Time for a New Politics of Sustainability

Published on March 26th, 2014 | by

politics of sustainability

The major defining feature of politics in our current day and age is the division between the political left and right, with the political spectrum popularly being perceived as a progression from communism on the extreme left, through socialism, liberalism, and conservatism, to fascism on the extreme right. The terms left and right are believed to have had their origin during the French Revolution, when supporters of the king sat to the president’s right in the National Assembly, whereas supporters of the revolution sat to his left. But do these divisions have any relevance to the politics of the coming century? All too often debates on important issues degenerate into shouting matches between supporters of left and right, each absolutely convinced that they are entirely right, and the opposing viewpoint is entirely wrong. The left / right division therefore leads to a politics of absolutism and leaves little room for consensus.

However the terms left and right are relative, and often have vastly different meanings in different countries. For example, I can still remember being at university in the mid 1980s and hearing an American exchange student describe Margaret Thatcher’s Britain as a socialist country. A few days later I mentioned this to an Ethiopian student I knew, who perceived this same government as being extremely far to the right. In the US, Democrats are regarded by many as being left wing. Yet in terms of their policies, they are actually equivalent to centre-right political parties in most European countries. By this same logic, US Republicans would be classified as being on the extreme right wing in Europe.

The movement towards sustainability and the campaign to take action on climate change are often characterized in the media as being policies of the political left. But this is a major oversimplification, implying as it does that those to the right of centre do not care about our future, do not want to live in a clean environment, and are unconcerned about issues such as deforestation, over-fishing, and pollution. How we interact with the natural environment is a fundamental part of what it means to be human; a part that does not belong to people of a certain political persuasion any more than it belongs to a certain age group, or demographic, or people who live in a certain country. In fact the very term conservative implies someone who seeks to protect things, a definition which could easily be applied to people of any political persuasion who care about the environment.

The concept of left and right is an artificial division, which we have come to accept as being the norm. Central to both left wing and right wing is the promotion of economic growth; the left / right division simply concerns the means by which this end is achieved. In many ways, these differences are analogous to religious conflicts, where the most bitter disputes often occur between different factions within a common overarching religion. Examples include the animosity often seen between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or between Catholics and Protestants.

The only thing that the left and right are united on is their embrace of the growth paradigm. However it is becoming abundantly clear that continuing to grow our economies indefinitely is not possible in the real world. Growth is stalling as we approach the physical limits imposed by the planet. So in order to survive we will have no choice but to ditch the idea of continued growth. By extension, this means also moving away from the whole idea of left vs. right politics and adopting a new economic paradigm which focuses on sustainable living. This paradigm must enable us to make decisions based on what is good for humanity and for the planet, rather than on political dogma.

In order to successfully manage complex planetary issues, we will need to adopt a science-based approach. This means that the main role for democracy is likely to be at the local level, where people will be directly involved in shaping the communities they live in. However I believe that this will be a democracy of individuals, not of political parties; a democracy which arrives at decisions through consensus, rather than confrontation. In a very real sense it will mark a return to the power structures that define traditional societies, and which have worked successfully for us for the vast majority of our time on Earth.

The coming years are likely see us move away from the economics of growth, leading to the development of a more sustainable economic vision. If this transition results the end of the politics of left and right, and all the divisive baggage that goes along with them, then it will be no bad thing. The abandonment of adversarial politics may in fact be a necessary precursor to the long-term survival of our civilization, since our future is likely to depend on us working cooperatively to solve the problems we have already created.

photo credit: Diego3336 via photopin cc


About the Author

Ken Whitehead is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Calgary, where he specialises in using unmanned aerial vehicles for a variety of environmental monitoring applications. For his PhD he developed methods for measuring glacial flow rates and ice loss in the Canadian Arctic. In the past he has been a remote sensing instructor, and has worked as a remote sensing / geomatics specialist in the UK, South Africa, and Canada. Ken is originally from Scotland, but currently lives in interior British Columbia, where he enjoys life in the great Canadian outdoors.