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Synthesis/Regeneration 36   (Winter 2005)

The Ecocentric Left and Green Electoralism

by David Orton

In the June 2004 Canadian federal election, the Green Party polled over 4% of the votes. There is a discussion going on about this newly emerged “green” political force in Canada, about its social base and what policies it should be putting forth. This commentary is a contribution to the debate.

What should be the overall character of parties which call themselves Green and advocate, as does the Canadian party, that the public should embrace them as a way forward out of the Earth-threatening ecological crisis? According to Saskatchewan Green John Warnock, the Canadian party is the “most right wing” Green party in the English-speaking world.[1]

If one accepts participating in electoral politics, then what the federal Green Party accomplished was quite an achievement—running candidates in all the federal ridings and qualifying for the federal electoral subsidy of $1.75 per vote each year until the next election. The Green Party has clearly for the first time become part of the federal political landscape in Canada.

The current leadership of the party and party activists must be given credit for this achievement. More importantly, the emergence of the federal party reflects a developing green consciousness and base in Canadian society, to which many environmental and other non-party green activists have long contributed.

What should be the attitude of Greens towards conservatives who are sympathetic to ecological considerations, illustrated perhaps by the support for David Orchard in the old Progressive Conservative Party?

Orchard had about one third of the members mobilized behind him for an anti-free trade, pro-environmental platform. There are not only Red Tories but also Green Tories. The late German deep green philosopher Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997) spoke of an ecological politics cutting across all the “isms” of bourgeois society and of a “radical conservatism” or a “conservative anti-capitalism.”[2]

Ecocentric justice is much more inclusive than human justice.

In Canada, Robert Bateman, the wildlife artist who is also a conservative, recently spoke out against the neo-conservatives, who in his view are not conservatives at all because they destroy “cherished institutions” and wreck “havoc on our human heritage as well as our natural heritage.”[3] A green political formation will therefore theoretically draw from conservatives who truly want to “conserve” the natural world, but this does not mean the resolution of the ecological question is possible within industrial capitalist society. For Bahro it clearly was not, and also not for left biocentrist greens like myself.

What is the role of the green left?

Leading the move from a human-centered to an ecocentric consciousness is fundamental. We need to place the welfare of the Earth and all its life forms first. “Community” has to include not just humans, but other animals, plants and the Earth itself. In past animistic societies, this was the situation. We need to bring their sense of Earth spirituality back. There is not only a liberal democracy, with all its limitations for deeper Greens, but there is also an ecocentric democracy and governance. Ecocentric justice is much more inclusive than human justice. A Green Party has to decide about all this, not just how to run its affairs democratically, from a human-centered perspective.

“Community” has to include not just humans, but other animals, plants and the Earth itself.

The federal Green Party says it endorses deep ecology in its Election Platform. This support for deep ecology is very significant, even if much of the hurriedly thrown together Platform for the recent federal election goes against this endorsement in practice and sucks up, in quite a disgusting manner, to a corporate, supposedly self-regulating environmentalism. Green Party dissidents, critical of this rightward direction with its overall emphasis on economic growth—boosting “job creation and productivity,” “increased prosperity for all,” and “increasing our global competitiveness”—call it “blue light.” When the national business newspaper, the Globe and Mail, editorially speaks favorably of the Green Party, as it did in the past federal election, it means they correctly read the reassuring corporate signals being sent out.

Ecology cannot be an “add-on” to a general leftism while remaining human-centered in basic orientation. For the deep green or ecocentric left, what it means to be a “deeper” Green is the primacy of ecocentric consciousness. Social justice, while very important, is secondary to such a consciousness.

The left-right distinction is therefore secondary, and mainly concerns anthropocentric politics and regimes which are framed in “liberal democratic” terminology. John Warnock closes his article saying that history will judge the Greens “by whether they stand with the world’s poor.” This viewpoint is called one of “human-welfare ecology” by Judith McKenzie in her recent book, Environmental Politics in Canada.[4]

One thinks of why this is not a deep green quote when remembering the Dedication for the 1993 book Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, edited by Bill Devall. This book, with its pictures and text about clearcuts throughout North America, has armed countless opponents of industrial forestry. The book’s Dedication has always moved me and put our own human environmental and social struggles in a larger Earth context:

