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In 2018, the issues that the Greens have made our focus for a generation –environmental destruction, corrupted politics, overwhelming corporate power, and permanent war – are more urgent than ever. At the same time, the cultural dominance of neoliberal capitalism is collapsing, with the ideas it is based on facing a crisis of legitimacy, and the institutions that hold it in place looking increasingly shaky.
Yet the Greens political project appears stalled, not just in Australia, but around the world. The huge steps of a decade ago have not been lost, but neither has the pace picked up to match the urgency of the crises we face.
There are, of course, many reasons for this, chief amongst them that there is nothing harder in politics than attempting to change an entrenched system, as the system fights back with all its strength. However, it’s the contention of this essay that one key reason for the stall is that “Green politics” is very poorly understood as a comprehensive, alternative vision for the world. And having such a well understood vision is a prerequisite for moving beyond the fringes of politics and being able to implement the changes we know are needed.
At this extraordinary moment of political flux – what some have called a crisis of democracy – our mainstream political discourse allows for three options on the table: a swing to the extreme right, a reinvigoration of social democracy, and, in the middle, a clinging to centrist liberalism. As this paper will explore, the first of these is utterly repugnant, the second insufficient, and the third naïve. “Green politics” is the solution we need. However, I argue it cannot be seen as a distinct option on the table while, both internally and externally, it is being torn between those who see it as a form of social democracy and those who see it as a form of liberal democracy – caricatured as “watermelons vs neoliberals-on-bikes”.
We urgently need to articulate and build “ecological democracy” as something distinct – a radical political vision of deep interconnection and interdependence and of resilience in diversity. It is an enabling and nurturing politics for people and the planet, supporting people and communities to find their own way together. It rejects capitalism’s hyper-individualism, growth fetish, and celebration of greed. It is beyond socialism while proudly of the left. It is intrinsically intersectional, and embedded in nature.
The thinking behind this essay draws heavily on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci, in particular his concept of hegemony, namely that power is held through the combination of institutional and cultural control. Cultural hegemony circumscribes our behaviour, limits the bounds of our political thought, and buttresses institutional hegemony by making it “impossible” to challenge. But when cultural hegemony weakens, when it faces a crisis of legitimacy as appears to be the case right now for capitalism, there is a moment of great opportunity to create a new political “common sense”, and to ride the wave of that common sense into building new institutions of power and taking over existing ones.
The new common sense of Green politics, this essay argues, is the concept of ecology – hence the framing of “ecological democracy”. It’s a common sense grounded in the four pillars and the Global Greens Charter, going back half a century to the work of Gro Harlem Brundtland, Rachel Carson and Elinor Ostrom, drawing on the writings of Karl Marx and Henry David Thoreau, and spinning back through history and beyond in the wisdom of Indigenous peoples and the practices of the Commons. In summary, it is that everything is connected – and we are our best selves and our best communities – our politics, societies and economics work best – when we embrace the beauty, joy and resilience that come from interconnected diversity.
This common sense cuts through the knot of whether the Greens should be primarily an environmental or a left wing party, revealing that the two have to be understood and addressed as one. Once you understand that we humans, and everything we have built, are part of nature, you cannot separate the two. A central insight of ecological democracy, then, is that there is no viable politics of the left which does not place a healthy natural world at its heart. You cannot work to improve humanity’s lot without cherishing and stewarding the natural world we are part of. Equally, there is no viable green politics which does not challenge the cultural and institutional primacy of the profit motive, competitive individualism, and corporate power, all of which drive environmental destruction. You cannot tackle inequality without tackling pollution, and neither can you tackle pollution without tackling inequality. These are fundamentally intertwined.
