My politics of ecology and justice

Following my previous blog post about the Young Greens and lots of discussion with friends and fellow party members, I want to set out clearly why ecology defines my philosophical basis rather than social and environmental justice.

To avoid misunderstandings from the outset, I think social and environmental justice are important, but they don’t define my political philosophy.

The new philosophical basis of the Green Party says:

A system based on inequality and exploitation is threatening the future of the planet on which we depend, and encouraging reckless and environmentally damaging consumerism…. The Green Party is a party of social and environmental justice, which supports a radical transformation of society for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole.

This sounds great! What could be wrong with that? I hope I might persuade you why I don’t think it is quite right, or at least encourage more thought and debate about political philosophy and the precise meaning of different terms.

I have three problems with encapsulating our approach as social and environmental justice, opposed to ‘a system’ that is taken to mean capitalism by most who supported the new philosophical basis. They are:

  1. Is capitalism the only source of injustice?
  2. Do we only value nature for its human uses?
  3. Is material wealth really the end of politics?

These are not new arguments. I would highly recommend you read Jonathan Porritt‘s book Seeing Green, published in 1984, and Andrew Dobson‘s book Green Political Thought among many sources of further explanation and inspiration, in order to work out what your philosophical basis might be. You will also find that there are many other ways to address my concerns, besides deep ecology. For example, there are interesting variants of “eco-socialism” that look a lot more like the ecologism of the Green Party than the ‘social and environmental justice’ of parties like the Liberal Democrats!

Is capitalism the only source of injustice?

Too often, social justice doctrines simplify the sources of injustice. Most often, it is pinned on “capitalism”.

There is some merit in pointing out that capitalism is the dominant logic in the global formal economy – that is, once we exclude the informal economy of people caring for their parents, friends trading possessions, and so on.

But there are many variants of capitalism, which I would define as control through the private ownership of capital such as land, factories and finance. For example, there are the comparatively free market American capitalism, the variants of capitalism regulated by social democracies and underpinned by welfare in Europe, the Chinese state capitalism, and many more. Corporate capitalism is among the worst, putting a legal obligation on capitalists to put the maximisation of profits before all else.

There are also, within a capitalist market, many forms of ownership and control. There are multinational corporations, which concentrate power and wealth in a tiny elite. Corporations very often sell their products to another form – the small family-owned businesses like corner shops, who in turn trade with companies with yet more varied structures. Some forms of capitalism take surprising forms. For example, Gore has a flat and decentralised management structure in which everyone is an associate working in a semi-autonomous team. Gore is quite different to the stereotype of a privately owned corporation, yet it is a privately owned company within the capitalist paradigm. Is Gore a source of injustice, or symptomatic of the ‘system based on inequality and exploitation’?

There are also many other non-capitalist forms of organisation that interact with the market: the third sector of charities, social enterprises and co-operatives; the public sector including the government, state schools and the NHS; the quasi-private anomalies like quangos and private schools (which have charitable status).

[EDIT: James Mackenzie challenged me to clarify these remarks on Twitter. I think that the NHS and state schools are among the greatest achievements of British government, and are tools for social justice. But they are not beyond reproach. For example, the NHS is too centralised, trusts aren’t locally accountable, some parts such as Foundation Hospitals are barely accountable at all, and migrants aren’t given full access to healthcare. State schools are similarly being taken away from local control, and for the most part bring children up with values of obedience to authority rather than participation in decision making that effects them.]

While these aren’t capitalist organisations, they are in many respects undemocratic and socially unjust.

Non-capitalist states have also been deeply unjust. One need only think of the terrors inflicted by Stalin, or of more complex cases like the treatment of homosexuals, anarchists and dissidents in Cuba.

There are plenty of Greens with a more anarchist bent who think the state is a principal source of injustice. Many probably agree with Kropotkin, who said “it is becoming evident that it is merely stupid to elect politicians and trust them with the task of making laws”. Many might also agree with Murray Bookchin and his form of social ecology. He described capitalism as a “social cancer”, but also advocated a radically decentralised political system to end the domination of nature by man, and of human by fellow human. Both thinkers would say that injustice stems from more than just capitalism.

