An Environmentalism for the Left

An Environmentalism for the Left

An “ecosystem services” patrol in Vietnam, October 2013 (Asian Development Bank / Flickr)

Although modern environmental politics emerged in the radical ferment of the early 1970s, leftists were suspicious from the outset of its easy mainstream appeal and its elite constituency. The same doubts persist today. The venerable Nature Conservancy’s close partnerships with corporations and focus on “ecosystem services” that can be monetized are just one reminder that environmentalism’s institutional mainstream fits comfortably with neoliberalism. Consumerist appeals to eco-consciousness (think of the local-sourcing policies and the prices of anti-union Whole Foods) suggest that environmentalism is about image and market choices. Despite decades of talk about environmental justice, the movement remains disproportionately white, elite, and motivated by romantic attachment to high mountains, old forests, and charismatic animals. Even treating climate change as an “environmental” question obscures issues of global justice—the ways that the world’s rich are much more responsible for, and less vulnerable to, the problem than the poor.

What would an environmentalism of the left look like?

It would first of all have to change its attitude to “nature.” Environmentalism is the youngest generation of a longer-running politics of nature. This politics pivots on contested visions of nature’s value, humanity’s place in it, and what, in fact, “nature” even is. From the preservationist movement that helped create national parks and wilderness areas to the awareness of ecological interconnection that inspired the anti-pollution laws of the 1970s, the politics of nature has often been democratic and creative in advancing the notion of the living world as part of a human ecology. But the politics of nature has also been an anti-politics, appealing to “nature” to shut down democratic debate.

Theories of nature justified the expulsion of Native Americans, who were accused of ignoring their “natural duty” to develop the continent. Theories of nature rationalized Theodore Roosevelt’s often progressive but also undemocratic technocracy, which treated the natural and social worlds as problems requiring expertise rather than political contestation. The Romantic visions of nature that powered the creation of national parks and wilderness areas also elevated WASP elites as nature’s privileged interpreters. From Midwestern farms to pristine suburbs to public acreage, American landscapes are a monument to a history of inequality, hierarchy, and exclusion. And they are informed at every point by moral and political conceptions of the natural world—often undemocratic in origin and effect—whose advocates tended to deny that they were political at all. “Nature” has often meant what comes before politics and sets its limits, and environmentalism has sought to speak for nature in these terms.

The first task for left environmentalists is to own up to this history and ask how today’s green mainstream still lacks, or even blocks, democratic and egalitarian projects. A left environmentalism would insist that, as the joint product of natural forces and human activity, the planet’s inequalities are everyone’s responsibility. Turning that idea into more than a slogan might begin with linking rich-world concerns about food sourcing and healthfulness to questions of sovereignty over food systems raised by, for instance, hundred-year contracts reserving food production on traditionally communal African lands for Chinese consumption. It might mean making visible the links between the new natural gas–powered bus lines being touted as “clean” by mayors across the country and the environmental destruction caused by Midwestern fracking. In other words, it could begin by exposing—and questioning—the distributive logic and concealed violence of the exploitation of the world.

The conceptual anchor of such politics might be an update on a very old idea—that the world originally and essentially belongs to everyone, and that this common heritage may be divided into property only in ways that the dividers can justify on moral and political grounds. This idea that the earth is a kind of common gift converges with a more recent one, that the built world—the world that we make—is a shared product of human labor and intelligence, and its fruits should therefore be distributed justly. An egalitarianism for the anthropocene would bring the two together: the world is both given and made, and in both respects it should be presumptively common.

Left environmentalism might also emphasize a democratic version of environmental justice. The attention to racial and economic inequalities in the distribution of environmental harms, which is the usual meaning of environmental justice, is as important an aspect of distributive justice as any other, though it remains unfortunately neglected by many egalitarian thinkers. Truth be told, though, there is really nothing distinctly environmental about it.

Environmental justice also demands something more specifically connected with the future of nature: equal power in decisions that shape the world. Are your interests, values, and way of life among the forces remaking the planet? Or will you have to find your way through a world shaped by others? For previous generations of working people, immigrants, and descendants of slaves, the “natural” world of national parks and wilderness areas was often someone else’s creation. Today, will the inhabitants of mined and fracked landscapes, of villages and towns whose fields are leased out from under them, and of vulnerable coastal regions such as (most of) Bangladesh, have a hand in shaping and making their own world? The principle of environmental justice, like political democracy, is a way of asserting that this jointly created world must belong to everyone. Environmental egalitarianism is in this way a matter of political and social democracy.

Which leads us to maybe the most vexed meeting point between environmentalism and the left tradition: the problem created by natural limits to economic growth. A strand of green politics has always embraced the material limits of the natural world and worried about how to deal with inequality in the face of them. The traditional left, whether of the social democratic or Marxian variety, has instead mostly sought emancipation through growth.

But there is no getting around the planet’s finitude. Although technological change usually blindsides any specific prediction of crisis, the overall logic remains: economic growth increases the per-person pressure on energy sources, food systems, and the global atmosphere. Over the next two centuries, barring science-fiction innovations that essentially decouple human survival from natural resources, people will either find ways to reduce their total demand on the planet or face severe distributive conflict, even resource wars. Easing the demand for growth—as hard as this might seem today—might be the only path to a less divided and more habitable world.

Reformists like John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes once expected economic growth to slow spontaneously. When material needs were met, they argued, people would turn to relationships, self-improvement, and other intrinsic goods, and economies would stabilize. This has not happened. From the United States to China, growth remains the hallmark of economic success and political legitimacy.

An optimistic take on this pattern would hold that human appetites are elastic, and that we are now much more satisfied than our ancestors. A radical take suggests otherwise: we live in an economic order that drives the demand for growth by actively producing insecurity and dissatisfaction. Contra Mill and Keynes, an increase in wealth can redouble a sense of unsatisfied desire. Cars bring less joy when roads are crowded. In a hyper-competitive and stratified economy, an arms race of credentialing means years of higher education are pursued as instrumental prerequisites for a decent job. Total wealth is much greater, but the fight over its benefits, which are ultimately ways of pursuing good lives, means that much wealth and effort go into running to stand still, so as not to fall behind. Anti-union laws, opposition to universal health care, the end of affordable public higher education, and “pension reform” all make the economy more fearsome and workers more fearful. Without economic security and social provision, the world becomes an unsafe place, a place in which you can never have too much protection, that is, too much wealth. So insecurity produces insatiable demands on nature.

Here is where environmentalist and egalitarian projects meet. Only an economy with greater security is likely to produce political forces to limit economic growth because only a secure economy would make an economic slowdown politically tolerable. A world of heightened insecurity and competition is politically unlikely to square economic life with ecological health. Yet, to note the obvious, everyone needs both.

If environmentalism is to be more than a taste in vacations, environmentalists must insist on limits to material progress and offer ways of thinking about both economics and human lives generally that encourage satisfaction within limits. But if it pursues this effort as an individual aesthetic or spiritual conceit, environmentalism will remain deeply conservative, a way of escaping or even rationalizing inequality. Focused instead on how we can build a world worth inhabiting—for everyone—environmentalism offers an expanded picture of democratic life for an age when we have finally acknowledged that political choices shape not just the economy but nature itself.


Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).

This article is part of  Dissent’s special issue of Arguments on the Left. To read more arguments in the issue, click here.

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