What’s more, like any sufficiently solid common sense, ecological democracy implicitly tells us how to implement itself through institutions. Every part of an ecology is connected to, and has impacts on, every other part. The smallest change for one seemingly irrelevant species or community can have huge ramifications for others. Over-dominance of one species will almost always trigger collapse. Reflecting this, an ecological politics of interconnected diversity must be based in participatory democratic processes, and it must put equity, universalism and pluralism at its core. It must have subsidiary models from the local to the global, ensuring decisions are made by and for people at the most local level possible – recognising that, in an interconnected world, the most local level possible may sometimes be the whole globe. It must flip political practice from an antagonistic adversarial model to a cooperative, agonistic, consensus-based one. It must make corporations and private profits subservient to people and the planet. And it must treat both government and the economy as tools – tools we invented and can re-invent – to enable and support us to work together to make a better world.
None of this, of course, is new. It’s all long-accepted green politics. But what we have not done well is draw it together to form a clear political common sense as we seek to implement it through institutional structures. That is our urgent challenge at this moment, a moment which Gramsci describes as the “interregnum” – a time when the old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born. It is a moment, as Gramsci says, of great danger, when monsters appear – see Trump, Hanson, Orbán and too many others – seeking to take advantage of the opportunity just as we are. And we Greens recognise it as more dangerous than ever, as this interregnum has appeared just when we are facing ecological crisis.
If we fail, fascism wins. Not only will it destroy and debase countless lives, but it will drive us swiftly down the path of ecological collapse.
If we succeed, however, we will build a politics which is not only capable of tackling the interwoven social and ecological crises, but is also resilient enough to weather the inevitable social and political challenges that climate change will bring.
This essay seeks to map out the why, how and what of ecological democracy to help us succeed.
The context: disconnection
Before we prescribe a solution, we have to diagnose where we are and how we got here.
What does it mean to claim that the cultural dominance – the hegemony – of neoliberal capitalism is collapsing? And, if it is, how has that come to pass?
Throughout the modern era, in order to maintain its legitimacy and secure its power, the capitalist system has had to balance itself with a certain level of democracy. This, as thinkers running the gamut from Naomi Klein through AC Grayling to Milton Friedman have discussed, has never been a comfortable balance. The people generally demand more regulation of capital while capitalists frequently chafe at the constraints democracy places on the unfettered operation of the market. Over the past generation, emboldened by the collapse of the USSR, Thatcher’s declaration that “there is no alternative” and Fukuyama’s announcement of “the end of history”, the precarious, and never fair, balance has been thrown right off.
In Australia and around the world, our system has been skewed so badly that it is often difficult to describe what we have now as truly democratic. Klein, Christine Milne, even centrists like Grayling and others, describe our present reality as a plutocracy, or even a kleptocracy. Corporations (and the super rich) buy access and decisions, pervert the political debate, enclose public space for their private profit, and freely pollute. Meanwhile, people are told we are consumers rather than citizens, our relationship with government has become that of client and service provider at best, and our always limited influence over decisions which shape our lives and the future of the planet is constrained more and more. If the role of citizens is constrained, there is no role for nature at all.
At the same time, the information revolution has enabled us to share ideas across the globe, to challenge accepted wisdom, and to experiment with new models of social organisation and economic development. Spiralling inequality has exposed the hoax of trickle down economics for all to see. Videos of burning rivers and turtles choking on plastic make it impossible to push environmental destruction out of sight. Open source software, cooperatives and sharing groups very practically bust the myth that competitive self-interest is the only real driver of human behaviour. And, as Paul Mason sets out in Postcapitalism, the infinite replicability of information, and the tying of value to information, is destroying the scarcity-based economic system from within, and driving marginal value towards zero. For the first time ever, a world of abundance is actually possible.
Capitalism is eating itself. By undermining democracy while giving us the tools to recreate it ourselves, it has ploughed the soil of its own crisis of legitimacy.
But let’s take a step back. If we put this into the much deeper context, we see that this is the logical conclusion of a process which has been going on for a very long time indeed.
