The changing face of eco-politics

In the 1980s, environmental politics developed a set of fundamental assumptions heavily influenced by socialist humanism. This socialist perspective was a radical break with the benign authoritarianism that had dominated eco-political thinking in the previous decade; while there were some Marxist influences to be seen (particularly in ‘eco-socialism’), the dominant socialist influence on the new thinking was classical anarchism.

Peter Hay summarises the ideas of various writers (Murray Bookchin, Kirkpatrick Sale, EF Schumacher, and others) from this era under the heading of the ‘new ecological paradigm’. He has provided the following tabulation of this ‘new ecological paradigm’ along with its polar opposite, the ‘dominant social paradigm’ that represents the contrasting values of mainstream society:

Dominant social paradigm

New ecological paradigm
1. Low valuation of nature 1. High valuation of nature
2 Economic growth valued over environmental protection 2. Environmental protection valued over economic growth
3. Compassion reserved only for those ‘near and dear’ 3. Generalised compassion
4. Science and technology a great boon to humankind 4. Science and technology not always good
5. No limits to growth 5. Limits to growth
6. Contemporary society is fine, as is its emphasis on:

· Hierarchy and efficiency

· The market sphere

· Materialism

· Complex and ‘fast’ lifestyles

· Competition

6. A new society with an emphasis

· Participation and openness

· The public sphere

· Post-materialism

· Simple lifestyle

· Co-operation

7. Contemporary politics is fine, as is its emphasis on:

· Centralisation and economies of scale

· Decision making by technical experts

· Decision making by delegation & representation

7. A new politics, with an emphasis

· Participation

· Consultation

· Devolution

· Direct action

I only have difficulty accepting one of the contrasts enumerated by Hay, namely number 3, the ‘generalised’ compassion of greens versus the exclusive ‘near and dear’ compassion of wider society. I believe that this is far too harsh on wider society; there are plenty of examples of generous and open hearted responses to humanitarian crises, from monetary donations to practical support, that demonstrate a genuine and widespread ‘generalised’ compassionate impulse.

That issue aside, I feel the other six points in Hay’s list (1, 2, 4-7) accurately portray the core philosophical values of the environmental movement in the early 1980’s, the point in time at which green politics and Green Parties gatecrashed the political stage. In a sense, therefore, the ‘new ecological paradigm’ provides us with a baseline against which the evolution of green thinking can be measured. And while, for many greens, these core values still remain pretty much intact, I feel that Peter Hay’s table does highlight some of the modifications (moderations?) that are occurring in green political thinking today. Among these shifts are, I suggest, the following:

1) An increased emphasis on efficiency, the market sphere and competition. Widespread interest in eco-capitalism/green capitalism/natural capitalism demonstrates a serious erosion of the commitment to an alternative participatory economics.

2) A reduced emphasis on the limits to growth. Green attempts to maintain the strong critique of growth seem to have been progressively worn down in the current climate of growth obsession. Given that capitalism presupposes growth, it is hard for eco-capitalists to say much about a limit to growth.

3) A reduced emphasis on simple lifestyles. Much support for the green movement comes from the urban middle class, many of whom are quite understandably attached to the small joys and daily pleasures of an affluent Western consumer lifestyle. Consumerism is a colossal challenge for greens, and it only seems to be growing more difficult to tackle that challenge.

I do not believe these shifts in outlook signal a gradual absorption of green ideas into a consumer capitalist worldview or a “sell out” by the green movement. The shifting stance may reflect a search for compromise on the part of greens who for too long have carried an urgent message but have felt themselves to be ignored and rejected by the mainstream of human society. And this ebb and flow between radicalism and compromise may also part of the struggle within the green movement to come to terms with the extent of the personal and social change necessary and the nature of the politics required to successfully address the ecological crisis.

Whichever way the politics unfolds, the green perspective will remain a tenacious state of mind, as Hay stresses at the end of his book. And, he says, “If decline in biophysical systems continues, and if the brunt of this is borne by non-human life in the form of runaway species extinction, environmental politics and ecologically sourced theoretical analysis will continue to attract adherents … because it will be fuelled by that most powerful of emotions – grief.”


Peter Hay (2002) Main currents in western environmental thought (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press).


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