An essential guide to Green political thought

Green Political Thought is clearly a textbook, a survey of the current state of the field intended, I’d judge, for a senior undergraduate course. Given that Andrew Dobson’s text is in its fourth edition, it is clearly a successful one, but how does it work for an “ordinary,” non-student reader, looking for an overview of a fast-moving field?

The answer is “surprisingly well” – although with the inevitable frustration of a textbook meant to direct the student to further readings: you want more – more explanation, more details, more background.

Four key points, in particular, left me scrabbling in the bibliography, underlining and adding to my “must read” list:

1. Bruno Latour’s theory of “hybridity” – spreading the capacity to “speak” across the human and non-human realms. Sounds odd – but then his claim that some parts of nature “speak” very loudly – charismatic megafauna such as polar bears and orangutans (through influential organizations) – much louder than of what many humans are capable. This avoids many problems of the human/nature binary that Dobson briefly outlines. (Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Harvard University Press, 2004)

2. The distinction between self-reliance and self-sufficiency – Greens almost invariably adopting for the former, not the latter (Albania’s lesson enough there) – the argument being that communities (or “bioregions”) should try to satisfy needs and wants locally, and only look outside when that is unavoidable. (Ekins, ed. The Living Economy, Routledge, 1986)

3. The claim that Habermas sees women’s movements as offering the only group that seeks “fundamental change from a universalistic standpoint” – that women can be the vanguard party of change, being the only group sufficiently disengaged from the current system to resist colonization by the system. (Roderick, Habermas and the Foundations of Critical Theory, Macmillan, 1986)

4. The claim that the call by some ecofeminists for women to embrace traditional female values is deeply dangerous to the liberation of women, what Plumwood calls “uncritical reversal” – “to use ideas that have already been turned against women, in the belief that, if they are taken up and used by everyone, a general improvement in the human and non-human condition will result. If they are not taken up, then women will have ‘sacrificed themselves to the environment’." (Plumwood, Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, Routledge, 1993)

But another reader, interested in different aspects of the past three decades (the framework Dobson identifies as marking the history of “ecologism” so far), might well light on an entirely different selection – for this is a wide-ranging text.

The basic thesis, which Dobson says has only crystallized since previous editions (this may be one case where the latest edition of the textbook is essential – far from often the case) is that ecologism is now a standalone bank of political thought that deserves to be considered in the same arenas as socialism, liberalism or feminism (and one chapter has a handy checklist of how it significantly differs from each of those).

This is primarily a book of theory, not practice; anyone engaged in practical Green politics won’t find a lot of tactical guidance, although plenty of food for thought, and Dobson does engage with a couple of key practical issues. He briefly surveys the ways in which the German Greens have struggled to maintain their critical edge in coalition governments. He then considers in the conclusion the ways in which the radical philosophy might play out for practical, electoralist reformers.

But perhaps the most interesting “practical” part of the book is his discussion of the potentialities and possible pitfalls of basic income – the idea that each member of a society should be given a basic decent income, no strings or means tests attached, which has been adopted by a number of Green parties, including that of England and Wales. As Dobson notes, this is far from an exclusively Green policy: backers have come from across the political spectrum. Dobson makes it very clear of the potential advantages of collapsing the distinctions between the informal and formal economy, and beyond that between work and paid employment, as well as any brief outline that I’ve read.

So what about a reader coming to this cold, someone who has no knowledge of Green political thought, or indeed politics in academia at all? Well here Dobson deserves particular credit, for a good 95% of the book requires no specialist vocabulary at all, which for a politics text published in 2007 is little short of miraculous. The only places where jargon does intrude is when Dobson and the Greens are engaging with Marxist political structures – and there is something about Marxism that somehow seems to make it impossible to talk about it in plain English.

There’s a lot in this book that readers of non-Green political persuasions would find interesting (and possibly infuriating); there’s a lot of food for thought particularly for “light greens” of other primary political persuasions, but most of all there’s a lot here for Greens – really everyone engaged in Green thought should read this book, then follow the angles within it that most fit their interests.

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