Aidan Rankin’s response to the desperate need for a new ecological settlement (‘Time for a new Ecology Party’, February 2004, and ‘Grassroots democracy’, May 2005) is a thoroughgoing assault on presently existing ‘political ecology’. After decades of its under-achievement, despite ever increasing evidence of impending ecological crisis, it would be hard to contradict Rankin’s central contention that the Green Party has proved itself to be an inadequate vehicle for the transition to a sustainable society. However, both in terms of general strategy and particular philosophical bias, his proposition that we need a new Ecology Party is fundamentally flawed.
Rankin argues that ‘deep ecology’ should provide the central philosophical pillar of a new political party. This naive reformist platform claims to be beyond the old categories of left and right, and ignores the intimate inter-connectedness of exploitation along class, race and gender lines with ecological crisis. This is willful ignorance, omission of the strongest insights of the most important ecological thinkers, and it mirrors New Labour’s obdurate refusal to recognise socio-economic causes behind social and ecological dissolution.
So Rankin has read Arne Naess. Now perhaps he should read the Russian anarchist Kropotkin and his latter-day US counterpart Murray Bookchin. The last thing we need is a new political party. Political parties are governments in-waiting. Governments do not solve problems; they move them around.
Even thinking within the horribly constraining parliamentary box for a moment, the position of a new Ecology Party would be invidious and untenable. It would be unlikely to make electoral headway in a system heavily stacked against small new parties. Playing the game by the rules of the elite, how would it relate to other parties? How would it deal with a little bit of power rather than overall power? The tactical problems of other green parties would also be the problems of a new Ecology Party.
Britain’s political system is, to use the tired old oxymoron, a ‘representative democracy’. In the wake of the general election result, this absurd charade is surely fooling less of the people than has been the case for several generations. Only 21 per cent of the 44 million people eligible to vote in May supported Labour. Would Rankin’s new party be happy to try to transform society having won an election supported by one in five of the electorate? More pertinently perhaps, could an Ecology Party even begin to put its policies in place faced with likely corporate hostility, widespread apathy and a populous given to believing that its ‘democratic’ role begins and ends with an infrequent trip to the ballot box?
The ecology movement should not be a political movement at all; it should be a social movement. ‘The tragic reality,’ wrote permaculturist Bill Mollison, ‘is that very few sustainable systems are designed or applied by those who hold power, and the reason for this is obvious and simple: to let people arrange their own food, energy and shelter is to lose economic and political control over them. We should cease to look to power structures, hierarchical systems or governments to help us, and devise ways to help ourselves.’ As Kropotkin said more than a century ago, ‘it is becoming evident that it is merely stupid to elect politicians and trust them with the task of making laws’.
Instead of a new political deep ecology, the answer lies in a reinvigorated social ecology. Social ecology does not demand that people hold this or that philosophical or ideological position; it proceeds on an empirical basis, trying to build appropriate local and bio-regional alternatives using participatory democratic forms. For decades we have had both highly visible ecological protesters and persistent Green politicians, disasters have been highlighted and lobbying has been ceaseless; but all the while the destruction of the earth has accelerated; the solvent effects of capitalism on society have been largely unchecked; and globalisation has marched onwards.
The task that faces us is not to mould the existing political and economic system into something more amenable to life on earth; there is absolutely no evidence that that is even remotely possible. It is passing idiotic to believe that we can take a system based on exploitation, warfare and greed, and, by using the very political and economic practices that drive it, make it sustainable. No, our task must be to replace the system, to create the alternative society in its midst; as Bookchin suggests, to hollow out loyalty to the power structures until they collapse. This work, which is also the work of the best permaculturists, organic growers, community activists and good neighbours worldwide, embodies the creation of a better society without the mediation of politicians or their new parties. It is positive direct action in communities and workplaces.
Building a new society is a big job, but the short cut to transformation offered by politics is an illusion. Only individuals and communities can create the future we want. It may not be glamorous; it may not involve dreaming of drawing up the first ecological budget or Queen’s Speech, but it is honest work and it is a realistic alternative to passive consumption of green products, green parties, green NGOs and even green magazines. The debate we should be having is how best to make social ecology a reality. To paraphrase a misguided politician: go back to your constituencies and prepare to make the government irrelevant.
Dr Paul Jennings is a writer and organic grower
This article first appeared in the Ecologist July 2005