We are at the end point of a millennia-long process of alienation and disconnection, and of homogenisation. As we increasingly urbanise, we are disconnected from nature. We are alienated from each other, in our metal and concrete boxes; and from our labour, as David Graeber discusses in his theory of “bullshit jobs”. We are alienated by a system which declares we have great choice while turning everything into the same grey goo. Great and different cities become Disneyworld versions of themselves, with the same stores, billboard ads and cheap merchandise. Supermarket aisles are filled with different but identical toothpastes. We are disenfranchised by a world which insists that we have great freedoms while systematically removing more and more of our capacity to influence the direction of our society.
Where previous (of course, deeply problematic) systems still included some form of internal balance – often a religious imperative to share, or a feudal system of devolved mutual responsibility – capitalism for the first time threw that out. As Karl Polanyi wrote in The Great Transformation, while all previous social organising principles saw markets, land and money “embedded” within social relationships, capitalism “dis-embedded” them, removing any social, religious or moral constraints from the operation of the market. Capitalism became the first social organising principle based on selfishness, the first system to make greed, competition, non-cooperation its credo. While a slow severing has been going on for thousands of years, it’s the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and capitalism, which performed the amputation.
The system likely started to head that way accidentally, or incidentally, as it developed, through the problematic admixture of scientific principles, religious ideas, and the exercise of power. But it became a concerted strategy. Margaret Thatcher told us there was no such thing as society, and then worked deliberately to make it so, alongside Reagan, Friedman, and the other architects of the neoliberal hegemony.
Let’s look at a few examples of that disconnection.
First is our loss of capacity to feel part of the natural world. Humans have been separating ourselves from nature ever since we first built cities and started to leave the land. But it’s really that coincident (and interconnected) arrival of the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution that cut us off.
Cartesian dualism, and the Hobbesean view that, in the state of nature, life was “nasty, brutish and short”, were the philosophical basis. These philosophies lead, for example, to the false reading of Darwinian evolution as pure tooth-and-nail competition, instead of driven at least as much by cooperation and inter-relation. Meanwhile the newly ascendant economic imperative drove the enclosure of the commons, the clearances, colonialism and terra nullius, forcing people off the land, out of ancient ways of life, and into cities to sell their labour. Through this process, we begin to lose not just our connection to the natural world, but, starkly, our ability to describe it, our vocabulary. Blackberries and apples are no longer fruit we can pluck and eat, but devices to tie us to our labour even when on the toilet.
The natural world becomes a resource to be used. It becomes an “externality”, not even something to be counted among the things that matter. And when we do try to count it, we make it abstract, fungible, a product for sale – the Great Barrier Reef is ‘worth’ $56 trillion? Ecosystems provide ‘services’?
In this system, we cannot protect nature. We will fail to do so until we stop treating it as separate, until we reconnect. As one of the greatest environmental slogans goes, “we are not protecting nature, we are nature protecting ourself”.
Let’s turn to the rise of the extreme right: of Hanson in her burqa; of Trump and the new American fascists; of Brexit; of religious fundamentalist violence of various kinds.
All these gain their power by tapping into disconnection and disenfranchisement. Economic inequality is one driver, but it’s only part of it. What is deeper is the sense of disenfranchisement, and that’s not just a sense; it is real. “Take back control” the Brexit slogan, makes sense. It is absolutely right that “elites” have taken control of our lives, have bought or stolen or been given our institutions, our democracy.
However, what all these demagogues do is the classic fascist bait and switch. They grab the disconnection and bring people together, not in order to cooperate to build better futures, but rather as the mob, primed and ready to incite. They rile people up about unfairness and inequality and lack of control, and then misdirect it, away from the real causes of corporate power and towards some scary other, like Jews, Muslims, blacks, immigrants, gays, greenies, dole bludgers. Meanwhile, as Naomi Klein writes in her latest book, they use the cover to complete the corporate take-over of the state.
