Tag Archives: Andrew Dobson

Just sustainability

The concept of sustainability is well described as “a big, sloppy term for a big, complex subject” (Prugh et al, 2000, p.2). The meaning of ‘sustainability’ is highly contested and subject to a wide variety of (often self-serving) definitions.

So how can this “big, sloppy” concept – and all that it tells us about global limits to resource consumption and waste production – be translated into recommendations for practical action?

One way of achieving this translation that appears in the policy documents of various green parties around the world is to work with the notion of ‘carrying capacity.’ In particular, carrying capacity features as a key principle of many green population policies.

Unfortunately there is often a serious defect in the way carrying capacity is applied, as explained in an article by Steve Vanderheiden (2008). Usefully, though, for those who wish to see sustainability policy become a reality, Vanderheiden also shows how sustainability policies be formulated differently, along lines that take proper account of issues of justice.

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Ecological citizens: do they exist?

The basic principles of a theoretical ‘ecological citizenship,’ as sketched out by Andrew Dobson, were summarised in my previous article. The obvious question to ask immediately of such a theory is whether it has any connection with the real world: do ‘ecological citizens’ actually exist?

Some social research which is able to answer this question has been published recently. Swedish political scientist Sverker Jagers (2009) has carried out a survey “to verify, identify and explain the presence of ecological citizens” (p.21).

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Ecological citizenship: the basis of a sustainable society

In his book on ‘The politics of the environment’, Neil Carter argues that, among green theorists

there is a consensus over the need for active ecological citizenship because of the recognition that the transition to a sustainable society requires more than institutional restructuring; it also needs a transformation in the beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of individuals. (Carter, 2007, p.65)

In other words, ecological citizenship is an essential prerequisite of a sustainable society.

So let’s try to understand what ‘ecological citizenship’ might actually mean.

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Ecological modernisation theory and the challenge to radical green politics

English Green Party candidate and Keele University politics professor Andrew Dobson has written that “the belief that our finite earth places limits on industrial growth” is “the foundation stone of radical green politics” (Dobson, 1995, p.72). For many radical greens, this view still holds today: there is understood to be a strong causal relationship between economic growth and ecological degradation, and it follows that, for the sake of the planet and all the species that inhabit it, including our own, we must put an end to quantitative economic growth.

The view that growth drives ecological degradation has strong roots in New Zealand. The New Zealand Values Party’s election manifesto of 1975, “Beyond Tomorrow“, a founding document of global green politics, opens with the words “Infinite growth is impossible” and goes on to say that “the growth mentality … must be altered.” The alternative put forward is described as a “stable-state society.” Nevertheless, beyond the radical green movement, even among environmentally concerned citizens, this has always been and still is a very much a marginalised view.

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The Green Party and the environmental movement in New Zealand

A recent editorial in the New Zealand Herald (4 June 2008 ) offers the Green Party some advice on political positioning:

Despite their durability, the Greens should be a stronger party in this country. Environmental values are widely held and can offer a political identity outside the normal social divide. The party in our Parliament, however, has not offered a separate identity, it adheres to a left-wing view of environmentalism, opposed to free trade, preferring public ownership to private property, distracted by issues it calls social justice.

A broader Green Party would build some conservation projects on private property rights and recognise the power of market forces to ensure resources are used sustainably. A party of that stamp would draw support from across the spectrum and could contemplate dealings with any government.

The Green Party needs to move out of left field and become a central player.

It’s not first time I’ve seen this complaint in the Herald (here’s another example). But one might easily be led to suspect the Herald’s motives in freely offering its counsel to the Greens, given the newspaper’s tendency toward unreconstructed neoliberalism (which might just explain the emphasis on private property rights and market forces, and the dismissal of social justice concerns in the above quote).

However, the frequency with which I have heard similar complaints from environmentalists, conservationists and even, at times, some party members suggests that it is not just editorial writers who have failed to grasp something quite fundamental about ecopolitics.

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