The Coming of the Greens

Issue 296
May/June 2016
Days of Hope

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Review

The Coming of the Greens
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Rupert Read and Bennet Francis on the politics of ecologism. Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Government to the International Stage by Per Gahrton. Pluto Press, 2015. ISBN: 9780745333397

Ecologism is still the baby of political ideologies. In the English-speaking world at least, it’s unusual in public life to find a clear distinction drawn between environmental lobbying or environmental economics on the one hand, and a comprehensive, wholistic, ecological Green politics on the other.

‘Green issues’ have tended to enter the discussion at a late stage, far downstream of big ideas and core beliefs, with greens treated more like a minority interest group to be placated with superficial gestures.

The political culture of the UK and the United States, however, is behind the curve in this respect, as Per Gahrton’s timely book brings out. Beginning in roughly the late 1970s, there has been an upsurge of political ecologism, which has developed, from its origins in pressure groups and small-scale experiments of living, into an all-encompassing political ideal – ‘neither left nor right, but forward’.

Although Gahrton writes with the detached objectivity of the political scientist, the more interesting sections of the book are those that give us first-hand insight into the development of the international Green movement in Europe, given the author’s own position as founder of the Swedish Greens and one of the first four co-secretaries of the European Greens.

The ideological differences between parties – such as the question of whether to accept leftist parties or only those with expressly ecological core values into the European Greens – led to confrontations between some of the biggest personalities in Green politics.

We can see the legacy of these debates in the composition of the European Parliament to this day: the Greens-EFA parliamentary grouping, to which the Green Party of England and Wales belongs, remains separate from the European United Left-Nordic Green Left grouping (which includes Sinn Féin – perhaps not everyone’s idea of ‘Green’).

To those habituated to a ‘first past the post’ electoral system, Gahrton’s careful overview of the proliferation of Green parties across the world – with several enjoying electoral success and with it the chance to participate in government – is extremely compelling. It is a welcome reminder that parliamentary politics can be a valuable tool if used effectively.

Interestingly, Gahrton’s own view seems at times more pessimistic: he argues that the role of Greens in parliament should be primarily disruptive, focused on the banning of harmful practices. Positive change must be brought about from the ground up, through grass-roots political participation.

This view is motivated by a complex combination of philosophical and practical considerations. Greens have defined themselves in contrast to traditional parties as committed to participatory democracy: genuine people-power.

Centralised government through cabinet is therefore difficult to square with core Green values. The argument is reinforced by Garhton’s study of the fate of Greens who have accepted ministries: often, he contends, traditional structures have forced them to act somewhat unilaterally, leading to a rift with rank-and-file members.

While these points are important, we should be wary of the idea that the main task of Greens at the parliamentary level is negative: a bold positive vision, put forward through domestic legislatures as well as the European Parliament, is needed to persuade the majority that a Green revolution is not only necessary, but achievable and desirable.

This is an edited version of a review published on the Ecologist website www.theecologist.org

Rupert Read is Reader in Philosophy in the School of Politics, Philosophy, Language and Communication Studies at the University of East Anglia, and the Chair of Green House. Bennet Francis is an MPhil Research Student in Philosophy at University College London.

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