Just as we cannot protect nature until we connect ourselves to and within nature, we won’t be in a position to fight fascism effectively until we are able to truly show we are connecting and enfranchising all people. We fight their exclusionary “we” by showing that an inclusive “we” is not just possible, but better.
Hanson and co, and their toxic hatred are of course far from the only problem in our politics. The corporate take-over that Naomi Klein writes about is a key driver of the loss of legitimacy and effectiveness of government. By the same token, however, the “epistocratic” tendencies of many in the centre left and right – faith in the experts and a concomitant scepticism of “the great unwashed” to get things right, – are also fundamentally anti-democratic and alienating.
Another driver of disconnection from democracy is that government no longer has any real presence in our lives, thanks to the privatisation and corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services. The relationship between citizen and government becomes one of customer and service provider, mediated by corporations, in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role. We face a deep democratic deficit, with governments deliberately constraining our role as citizens, undermining the power of voting, criminalising and delegitimising protest and advocacy while welcoming the participation of corporations. See the access corporations have to parliaments and MPs. See investor-state dispute resolution in international trade law, where companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often when citizens have no such power themselves. It sends a clear message: “government is not for you”.
Our adversarial system, where politics becomes a gladiatorial battle rather than a tournament of ideas, similarly contributes to disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Another strand is the over-simplification of political disagreements to superficial caricatures, the idea that we can’t deal with complexity and diversity. We are turning away from politics and democracy because we no longer believe they can achieve anything.
This is the core of our democratic crisis. How can we have an effective democracy when our socio-political culture tells us to think only of our own self-interest and that that’s what everyone else is doing? Common Cause’s fascinating Perception Matters research quantifies this, showing that, while 75% of people feel personally guided by altruistic values such as care, protecting and feeling part of nature, and universalism, a similar proportion feel that other people around them are driven more by selfish values of wealth and power than they are. This breeds lack of trust, disengagement and disenfranchisement. And it has been bred deliberately by a carefully constructed cultural hegemony, embedding cultural norms of self-interest, denying the reality of altruistic motives, separating “man” (always man) from “nature”.
But what the Common Cause research also reveals is that this cultural hegemony sits uneasily in our hearts. Most of us don’t, deep down, believe it – at least not about ourselves and our loved ones. And now, the combination of intense alienation, the exposure of anti-democratic rampant capitalism, and the arrival of information technology enabling a flowering of post-capitalist models, is drastically weakening the power of the mythology.
Capitalism is eating itself.
The Commons as a model for ecological democracy
It’s no coincidence that this era of disconnection is the era which has seen the systematic enclosure and destruction of the commons; a destruction so complete that most of us no longer understand what the commons is. But it’s vital that we come to understand its meaning, because it provides a brilliant model for ecological democracy – and for a politics which can respond effectively to our current circumstances.
We think of the commons, in our disconnected way, as a stand-alone thing – a field, or the atmosphere; some mystifying form of property which belongs to everyone and to no-one.
But the commons is much more than that. An ancient concept, imbued with deep understandings of connection, to each other and to the natural world we are part of, the commons is better understood as a system than a form of property. It is a system by which a community agrees to manage resources, equitably and sustainably. As commons theorist David Bollier describes it in Think Like a Commoner, it is “a resource + a community + a set of social protocols”.
The commons isn’t the field where the people graze their cattle. It is the field, and the people, and the way in which the people agree to share the field, keep it healthy, prevent free-loaders, and share the benefits, not only with each other but for generations into the future. Perhaps the oldest known model of social organisation, it’s the original system of cooperative governance to ensure long-term stability for communities in and with the living world.