While it is true that the logic inherent to capitalism – putting power in the hands of those who own capital – leads to social injustices, I think it is also too crude to suggest that our world is dominated by a single ‘system’ called ‘capitalism’, and that all injustices find their root cause in this malign system. Indeed, for Greens there are abundant reasons for thinking that all manner of ideologies create environmental injustices, or even deep ecological crises.

Do we only value nature for its human uses?

The second problem I have with social and environmental justice is that they are concerned with human well being. I think a lot of people are confused about what ‘environmental justice’ really means. Let me explain.

Social justice on its own considers the rest of the natural world as an instrumental concern, rather than being intrinsically valuable. By that I mean that social justice requires the natural environment to support social progress, and so must take problems like air pollution, climate change and river flooding seriously to promote human ends. Social justice advocates may care deeply about and enjoy the natural environment, but through the lens of social justice the natural environment is there for human use and aesthetic enjoyment.

Environmental justice builds on this, recognising that environmental problems tend to most affect the least powerful in society, and that justice therefore demands either that this power imbalance is rectified, or that the problems are resolved. Flood defences should be funded for everyone regardless of wealth, and air pollution reduced in poor areas criss-crossed with main roads and industry. Environmental justice can even recognise the potential, as yet undiscovered potential of the natural environment to help people. For example, we might seek to protect rainforests because they probably contain plants and organisms that hold the key to future medicinal cures.

Friends of the Earth produced a good paper in 2001 on the origins of environmental justice in the USA and how it could influence policy. They define it as follows:

Environmental Justice’s two basic premises are first, that everyone should have the right and be able to live in a healthy environment, with access to enough environmental resources for a healthy life, and second,that it is predominantly the poorest and least powerful people who are missing these conditions.

These are good premises, and environmental justice is an important concept I want to champion. But it fails to capture my form of environmentalism.

I hold an ecocentric philosophy. I think that all of the natural world (including humans) has inherent value, irrespective of its usefulness to humans. To be clear, I don’t think all of nature is sacred, I don’t think all species should be given equal value. But the value of all human and non-human entities should be considered. They should all have a seat at the table and not just be on the menu.

The new philosophical basis hints as much by saying we would transform society “for the benefit of all, and for the planet as a whole”, and pledging to tackle the threats to “environmental wellbeing”. But it is undermined, or even contradicted, by putting “social and environmental justice” as our central tenets.

Much has been written on the difference between these approaches. Arne Naess used the terms “shallow ecology” and “deep ecology” to distinguish instrumental value environmentalism from inherent value environmentalism. We still talk about “deep ecology” and “deep Greens”.

You may think I am splitting hairs. Most environmentalists would agree that clear logging a whole rainforest is bad. Destroying an ecologically sterile patch of land in order to properly house an overcrowded population may be supported by supporters of deep and shallow ecology (though not all). But destroying a diverse habitat that is of no use to humans in order to build a railway line that will reduce journey times is very unlikely to be justifiable to an adherent of deep ecology. By contrast, so long as it doesn’t cause environmental harms for a dispossessed or oppressed group, so long as the benefits are fairly shared, there is no environmental injustice to worry about.

A deep ecological perspective also cannot pin the world’s ills solely on capitalism. Many, perhaps even most, deep ecologists would agree with social justice advocates that capitalism is a big problem, perhaps even that it should be replaced with a different defining logic. But that is where the agreement will end, because social justice requires a new logic that places human social justice first, whereas a deep ecological perspective would put ecology – human and non-human interests together – first.

Most socialists, communists and social democrats also want to develop our industrial economy, growing it in order to promote material well being for everyone. As Jonathan Porritt put it, socialism and capitalism are in the left and right lanes of the same motorway, both trying to progress faster towards a cliff edge.

