Fudging of the green agenda

Environmental Democracy
March 31, 2000

Greens are variously labelled by their critics as neo-fascists or crypto-communists. This is hardly surprising. They sometimes give the impression that they have a blueprint for the world, which requires ceaseless invasion of civil liberties by a green-fingered nanny state or, more typically, some kind of superstate. How else to save the world's forests except by imposing a western green agenda on uncomprehending tropical nations whose own concerns have more to do with economic development? How else to save the world from runaway global warming other than through a global plan to cut emissions of greenhouse gases?

It all seems a far cry from the cuddly 1970s vision of greens as people recycling their old newspapers, wearing sandals, eating vegetarian food, switching off lights and generally trying to impose themselves on the world as little as possible.

Such images are a crude caricature, certainly, but they hold some truth. And when US greens can applaud their government for banning imports of Asian shrimps because the fishermen catch turtles in their nets, serious questions need to be asked about who is running the green show, and for exactly whose benefit.

So the need to reconnect environmental thinking with concepts of democracy, freedom and fairness - to anchor the green agenda in local democracy rather than global governance - seems vital. Michael Mason's Environmental Democracy takes up the challenge of searching for ways to think globally, but act democratically.

Mason's writing style is not easy. He rarely uses a short word when a long one will do. Isms and -isations abound. His love of the word "normative" is close to obsessive. This all gets in the way of understanding. On the first page, I was brought up short by the assertion that "Environmental democracy is a normative conception that connects with intuitive presuppositions of ordinary language use". Call me thick, but I still do not know what that means. Maybe he just means it is common sense?

It has to be said that this failure of readability is far from unusual in Earthscan's titles these days. They could do with employing someone who ensures that academics write readable text. That said, Mason does cover some interesting and important territory. His analyses of the conflicting strains of environmentalism in the Canadian west, tracing some of the local greens' democratic and independent instincts to the lingering influence of 1960s hippies, is interesting. (He does not mention it, but it was here, in the late 1960s, that Greenpeace began.) He might also have usefully pursued the links out west between environmental thinking, democracy and the right-wing survivalist agenda, though it might have been an uncomfortable analysis.

Mason attacks environmental groups for their frequent indifference to organised labour. He hits a raw nerve. Greenpeace successfully recruited the Transport and General Workers Union to support its demands for higher environmental standards at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in the 1980s. But when the same union signed up the majority of Greenpeace's paid UK staff in 1995, Greenpeace directors refused to recognise it. Not a sparkling example of solidarity in action.

He attacks the conservatism of greens such as Edward Goldsmith, long-time editor of The Ecologist . Goldsmith believes that pre-industrial "vernacular" tribal societies are the only effective way of managing the environment. Mason calls this paternalistic and anti-democratic.

But Mason's strongest pursuit is against preservationists, who insist on treating the environment as a place in which people should not live. His introduction carries a strong description of how indigenous Burmese tribes are being exterminated in the name of such a policy. He argues that conservation scientists from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC and elsewhere, who have been busily recording the biology of the proposed Myinmoletkat nature reserve as its inhabitants are rounded up, have been complicit in genocide. And yet, having raised his standard, he fails to follow through with proper academic rigour. His one and only source for the Burmese story appears to be an article from The Observer in 1997. Estimable though The Observer may be, its word is not gospel. Journalism is too expedient, too rushed and too hand-to-mouth to be quoted years later without having its evidence cross-checked and its charges tested. Surely a senior lecturer in geography and environmental studies at a school of social sciences should have been well placed for such a task? But if Mason did it, he provides no evidence in the text. Sadly, he has dressed up pithy front-page exposé journalism in an academic patina of long words, abstract nouns and syntactical creepers.

Fred Pearce is a freelance writer specialising in environmental subjects.

Environmental Democracy

Author - Michael Mason
ISBN - 1 85383 617 6
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £14.95
Pages - 266

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