10 Aug

Fear and Hope

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.


11 thoughts on “Fear and Hope

  1. The Greens made good progress running on an ecology ticket. 15% in 1989 -Better than any nationwide vote since. A Green leader has to address issues of life and survival first and foremost. All else stems from that…

    • Exactly so David. Up until ’89 I have the impression that Movement for Survival, Ecology Party and then the Green Party were not shy about setting out the truth about the potential for ecological disaster. There was a separate problem in the shift of focus in the late 70’s early 80’s from building a movement to attempting to lead the way politically, but that is another story.
      For me the “middle period” extends from the ’89 high water mark to the mid 00’s during which time the focus seemed to be more on putting endless detail into the Manifesto for a Sustainable Society (MfSS) and becoming more and more like a conventional political party, culminating in the adoption of a single “leader”.
      Since then, the focus has shifted again to “eco-socialism” and attempting to appeal to middle-class Labour voters and minority groups. A long way away from Movement for Survival. Ecology First!

  2. Roger – I asked Natalie the question and it’s great to read your take on her answer. I was very frustrated that Nat didn’t use the opportunity of being at a green thinking venue to think more deeply about the question. I was left feeling that she didn’t understand the actual ecological situation we are in. And if the Green Party cannot tell people what that situation is, then who in electoral politics can?

    If the venue had caught fire while we were there, I would not want the event team to play down the danger and tell me that there were great things happening outside and that it would be really creative to have a waterfight. I’d want them to tell me where the exits were, where the extinguishers were, and give me a sense of safety, urgency and calm in a life-threatening crisis.

    I hope that the Green Party can be the voice to do that in electoral politics. but I fear that the denial afflicts a lot of us. Personally, I believe the Green Party should say that we are now in a state of national and Global emergency and that all “politics” must be conducted in the light of that.

    • to Theo
      I love the fire analogy – thank you for that. Talking of myth and poetry one of the most powerful ways of communicating that is through song and some of the bits from the new StD Making Waves album you played on Sunday lunchtime certainly hit the spot. Sorry I’m missing Earth First this w/e – hope you have a good one.

  3. I think the Green Party should tell the truth. Climate change is SUCH an emergency NOW for the human race that we must tell the truth. I will not rehash the past, but I think the Green Party is entirely right to address issues of poverty & austerity, education, transport, energy, Trident, refugees etc. We ARE a political party so we should be for everyone in our country. BUT we must tell the truth about Climate Change, people need to know the truth to take action. To help stop or slow climate change we HAVE to address issues like energy, oil wars, refugees, education because all these things relate back to climate change. EG health, climate change is causing disease vectors like mosquitos to go further north, heat waves are making the very young & elderly suffer. Ecology means EVERYTHING is interrelated so we need to have policies on everything.

    • to Linda
      Yes you are so right about everything being interconnected. I’ve just been re-reading the 1983 Green CND Embrace the Earth pamphlet which I’ve scanned and will be going on the Green History UK site shortly – we so well understood all this stuff 33 years ago (I was a fellow traveller at the time, rather than actively involved to my shame).
      I feel though, that to make political (or even revolutionary) progress we have to focus on the crisis of the limits first, which ultimately does mean everything else has to change too. Focusing on policies (like energy, or education, or refugees) seems to me fails in two ways – firstly because it defers the bigger issue of maintaining a habitable ecosystem, and secondly because it says within the existing political paradigm and causes divisions within the movement as one group says must sort out energy, another must educate for a better world, a third must deal with the social issues, and all end up competing with each other.

  4. Roger, thanks for your thoughts and Theo, thank you for asking that question!

    It sounds like Natalie missed a real opportunity. As a party we have to get better at seizing opportunities to set out just how bad it is getting as well as how we should be tackling it. We need to be saying both.

    However, Linda is right in her interconnectedness of policy. It’s no good simply having answers on climate change without understanding, for example, how to run a health service that doesn’t have a huge ecological footprint.

    I think we also need to be discussing how to shrink our overblown and unsustainable economy too. It will shrink by itself with the ecological disasters combined with peak oil, but unless we shrink it in a fair and managed way, it will simply lead to social disaster. While Corbyn talks about growth, we should be talking about how only a madman or economist would imagine that continued growth on a finite planet is possible.

    • to Stuart
      When Corbyn, for example, talks about growth he is tapping in to the narrative which says that this civilization does not have to be a zero-sum game. This is very pervasive in our culture whether expressed as trickle down wealth distribution or pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (“on your bike”).
      Isn’t the lesson of the systems view of life and ecology that in fact we are engaged in a zero-sum game at best, and thanks to entropy in fact a negative sum game?
      What we need is a narrative that recognises, expresses, and normalises this point of view. The story or myth that powerfully illustrates that we are part of a finite planet. Once there is a story to tell then there is something that people can believe in as an alternative to progress and growth. Only then will the policy solutions come to seem natural and obvious and unstoppable.

      PS We are a long way from having practical solutions on climate change. We know theoretically the solutions include (for example) “leave it in the ground” – but how does that work out in practice and how do you achieve that change without having a compelling narrative about the necessity and consequences?

      • Roger, you are spot on about the story (or myth) that we need. Obviously JMG is giving a good stab at that currently but it needs to be in more bite sized chunks.

        BTW, any chance of an RSS feed on your blog so that I can add it to my reader?

          • Having said which the feeds promptly disappeared. 🙁
            I guess the subscribe button plugin broke something and they now return a 404 error. Unfortunately deactivating and removing the plugin has not cleared the problem. Sorry about that…
            …and now they should be back again having made some other changes.

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