Unsurprisingly and importantly, the philosophy is borne out in many Indigenous social systems and political movements. The Zulu concept of Ubuntu, embedded in anti-apartheid struggles, captures its essence. In Latin America, Buen Vivir has (partially successfully) institutionalised the frameworks. Here in Australia, Mary Graham articulates Aboriginal law in clear commons terms, and Bruce Pascoe sets it out at some length in his astonishing book, Dark Emu:
Aboriginal Australian law insisted that the land was held in common and that people were the mere temporal custodians. Individuals were responsible for particular trees, rivers, lakes and stretches of land, but only so these could be delivered forward to the next generation in accordance with the law. Individuals and families might be said to own a particular fish trap or crop, but they worked it in cooperation with surrounding clans… The system in operation could be considered a jigsawed mutualism. People had rights and responsibilities for particular pieces of the jigsaw but they were constrained to operate that piece so that it added to rather than detracted from the pieces of their neighbours and the epic integrity of the land.1
This ancient model was devastated by the interlinked ravages of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism. The process we genteelly call “the enclosure of the commons” stretches from the brutality of the Highland Clearances, the Irish Famine and the industrial urbanisation of England, where people were forcibly evicted from, or lost control over, land they had managed for millennia, through to the appalling acts of genocide on several continents. Terra nullius is the ruthless legal expression of a political philosophy which saw commons practices as non-property, as uncivilised, as fundamentally worthless. The legal structures of “real property” and “Crown land” saw any and all land held and managed in common, often since time immemorial, seized and converted into a resource from which the monarch could extract value.
It was not, however, completely erased. And it was brought back to the attention of “Western” culture thanks in no small part to the work of Nobel Prize winning economist, Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s field work with Indigenous peoples across the globe involved close observation of the way they managed what she called Common Pool Resources. This work demonstrated that the cooperative model has tremendous benefits over competitive individualism for long term stability and sustainability. Her analysis led her to set out eight principles for management of commons:2
- Clearly defining the resource which is to be managed in common and the community responsible for it;
- The community taking control of that resource for their shared benefit;
- Collective and democratic management of the resource;
- Effective monitoring of management and compliance;
- Ensuring compliance through clear, democratically developed and implemented, graduated sanctions;
- Open and accessible conflict resolution;
- Recognition of and respect for the community’s management of the resource by others; and
- Nested, layered or polycentric models of governance for larger communities and groups of resources, from the local to the global level.
It’s telling that Garrett Harding’s complete mischaracterisation in The Tragedy of the Commons, the work which above all others undermined the concept in the public consciousness, depicts something that bears no resemblance to this. Harding sets out how individuals who, for some reason, can’t or won’t talk to each other, can’t or won’t cooperate with each other, will fail to manage commonly held resources. Well, that’s no surprise. But it’s not a description of a commons – it’s a description of capitalism and the disconnection and alienation at its core. Managing common resources under the cultural and institutional hegemony of capitalism is, indeed, extraordinarily difficult.
Through the lens of the commons, the actions of governments deliberately shutting off space for civil society and democratic participation while opening the doors to corporations, as described above, takes on a new hue. It can be seen pretty clearly as a new era of enclosure. Private interests have been busily enclosing government and democracy as the last vestiges of the commons.
It makes sense, then, that principles of the commons have long been central to various lines of anti-capitalist, Marxist, and post-Marxist thought, from Murray Bookchin to JK Gibson-Graham. In addition, a cursory examination of these principles reveals direct parallels to the Greens’ four pillars of ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, economic justice and non-violence.
Put these together and it becomes clear that the commons provides an excellent model for ecological democracy.
The commons is an inherently ecological concept, placing human society and economy within, as part of, and fundamentally interconnected with the natural world. As theorists Jose Ramos and Michel Bauwens put it, the commons implies “invocation of a community who must steward the good of that commons.”3
Similarly, the commons is inherently a radical left-wing vision, implying equity and pluralism. As Pablo Solón has observed, it sets the idea of solidarity at its core, understanding that the mutual interconnection and support of diverse parts increases the resilience of the whole.4 Indeed, it takes solidarity to its natural conclusion, extending it way beyond class solidarity to cover all beings. Further, it is based on complementarity as opposed to competition, finding that there is greater value created by adding our efforts together rather than cancelling each other out.
