Modernity and the Greens


Referring to the long and thoughtful article Beyond old cleavages, new green debates by Paul Marie Boulanger (Green European Journal Volume 3), I agree with him when he implies that many of the classifications of green political theories that he mentions are internally related and therefore to some extent overlapping. Over and above that I do not wish to go into a point-by-point discussion of his viewpoints, but rather offer a somewhat different perspective, one not to be found in his article. And I close with some reflections on the situation in today’s political scene in Sweden.

Recent years have seen an increasing awareness on the part of greens that they need to think through their attitudes towards the modern project (modernity, modernism or whatever you might call it). In this process there appears to have crystallised out three different approaches which I refer to as ecomodernism, ecological postmodernism and ecological premodernism. I propose to deal a little more closely with these in that order.

The most widespread, and in parliamentary terms successful, approach, ecomodernism, essentially accepts modern-day society as it exists in western capitalist countries. Of course, like any other green tendency it realises the need to come to terms with the environmental problems our society faces, but it assumes that these are not more deep-seated than that they can be dealt with by adopting “ecologically-smart” technology, recycling, converting to renewable resources etc. In other words, radical change in the “body politic” of advanced liberal capitalist society is not on their cards. One such tendency, ecological modernisation, was developed during the 1980s. It should be noted that this tendency originated and received support in some of the most advanced countries in Europe (in particular Germany, The Netherlands and the UK). Here ecologically-benign technology was seen to offer this part of the world a potential competitive edge over less-developed countries so that they could sell their green innovations on the world market and make a handsome profit in the process. One textbook describes ecological modernisation as follows:

A policy strategy which aims to restructure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines based on the assumption that economic growth and environmental protection can be reconciled. (Neil Carter 2001. The Politics of the Environment; p.6).

A long-standing (almost axiomatic) green proposition is that unlimited growth in a finite world is an impossibility. As Carter points out in the above quote, ecological modernisation does not question the need for limiting economic growth, but rather takes it as a given.

Also as its name implies ecological modernisation can hardly be seen as an ideology. Inasmuch as it does not concern itself with matters such as social justice, solidarity etc. ecological modernisation might reasonably be seen as a smart local strategy of turning the challenge of environmental problems into the economic advantage of a few highly developed countries. Nevertheless, it can also be construed as a rather extreme and restricted instance of a broader family of ecologically-oriented political stances that attempt to address environmental issues while causing a minimal disruption to the ideological status quo. This disinclination to challenge the mind-set of the powers-that-be means accepting a number of positions that greens have every reason to question. These include the hegemonic scientism of the establishment circles, the reductionist thought-mode that goes with it, as well as their tacit relativism on matters of ethics.

The de facto policies of a reformist green party such as the Swedish miljöpartiet taken as a whole comply rather well with this broader ideological position here called ecological modernism.[1] That the party retains a watered-down version of its own original green rhetoric does not alter this assessment.

Calling into question the possibility (or desirability) of indefinite economic growth constitutes an outright rejection of capitalist modernity as a long-term global project. Charlene Spretnak (in her The Resurgence of the Real from 1999) used the term ecological postmodernism to denote this radical rejection of modernism. Her phrase is easily confused with more standard versions of postmodernism (often referred to as “deconstructivism”) not least in that it shares the latter’s rejection of the ethos of progress and of what these postmodernists frequently refer to as the “master narrative of science”. But the differences between the two kinds of postmodernism are many and fundamental. First of all the ecological variety accepts that human beings are embedded in, and totally dependent upon, the natural world. Secondly, Spretnak’s postmodernism rejects the relativism, both ethical and cognitive, that deconstructive postmodernism has taken over uncritically from the disillusionment of latter-day modernism. Thirdly, it is alone in its criticism of the inherent dualism of modernism, something that has wreaked havoc with modern-day thought ever since the early Seventeenth Century when Descartes wrote his famous discourses. One such dualism (or dichotomy) is the radical separation of facts and values that is one of the mainstays of positivist thought.

But opposition to reductionism, dualism and positivist scientism, do not amount to a total rejection of scientific activity. The science of ecology is obviously embraced, more or less, by all forms of green thought. But ecological postmodernism is alone among the green tendencies mentioned in the stress it places on systems theory and chaos theory. In these non-classical sciences emphasis is placed on non-linear causality and on the simultaneous occurrence change at different levels of any given system. For example, our own society is characterized by its ever-increasing rate of change, at the same time as on a different level all this change serves to conserve the power- and privilege structures which our society builds upon. A basic text for this non-classical science is Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers Order out of Chaos (from 1984). One of the central themes of this science is that the phenomenon of life is best understood as the result of self-organization in a “far-from-equilibrium” environment. Thus, ecological postmodernism is highly critical of the theory of traditional science and is outspoken when this science is used repressively as an ideology justifying a world-order that is predicated on inequality and injustice. It might be added that this tendency is strongly supported by ecofeminists, especially those with connections to the academic world.

The ecological postmodernist position is seldom identified in the media and even less often distinguished from the third tendency that I am about to define, viz. ecological premodernism. In fact both of these tendencies are commonly lumped together in what their detractors choose to call “fundamentalism”. In other words, fundamentalism is not only something of a smear word, but a heterogeneous rag bag of disparate tendencies.

This third grouping is also deeply critical of modernity, but for rather different reasons. Ecological premodernists are preferentially rural-based and tend to be critical of modern science as a whole and its related technologies. They often lean towards a non-rational, religious view of life. The word “pre-modern” is thus not intended to be a chronological determination, but refers to the “back to nature”, romantic way of life that many of their predecessors also strove for. When it comes to their attitudes to knowledge they prefer holism in reductionism and generally speaking they attach greater importance to feelings than to rational thought. In this respect they unwittingly subscribe to the dualistic mind-set, albeit with the valuations of mainstream society reversed. In many of these respects their preferences have a lot in common with “value conservatives”. Quite a number of these greens have a background in the anthroposophical movement or in other” New Age” groups.

 • • • • • • •

The Swedish political scene centers on determination on the part of the two major parties, the Social Democrats (S) and the Conservatives (M) (the so-called Moderates), to pose as the major contenders to form a government in coming elections. In actual fact these two parties are rather like the (almost) identical twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee who ”agreed to have a battle” as Alice recited in Through the Looking Glass. The Greens’ electoral strategy assumes the continuance of this sham contest so that they (the Greens) can enter into coalition as a minor partner with either one or the other of the two contestants. But in the poem the resolve of the twins quickly evaporates with the appearance of “a monstrous crow as black as a tar-barrel”, which put them to flight. The monstrous crow that has appeared on the political scene in Sweden is an extreme right-wing populist party, the Swedish Democrats (SD), whose following is gradually edging up to the 10 per cent mark and shows little sign of declining. The Social Democrats and the Conservatives have never formed a grand coalition in peacetime, but the question arises: How large a following must the SD have in the polls before the two big parties can argue themselves into such a grand coalition? And for the greens there may be another question to be answered: What polities should that party espouse if it is forced to become a straight-forward opposition party?






[1] An alternative, and equally adequate, designation for this political position is “green liberalism”.

Tags: , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: