Grass-Roots Democracy

| 19th February 2009
A new Ecology Party would work for a change in values, a paradigm shift in which human beings learn to work with the grain of the natural world, instead of against it.

Last October the seasoned US environmental campaigners Michael Shellenberger and Ted Norhaus published an essay called ‘The Death of Environmentalism’. They argue that the environmental movement has won the support of large sections of the population, but failed either to significantly influence policy decisions or to effect a general change in popular consciousness. Their critique is aimed at environmental lobbying groups, most of which work on highly specific campaigns with resources meagre in comparison to those of their corporate adversaries. A fairer object of criticism, however, would be the party-political green movement. For green politics treats the environment itself as a single issue, arbitrarily tacking it on to protests and ‘struggles’ inherited from the left.

Thus we are presented with green issues as being but one stripe in a rainbow coalition of minority and ‘progressive’ causes, a stripe eclipsed by piecemeal demands for group-based rights, the return of old-style state industries and the redistribution of wealth – with no deeper questioning of how that wealth is generated. To a genuinely green party, such as the new Ecology Party I mooted in the February Ecologist (‘Time for a new Ecology Party’ Feb, 2005), the environment – and humanity’s relationship with it – would be the core principle, from which all policy commitments would grow and to which all economic and social issues would be connected.

Shellenberger and Norhaus seem aware that some form of new politics is required. However, they fall back on talk of ‘environmentalists and other liberals’, rather than attempt to look beyond both liberal and conservative positions. This attachment is one of the greatest challenges for the ecology movement. It is in large part sentimental, but it also arises from patterns of thought that are hard to break. In this sense, the dilemma for ecologists is similar to that of the wider society they are seeking to influence. Ecological consciousness is about questioning many of the modern era’s underlying assumptions, whether they arise from the ‘reactionary’ right or the ‘progressive’ left.

 Applying the insights of holistic science to politics, the physicist Danah Zohar sketches out three blueprints for social organisation. The first is of ‘a milling crowd, millions of individuals each going his or her own way’. The second is of ‘a disciplined army, [in which] individual differences are suppressed for the sake of uniform performance’. Dr Zohar does not use these terms, but the second vision corresponds to the left, the political correctness of which places group identity above complex individual needs. The first corresponds well to the neo-liberal right, for whom, in Lady Thatcher’s famous words, ‘there is no such thing as society’.

But with his third option, Dr Zohar challenges us to think of society as ‘a free-form dance company, [with] each member a soloist in his or her own right but moving creatively in harmony with others’. That is as good a way as any to express the vision of human society that an ecologically based party might wish to project. The ecological ethos balances individual freedom with social responsibility, but also transcends both. This is because it recognises the inherent value of all living systems, not just their value to human beings. Their freedom from arbitrary human interference is at least as important as the freedom of human individuals and communities from arbitrary interference by the state.


Cultural diversity and biodiversity are of equal significance, and ecologists realise that one cannot exist without the other. The ecological vision extends beyond social responsibility among humans to responsibility for other life forms and ecosystems: the aim of political ecology is to re-embed humanity in nature.

One of the main aims of the European Enlightenment, as expressed by the French philosopher Denis Diderot, was that ‘everything must be examined, everything must be called into question’. An ecological politics applies this principle to the Enlightenment’s own legacy. It does this by questioning the desirability – and indeed the practical possibility – of continuous economic growth, and the idea that nature is a resource that can (and should) be ‘conquered’. Ecological ethics involve the reduction of human impact on the planet and its resources, a balanced economy instead of a growth-based economy, and support for individual creativity, craftsmanship, local cultures and cooperation in place of conformity, homogeneity, mass production and competition. A new Ecology Party would work for a change in values, a paradigm shift in which human beings learn to work with the grain of the natural world, instead of against it as at present.

All this might sound rather a tall order for a new party. This is especially true in a country where the electoral system militates against innovation and where political ideas of all kinds meet with often justified scepticism. What, then, is to be done? The environmental movement has made its most powerful cultural impact when it has managed to cross the usual barriers of age, class, background or lifestyle and tap into more profound underlying values. Remember the county ladies in tweed sitting in front of bulldozers with New Age Travellers to protest against road-building schemes. Although the stuff of media cliché, the anti-roads protests showed that ecological consciousness exists, often instinctively, across the social and political spectrum.

