Having a green ideology might sound great in theory, but is it a pragmatic approach to environmental security?

Green perspectives emerged in International Relations (IR) theory in the 1970s in response to the growing acceptance of transnational environmental issues.

Environmentalism tends to align with the current political, social and economic structures of world politics. Hugh Dyer,  an associate professor of world politics at the University of Leeds, UK, sums it up like this: “[Current structures] address relations within and between human communities, rather than human relations with the non-human environment. (…) 

“An environmentalist perspective, while identifying environmental change as an issue, attempts to find room for the environment among our existing categories of other concerns, rather than considering it to be definitional or transformational.” 

Environmentalism, therefore, works to address environmental problems within the existing societal and economic frameworks, making it narrow in scope.

On the other hand, political ecology was born out of a discontent with the lack of representation of environmental issues in IR studies; it has enabled us to incorporate an ecological viewpoint into political thinking while also deepening our understanding of the political aspects of the environment. 

While there has been economic growth through our excessive reliance on natural resources, our environment has been damaged as a result.

Garrett Hardin, an American ecologist, developed the theory of the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — this model rings ever true as our individual choices continue to harm the environment. He argues such issues have “no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality”, implying a necessary deep theoretical shift in human values.

This is where green ideology (or green theory) comes in; it goes further than environmentalism and political ecology as it challenges the existing political, social and economic structures, operating “independently of a theory of practices or political agency”. Hence, it offers a view that completely reconstructs our relationship with nature. It is an approach that prioritises nature over human interests. In other words, green theory is ecocentric.

Ecocentrism (ecology-centred thought) challenges anthropocentrism (human-centred thought). This is not because ecocentrism neglects human needs and wants; instead, it incorporates them within a broader ecological context, rather than purely viewing nature for its instrumental purposes.

Political ecology and green theory differ, therefore, as the former focuses on the political and economic factors that contribute to environmental issues, whereas the latter focuses more on values and ethics. 

Pragmatically, while political ecology looks at changing the world’s structures, green theory looks at fundamentally changing our values and how we view nature — the world structure as we know it would naturally change once this has happened.

“One of the grave dangers of this metaphysics of separability is that we come to see humanity as radically separate from the rest of the world.”

Mathew Humphrey

The prevailing worldview today is characterised by an atomistic, reductionist perspective, meaning everything in the natural world is seen as separable into its smallest parts . Take a tree, for example. We can break it down into the wood, cells, organelles and so on. 

The risk here is that we believe that the most important explanations for how we can understand things are found at these very tiny levels. Mathew Humphrey, a professor of political theory at the University of Nottingham, argues this stops us from seeing the bigger picture: “One of the grave dangers of this metaphysics of separability is that we come to see humanity as radically separate from the rest of the world.” 

Hence, the moral superiority of humans over nature becomes a natural, universally accepted thought (as we believe we are fundamentally separate from non-humans), a concept David Ehrenfeld, professor of biology at Rutgers University, describes as the arrogance of humanism

If we view ourselves as having the highest intrinsic value on Earth, then it is easy to see why we have come to see nature for its instrumental purposes — something that can be played with and used — with a disregard for the negative consequences on the environment.

Unfortunately, with humans perceiving themselves as morally superior beings, as other political ideologies (Socialism, Conservatism, Liberalism and so on) would suggest, nature has become nothing more than an on-demand economic resource that can be exploited for our benefit. 

In his book Small Is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher argues that humans see energy as an endless source of income rather than as a ‘natural capital’ that cannot be replenished at the same rate we are consuming it. 

Similarly, Kenneth Boulding, an American economist and philosopher, introduced the concept of a cowboy economy, describing an economic system with seemingly unlimited opportunities and abundant resources that are consumed and exhausted before moving onto the next endeavour.

The discourse surrounding humanity’s economic greed is nothing new, but green theory highlights how such a competitive, greed-driven economy can be detrimental to our environment. 

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By dismantling the hierarchical structure that places humans at the top and everything else, green theorists highlight the potential to mend our relationship with nature, consequently contributing to the mitigation of the climate crisis.

This view is enveloped in the ideology’s fundamental concept of holism — the belief in nature as an interconnected whole

Holism encourages us to perceive humans as one component of a wider ecosystem. By adopting this perspective, we come to recognise that every element within this intricate web possesses intrinsic value, extending beyond just humanity.

Moreover, it prompts us to acknowledge that every action we take may have potentially adverse consequences on the rest of the web. In this sense, humans transition from being dictators of the ecosystem to becoming equal members and citizens within it (or biocentric equality). 

The ideology therefore advocates for a shift in consciousness, where the boundaries between humanity and nature are erased.

In terms of IR studies, this holistic perspective rejects the division between domestic and international politics and allows us to see climate issues in a broader context. For example, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest does not just affect the South American countries that it spans, and air and water pollution does not just affect those who live in cities. 

Green ideology highlights the need for a more collective mindset regarding environmental issues, one that transcends borders and sets aside national self-interests.

Just a utopian fantasy?

Ecologism is associated with several broader goals that put its values into practice, including wilderness preservation, population control and bioregionalism

One of the main goals ecologists encourage is simple living; they argue humans should only impact nature to fulfil essential needs, a philosophy emphasising minimising our ecological footprint. This approach prioritises life quality over material possessions and is often linked to post-material self-realisation.

According to green ideology, in order to address environmental degradation, humans need to completely reconstruct their relationship with nature — a paradigm shift. 

Green ideology is therefore not directly compatible with other political ideologies, due to its firm belief that ecologism and anthropocentrism are mutually exclusive and, ultimately, irreconcilable. 

Hence, the question of whether green theory could actually work comes into question. Many critics have argued that radical ecologists live in an “eco-la-la Land”, more focused on mysticism than rational thought.

Given that ecologism stands in stark contrast to our capitalist, market-driven society that relies on nature’s resources for growth, it is understandable how this radical stance may seem ridiculous. George Monbiot discusses this obsession with growth and the corporate domination over nature in his book How Did We Get Into This Mess?

However, as the climate crisis becomes increasingly acute, perhaps embracing this profound transformation in both our systems and consciousness could be the change necessary to navigate our way out of this environmental disaster.

 So, can green ideology ever be applied pragmatically? 

It is hard to imagine a world where humans do not regard themselves as masters of nature. However, like any ideology, green ideology is exactly that, an ideal; it is certainly possible to loosely follow the ideas and principles that it sets out to achieve.

For example, Boulding proposes the idea of a ‘Spaceman Economy’ (in contrast to his concept of a ‘Cowboy Economy’ mentioned earlier). This involves efficiently managing Earth’s finite resources within a closed, circular system, akin to a spaceship carrying life through space. “No waste can leave and no more resources can arrive. We have what we have, and it is our duty to manage it properly in order to ensure the future proper functioning of our ship,” Boulding says. 

The Spaceman Economy highlights how our planet cannot sustain a linear, extractive economy for much longer. It implies similar aspirations as green ideology, such as conservation, population stabilisation and international cooperation, without the extremities of a paradigm shift — perhaps this is more realistic.

‘Eco-la-la’ tropes may be thrown about, and these are, to an extent, understandable considering the extreme and seemingly impossible task of reaching ecological consciousness. 

However, as we come closer to our planet’s tipping point and governments worldwide continue to kick environmental issues into the long grass, this radical idea might not be a bad foundation on which to build our future environmental principles (unless you can think of a better one).