A disturbing new trend is beginning to emerge in ‘First World’ cities and indigenous communities alike. It is a trend that challenges education's true meaning. For, around the world, books are beginning to disappear from school shelves.
This is not due to financial cutbacks, but outbreaks of ‘political correctness’. Teachers remove from library shelves books about military heroes or explorers, about hunters and conquerors, on grounds of ‘imperialist’, ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ attitudes, thus contributing to the alienation and delinquency of their male pupils, and a wider alienation of their school from the community it serves. By imposing this form of censorship, 'progressive’ educators weaken local cultures, rather than supporting them by adding new layers of knowledge. Their work becomes counter-educational. It undermines confident traditions, but puts nothing in their place except a void filled by cynicism, nihilism and a sense of grievance.
One example is a school in Labrador, Canada, where hunting is condemned by modern, Western-educated teachers, despite the fact that the children are Innu, a sub-Arctic people who have long thrived on sustainable hunting and revere the animals they hunt.
The Innu do not present their society as an ideal one, but it has evolved legitimately. They have developed over centuries of life as nomadic herdsmen their own social system, their own law and their own view of man's place in the universe, which worked very successfully until a larger, more arrogant culture started to impose its will. In the past, the main threat to Innu identity came from missionaries, then from administrators who assumed that it was always better for people to ‘settle down’ and live in houses, or shop in supermarkets instead of hunting in ‘remote’ areas better designated for mining or military bases. Now, it comes from ‘progressive’ western educators, campaigners and, very ironically, spokespeople for the values of ‘freedom’ and ‘rights.’
In the supposedly developed world, the desire by liberal, Western elites to impose a uniform pattern on society has created new social divisions. It has produced fragmented communities whose troubles are akin to those of conquered ‘natives’. Within Innu settlements, alcoholism, family breakdown and domestic violence are now endemic, and suicide rates the highest in the world. Further north, the Inuit, who have recaptured a measure of self-government, have been reduced to welfare dependency by ‘environmentalist’ attacks on hunting and trapping.
The thinking behind the original forcible settlement of the Innu was inspired by the false belief that history is a straight line of ‘progress’, moving inevitably forward, riding roughshod over local peculiarities and distinctive cultures, leading us towards ever-larger units of government and an ever more global culture. It is this vision of historical inevitability which ecological politics, to have any meaning, should challenge. Too often, however, ecologists ally themselves with the progressive supremacists. They claim to oppose the globalisation of the economy, yet champion the globalisation of culture.
Green politics should be culturally conservative. This does not mean it should be ‘right-wing’ in the conventional sense. It means that it should include a critique of the idea of progress, a wish to restore natural equilibrium to economics, social organisation and humanity’s relationship with the planet. High Tories and utopian Socialists once found common ground in opposing the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, today, a bond can be forged between small-c conservatives who value tradition over change, and small business over large corporations, and socialists who value local communities over centralised governments, co-operation over centralised planning.
The true ecologist need not be a political animal at all, for his or her views should reflect the practical wisdom of most ordinary people. He should believe, with Aristotle, that political institutions evolve organically and that there should be limits to the size of states, just as there are limits to the size of plants and animals. With Edmund Burke, the French Revolution’s critic, he should believe that ‘rights’ have little meaning when they lack cultural roots, and that the only valid social contract is a natural one - ‘a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are dead and those who are yet to be born’.
The mistake made by many modern Greens is to ally themselves less with those who wish to conserve traditional ways of life, and more with those who wish to impose a ‘politically correct’ fundamentalism that gives economic globalisation its cultural underpinning. PC fundamentalists deny that human communities evolve naturally in different ways. Whether leftists or neo-liberals, they place abstract rights before accumulated wisdom.
Like previous totalitarian movements, modern political correctness thrives on ritual denunciation. Those who reject the idea that male and female roles are interchangeable are ‘sexist’, those who believe in a strong defence policy are ‘militaristic’, those who oppose the free movement of labour and capital are ‘xenophobic’.
Ecologists who accept today’s politically correct definitions of ‘progress’ are acting against the underlying logic of Green politics. For the whole point of being Green is to conserve cultures, to recognise that human diversity is part of ‘biodiversity’. Green politics should be proud to be politically incorrect, and to challenge the tyranny of universal progress.
Aidan Rankin is a Research Fellow in Government at LSE.
This article first appeared in the Ecologist June 2000