The problem is: how do you convert such widespread impulses into a serious political movement? To do so, we need to move beyond a shallow, single-issue environmentalism towards the approach that Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess calls Deep Ecology. For those who would come to the new Ecology Party from the left, this would involve a shift of emphasis away from the struggle-based politics of class, gender, race and other divisive criteria. With that would come a new emphasis on the characteristics and values we hold in common as human beings and the problems we all face in our relationship with the environment. Those of conservative disposition would need to recognise the importance of fluidity as well as set patterns of behaviour and thought. The strength of the ecological imperative is that it is able to reach beyond conventional political allegiances, because it appeals to more important needs: namely, the sheer urgency of the environmental crisis. But it also arouses more powerful feelings than conventional politics, including a sense that materialism and consumerism have failed and that the roots of human problems are as much spiritual as political.

A new Ecology Party would be as much concerned with the healing of wounds as the ‘winning’ of arguments: the healing of wounds between human groups and between humanity and the planet. It would move from the narrow, rigid politics of either/or, with which the electorate is increasingly disillusioned and bored, towards a genuinely inclusive politics of both/and. For example, the idea of a citizens’ income, pioneered by green economists, is as much a welfare reform (in conservative terms) as it is an extension of the welfare state, adapting its principles to 21st century conditions. A citizens’ income is a basic living allowance, paid to every citizen as a universal entitlement, a badge of citizenship. It is not conditional, but it would take the place of the present labyrinthine structure of benefits and means tests, the notorious social security trap that humiliates claimants, discourages them from working and is notoriously expensive and incompetent.

Unlike old-style welfare, the idea of a citizens’ income is based on a holistic view of the individual. It acts as an enabler to the individual, encouraging self-employment and part-time work, and rewarding unpaid and voluntary work (thus addressing, among many other things, the justified feminist demand for wages for housework). A citizens’ income would slice through layers of inept, oppressive and unsustainable bureaucracy. It could therefore appeal as much to economic liberals who seek to empower the individual as to communitarian socialists who are principally concerned with equality. However, it transcends both ideologies because it provides both genuine choice and personal security.

Security is an ecological issue. Its present absence – in the name of competition and growth – encourages community breakdown, undermines social relationships and so creates the conditions that lead to ecological imbalance. Richard Layard, professor of economics at the London School of Economics, recommends that a ‘happiness index’ for government would include reducing ‘enforced geographical mobility’ because the latter fuels crime and mental illness. Social justice, therefore, is at the heart of an ecological agenda. Poverty is, after all, as much environmentally damaging as it is iniquitous.

Equally, individual freedom and self realisation are powerful ecological goals. Yet the ecological view of individual freedom differs from both that of the right, which is concerned with material advancement, and of the left, which favours ‘liberation’ as part of an arbitrarily defined class or group. Ecological freedom includes freedom from insecurity, pollution and fear, from inappropriate and unwanted change as much as from oppressive traditions.

The environmental movement has suffered from its association in many people’s minds with over-regulation and state control. An Ecology Party would reclaim ideas of freedom, small government, community politics and the devolution of power to the lowest possible levels. It would become the party of small and medium-sized businesses, of economic decentralisation and genuine free trade (as opposed to the current system of protectionism on behalf of the multinationals). It would be the party of small schools, holistic and complementary healthcare, and cooperatives. Ecologists have a larger, more generous view of freedom than either market fundamentalists or those on the left who believe that only a centralised state can set people free. They share the view expressed in the Tao Te Ching:

‘…The more laws and restrictions there are
 The poorer people become…
The more rules and regulations,
The more thieves and robbers.’

It would be foolish to underestimate the problems that would confront a party based on the principles of Deep Ecology. But when we consider the alternatives – conventional right/left politics or a retreat into extremist populism, we would be irresponsible not to attempt initiating such an organisation.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist May 2005

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