Chavez’s recent death brings to mind a good illustration. He made great strides in social and environmental justice, supplanting capitalism with a Venezuelan form of state/co-op socialism that distributed social and environmental risks and benefits more equally. But it was on the back of a fossil fuel economy. Reforms were paid for with oil. That is not quite progress, it is going sideways. It is going left instead of forward.

The standard left-wing alternatives to the current austerity economics are also good examples. Labour want to cut VAT to stimulate more consumption. More confident Keynsians want to build roads to get the economy growing again. Both may get Porritt’s car down the motorway faster in the short-term, bringing our leap off the cliff that bit closer.

A Government of social and environmental justice would try to steer humans away from the cliff, but wouldn’t necessarily worry whether large parts of the natural world go over the edge if that had no impact on humans.

Deep ecology can also lead to quite different perspectives on thorny issues like technology and population. It isn’t that deep ecology requires or implies one perspective, and shallow ecology another. Rather, I think that often disagreements on these issues are rooted in different ecological perspectives.

Take population – always an easy way to get ostracised! I don’t want to get into whether it is population or wealth that is principally to blame for our many ecological crises, or whether there are acceptable policies to reduce or stabilise the global population that should be adopted. That is a lengthy debate for another day. But there is a general difference in approach for the two ecological perspectives.

The shallow ecology perspective would want to ensure that eco-systems will sustain our population. But it would be relatively relaxed about the ever-greater grip that an expanding human population would have over the earth within that constraint. In an extreme example, you might advocate a techno-utopian future in which we have outgrown our reliance on many parts of the natural world, and have arrived at a wholly civilised ear th sustaining a large human population, with the rest of the natural world preserved only for recreation.

The deep ecology perspective leads one to worry that a growing population crowds out the rest of nature, and may reduce the diverse and rich value of the natural world. The extreme here would be a radical anti-civilisation deep ecological perspective, advocating a minimal human footprint and a massive reduction in our population.

I worry about the likelihood of an ever increasing population making an ever greater imprint on the natural world, necessarily reducing the value and richness of the natural world. I definitely don’t want to impose draconian population policies or start blaming people just for existing, but I also don’t want to lose sight of my belief that the earth is here for all species to enjoy, not just humans, and so we should try to preserve the diversity of life on earth.

That I value something other than this human-centric, material progress takes me to my third and final topic.

Is material wealth really the end of politics?

Many social justice doctrines are based on material values. Most socialist and social democratic political parties aim for economic growth and rising material prosperity. Their main beef with conservatives and libertarians is the unequal distribution of material wealth and the unequal treatment of those who produce it. The same is true of environmental justice.

It isn’t just that the siren calls for economic growth raise huge environmental problems. Tim Jackson and others have demonstrated that we would need to decarbonise our economic output at an impossible rate to make constant growth compatible with the Government’s target of an 80% cut in UK carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. In Prosperity Without Growth, Jackson put some numbers on this. Today we emit around 770 grams of carbon dioxide for every dollar of economic output. To grow the economy at 2% per year and cut carbon dioxide emissions we would need to improve that 11% a year, until by 2050 it was only 6 grams per dollar. As he puts it,

The truth is that there is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario of continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.

That leaves aside other environmental crises like our massive ecological footprint, the disrupted nitrogen cycle, biodiversity loss, and more.

All this growth, and for what gain? Experience tells us the trickle of wealth is more likely to be from the majority to the wealthiest 1%. Even if this weren’t the case, is our grand political vision really just about more work for more material wealth?

I think the materialism of most social justice doctrines is philosophically wrongheaded and psychologically unhealthy.

Many philosophical and religious traditions such as stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism, forms of Christianity and Islam and more, share the belief that well-being, or happiness, or tranquility, or fulfilment – take your pick – is really the best goal for humanity. Furthermore, they share the view that the accumulation of material possessions may secure greater comfort, but after that point they won’t generally contribute to well-being. In fact, being focussed on the accumulation of material possessions can reduce your well-being by making you constantly dissatisfied with what you have, anxious of what you might lose, and envious of those with more. These aren’t pleasant states of mind!