This book is in memory of the plant life, birds, insects, animals, and indigenous cultures that have been driven to extinction by the greed and delusion of human arrogance. All of us in the Industrial Growth Society must take the responsibility for this condition and make it our duty to halt the continuation of economic and social structures that perpetuate this “death of birth.”[5]

Basic questions about Green electoralism

Is a political party playing by rules set up to favor an industrial capitalist status quo, within what is perhaps misleadingly called “liberal democracy,” not doomed to eventual absorption and neutralization? As Judith McKenzie points out in her book, “Canada’s constitution is silent on the rights of non-human forms of life.”[6]

Does Green Party activity not become a deceit, perpetrated against those living in liberal democracies, because of the very rules of conduct set up for the participants? As McKenzie says, the “liberal democratic tradition” encompasses “anthropocentrism or domination over nature, individual self interest and competitive lifestyle, capitalism and the primacy of science and technology, representative democracy, the nation state and centralization.”[7] To this, McKenzie counter-poses Ecologism/Deep Ecology/Ecocentrism: “ecocentrism (harmony with nature), communalism/co-operative lifestyle, sustainability, grass-roots/direct democracy, bioregions and decentralization.”[8]

The left-right distinction is therefore secondary...

How does one reconcile the “oversell” or exaggeration of electoral politics, well shown by the leadership of the federal Green Party in the last election, with speaking necessary ecological truths about the end of industrial society as we know it? The truth, for example, that material life, regarding consumption of industrial consumer goods, will be much worse in the future? As Saral Sarkar pointed out in his book Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism?, the ecology movement promises the shrinking of economic growth and a “lower standard of living.”[9] This means that if a Green Party does not promise a lower material standard of living, it is practicing electoral deception.

If Green Parties claim to be a political arm of the green and environmental movements, why is it, for example in Canada, that this is just a verbal claim, with no discussion of actual content?

Why do Green Party members seem to believe that what has happened to other green parties, e.g. the German Green Party, has no seeming relevance for Canada and is basically ignored in policy discussions?

Why are long time Green Party activists often so intolerant and dismissive of any criticism that calls into question Party activities?

I am a movement green and never was a party Green. I voted for the Green Party in the recent election and have been interested for many years in what would be the appropriate political vehicle for the embryonic green movement in Canada. The history of social democratic and green parties is one of ultimate absorption to the industrial status quo. Rudolf Bahro showed this in the early 80s with his resignation from the German Green Party. Yet the Green Party, warts and all, is a huge step forward on the Canadian political map for those seeing the necessity for an Earth-centered consciousness.

David Orton is affiliated with “Green Web,” an independent environmental research group and network with a left biocentric perspective. For more information see: http://home.ca.inter.net/~greenweb/. This article first appeared in the Bulletin of the Society for Socialist Studies, see: http://www.ucs.mun.ca/~socwrk/sss.html, and is reprinted with permission.


1. Warnock, John, “Neither Left Nor Right But Ahead. What is a Green?” Posted on various green-oriented internet discussion groups. It was posted by Stuart Hertzog on the newgreencanada @yahoogroups.com list serve on July 21, 2004.

2. Bahro, Rudolf, Avoiding Social & Ecological Disaster: The Politics of World Transformation, (Bath, Gateway Books, 1994), pp. 164-165. The term “conservative anti-capitalism” was used in a personal letter by Bahro to me, dated December 20, 1995.

3. Bateman, Robert, December 13, 2003, "Comment: I am a conservative, I conserve", The Globe and Mail.

4. McKenzie, Judith, Environmental Politics in Canada: Managing the Commons into the Twenty-First Century, (Don Mills, Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 14.

5. Devall, Bill, editor, Clearcut: the Tragedy of Industrial Forestry, (San Francisco, Sierra Club Books and Earth Island Press, 1993), p. 3.

6. McKenzie, p. 22.

7. Ibid, p. 17. See Table 1.4, “Green Thought and the Liberal Democratic Tradition.”

8. Ibid, p. 17.

9. Sarkar, Saral, Eco-socialism or Eco-capitalism? A Critical Analysis of Humanity's Fundamental Choices, (London and New York, Zed Books, 1999), pp. 226-227. I do not accept that the choice is between eco-capitalism or eco-socialism, as the title of this book implies. The shape of the future economic formation for an ecocentric and green sustainable society is yet to be determined.

[27 dec 04]

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