The Future Looks Green

Book reviews

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Green Parties, Green Future: From Local Groups to the International Stage (2015)

“Green Parties, Green Future” provides a handy overview of the political parties of the global Green movement, their origins, current state, and future challenges. Informative and written in a straightforward, almost dry style, it’d make a good supplementary textbook for a college course. Educational for sure, but not exactly riveting reading.

The author, Per Gahrton of the Swedish Green Party, begins on a hopeful note. He cites Nobel Laureate Hannes Alfvén’s statement that each century gives birth to a political ideology that dominates the following century: 18th century classical liberalism dominated the politics of the 19th century, 19th century socialist ideas defined the 20th, and the Green worldview born of the 20th century will do the same in this century.

Unless we humans become extinct first. (He didn’t say that, I did.)

Although there are many historical precursors of environmental concern, the modern Green movement was born of the dual crises of growing awareness of the harmful effects of industrial economies and disillusionment with the radical politics of the 1960s. Many people felt that not only a new politics, but a new way of life was needed.

Out of this ferment came many familiar features of contemporary life: organic farming, natural health care, anti-consumerism, and environmental lobbying groups, among other things. One of those other things was the new Green political parties in diverse countries, a phenomenon not yet as successfully established as the former movements. The struggles, successes and failures of these parties are Gahrton’s central focus.

He makes some useful distinctions. One is the distinction between environmentalism and ecologism. Environmentalism seeks technical fixes to the harmful impacts of modern societies, such as pollution controls and renewable energy sources. Ecologism sees the problem as running deeper, that the foundations of modern economies have to be radically restructured to prevent catastrophic damage to our world. Tensions between these views remain unresolved within Green parties.

Another distinction is between the economic critique of ecologism and that of socialism. Contrary to the oft-repeated jibe that Greens are “watermelons”—green on the outside and pink underneath—Green parties have not simply adopted a socialist economic program. Where socialists see the problem as capitalism, ecologists see the problem as “productivism:” an emphasis on growth as the primary economic value. Socialists have embraced productivism just as much as capitalists have, thus sometimes making for uneasy partners with Greens in coalition politics.

The first national Green party sprouted in New Zealand in 1972, followed by parties in the United Kingdom the following year, Belgium in 1979, and several more in Western Europe, North America, and Brazil over the 1980s. Now they are budding around the world, including in East Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Nearly half of this slim book is devoted to an appendix with vignettes of Green parties in one hundred different countries.

Gahrton understandably spends most of his time on the Green parties of Western Europe, which have managed to gain seats in legislatures and ministries in government cabinets as coalition partners with other parties. He finds that their modest successes have also brought challenges, such as navigating the delicate balance between fidelity to professed values and the need for political compromise.

Not much time is spent on the Green Party USA, which has been less successful in gaining higher offices. This is due to the fact that, as in England, Greens in the U.S. face an electoral system hostile to minor parties. The author notes that the most successful candidacy of the U.S. Greens (in terms of the percentage of votes received), that of Ralph Nader for President, was also devastating to the party due to the accusation that Nader played the role of “spoiler” resulting in the election of George W. Bush. (We gotta blame somebody for that one.)

Green parties have struggled not only to establish themselves in the political systems of their countries but to maintain their values internally, values encompassing more than those of ecologism, such as gender parity, decentralization, and grassroots democracy. As such values are not modeled in more established parties, the Greens have been forced to forge a path of their own for organizing a different kind of party, not an easy task. They are learning—at least that’s the hopes—on the fly.

The book ends, as it began, on a positive note. Gahrton reminds us that, despite the challenges facing Green parties, the world is a lot farther in recognizing our interdependence with each other and with the natural world than it was fifty years ago. The fact that Green parties exist and have spread around the world so quickly is evidence of this, as well as a sign of hope that we may yet find the means of incorporating this insight into the dominant institutions of modern societies.

It’s definitely a work in progress, but a worthy one.

–Alan F. Zundel

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