Pollution And Politics

new internationalist
issue 157 | March 1986

Pollution and politics
How do conventional politicians shape up on environment
and pollution issues? And where should environmentalists
be placed in the political spectrum? Here's your thumbnail
guide to who believes in what when It comes to ecology.


Illustration: Clive Offley Mainstream Christian Democrat conservatives see the market place as the main economic motor of society. Patriotic, emphasising 'one nation'. In Europe (but not North America) supporting limited welfare for the needy, sceptical of govemment interference or regulation. concentrating on freedom of individual and maintenance of the family.

Many conservatives see themselves as the natural party of the environment conserving what is best. They have a traditional attachment to the land; they own a lot of it and are conscious that they inherited it from their ancestors. A sense of stewardship can be found amongst many, especially those who want to hand the countryside on unblemished to their children. Conservative patriotism is often expressed in the physical state of the nation past and present gardens, trees, hedgerows and wild flowers, comfortable old buildings, all woven together in a myth about national identity. A latent anti-industrialism remains; successful conservative industrialists still see their goal as a rural retreat so strong is the connection between social success and landed gentry. A Conservative recently commented: 'The history of English green sensibility leads to four key values: property, community, history and beauty. They are values which Conservatives should feel at home with.'



Illustration: Clive Offley Socialists have traditionally seen state action as the way to ensure equal opportunities for all. Such action would reduce economic inequalities and redistribute wealth from rich to poor. Democratic socialists try to operate in the context of a 'mixed economy' with both private and public sectors generating wealth and the state redistributing it through the welfare system.

Socialists have tended to be sceptical of green issues, characterising the anti-growth sentiments of environmentalists as the 'middle classes pulling up the ladder behind them'. Instead they remain committed to economic growth as the means of solving poverty and financing welfare programmes, Most socialists, when forced to think about the environment, add it as an afterthought to a shopping list of things to be done, But many now recognise that the penalties of pollution fall most heavily on the poorest. Socialist environmental policies are usually a diverse group of commitments quite separate from their economic promises. There are some signs this approach is changing as jobless growth becomes a reality. Socialists have begun to articulate sound environmental policies, for instance that energy conservation measures are a better bet than nuclear power for creating secure jobs. In practice socialists have a better record on environmental questions than their opponents, pioneering town and country planning policies, national parks, green belts, air and water pollution controls, and health and safety at work measures.



Illustration: Clive Offley Liberal politics dither between aspiring to be a radical alternative to socialism and the moderate alternative to the 'extremes of left and right'. Support for the welfare state, freedom of the indvidual, concern for the underprivileged at home and in the Third World, is combined with a stress on partnership rather than confrontation in industry and other aspects of life. Anti-big business, pro small-scale. decentralist policies.

Liberals often claim to be the 'real green party' pointing to their 'small is beautiful' approach to government and industry. They are good on ecological issues like energy conservation, low-tech agriculture, concern for environmental protection in local neighbourhoods. Active in single-issue pressure groups, opposed to heavy lorries, air/water pollution, nuclear power, exploitation of animals. Also in favour of public transport, safeguarding planning and greenbelt policies, wildlife protection and recycling projects, British liberals have approved no-growth sustainable economy politics and locally are committed to a 'less growth at any cost' approach to solving economic and social problems. Liberals tend to consider that issues can be resolved piecemeal rather than tackling fundamental social/political questions.



Fervent belief in the market as the ultimate arbiter of all forms of human activity. Strong on rhetoric about individual freedoms, virulently anti-community, supporting a large military expenditure, anti-welfare and the 'big brother' state.

The New Right view of the environment is influenced by a fundamentalist Christian perspective in the US and Australia, which - like Marxism - sees a basic duel between people and nature, with people having the right to exploit the environment to the full for their benefit and profit. Limits to growth are dismissed in the drive to produce. Also pro-nuclear, supportive of the big energy corporations encouraging exploitation of uranium deposits, strip mining, fast depletion of oil and gas deposits and forest resources. In the US under Reagan leading New Right activists have been appointed to key environmental posts. Many were previously involved as lawyers fighting against pollution controls and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and for the resumption of DOT spraying, new freeways and the building of nuclear reactors. To such people conservation is a dirty word. It means being hot in summer and cold in winter. It's part of a syndrome of not standing up to adversaries - like nature.



Illustration: Clive Offley The Greens represent a political force which has grown out of single-issue environmentalism. They have a political programme which attacks the existing politics of Left and Right. Greens argue that the interests of people and planet are not served by economic systems obsessed with industrial growth. They consider that an ecologically based economy would bring an increase in the quality of life for those in the already affluent countries. They argue that wealth in the North is often created at the expense of the South, that each percentage point increase in Gross National Product quickens our consumption of finite and irreplaceable resources and that this is an injury to the rest of humanity and to the generations of the future. 'Think globally and act locally' is the Greens' slogan, stressing the international connections between the arms race and the famine in Africa, and the importance of self-determination locally.



'The environment' is seen by most as a classic 'single-issue' campaign. Whether it be protest about motorways. Nuclear power stations, river pollution, lead in petrol or campaigns to save particular woodlands, marshes, whales or seals, environmental campaigns are generally seen as well-organised legitimate areas for public concern which have sometimes touched a public nerve in a big way. Environmentalists too originally saw themselves as single-issue campaigners, but some are now becoming 'Greens'.



Soviet-style governments are committed to state ownership and control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, believing that market forces lead to exploitation of the many by the few, and that the state should control economic and cultural activity for the benefit for the majority, that is the working class.

Centrally planned economies are committed to industrial development through rapid economic growth. Their interest in nature and the environment tends to be restricted to how they can control and exploit nature keeping economic problems to a minimum. Having socialised the means of production socialist countries should have eradicated the essential contradictions which cause social tension. In theory, in centrally planned states ecological problems cannot develop because these societies have recognised the need for a harmonious relationship between people and nature. In practice this tends not to be the case (see Does Your Country Love You - Poland page 10). Internal critics argue that the selfish actions of the bureaucratic elite (15 per cent of top officials, intellectuals and administrators) are to blame; they are aware of an ecological crisis but don't tackle this because their extensive power.


Illustration: Clive Offley THE HERITAGE LOBBY

The heritage supporters' concern is to conserve castles, great houses, remains of ancient forests, spectacular natural phenomena, endangered plant and animal species and their habitat. These are regarded as icons of national identity. Their object is to preserve unique examples of endangered culture against the ravages of progress. This ignores the connections between the workings of the economic system and its effects on the objects they cherish, and can lead to some controversial, if not contradictory positions. Such a viewpoint would be most eloquently espoused in National Geographic magazine.

This guide was prepared for the New Internationalist by Martin Stott
Illustration: Clive Offley

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