Why the modern environmental movement must abandon its traditional left-right rubric

On the event of Earth Day I spent some time thinking about the state of the environmental movement in Canada. As my regular readers know, I have written a lot of posts about the environmental movement including observations from a position on the sidelines of the Clayoquot battle (Modern Environmentalism: Trying to replicate the Clayoquot) through the years when I still believed that deep green and moderates could work hand-in-hand (Environmentalism and Pragmatism, the two aren’t mutually exclusive – A blast from my past) to a recognition that under the current political climate, pragmatists will never be accepted as equals by the deep greens (So Whatever Happened to the Environmental Moderates and Pragmatists?). I have also written about a reality that many of the deep greens simply do not understand: that their greenest desires are incompatible with a healthy ecosphere (Modern Environmental Fairy Tales: “Moving Back to the Land” and the 100 Mile Diet). That last post, while written well before its release, could basically be a chapter from An Ecomodernist Manifesto. As I discuss, we have to build a world where humans give nature an opportunity to thrive by densifying rather than the deep green’s preferred fairy-tale world where everyone goes back to living off the land. Having written on all these topics I want to address an issue that I think will decide the direction of the environmental movement for the foreseeable future. Everyone knows the Winston Churchill quotation: “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Well I fear that the modern environmental movement, in a massive case of hubris, is in the process of repeating their greatest failure of the past: the mistaken belief that the environmental movement fits in the traditional left-right rubric of modern politics.

Ask any pollster and you will hear the same thing: in the public sphere, interest in the environment (as exemplified by climate change) peaked in the late oughts and has been diminishing ever since (ref). I detail my own crisis of faith in my post (On Appeals to Authority, “Climategate” and the Wizard of Oz: a Personal Journey from “Trust Me” to “Show Me“) and as indicated in the earlier referenced article, I am not alone. Now a simple affair like “Climategate” should not be enough to drive the public away from supporting action on such an important topic as climate change but the problem is that the environmental movement is repeating their errors of the 1980s and by the looks at the trends, they are about to suffer another decade in the desert like the cold years of the late 1990s early 2000’s. The young’uns amongst my readership will have forgotten that in the 1980s “Environment” was king. As I have discussed previously, I was a university student in the 1980’s and a student activist. In those days the environmental movement saw some of its biggest successes. The Montreal Protocol (1987) and the Acid Rain Treaty (initiated in 1988 and signed in 1991) were two big Canadian successes feeding into the high point for the Canadian green movement of the era: the rolling out of “The Green Plan” (ref). For my non-Canadian readers, the Green Plan was a plan by the government of the era to work forward on eight keys areas of environmental interest ranging from “clean air, water and land” to “sustaining our renewable resources”. The plan involved spending $3 billion over five years and allowed for the collection of baseline data on all sorts of environmental and ecological indicators. The understanding being that until you had baseline data on the environment you had no way of understanding your performance. The Green Plan helped fund my first job in the environmental industry and did so for any number of my friends. It was a high point for funding of the environment in Canadian political history. The funny thing about all those major events, including the Green Plan? They happened during Conservative governments. You see the environment is not a strictly left-right issue. Regardless of what you may have been led to believe, the environmental movement has many friends on the right side of the political spectrum. Heck, some of the most ardent conservationists out there are strict religionists who take pride in protecting and nurturing god’s creation.

So if “the environment” is not about left-right then what is it about? Well as I described in my previous post it is important to remember that in our history every surge in environmental awareness has occurred during times of strong economic performance. Look at the historical record and check out how environmental issues fall off the table during economic downturns. Look at how fast and how far the environment fell off the table following the crash of 1998. The lesson of history is that if you want to improve our environmental awareness and environmental performance you need a thriving economy. The current aim of the environmental movement, to stagnate our economy in the name of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, is thus guaranteed to backfire. In good times governments have the money to invest in research and the environment, in bad times those priorities can become sidelined. So if the environmental movement wants to help us work our way out of this dilemma, it needs to ensure that the average voter is not worrying about his/her next paycheck. In a global sense the environmental movement has to understand that hungry families care more about feeding their children than protecting the environment.

So let’s go back to the whole idea of the left-right thing. There is an old saw (proverb) that says: “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This proverb is categorically wrong. While the enemy of your enemy may be your friend, he/she may also be an enemy to you and your cause. As a modern example consider the opposition to Assad in Syria. At the start of the rebellion the moderate enemies of Assad followed the old proverb and what happened? Well the moderates turned their backs on their newfound “friends” (ISIL) only to get ambushed and murdered for their efforts. In the environmental world, environmentalists, as they gain political power, have historically aligned themselves with progressive and left-wing groups. The progressive groups make them feel welcome and often support their rallies and causes. The problem is that the progressives have their own agendas. They will support you if you help them advance their socio-political goals but get in their way and you are just spare baggage to be ejected as flotsam come the first sign of bad weather.

