.
At their best, Green parties can be pragmatic and principled: they embody fundamentally different values and ideas from other parties, left or right. A legacy of mid-twentieth century protest movements, their existence is based on the inadequacy of modern ideology to solve the problems of postmodernity. They are not to solve one “crisis,” but reconcile a society built on infinite consumption with a generous but finite planet.
“Non-ideological” Greens have lost this — viewing Green politics as a pragmatic solution to a single crisis of limited proportions. As leading scholar of ecofascism Peter Staudenmeier writes: the slogan “we are neither left nor right but up front” is “historically naive and politically fatal.” An “ecological orientation alone, outside of a critical social framework, is dangerously unstable.” Yet, those who see Green politics as an entry point for their ideology into the mainstream are equally misguided. Green parties are not a canvas for old ideas, but the start of something new — and necessary — for the twenty-first century.