What it means to be Deep Green

Last autumn I wrote this for somebody perplexed by the term ‘Deep Green’, and why many members of the Green Party felt anxious about its direction. I thought I’d publish my take here for others thinking the same question.

I think it’s much better to understand this in terms of the questions we ask, and the priorities we start with, rather than the answers we arrive at.

Earth First! can seem as deep green as they come, but Murray Bookchin took prominent members to task for seeing famines as “nature’s way of restoring a balance”. That argument, he shot back, both denies the human political causes of the famine and, in doing so, puts human beings outside of nature – neither being very Green. Eco-socialist and conservationist traditions can be equally deep green, and can equally be very un-green in their expression.

Core beliefs can become chains. There is a tendency common to all ideologies of thinking an ideologically pure standpoint is a good political strategy, or that our rational priorities (such as climate change) are our strategic political priorities. This causes a counter-reaction against ideology.

But ideologies and core beliefs anchor our politics so we don’t float away from our core beliefs by failing to ask the right questions.

The basic starting point of being “deep green” is the belief that all species have value, as do future generations, that we are part of nature and not an the apex of a hierarchy, and that never-ending growth in our material prosperity and population is incompatible with seriously valuing other species and future generations.

From this starting point, in certain senses the old “left” and “right” don’t look so different.

Hence Porritt’s image, in Seeing Green (1984), of the late 20th century socialist left and Thatcherite right being two lanes in a road headed off a cliff. They were both committed to different ways of achieving and distributing growth to the detriment of other species and future generations – and arguably both camps still are today.

If value isn’t to be found in material growth, where then is it found? I would go back to Marx’s early philosophical works on labour and alienation, and take it off into a post-material discussion about equality of well being in a world where we understand better the material limits of our biosystems. How do we flourish, realise our capabilities, control our labour and the fruits of our labour, in a world where we cannot just redistribute by piling on debt and growing our way out of the problem?

Our core question we must always return to is: how do we reduce the damage we inflict on other species and future generations, and improve the prosperity and well being of present generations more equally? This, combined with a belief in peace and grassroots democracy, underpins Green politics.

There’s the really deep Green stuff, the deep ecology stuff, but I don’t think anxious party members necessarily follow every word of Arne Naess.

That’s the high-level bit.

A more practical application is in asking unusual questions of policies. This is also informed by ecology, the idea of approaching policy questions as complex systems with many interacting parts, rather than compartmentalising things into “environment over here, housing over there”. Into this complex system we throw the questions about species and generations. Ecologism, the ‘founding ideology’ of the party, is not the same as environmentalism.

So a “light green” environmentalist policy on air pollution and climate change is electric cars. But deep greens ask how we can design a transport system that reduces pollution and that also needs fewer resource-intensive vehicles, that promotes good health (including active travel), that is efficient (less congestion), that distributes power more evenly (lower barriers of entry for walking, cycling, taking the bus), and so on. Hence Caroline Russell argues against electric cars as a panacea, and instead sees them as a solution for those residual trips where we really need to use a car.

A “light green” approach to green industrial strategy is just to say you want to grow the renewable energy and electric car sector, to decarbonise the economy, but to in other respects still commit oneself to an economic and fiscal strategy dependent on economic growth underpinned by population growth. That’s Labour’s position today. A deep green approach rethinks the entire economy to deliver public services without economic growth, and prosperity with a managed reduction of our total colonisation of the earth.

Deep Green questions force us to think more deeply about how we reconcile our liberalism on migration with these limits, so we don’t just argue for free movement because it’s good for jobs and the economy (as Labour do) and think about the resource impacts of a very mobile world. Many liberal-minded deep Greens like Kingsnorth and Hines posit deep-rooted cultures as alternatives to consumerism, and in turn ask difficult questions about a world of fluid migration.

Deep greens think that animal protection and leaving space for other species in agriculture are vitally important policy questions to be addressed in Brexit, not just standards to maintain as we pursue a jobs Brexit. Not that most deep Greens voted Leave, but we should recognise that we see the EU as a deeply flawed project committed to a destructive economic system. We can campaign to stop Brexit, but we must not do so on the grounds that a 3% fall in GDP rules out any political change.

The difference between light and deep Green is very obvious when you see Caroline Lucas debate economics with a light-green Labour MP, or when you see Sian Berry lock horns with Labour over their approach to estate regeneration or road building.

There are any number of ideological positions that are compatible with this, and any number of strategies and tactics to promote Deep Green policies. I saw marked differences in the way successive Green members of the London Assembly wrestled with this in City Hall, for example, but I was proud to count all four as Deep Green in their thinking.

For instance, you might conclude that socialism is necessary for a Green future, but not that it’s sufficient, nor that it just needs some eco-stuff slapped on the end of the manifesto, nor that it precludes us from raising difficult questions around e.g. population. While Bookchin showed how population concerns can take a wrong turn, treating the question as taboo is a form of denial.

The Green Party’s political strategy shouldn’t simply be to voice this ideology – to “bang on about climate change and agriculture”. But we do need to make sure we’re not promoting light-green analysis and solutions and priorities, and failing to ask the Deep Green questions of ourselves and the politics of the day because it is easier or more comfortable.


  1. Really good Tom. Hope this gets a wide readership.

    4th February 2018
  2. Taj said:

    Support for the single market – light green or dark green.

    4th February 2018
  3. Mike Shone said:

    Thanks for this very succinct outline Tom . It is very helpful to have it one place.

    So what I take from your account is that a Deep Green approach is one that thinks through environmental issues completely and isn’t content to deal with the more obvious problems leaving the less apparent ones to fester and harm both planet and future generations.

    But as you also indicate the “ends” or goals of a Deep Green approach don’t tell us the strategy or “means” of achieving sustainable outcomes. A lesson that Deep Green “fundamentalists” unhelpfully resist. As we know , navigating through the power structures , prejudices and social interests is a formidable task for Greens.

    5th February 2018
  4. davidflint said:

    The word ideology can be troublesome. On your account Tom ideology means a few core values, eg the value of all species, and insights, eg limits to growth. That can be humane and allows evidence-based policy.

    But as Stephen Pinker has argued there’s a different meaning which can lead to atrocities. Absolutist ideologies such as Islamism and Marxism-Leninism (and some flavours of Christianity and nationalism) give one value absolute priority over all others and thus justify murder and torture on the largest scale. We need to be very cautious about attempts to create comprehensive ideologies, whatever name they are given.

    5th February 2018

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