One of my favourite weekly reads is John Michael Greer’s blog (aka The Archdruid Report). He is almost always entertaining and thought provoking; he writes from a USA perspective and much of his writing concerns the current slow unravelling of the American Empire which peaked sometime between 1948 and 1989. Most of what he says is also globally relevant, and has implications even for a tinpot ex-imperial client state of the USA such as mine.
This week he presents some useful thoughts on the almost complete failure of the broad environmental movement to have made any progress at all over the past 44 years, contrasting this with other more successful movements. Very much of what he says is highly relevant to the UK Green movement, both its non-political “big green NGO” wing (FoE, Greenpeace, WWF, etc etc), and its political wing (GPEW), and also its campaigning wing (from CND to 1010, Climate Coalition, Plane Stupid etc etc.).
He identifies four habits which contribute to the failure. He calls these Piggybacking, The Partisan Trap, Purity Politics, and Pandering to the Privileged. At this point I recommend you read his essay yourself to understand what he means by these titles. You can skip the first bit about the US election (yawn) and scroll down to the paragraph starting “That post attracted quite a few hostile comments …” about four paragraphs above the first sub-head “1. Piggybacking”
OK, got that?
Certainly in my experience of GPEW over the past 12 years all of those habits have been strongly exhibited. Although I have not been so much directly involved with Big Green NGOs, my observation from outside is that they show exactly the same tendencies. Single issue groups seem less likely to fall victim to Piggybacking and The Partisan Trap and you could argue that they have been more successful on the whole than either the big NGOs or the political Green Party in terms of what they have really achieved. But even here there can be a slight whiff of Purity Politics and Pandering to the Privileged.
I think there is an additional fifth habit that JMG misses from his list and that is the other side of Pandering to the Privileged: The Desire to be Inside. When he talks about Pandering he is means looking for support primarily from the affluent liberal class. Framing one’s messages and picking one’s issues to appeal to a narrow section of the community rather than trying to build a broad base of support for one’s core issue. Certainly something much of the UK Green movement is guilty of – appealing to the guardian reading middle class leftish slice of society and expecting the rest to either also respond or be damned as bigots or worse (shades of Political Purity in there too).
The other side of this is the desire to be on the inside in the power game. Believing that the key thing is to get a seat somewhere around the tables of power, treating that as the goal and loosing sight of the real objective (preventing eco-system collapse anyone?).
To this end endless effort is expended in “becoming electable”, toning down the message, and once elected to fitting in as a fully paid up member of the political class – maybe with a slight radical edge, but nothing that can’t be polished up and neutralised as harmless eccentricity whilst we all get on with the business of grabbing as much as we can in the tragedy of the commons.
Of course it is also much more convenient for the powers that were and continue to be to have you inside the tent mostly pissing out rather than outside and them not knowing whether you are about to piss in the flap or set fire to the tent.
In return you get the illusion that your hands are somewhere near the levers of power. You start to believe that you have influence, you are a player in the game – and that is very reqarding and satisfying.
But what do you actually achieve – for sure you do get some small wins, but at a less than glacial pace given the current rate of retreat of glaciers globally. You might even help stop the rate of fossil fuel burning increasing before the last galcier turns into a trickle of water.
The evidence is that you certainly will not even achieve a modest decrease in fosil fuel consumption before you die.
A more effective strategy surely is to not try and grab one of the few seats at the table, but instead to work on those who already have those seats irrespective of their political colour to effect change from within. Not to exclude any potential ally but to change the ways of those who have the power and at the same time simultaneously to change the rules of the game. Any other way you are at best a minority player playing by their rules. The political world as currently run is a zero sum game, and if you are in the game then you can only win by defeating the others. Currently the game is rigged to prevent that happening.
By remaining outside you have a chance to get changes made without the players having to concede defeat. The Desire to be Inside is a very counter-productive strategy and habit which infests the big-Green world.
An ecologically sustainable future lies outside the current paradigms of civilization. Without Compromise is the maxim.