This last is where new communications technologies have played a vital role in reinvigorating understanding of the commons, as the connective capacity of the internet lends itself to commoning. Open source is a clear demonstration of how commons practice can create huge value, and a challenge to those who say only competition can do so. Linux and Wikipedia are prime examples, and Creative Commons licensing is an institutional reflection of it.
Through the framework of the commons underpinning ecological democracy we see, for example, how we can respond to climate change in ways which provide both local and global solutions, as well as structures of resilience in the face of the challenges we’ve brought on ourselves. We see how we can tie global, regional and local governance together, leading to a new globalism of cooperation instead of self-interest, building bridges instead of walls.
Before exploring those and other ideas more deeply, it’s worth setting out how commons-based ecological democracy differs conceptually from other models of government.
“Everything is connected”: the conceptualisation of ecological democracy
If disconnection and alienation are at the heart of the interconnected crises we face, leading to the crisis of legitimacy for our neoliberal capitalist hegemony, how are various political approaches responding to that?
We’ve already seen how the right responds. They correctly diagnose the disconnection, calling people together on the basis of it. But their answer is an exclusionary one, creating connection for a small, defined group by rejecting the “other”. This is the view described in the opening of this essay as “utterly repugnant”.
Unsurprisingly, given the gravitational pull of the status quo, a substantial portion of what is often referred to as the “political class” remain convinced that the current system is designed fine, but just needs fixing.
This view, epitomised by AC Grayling in Democracy and its Crisis, as well as by numerous commentators, insists that we must rescue liberal representative democracy. It proposes improving civics education, supporting public interest media, banning corporate political donations, improving transparency, and similar necessary – but far from sufficient – steps. It believes that the system that got us into this mess can, with a few tweaks, get us out of it. Naïve. At its worst, this view is expressed in the desire of centrists to “depoliticise” important decisions, leaving them to experts who know better. If the crisis we face is one of disconnection, we will not solve it with responses which still cast the citizen in a bit part, rather than as the protagonist.
The reinvigoration of social democracy, led by Corbyn and Sanders “for the many, not the few”, is a far better response, but described in the introduction as “insufficient”. Why?
The problem is that social democracy, like capitalism to which it is a response, is primarily a political tool for managing the economy – the production and consumption and exchange of goods and services. Both frame society within that rubric, “dis-embedded” from nature. Jason Moore, in his recent book Capitalism in the Web of Life, explores how the separation of humanity and the economy from nature is vital for capitalism’s effective operation, and how social democracy too often buttresses this separation instead of challenging it.
It’s important to note that this is a critique of social democracy (and more so, though less relevantly, of Soviet communism), rather than of theoretical socialism. Marx himself had a far broader critique, which placed socialism within the natural world, and posited a system of local, grassroots management which owes a lot to commons-based forms. Many who follow in his footsteps, such as Moore and JK Gibson-Graham, explore deeper feminist, queer and ecological readings of his work. However, this has unfortunately conspicuously failed to translate to a shift in practice, either in western social democracy or in most forms of communism5, both of which continue to “dis-embed” economy and society from nature, and have strong tendencies towards centralised control.6
The same caveat could, in some ways, be applied to capitalism. Schools of thought at the margins of both, from the ‘blue-green’ Natural Capitalism of Amory and Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken, to the eco-socialism of John Bellamy Foster and others, have actively tried to extend their parameters towards ecology, but the mainstream of both has stubbornly refused to shift. Within the current cultural hegemony, their world views do not enable them to understand that everything is connected. As such, neither has the capacity to deal with the disconnection that is at the heart of the many crises we currently face. Both have a strong tendency to drive homogenisation, steamrolling local cultures, failing to appreciate the strength that comes from interconnected diversity – the secret recipe of ecology.
Social democracy is absolutely part of the answer. But it’s not the full answer – certainly not as presented by its current leaders. There’s more.
