12.1 The basics of green theory

Dr. Valérie Vézina

The basics of green theory has been adapted by Valérie Vézina from Green Theory by Hugh C. Dyer, a chapter in International Relations Theory and is licensed under a Creative Commons CC BY-NC 4.0 license, except where otherwise noted.

In the 1960s there was public recognition of the global environmental crisis arising from the ‘tragedy of the commons’, which is the idea that as self-interested individuals, humans will overuse shared resources such as land, fresh water and fish. In the 1970s the first United Nations conference on the subject was held and by the 1980s green political parties and public policies had emerged. This coincided with a demand for a green theory to help explain and understand these political issues. By the 1990s, global politics had come to recognize the natural environment as an increasingly significant source of questions for the discipline, requiring theoretical as well as practical attention – especially in the wake of mounting evidence that human actions were significantly changing our global climate and presenting security problems as well as ecological ones.Ecological thought addresses the interests of nature itself rather than only the interests of humanity in nature. Green theory captures this orientation in political terms of value and agency (Goodin, 1992) – what is to be valued, by whom and how to get it. Green theory belongs to the critical theory tradition, in the sense that environmental issues evoke questions about relations between and among ourselves and others in the context of community and collective decision-making. In turn this has always raised the question of where the boundaries of political community are. For environmental problems, which transcend boundaries, these questions take the form of asking at what level of political community we should seek a solution. For green theorists, the answers are found in alternative ideas about political association based on our ecological relationships.

Typically, environmental issues are buried in political texts under other headings and with little acknowledgement of their unique theoretical significance. Environmentalism-themed scholarship is generally accepting of the existing framework of political, social and economic structures of world politics. While there are of course established forms of critical thought, these address relations within and between human communities, rather than human relations with the non-human environment. For example, liberalism emphasises individual rights of choice and consumption but is not fundamentally concerned with the environmental consequences of that consumption. Consequently, most forms of environmentalism seek to establish theoretical positions and practical solutions through existing structures, or in line with existing critiques of such structures. An environmentalist perspective, while identifying environmental change as an issue, attempts to find room for the environment among our existing categories of other concerns, rather than considering it to be definitional or transformational.

Those frustrated by the lack of recognition of the environmental challenge in international relations turned to the interdisciplinary science of ecology. Political ecology has allowed both an ecological perspective to inform political thought and a political understanding of our environmental circumstances. In particular, our circumstances have long been determined by a particular developmental path that depends on the over-consumption of natural resources. Specifically, our political-economic practices of production, distribution and consumption are intended to meet our immediate human needs and desires. However, these practices are reflected in a growth-dependent global market economy that is not designed to achieve environmental sustainability or recognize ecological limits. This economy has provided material development of a kind, but with such uneven benefits and widespread collateral damage – including to the environment – that it has not provided human development in an ecological context. From an ecological perspective, there has been a general criticism of development and even apparently progressive sustainable development practices. The well-known model of the ‘tragedy of the commons ’ (Hardin, 1968), in which our short-term, individual, rational choices destroy our environmental resources, has thus been applied to the planet as a whole. It is tragic because we can see it coming but seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it. That inability is more than a practical problem; it is a profound theoretical challenge. Hardin pointed out that such issues cannot be solved by technical means, but require a change in human values.

Moving beyond environmentalism and political ecology, green theory more radically challenges existing political, social and economic structures. In particular, it challenges mainstream liberal political and economic assumptions, including those extending beyond the boundaries of existing political communities (or, what is conventionally knows as states). Goodin (1992) suggests that a distinguishing feature of green theory is its reference to a coherent moral vision – a “green theory of value” – which operates independently of a theory of practices or political agency. For example, a green morality might suggest that human material development should be curtailed in the interest of preserving non-human nature. This would limit our freedom to consume however much we can acquire. The need to put some limits on traditional liberties suggests an approach that puts nature before people. Green theory, in this sense, is ecocentric.

Ecocentrism (ecology-centred thought) stands against anthropocentrism (human-centred thought). This is not because ecocentrism ignores human needs and desires, but rather because it includes those within a wider ecological perspective. Ecocentrism prioritises healthy ecosystems because they are a prerequisite to human health and wellbeing. In contrast, anthropocentrism sees only the short-term instrumental value of nature to humans. This ecocentric/anthropocentric distinction is at the heart of green theory. The holistic ecocentric perspective implies a rejection of the split between domestic and international politics, given that arbitrary boundaries between nations do not coincide with ecosystems. For example, air and water pollution can cross a border and climate change cuts across all borders and populations. Simply, human populations are ecologically interconnected. This impacts on how we understand and deal with transboundary and global environmental issues collectively, setting aside national self-interest.

The traditional concern with the state, in an international system of states, is a challenge to thinking about environmental issues. As a central feature of the historical Westphalian model of sovereign (self-determining) nation-states, the concept of sovereignty (ultimate authority) has been particularly troubling. Sovereignty neither describes the modern reality of political control nor offers a reliable basis for human identity or wellbeing. Global environmental problems require global solutions. This requires that we develop our understanding of the ‘global’ as an alternative organizing principle and perhaps look to green social movements rather than states for theoretical insights. This gives rise to the question of whether we need to give up on the idea of countries with borders as still being relevant to people’s lives, or recast them in some more ecologically appropriate way with reference to how people live in relation to their environment. This will likely entail a more global than local kind of ethics. In part this hinges on our view of the need for political structures (big government, small government or no government) and the level or extent of their development. For example, we could promote centralized global political structures, such as an institution for governing environmental issues (Biermann, 2001), or allow a variety of decentralized, even anarchical, interconnected local structures to emerge as circumstances require (Dyer, 2014).

Decentralization, or the transfer of authority and decision-making from central to local bodies, has certain attractive features, such as self-determination and democratic accountability. Ecologically there seem to be advantages as well, since small communities may depend more on immediate local resources and so be more likely to care for their environment. Local communities are more likely to conceive of the natural environment and their relationship to it in less instrumental terms, viewing it more as their home, thus addressing one of the key reasons for the environmental crisis.

For example, the concept of ‘bioregionalism’, where human society is organized within ecological rather than political boundaries, raises intriguing issues of knowledge, science, history, culture, space and place in an ecological context (McGinnis, 1999). For instance, our sense of identity might derive more from familiar environmental surroundings than from the idea of nationality, such that we have greater inherited knowledge and understanding of our local environment than of our political location. However, there are also a number of objections to decentralisation, or greater localisation of decision-making. These include the concern that it would not promote cross-community cooperation as it is too parochial (too exclusively local), and this would mean little chance of developing effective mechanisms to deal with global problems. In effect, it might just reproduce a troublesome sovereign-state model of politics on a smaller scale.

Whether or not green theory can become central as an ideology for world politics remains to be seen, however, the climate crisis and its threats to human security cannot be ignored.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Valérie Vézina is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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