At last month’s Rio+20 summit, world leaders chalked up what for many people was a failure too far on the environment. The lack of binding agreements on anything, and the general lack of urgency shown by governments, led Greenpeace chief Kumi Naidoo to call for “civil disobedience” in the face of a failing political process.
For those who agree with the general premise, it is perhaps still worth asking whether all political means have truly been exhausted before blockading oil refineries and boycotting the polluters. What about voting Green first?
The environmental battle often feels like it is being waged between mainstream political parties and climate activists from outside the process. For the millions who believe that mainstream parties are failing abjectly on the environment, but find the protests of climate activists too radical, surely voting Green should provide a happy medium?
Why, then, are Green parties not more visible and more widely supported? Are they too ‘hippyish’? Are they single-issue parties without an economic programme? Or are these stigmas thoroughly out of date?
The first thing to bear in mind is that Green parties have in fact been making modest headway in recent years. The Greens-European Free Alliance took a record 55 seats in the 2009 European Parliament elections, making them the fifth-largest party. The German Greens, having been junior partner in red-green government coalitions from 1998-2005, won a historic victory in the Baden- Württemberg 2011 regional elections and now have their first minister-president.
Within the last two years the UK Greens have had their first MP elected to Parliament – party leader Caroline Lucas – and in Brighton took control of a local council for the first time. Even the US Green party had its own diminutive breakthrough last month, raising enough campaign money to qualify for ‘matching funds’ from federal government for the first time.
So who are these Green parties, and what do they believe in?
A criticism often levelled at them is that they do not have a serious policy programme beyond advocating environmental conservationism and cuts in GHG emissions. Quizzed in a recent BBC interview about whether the UK Greens were still a “single-issue party”, Lucas replied that the problem was that the media had only ever paid attention to them on that single issue.
A scan of speeches and manifestos by Green parties in various countries suggests that Lucas is right. In modern Green manifestos the holy grail seems to be not full decarbonisation but full employment. The outsourcing of jobs, the privatisation of healthcare and income inequality are vilified just as forcefully as polluting power plants and unambitious GHG targets. The five policy areas highlighted on the UK Green Party’s website are in fact all socio-economic: Banking, Housing, Jobs, Health and Pensions.
Green New Deal in the US?
Meanwhile, the centrepiece of the ‘Green New Deal’ proposed by US Green candidate Jill Stein is a programme to pick up slack in the private sector by taking up to 16 million unemployed workers into “community-based direct employment”. The sectors to which state-subsidised labour would primarily be made available – organic agriculture, public transportation, renewable energy – are indeed those traditionally earmarked as ‘green’, but the scheme would also divert labour to public education, health care, child care and other services with no visible ecological dimension.
This goes to show that the raison d’etre of the scheme is strongly socio-economic. It is a public works programme with a green tinge, rather than the other way around. Even when Stein moves onto the more familiar ground of raising tax on “the rich agribusiness corporations and the oil, mining, nuclear, coal and timber giants”, the primary justification given is to “keep the wealth created by local labour circulating in the community rather than being drained off to enrich absentee investors”. Again it is the distaste for globalisation, and the vocabulary of the financial crisis, that takes centre stage. The environmental content is still there, but is slotted into a narrative which is first and foremost about people’s jobs, livelihoods and communities.
France’s Europe-Ecologie Les Verts (EELV) continues to define itself primarily in its opposition to nuclear power and its advocacy of a domestic energy transition, but like in the US, economic planning ideas are nonetheless present and specific. The EELV eyes full employment and identifies specific tax loopholes it would close in order to finance the creation of thousands of ‘green jobs’ – although in this case the definition would not necessarily stretch to Stein’s social infrastructure jobs.
United and coherent?
While the emphasis and the vocabulary differs, Green parties from various countries appear to gravitate towards the same core policy programme. And far from being fixated on climate change, this programme in fact amounts to a wide-reaching, comprehensive – and fairly coherent – vision for the economy and society.
By and large it involves: shifting financial and human resources away from the military, fossil fuels, nuclear power and polluting industries, and towards renewable energy and labour-intensive, community-focused services; cracking down on tax havens and shifting to more progressive taxation; channelling finance through development banks rather than speculative investors; taking a zero tolerance approach to corporate lobbying and backhanders; supporting unions, cooperatives and companies that choose not to outsource; instituting a living wage (defined by the UK Greens as 60% of average earnings) in place of a minimum wage; providing free or highly subsidised university education; reclaiming public ownership of utilities and transport. All of this sits alongside the policy with which Greens are traditionally associated: going much further and faster than mainstream parties in cutting GHG emissions.
Unrealistic promises – according to who?
So there is a programme, but how realistic is it? The UK Greens claim that their huge public spending promises would be paid for by axing Trident (the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent) and thus saving £78 billion over thirty years. Stein’s Green New Deal would meanwhile be part-financed by closing America’s foreign military bases.
But, their critics would argue, plans of this type are essentially unrealistic. Here the battleground is political discourse. What is ‘realistic’ and ‘unrealistic’ surely depends on global political realities, which are themselves shifting. Is it more unrealistic and unthinkable to envisage withdrawal of the UK’s nuclear capacity, or to envisage continued inaction in the face of catastrophic global warming, resource depletion and environmental degradation, not to mention growing income disparities and structural unemployment?
Playing both sides
The response of mainstream parties is to navigate disingenuously between the two ‘unthinkables’. Since the onset of the financial crisis, many mainstream politicians have touted their own ‘green new deals’ and have railed against the excesses of dirty industries and dirty financiers, promising to use stimulus packages as an opportunity to stimulate green investment, and to shift resources towards the wholesome, hard-working, sustainable parts of the economy.
Yet despite the rhetoric, the vast majority of public money has been ploughed back into banks with few or no strings attached – and therefore the impetus has been handed back to markets to decide where to allocate these resources. Schemes such as ‘cash for clunkers’ in the US are about as ambitious as state interventionism has got, but even here the goal was basically to stimulate automobile sales, rather than to durably shift resources towards greener production methods.
Politicians have talked about systemic problems, hinting at the need to fundamentally change the way that capital is allocated. But at best what they have provided are piecemeal, sectorial actions which are by definition unfit for the challenge. At worst they have recapitalised and left basically unchanged a market system which has proved itself unable to allocate capital to sustainable mortgage arrangements, let alone to environmentally sustainable outcomes.
This is why, even if people do not vote for the Greens, it is crucial to the political process that their voice be heard. They have been honest about the fact that a transition to a sustainable economy has to be holistic and far-reaching, and has to involve big trade-offs (e.g. with military spending).
Does this mean it is time to vote Green? It is certainly time to redefine what is ‘unrealistic’, and to make all political parties emulate the honesty of the Greens by acknowledging the true trade-offs, and pinning their true colours to the mast. If they fail to do so, then voting Green may well be the least unrealistic option.
Photo courtesy of www.gp.org
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone