Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Theorising Green Political Action

This week Keele is playing host to the annual ECPR summer school on environmental politics and policy, which means I'll be taking some time off to sit in on papers covering green political theory, ecological modernisation, green parties and movements and much else besides.

Today's keynote speaker was the well-known green political theorist, Andy Dobson. Among other things, Andy is famous for pretty much writing the book on ecological citizenship, which is a major contribution to political theory and the debates around what constitutes the 'good citizen'. It is also a concept that has come of age. He argues there is an impasse in environmental politics today - practically everyone accepts climate change poses a very serious problem, but while people are rightly concerned there is a collective and individual unwillingness to act upon it. In other words, there is a disjunction between widely-held green attitudes and the take up of green behaviours. How then might this gap be bridged?

The policy front runner in the UK and Ireland at present are systems of fiscal incentives/disincentives. The two highest profile examples are the London congestion charge and the Irish plastic bag environmental levy, and there is some evidence they can work. Depending on who you believe, the implementation of congestion charging on week days has reduced traffic between one fifth to one quarter. Since the PBEL was introduced six years ago, one billion plastic bags have been removed from circulation. So they do work, but are there problems? Yes. First because they are political measures they can be rescinded by subsequent political decisions - see for example Boris Johnson's decision to scrap his predecessor's plan to institute a carbon charge on London's Chelsea tractors and high performance sports cars. So has the fiscal disincentive been in place long enough to affect habitual behavioural change? Second, and not unrelated to Andy's first point, are people responding to the fiscal prompt as opposed to the green values that underlie it? Is too much political attention being spent on managing these schemes instead of emphasising the message that needs sending out? Third, how big does a tax/break have to be to affect behavioural change? For example, Andy cited research suggesting since hitting $2/gallon in the USA, there have been an estimated 20 billion fewer car journeys. Finally, fiscal prompts have a very one-dimensional view of human behaviour - where is the room for virtue and the common good? Can other motivations produce results?

Andy believes there is an alternative and this is where ecological citizenship comes in. But before offering some practical suggestions he took us on a genealogical tour of his concept. When he first began theorising what he then call *environmental* citizenship (there is a difference, which will become apparent) the obvious place to start were the existing citizenship traditions to see if they offered anything useful. First he looked at what liberalism had to say and extended its notions of individual rights. Put simply, he suggested citizens have the right to a liveable environment. Indeed, because without it life would be impossible it is the precondition for the enjoyment of all other rights. Then looking at the civic republican tradition he was able to green its concerns. For example, the common good is served by living in a sustainable society. Therefore citizens are obligated to behave in an environmentally responsible manner, and encourage others to do so because it is a virtue in its own right.

This is all well and good as far as it goes, but these two primary traditions have a number of blind spots. The first is the relationship between the public and private spheres and the assumption that politics belongs to the former and not the latter. However, green politics calls for sustainable living, and this necessarily includes the "private" behaviours of consumption and waste disposal. Secondly liberalism and civic republicanism are state-centric and primarily address problems in that framework. The problem is environmental issues transcend borders. Therefore something stronger than environmental citizenship, which is merely a greening of the existing traditions is demanded. Hence ecological citizenship.

So what are the basics of ecological citizenship? Above all it is not a status, it is something only attained by the active pursuit of a set of values. Justice is the primary virtue and working towards it always serves the common good. The political space of action is not the nation state but the ecological footprint. This is his metaphor for the global impacts of global capitalism, of the interconnectedness between the worldwide division of labour, of grasping how some footprints are smaller than others and how it collapses any dichotomy between the public and the private. The citizen has a duty to reduce their footprint and act to influence politics and institutions. Nor do they expect anything back in return - it is the highest expression of 'post-materialist' politics. The ecological citizen is not a lifestylist - they are engaged in the struggle for environmental and social justice.

In Andy's opinion if we are to overcome the attitudes/behaviours gap we need to create more ecological citizens. But is there proof it is an effective strategy for confronting climate change? There's evidence aplenty for fiscal measures but any on values-based behavioural change? Andy believes so. Writing in Environmental Politics 15 (2), Neil Carter and Meg Huby argued behaviours among some 'ethical investors' were indicative of ecological citizenship. Surveying a 1,000-strong sample, what distinguished them from mainstream investors were (as to be expected) values and lifestyle (i.e. recognised that private decisions have public consequences). But also 80% said they were prepared to lose money for ethical reasons, which dovetails nicely with the non-reciprocal basis of ecological citizenship. Further evidence comes from Johanna Wolf's study on coastal communities in British Columbia, which found a high incidence of behaviours framed in terms of non-reciprocal (green) civic duty and obligations to generations not yet born. Finally, Christer Berglund and Simon Matti wrote a piece in EP (Vol 15, no. 4) that found fiscal prompts were effective, but the (Swedish) respondents ascribed more importance to the altruistic values undergirding them.

So what conclusions if any can be made? For Andy on first impression the way to bridging the gap is by employing both kinds of measures, the money and the virtues. But unfortunately the two don't necessarily rub along well together. Can the introduction of material incentives erode the non-marketised relations virtue depends on? As an anecdote he cited a study about a retirement home. Its management came up with the idea of offering the residents vouchers in return for making their beds in the morning. It worked a treat, but eventually the residents were demanding vouchers for everything. Therefore incentive schemes can lead to perverse behaviours. But this aside Andy felt there was enough evidence to suggest an ecological citizen sensibility was beginning to emerge - it's a value set people are responding to and therefore it is something policy makers are going to have to take account of.

A couple of pertinent questions were raised in the discussion afterwards. Clearly his discussion of the public and the private was influenced by feminist thinking, but one questioner felt this still avoided confronting the gendered (i.e. feminine) character of the private. It's almost as if ecological citizenship is asking women to save the world *on top* of looking after the home. Andy conceded he'd overlooked its structural inequalities and oppression and argued this should be the last thing ecological citizenship does. As the neoliberal state continues to peel away its social responsibilities more and more devolves on to individuals, and women in particular. He admitted he had no short answer to this issue. But if my understanding of ecological citizenship is correct, if social justice is at its heart then it should be plastic enough to accommodate feminist concerns. Rather than dumping green responsibilities on women the argument should be that the state takes its social obligations seriously and use this as a means of socialising the private sphere and liberating women from it.

The second interesting question asked where ecological citizenship as a phenomena is coming from, and how would we go about inculcating it outside the seminar room. For Andy the answer is fairly simple - it is experience that leads to environmental and social justice conclusions. Whereas ecological citizenship was theorised from 'above', it is instantiated from below by those who struggle against injustice. However if you try and educate people with ecological citizenship classes at school, one problem I can foresee is that a frame imposed from above by well-meaning educators may not chime with the experience of those below. At best it can encourage a superficial environmental sensibility but at worse it can breed hostility and resentment. If experience is the best way to become an ecological citizen, then citizenship classes should train pupils how to go about tackling injustice - an argument he has made elsewhere.

There was plenty of food for thought in this contribution. If we are going to escape a climate change catastrophe behaviours are going to have to change. Ecological citizenship as a concept is able to grasp the many fronts the struggle for an environmentally sustainable and socially just society must proceed on, but as a category too nebulous to make sense of the social structures driving us toward environmental catastrophe. It seems environmental sociology is beginning to identify groups of people who approach the ideal type of the ecological citizen, but the social distance between the groups so far identified is vast. A common politics that unites them is a utopian idea. Can working class community campaigners against dumping and David Cameron go together? This for me suggests ecological citizenship needs to be even more political and nail its colours firmly to the mast of a project dedicated to systemic and permanent socialist change.


Rochenko said...

Good post. One of the biggest problems in motivating action here is the global nature of the issues, and to respond to global issues by addressing initiatives to individuals (as comsumers or 'citizens') is a very inadequate response, whether this is done through hectoring poster campaigns featuring fetishistic images of polar bears and burning globes, through abstract universal moral imperatives or through financial incentives.

The ground of non-reciprocal responsibility is arguably connectedness - both spatial and temporal - the feeling of being obligated to other vulnerable and essentially needy human beings. And this implies an old-fashioned socialist goal, building solidarity to tackle global issues beginning from local issues - seen here in the context of AGW and peak oil (where are we going to get our food from? What about transport? Energy?) rather than simply through the lens of class relations of exploitation.

Gary Elsby stoke said...

As I see it, the first thing you have to drop is the notion that there is reduction in congestion/pollution because of a 25% decrease in traffic.
It doesn't add up. You need to send that 25% to the crusher and no make up for that to have validity.
Pollution/congestion no matter where.

The same is argued for no nuclear power stations for the UK but then go on to purchase spare capacity from France's nuclear programe to make up the shortfall.
Nuclear, however it's dressed.

Plastic bags seems to work but if environmental education is to be a winner for the masses it has to be financially neutral and not detrimental as appears to be the cause.

Are there people still out there who believe the 'inconvenient truth' theory and the 'tax us to death please', theory?

Surely not in this day and age.


Cookiemouse said...

Good post. I know a few ecological citizens, but they do still seem to be in a minority. Most people want business as usual with as little pain as possible. Found you via Rachel North, by the way.

Merseymike said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Merseymike said...

Its an interesting issue. The problem is that environmentalist can have many political hues - I watched Zac Goldsmith being interviewed this week in BBC News, and his vision of environmentalism, though cogent, is a world away from the left ecological view of citizenship. Far more Burkean admiration for the small scale and the local.

And I am not convinced that decentralisation on the Swiss model will not lead to that sort of right-of-centre hegemony. It appears to me that much of the decentralising localist agenda is in fact based on this sort of populism.

Anonymous said...

i have a genuine question which i am struggling to find an answer too. i don't know too much about it really, but why is there a march against a coal station organised and supported by some left groups?

i am aware of the fact that coal production is not environmentally friendly, but what about clean coal?

should we on the left really be supporting a demo that sounds like something that th****er would have been proud of (slogans like 'keep it in the ground')?

like i said, i don't really fully understand and am reasonably opne minded about it, but it just seems as though we are betraying the miners who we fought alongside in 1984-85 (i know open cask is slightly different).

Phil BC said...

Nothing to disagree with you there, Rochenko.

Merseymike, no arguments against from me either. I guess I'm fortunate enough that pretty much all the greens I know bar one (including Andy Dobson btw) are on the left. But when it comes to cooperation with the Greens it has to be done on a case by case basis. I would also contend those of a conservative bent have much to do with the politics of unsustainability - see above - but masked with the appropriate levels og blue-green wash.

Anonymous, as far as I'm aware most left groups *aren't* backing the demo against coal. Scroll down to 'Coal Camp' here for arguments against. Speaking for myself, I think the demo is daft and elitist, and I'm sure the rest of the SP would agree.

Gary, for once I think we're on the same page! Every policy measure has an unintended consequence. Take Ireland's plastic bag levy for example. There might not be as many shopping bags flying about but sales of bin bags have gone up. Is there a net benefit? To bin bag manufacturers maybe ...