At the simplest conceptual level, we do not face a binary choice between the invisible hand of the market and the dead hand of centralised control. We can use our own hands, and get them dirty.
Ecological democracy presents a model that is about participatory, deliberative democratic paths, embedded in nature, based on the principle of subsidiarity, or putting control into the most local hands possible, and limiting the opportunities for domination and free-riding.
Viewed another way: under capitalism, nothing is connected, everything is atomised, all is abstraction. Under social democracy, people are connected, but generally excluding the natural world, and not always sufficiently democratic and participatory, due to its systemic tendency towards centralisation. Under ecological democracy, everything, in its grand messy diversity, is connected.
Conceptualise it a third way: for the right, government should get out of the way of business but maintain strict social order. It’s a rhetoric of freedom with an increasingly obvious undercurrent of hard, authoritarian control.
For the old left, government knows best. It’s a rhetoric of democracy with an undercurrent of paternalism increasingly apparent, for example, in race and gender relations amongst Bernie Bros.
Neither of them gives people back control over their own destiny. Neither of them can deal with the disconnection and disenfranchisement which are at the heart of the crises we face.
For ecological democracy, government’s role is to provide an enabling, nurturing environment for people and the planet. It is to support communities to find their own way together, within the context of equity and sustainability, and within clear, democratically developed, limits to prevent abuse. This is, of course, a left politics. It implies strong regulation of corporations and markets to prevent free-riding – behaviour which profits at the expense of people and the planet. It implies high taxes on the rich and substantial redistribution of wealth because they are the basis of cooperation and trust. It implies true equity; deep, systemic, intersectional equity.
Ecological democracy, importantly, sees equity in far broader terms than social democracy. One of the most frequent critiques from labour activists of greens is that we “don’t have a class politics”. This is both untrue and also revealing of the problematic reductionism of social democratic politics. Green politics does, absolutely, understand and appreciate the role of class in our society. However, unlike social democracy, ecological democracy does not see class as the only site of oppression, reading every other issue through that lens. Ecological democracy is an inherently intersectional politics, understanding that there are many inequalities across our society, such as gender, race and sexuality, with complex interplays between them, which need to be recognised and addressed not just through the lens of class but with both systemic and targeted approaches.
This intrinsic intersectionalism is a challenge to the Cartesian dualism that is embedded in both capitalism and too much of socialism, in which “man” is separated from (and more important than) “nature”. Val Plumwood, Ariel Salleh and many others have highlighted, for example, that the parallel separation of “man” from “woman” ties patriarchy to environmental destruction, based on the drive to control and subdue a feminised natural world. Similarly, race-based politics and governance has been connected to both gendered abuse and environmental destruction. Class is a highly relevant aspect of each of these issues, but it does not and cannot explain the complex interaction between them all.
One stark example of the perils of reducing all issues to the one question of class is the problematic misreading of the important climate justice movement that has grown in recent years. This movement correctly and vitally identifies that climate change – and environmental destruction more generally – is a social justice issue as it is caused by the rich but affects the poorest first and hardest. The problematic misreading is epitomised in a few revealing lines from an otherwise brilliant column by the generally excellent Jeff Sparrow:
In reality, the environment’s always been a class issue. Climate change will devastate the poor – and the rich and the powerful will barely notice. Insulated by money, you can still treat nature as an inexhaustible resource to be endlessly abused… The politicians and tycoons with their stock options and property portfolios will still find pleasant locales for their holidays, no matter how degraded the oceans become.7
This is, of course, not true. Yes, wealth will partially insulate tycoons from climate change but, if the scientists are even close to correct, there will eventually be no “pleasant locales” to run to. At the other end of the spectrum, Ulrich Beck’s famous statement from Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk, that “poverty is hierarchical but smog is democratic”, is equally wrong, as ecological justice campaigners have demonstrated. Poverty and pollution are closely correlated, both in their underlying causes and in location. Class, then, is an important lens through which to view the drivers and responses to environmental destruction, but it falls down unless understood in an ecological – intersectional – way.
