Towards ecological democracy


In 2018, the issues that the Greens have made our focus for a generation are more urgent than ever. But Green politics have stalled, according to the Green Institute's Tim Hollo.

By Tim Hollo

In 2018, the issues that the Greens have made our focus for a generation – environmental destruction, corrupted politics, overwhelming corporate power, and permanent war – are more urgent than ever. At the same time, the cultural dominance of neoliberal capitalism is collapsing, with the ideas it is based on facing a crisis of legitimacy, and the institutions that hold it in place looking increasingly shaky.

Yet the Greens' political project appears stalled – not just in Australia, but around the world. The huge steps of a decade ago have not been lost, but neither has the pace picked up to match the urgency of the crises we face.

There are, of course, many reasons for this, chief amongst them that there is nothing harder in politics than attempting to change an entrenched system, as the system fights back with all its strength.

However, it’s the contention of this essay that one key reason for the stall is that ‘Green politics’ is very poorly understood as a comprehensive, alternative vision for the world. And having such a well understood vision is a prerequisite for moving beyond the fringes of politics and being able to implement the changes we know are needed.

The solution we need

At this extraordinary moment of political flux – what some have called a crisis of democracy – our mainstream political discourse allows for three options on the table: a swing to the extreme right, a reinvigoration of social democracy, and, in the middle, a clinging to centrist liberalism. The first of these is utterly repugnant, the second insufficient, and the third naïve. ‘Green politics’ is the solution we need.

However, I argue it cannot be seen as a distinct option on the table while, both internally and externally, it is being torn between those who see it as a form of social democracy and those who see it as a form of liberal democracy – caricatured as ‘watermelons vs neoliberals-on-bikes’.

We urgently need to articulate and build ‘ecological democracy’ as something distinct – a radical political vision of deep interconnection and interdependence and of resilience in diversity. It is an enabling and nurturing politics for people and the planet, supporting people and communities to find their own way together. It rejects capitalism’s hyper-individualism, growth fetish, and celebration of greed. It is beyond socialism while proudly of the left. It is intrinsically intersectional, and embedded in nature.

Antonio Gramsci, in his concept of hegemony, reveals that power is held through the combination of institutional and cultural control. Cultural hegemony circumscribes our behaviour, limits the bounds of our political thought, and buttresses institutional hegemony by making it ‘impossible’ to challenge.

But when cultural hegemony weakens, when it faces a crisis of legitimacy as appears to be the case right now for capitalism, there is a moment of great opportunity to create a new political ‘common sense’, and to ride the wave of that common sense into building new institutions of power and taking over existing ones.

Ecology as a focal point

The new common sense of Green politics is the concept of ecology – hence the framing of ‘ecological democracy’. It’s a common sense grounded in the four pillars and the Global Greens Charter; going back half a century to the work of Gro Harlem Brundtland, Rachel Carson and Elinor Ostrom; drawing on the writings of Karl Marx and Henry David Thoreau; and spinning back through history and beyond in the wisdom of Indigenous peoples and the practices of the Commons.

In summary, it is that everything is connected – and we are our best selves and our best communities; our politics, societies and economics work best – when we embrace the beauty, joy and resilience that come from interconnected diversity.

This common sense cuts through the knot of whether the Greens should be primarily an environmental or a left wing party, revealing that the two have to be understood and addressed as one. Once you understand that we humans and everything we have built are part of nature, you cannot separate the two.

A central insight of ecological democracy, then, is that there is no viable politics of the left which does not place a healthy natural world at its heart. You cannot work to improve humanity’s lot without cherishing and stewarding the natural world we are part of.

Equally, there is no viable green politics which does not challenge the cultural and institutional primacy of the profit motive, competitive individualism, and corporate power, all of which drive environmental destruction. You cannot tackle inequality without tackling pollution, and neither can you tackle pollution without tackling inequality. These are fundamentally intertwined.

Domino effect

What’s more, like any sufficiently solid common sense, ecological democracy implicitly tells us how to implement itself through institutions. Every part of an ecology is connected to, and has impacts on, every other part. The smallest change for one seemingly irrelevant species or community can have huge ramifications for others. Over-dominance of one species will almost always trigger collapse.

Reflecting this, an ecological politics of interconnected diversity must be based in participatory democratic processes, and it must put equity, universalism and pluralism at its core. It must have subsidiary models from the local to the global, ensuring decisions are made by and for people at the most local level possible – recognising that, in an interconnected world, the most local level possible may sometimes be the whole globe.

It must flip political practice from an antagonistic adversarial model to a cooperative, agonistic, consensus-based one. It must make corporations and private profits subservient to the common good of people and the planet. And it must treat both government and the economy as tools – tools we invented and can re-invent – to enable and support us to work together to make a better world.

An urgent challenge

None of this, of course, is new. It’s all long-accepted green politics. But what we have not done well is draw it together to form a clear political common sense as we seek to implement it through institutional structures. That is our urgent challenge at this moment, a moment which Gramsci describes as the ‘interregnum’ – a time when the old world is dying and the new is struggling to be born.

It is a moment, as Gramsci says, of great danger, when monsters appear – see Trump, Hanson, Orbán and too many others – seeking to take advantage of the opportunity just as we are. And we Greens recognise it as more dangerous than ever, as this interregnum has appeared just when we are facing ecological crisis.

If we fail, fascism wins. Not only will it destroy and debase countless lives, but it will drive us swiftly down the path of ecological collapse.

If we succeed, however, we will build a politics that is not only capable of tackling the interwoven social and ecological crises, but is also resilient enough to weather the inevitable social and political challenges that climate change will bring.

To explore these ideas in more depth, please read the full essay – part one and part two – at Green Agenda. The Green Institute is seeking responses to the essay to collate and publish over coming months.

Tim Hollo is the executive director of the Green Institute and former Greens staffer.

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