Many young British Columbian environmentalists wrongly think of the New Democratic Party (the NDP, our left wing major political party) as an ally. In doing so, they forget the lessons of our shared history. Clayoquot Sound happened under the Mike Harcourt (NDP) government. The Harcourt government, which was elected with the help of the environmental movement of the day, treated environmentalists more harshly than did the Social Credit before them or the Liberals after. The NDP government authorized the logging (to give union loggers work) that resulted in the protests to begin with; they then ordered the mass arrests in the Clayoquot and an NDP attorney general ensured that the arrestees were all brought to trial (in mass trials of all things) and were punished to the fullest extent of the law. It was under an NDP government that environmentalists were thrown in jail for protesting! Consider that as you get released on your own recognisance after a pipeline protest. Glen Clark’s (Glen Clark was another NDP Premiere) tenure saw the growth of the Green Party because under the Clark government, every time a progressive policy came in conflict with an environmental one, the progressive side won. Ujjal Dosanjh’s (the last NDP Premiere of BC) attempted rapprochement with the Greens came at the very end of his tenure, when it was clear he had no chance of winning another election. Only when he needed their help to try to get re-elected did he re-discover his green roots.

In a national sense the biggest advances for the environmental movement came not from Liberal governments (since the NDP never gets elected federally) but during the Conservative ones. The greenest Prime Minister in our history, ironically enough, was Brian Mulroney. Internationally, the Montreal Protocol would never have been passed without the strong support of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Heck Margaret Thatcher was the first major politician to develop policies to address climate change. Put simply, the way the modern environmental movement has aligned itself with progressives and anarchists has done nothing to build popular support for the movement. The government of the day is not going to make major changes unless at least a plurality of the voters are onside. When the average voter sees anarchists blocking roads and delaying their commutes, they don’t think, “I want to elect that guy to run my government”. So every pointless protest only builds momentum for people on the other side. As for getting the government’s ear, why would a Harper government do anything to help a movement that has declared its main goal as being to replace the Harper government? Realistically if the environmental movement can move away from its fascination with left-right politics then it can recognize that it has allies on the right side of the spectrum and enemies on the left. By stepping away from the partisan politics it can hoe its own row and drive its own agendas. By doing so it may discover that the currently impossible suddenly might become possible. Take a read at the following story to see where this train of thought goes. The corollary to this is: that if you go about making enemies of half the electorate then don’t expect their help once the election is over.

In the next 12 months there will federal elections in the UK, Canada and the US. In each case the environmental movement is betting its future on only one side in each election. This is the very same thing that the greens did in Australia several months ago and look how that turned out. As a betting man, I prefer to hedge my bets and so should the environmental movement; since history has shown that even when your preferred parties win, you cannot guarantee that the environment will be their deciding issue. Remember the lessons learned from the school of hard knocks: the environment is not a left-right issue and to treat it as such only guarantees its marginalization. If you alienate half the electorate you lose them as allies and as a corollary if you guarantee someone your support you guarantee that they can take you for granted.

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7 Responses to Why the modern environmental movement must abandon its traditional left-right rubric

  1. crf says:

    typo: Mike Harcourt

    Like

  2. Blair says:

    egg on face, was thinking about the Socreds while writing….thanks

    Like

  3. Venezuela is a good example of “progressive” lack of environmental manners:

    The oil spill in the Jusepin River.

    http://www.el-nacional.com/investigacion/guarapiche/Jusepin-Guarapiche-Monagas-Martinez-Nacional_NACIMA20130418_0055_6.jpg

    Like

  4. Mark says:

    The New Zealand Green Party have a similar issue. Because they essentially will not work with the (centre-right) National Party, they are seen are merely an extension of the (centre-left) Labour Party. Thus they get to 10% of the vote and then are stuck. Any more votes they win come from the overall Left anyway. So they never actually hold the balance of power, because the Labour Party knows in any crunch they will support them A previous government under Helen Clark didn't even form a coalition with them, despite being a minority government, because of that.

    And the Labour Party isn't even particularly environmentally friendly — although they tend to talk up a storm about it, they don't do that much.

    People have been pointing out recently that losing their attachment to the Left would give the Greens more power. Their leaders aren't stupid and know that. But their emotional attachment is so strong that they can't make the move. They don't realise that losing votes, but moving away from being strongly left would actually make them more power.

    A real issue I suspect is that most of their supporters are left first, enviroment second. Even in a party supposedly devoted to the environment the social and economic issues actually come first. “The Environment” is a stick with which to beat the economically dry, not a real concern at all.

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  5. Mark, my environmentalist friends are mostly left to far left leaning. They get mad at me when I jokingly call them watermelons, but there's no way to get around it.

    The right seems to have a similar problem, I jokingly call them “The Party of Dirt”.

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  6. Pingback: On pragmatic Environmentalism, the Paris Agreement and where do we go from here? | A Chemist in Langley

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