This insight is borne out by many studies of human psychology and happiness. For a taster, have a look at nef’s excellent work on well-being. But it’s often ignored by materialist social justice doctrines.

You don’t need to be a 1960s dropout hippy to take this insight seriously. The Green Shirts, an unusual mix of left-wing politics with military uniforms, marched through London’s streets in the 1920s and 30s calling for increasing productivity to be harnessed to enable workers to reduce their hours rather than increase their output. Karl Marx, in what I find his most interesting work – his early economic and philosophical manuscripts written in Paris – took great interest in what he called the ‘alienation’ that the worker suffers from himself and his labour as well as that product of his labour. By this he meant (very crudely) that factory workers don’t get to decide what to make or how to make it, and they have no control over the product once finished. They are cogs in a machine, not people fully realising their capabilities. Marx wasn’t just concerned that capitalists seize the products workers produced, he was also concerned that capitalism devalues the work itself and the value of the worker.

I believe that we need to tackle both problems.

We could ensure that rising productivity enables us to improve our life quality, rather than only pursuing more and more material wealth. Why not, as Marx dreamed, give ourselves more spare time instead in which to read poetry, fish and grow our own food?

The injustice of some lacking basic comforts while others enjoy billionaire lifestyles is obvious, as is the injustice of some suffering from pollution while others cause the problem. So we must try to redress these injustices, and ensure that everybody can enjoy a decent standard of living. The social and psychological impacts of gross wealth inequality are also increasingly well understood, requiring us to work for a more equal society.

But assuming we could achieve both goals, would we also then work to further increase the material prosperity for all? Would the sum of the British people’s well-being be that much greater, and would it be worth the environmental damage?

In conclusion

This is my philosophical basis. I see the well-being of all of nature as central, which is why I joined the Green Party rather than the Labour Party or any of the various far-left socialist parties in the UK.

My philosophical basis is important to me because it shapes my view of every policy or ideology I come across. I can be pragmatic, indeed one must in democratic politics, being the domain of persuasion, negotiation and compromise rather than totalitarian radical purity. But I try not to lose sight of the sort of world I want to live in, of the things I value.

I often find myself agreeing on one or more policies with just about every political party in the UK. I agreed with UKIP that proposals for European patents on computer software would stifle small companies, with the Conservatives that many of Labour’s illiberal laws should be repealed, with Labour that we needed a minimum wage, and with the Liberal Democrats that it was wrong to detain child immigrants.

I agree even more often with others in the Green Party, enough that I will happily campaign to help any number of Greens get elected in spite of disagreements. I remain committed and loyal to my fellow party members, in spite of the decision of our most recent conference to change our philosophical basis from a deep ecological philosophy to one of social and environmental justice.

In order to shift British politics in a Greener direction, there is no doubt that we must convince other political parties to take action on environmental issues. So I am happy to build consensus around shallow ecology arguments to achieve significant wins, even if the instrumentalist argument fails to tackle the root problem. For example, we may well need to ban a range of fertilisers to save bees, because the impact of a collapse in bee populations on farming would be disastrous. Winning this argument wouldn’t address the underlying problems with industrialised agriculture, but it is worth doing.

I will also continue to work hard on social justice and environmental justice issues. My job at City Hall has been dominated by work on unaffordable housing, co-operatives, low and unequal pay, workfare, anti-austerity and welfare cuts. As the many damaging cuts and changes to welfare bite the issue of a compassionate and economically sensible welfare policy is foremost on my mind. My proudest moment in the Green Party remains our successful campaign in Southwark to get the council to adopt a living wage policy, and I am now working hard to get the council to act on the air pollution that blights the lives of the poorest most of all.

But I try not to lose sight of my belief that the living wage is important because it can help people build a fulfilling life through their job and with the free time it provides them, not only because it gives them more money. I look for ways to tackle the cost of housing without trampling all over other species’ habitats, which is the default position of most of the housing lobby (build! build! build!) I continue to think climate change , resource depletion and biodiversity are among the most important and urgent political issues of our time.

