Anarchism and the Environmental movement

April 1995

Andrew Flood

The major problem with any discussion of the 'Green Movement' is that it does not exist as a single body of ideas. Instead both individuals and organisations hold a range of positions from anarchism right across the political spectrum to ideas influenced by fascism. Any of the terms, environmentalist, ecologist etc are very vague definitions of a wide bodies of idea and practise, probably even wider and vaguer then socialism.

Therefore we should not create a false choice between anarchism and environmentalism but rather ask what sort of environmental theory and action should anarchists favour on the one hand and on the other explain why any environmentalist should also be a class struggle anarchist.

There is a good argument that some of the early anarchists, in particular Kropotkin were the originators of some of the core ideas common to today's radical environmental theory. Similarly some anarchists today like Murray Bookchin have a widespread influence in modern environmental theory. This historical and current connection is probably why many radical environmentalists already describe themselves as anarchists.

On the other hand there are people who call themselves environmentalists with whom we have nothing in common and whom we should dislike just as much as other reactionary politicians and movements. A major problem with the green movement is that the progressive elements often fail to seriously distance themselves from the reactionary elements. This can be contrasted with the deliberate distancing implied in the slogan 'neither left nor right but green'.

An simplified understanding of the range of green ideas can be gained if we imagine two axis of environmentalist theory and practise

a) Organisation tactics: direct actionist to leader/parliamentary
b) Motivation: misanthropic mysticism to humanist materialism

The intersection between leader/parliamentary tactics and misanthropic mysticism is currently and historically useless at best and all too often dangerous in giving cover to deeply reactionary political trends. In Germany in the 1920's for instance a mass organisation called Blood and Soil existed which represented just such a combination. There 1923 recruitment material include "In every German an forest quivers with its caverns and ravines ... it is the source of German inwardness, of the German soul ...". By 1939 60% of the membership of the main 'nature protection' organisations had joined the Nazi party (as compared with 10% of the entire male population.

Even as late as 1942 Himmler could use 'environmentalism' as a justification for the annexation of Poland writing "The peasant of our racial stock has always carefully endeavoured to increase the natural powers of the soil ... and to preserve the balance of the whole of nature. ... If, therefore, the new Lebensraum are to become a homeland for our settlers, the planned arrangement of the landscape it close to nature is a decisive prerequisite". This is not of course to suggest environmentalists are fascists, far from it, but it cannot be safely assumed that all are automatically progressive.

Sections of today's Green Movement in Germany have resurrected some of the 'Blood and Soil' theoreticians, more details on this can be found in the AK Press pamphlet "Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience". This is not to claim that all environmentalists are or will become fascists, far from it but it should be clear that one cannot assume that the label of "environmentalist" is any sort of guarantee of progressive politics in other areas.

The wing of environmentalism that is most open to anarchism is the opposite intersection, that of Direct action and humanist materialism. It is based around an understanding that the environment is important because it is where we live. So we cannot escape the consequences of environmental degradation. This understanding is coupled with action to protect the environment based on mobilising numbers in direct action against pollution etc. rather then relying of 'green taxes' or other new laws to make the earth safe.

Many of these environmentalists are already using the label anarchist to distance themselves from the respectable reformism of the Green Parties. But others have come to anarchism because there is a distinct and powerful logic drawing them towards us.

Anarchism brings to environmentalism an understanding of why the environment is degraded. That is the pursuit of profit by powerful interests over which we exercise little control in current society. It matters little to an anarchist if these powerful interests are the private ruling classes of western Europe or the state bureaucrats who previously ruled Eastern Europe and still control large sections of the economy on the global level.

To summarise, as anarchists we are aware we are dependant on the environment in order to exist, we are aware that 'the Power' be it industry or state based is willing to locally destroy large parts of the environment in pursuit of power and profit. Finally we are aware that the only way to stop 'the Power' is by direct action against its projects in the short term and a revolutionary change of society in the long term.

However there is another common element to the radical or progressive wing of the environmental movement. For many involved the tactics used also represent a way to escape some of the day to day misery of life under capitalism. This attitude which is often referred to in anarchist circles as lifestylism is something we also need to consider. The protest camps of the anti-road movements in Britain and Ireland represented more then a way of stopping un-necessary road projects and questioning transport priorities. To many they also represented an alternative model of how we could live. One without hierarchy and more in commune with nature.

Articles originating from within these camps often portrayed them as islands of escape from capitalism and alongside this sought to develop a theory of how people could leave self-sufficiently in and between them, in some instances even trying to escape dependency on state welfare (the dole etc). The creating of colonies to 'escape capitalism' is not a new phenomena, it two has historical parallels associated with anarchism. In the 1920s for instance this was expressed by the growth of communes in the USA.

I'm going to be critical of this tendency but let me start off by moderating this criticism by saying as anarchists we should defend people right to choose whatever life style they desire under today's society. And in a future anarchist society we should be clear that people will choose to live in a wide variety of ways. I like cities and the cultural diversity that comes with them, so I certainly believe cities will exist in the future but we should also be clear that some people will choose to live in much smaller communes, in ways they consider to be more in contact with nature. Providing people are free to choose in what manner they live we not only should have no problem with this but look forward to such a society. One in which people could move between different ways of living and different communities as it suited them, without the attendant economic disadvantages and political repression that accompany such choices in today's society.

What I do want to criticise however is the idea that this sort of choice can change society or more fundamentally that if everyone conformed to such a lifestyle change a revolution would come about because capitalism could no longer function.

Fundamentally this under estimates the willingness of capitalism to force people to work. Capitalism when faced with shortages of workers has little hesitation in driving people off the land and facing them with the choice of working in the factory or starving. Historically this was, at least some extent, what the Enclosure acts in 17th century Britain were all about. The division of the land into clearly marked units drove tens of thousands with no formal claim to land into the cities. Conditions in the city at this time were horrific with the death rate exceeding the birth rate .

Today a similar phenomena in witnessed in many 'third world' countries where huge areas of land are allowed to lie fallow while landless peasants are forced to move to the city slums and eke out a living in next to impossible circumstances. In short we should not forget that capitalism has teeth and both in the historic past and outside of the 1st world it is not at all shy at using them if it needs to force people into work.

More fundamentally though many workers will not wish to choose the life style associated with dropping out. We enjoy the consumerist comforts of capitalism. I'm a great fan of the Sony Playstation for instance and such items can only be produced in advanced industrial societies. I'm willing to fight for a society where as a class we decide what to produce and whether the benefits of production outweigh the environmental damage caused by production. I'm even willing to recognise that for a time at least we may decide that producing charcoal burning stoves is more important then producing Playstations. I'm willing to fight for a society where people can choose there own lifestyles. But I'm not going to fight for a society that limits itself to small communes and low tech industry.

At the end of the day this is the core plank of an anarchist analysis of the environment. In a society where we democratically control production we will decide not to pollute, or to limit pollution to a level that can be absorbed. We also recognise the need to fight against harmful activity in there 'here and now' and to link up such fights with other issues in a fight to change society. We defend people right to be different in the here and now, to choose there own lifestyle, sexuality, musical preferences, whatever. This position automatically makes us allies of the radical end of the green movement for whom provides a way of moving from the politics of permanent protest to the politics of permanent change.