Much entertained by the dissonance in Natalie Bennett’s response to Theo Simon’s question at her Speaker session at the Green Gathering.
Theo asked (in part) what about the climate emergency – tell people or not frighten them?
Natalie answered by first erecting the old straw man that the green movement used to go around peddling gloom and doom and never got anywhere like that – just turned people off. Then she came out with some vague stuff about hope, and how the Greens must tell a positive story, which she, as a shallow green, thinks can be done by talking about how renewables can power a version of what we (the guardian reading class) enjoy now. She then talked of the rise of the right, citing the Austrian presidential elections as well as Trump and the green bogeyman UKIP and how they use fear to get their support – fear of immigrants and ‘different’ people, whereas she insisted that the green way must be to offer hope.
Hang on a minute.
So fear failed for the old early ecologists and works for the right therefore greens must now use hope not fear?
Two obvious problems here. Firstly just because your enemy is using a particular type of argument that does not mean you should not use it. You might have reservations on moral grounds about using lies – but telling the truth about ecology is not lying. In fact failing to tell the truth is closer to being morally repugnant.
There is a real significant difference morally between lying to people and frightening people. Lying is definitely morally wrong, which is probably what people mean when they deprecate the Right for spreading fear – they actually mean spreading fear by telling untruths.
If you want not to frighten people then you can not tell the truth about climate change or any of the other current existential threats, because the situation is frankly terrifying. Is failing to tell the truth when you know it as bad as telling an outright lie? Possibly not, but it is pretty dubious ground to be standing on. Sooner or later the truth will out, and people will not thank you for failing to be honest about what you know to be true when their house has been destroyed by extreme weather.
So the ban needs to be on lying, not telling a frightening story.
Secondly the Right do not just use fear. They start with setting out something to fear – Mexicans, Middle-Eastern immigrants, the Russians, the Chinese or whatever. But, and this is key, they then offer a solution to the problem – build a wall, leave the EU, bomb them before they bomb us…
Yes, in the case of most of the right wing fears they are false and based on lies, but the tactic of creating fear and offering a solution works – as their success shows, even when the fear is false.
Of course the “right” in politics has an inbuilt advantage in that they don’t have to create the fears they prey on by themselves. A massive media and communications system largely does that job for them leaving them free to position themselves as the visionary solution provider.
This also incidentally often allows them to distance themselves from the fear creation programme.
So the very first problem for the Eco-green movement has to be to create the fear of impending (actually happening now) ecological disaster. This is simply truth telling and we should not be ashamed of it. In telling this truth we also need to attach blame in exactly the way the right does.
The blame must be laid squarely at the door of the existing political system. Of course it is also the economic and social systems of control that lie behind the political system, but if the objective is to propose a political alternative that people can actually vote for then it must be the identifiable old politics and politicians that are blamed.
Again this is a lesson to learn from the success of the right – having set up the problem they don’t baffle people with the complex deep causes – they go straight for the jugular and blame the existing (or previous if they are in power) bunch of politicians. They are trying to win politically, so politics has to be the focus.
If you tell people that the climate emergency is the result of 170 years of industrial civilization then they are not going to vote for you because of that. If you tell them that the climate emergency is the result of inaction, and has in fact been made worse, by the existing government and their politicians then they have a reason to vote for you as an alternative.
As an aside if you want to create the conditions for revolutionary, rather than simply political change then you should blame the systems behind. But this is not a good idea if you want people to vote for a change. Blaming the underlying systems undermines your claim to credibility as a political force – if you tell people that the problem lies deeper then they will quite reasonably respond “why should we vote for you as you will not be able to change anything and are just like all the others”. You might feel that this is true, that system change is necessary, but in that case you are probably not doing Green politics as Natalie and the political Green Party would accept it.
Green politics does have an opportunity to win mass votes – but not by pretending that there isn’t a serious and frightening situation facing us, and not by failing to lay the blame at the feet of those currently in power. If you fail to do that then you give them a get-out of simply agreeing with you and claiming that people should continue to trust them as they can change things.
Simply focussing on the hopeful message and avoiding creating the fear doesn’t work, any more than just creating the fear without holding up some kind of inspiring vision would.
To some extent the middle period greens were guilty of that, but not quite as Natalie implied. Their failure was that instead of creating a visionary response they got bogged down in a rationalist deconstructive focus on the details. The Green Party has more detailed policy than could ever be implemented. Every little aspect of the ecological and social crisis that was coming has been poured over and thousands of detailed and often conflicting paragraphs of policy produced to answer every objection.
Its idealistic and a wonderful thing to behold – pragmatically as a whole it amounts to a load of rubbish.
What’s more it doesn’t work in convincing anyone who isn’t well educated of a middle class liberal slightly intellectual frame of mind – the sort of people like me who traditionally joined the party.
Learn the lessons. Every time the green political movement has started to gain traction it has simply been absorbed by one or other or all of the existing political parties. Unless as part of your pitch you make it clear that Tory Labour Liberal politicians are actually to blame for the crisis then as you start to win votes you will suddenly find that the Liberals are out-greening you, that Conservatism is really green as well as blue (the greenest government ever), that labour want to create a million climate jobs (whoever gifted that one to them?!) and they will get the votes as the established trusted parties.
As well as the fear and the blame, yes, you must also create hope. You must set out an inspiring vision – but in the language of poetry and myth that touches and connects with people, not in the bureaucratic detail produced by a focus on policy.
Fear and Blame and Hope – that is what you have to offer. Poetry and Myth. I don’t see any evidence that the UK Green Party recognises this.