From the opposite perspective, current liberal democratic politics sees an explosion of interest group or identity politics, pitting different interests against one another in competition. While it is difficult not to get caught up in this, the ecological approach acknowledges that they are all interrelated, and seeks to find systemic responses through cooperative processes. Val Plumwood also notes a central issue with interest group politics for environmentalism – that it sets protection of the environment as just another issue to compete with all others, rather than recognising it as a basic condition of survival.8
Another important area where ecological democracy opens up new space is in rejecting the binary choice between privatisation and public ownership. While the idea of privatising profits from public resources is anathema to ecological democracy, nationalising – the frequent approach of social democracy – is not necessarily always the solution. As commons theorist David Bollier puts it, “In many instances, the state is only too eager to conspire with industries to seize control of common resources for private (ie corporate) exploitation.”9 A stark example of this is set out by Pablo Solón regarding his experiences in Bolivia:
The expropriation and socialization of capital by the state does not in itself alter the productivist and extractivist essence of capital—it can even reinforce and aggravate it. The logic of capital can continue to govern even when the state has nationalized large-scale enterprises… Extractivism can never be sustainable, and humanity has no future unless we stop plundering nature. It is not enough to socialize enterprises without transforming them based on respect for the vital cycles of nature and social well-being.10
There will always be a key role for public ownership in ecological democracy, but there is also an appreciation for alternative approaches such as worker- and user-owned cooperatives and other forms of community democratic ownership and management. These are too often sidelined by a social democracy intent on nationalising rather than socialising ownership. As Solón warns, whatever the form of ownership – private, public or mutual – regulation and culture must ensure respectful treatment of people and the planet.
Relatedly, there is a creative tension in the conception of the role of the state in ecological democracy, which plays out in Green politics between those who identify as anarchist and those who identify as big-state social democrats. A commons-based ecological democracy would see a role for government, deriving its authority from grassroots participatory processes, in enabling and supporting communities to find their own way, within the context of democratically determined limits. Ostrom highlights that commons governance requires monitoring of compliance and sanctions for breaches. In a society as complex as ours, some form of state infrastructure will be vital to manage this, but ecological democracy must be careful to see it as a tool which we invented, and can continue to re-invent, to meet our needs.
That is the essence of ecological democracy. Rejecting capitalism (and, of course, fascism) but not accepting social democracy as a sufficient solution, it seeks and presents connected solutions for complex issues.
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- Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu: Black Seeds: agriculture or accident?, Magabala Books, 2014.
- Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Bauwens and Ramos, “Why We Need a Post-Capitalist Commons Transition Today”, Peer to Peer Foundation, https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Why_We_Need_a_Post-Capitalist_Commons_Transition_Today
- Pablo Solón, “Vivir Bien: Old Cosmovisions and New Paradigms,” Great Transition Initiative (February 2018), http://www.greattransition.org/publication/vivir-bien
- Latin American forms of communism and socialism go some way towards more ecological implementation, often due to the influence of Indigenous activism. However, even they have had a tendency towards centralisation which has undermined true participatory and commoning processes. This is, of course, a matter for a far more detailed analysis than this essay can provide.
- Soviet communism, of course, followed an utterly non-commons path, seeking, contradictorily, to enforce collectivism by destroying social networks of trust, pitting citizen against citizen. It also thoroughly disembedded itself from the natural world. This serves as an important warning.
- Jeff Sparrow, “It’s either Adani or the Great Barrier Reef”, The Guardian, 7 April 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/07/its-either-adani-or-the-great-barrier-reef-are-we-willing-to-fight-for-a-wonder-of-the-world
- Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture: the ecological crisis of reason, Routledge, 2002.
- David Bollier, Think Like A Commoner, New Society Publishers, 2014, p38.
- Solón, ibid n4, http://www.greattransition.org/publication/vivir-bien