I wouldn’t want social and environmental justice alone to define my political philosophy.


  1. Excellent article Tom. I hope it is widely read and carefully considered. I cannot fault it, except perhaps that it is a bit long – a shortened version might be useful for all those short attention span types that prevail nowadays. Oh, and the notion of everyone fishing in their leisure time – poor fish!

    14th May 2013
    • Tom Chance said:

      I’m glad you liked it. I hadn’t stopped to think what veggies and vegans would make of Marx’s remarks! Perhaps it could but time on the allotment instead.

      14th May 2013
  2. Mjfchance said:

    Brilliant article. It’s true that many studies show there’s no correlation between wealth and happiness, rather it exists between happiness and equal wealth distribution.

    It’s a shame to see the GP moving into the eco-shallows, but I suppose it can only be beneficial since they are not exactly going to lose the support of deep ecologists – who have no other option. Is it inevitable that any party wanting to be included and heeded in debate must gradually move toward a compromised centre ground?

    18th May 2013
  3. Jan Eek said:

    Very good article. I am Norwegian, and we are now just a few weeks away from our parliamentary election. This year we DO have a Green party and we are wreaking havoc on the latest polls. We may push one or two of the existing parties (now in gevernment with the Labour party) out of the parliament.

    Per capita Norway is probably the richest country in the world, BUT greed is unfortunately prevailing. We don’t NEED any more oil or gas, but still, there are plans that is appaling to me. I worked 25 years in the oil business, and if you don’t mind, I will attach here the main reason I left the business…..

    Norway is the leading country when it comes to technology for developing and operating oil and gas fields offshore. No wonder when you take the harsh weather conditions into account and how close we are to the Arctic.

    BUT, we are also one of the biggest producer and exporter of fish. Our ocean is one of the most fertile biotope for fish. Before we found oil, our greatest asset was fish. Fish is still a major part of our export. We sell fish to 153 countries worldwide.

    One of the richest area for the fisheries is the Barents Sea, but it is also the most vulnerable biotope. It is way up North, in the Arctic.

    So, what do we do? We drill for oil and gas in an area with the harshest climate imaginable and with one of the most important source for fishing.

    What is this government thinking ? Statoil, the biggest oil/gas company in Norway, has found several very promising oil/gas fields much further south, so we have more than enough produce. AND, we are probably the richest country in the world. The so called oil fund is approaching 4500 billion NOK, and we are around 5 mill. people in this country. You do the math……………

    So, WHY are we taking the risk of destroying huge parts of the Arctic, including our own fisheries, by developing oil/gas fields in the Barents Sea? ONE large oil spill will be an utter disaster in that area, and because it is so far north, it may take 30, 40 or maybe 60 years to reestablish the biotope to normality. As a fisherman said some years ago: “We can eat fish but not oil”. Simple but true. We must not forget that pumping oil/gas will come to an end one day, but we will always have the fish, and we will be dependent on that simple fact. So, why destroy the most sustainable source of income for our country?

    The responsibility for this destructive policy lies wholly in our government. The government consist of three parties: The biggest, the Social Democrats (Arbeiderpartiet), and two very small parties; the Socialist Party (SV) and Senterpartiet, earlier called The Farmers Party. Both SV and Senterpartiet are very conscious and focused on the environment. It was therefore quite a shock when the minister for Petroleum and Energy, Ola Borten Moe from Senterpartiet (!!) stated that we (Norway), will drill for oil and gas up to the North Pole.

    What one minister say may not be that important. My main concern is the policy of this government. Drilling after oil and gas in the Arctic is utter madness.

    27th August 2013
    • Tom Chance said:


      Thank you for the comment. The UK Government is making similar decisions to exploit fossil fuel reserves, seeking to drill new offshore oil supplies and to try “fracking” for natural gas in some of the UK’s most beautiful countryside.

      We need politicians who can see the interdependence of humans and the rest of the natural world, who recognise that it is our natural wealth such as Norway’s fish that are the basis of our livelihoods.

      1st September 2013

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