Let’s not leave ecology to the left!

31.05.2018 | By Paweł Musiałek

The term “ecology” is unequivocally associated with the political left. It’s high time we changed it. Rejecting the ideological baggage that is dragged by the ecologists, the right-wing needs to appreciate significant environmental problems. Taking care of them does not require much cost, and it allows us to save a lot in the long run.

The European left has experienced the total redefinition of its own identity in the Sixties. It was in the counterculture era when the term “New Left” was conceived; it encompassed novel ideas which had not been raised by the old left. The new political movement put less emphasis on the interests of the working class and focused on defending diverse groups of the excluded or discriminated, such as homosexuals, black citizens, revolting youth, women, etc. Though green parties, which came into being in the 1970s, emphasised mainly ecological issues, they also supported left-wing parties’ slogans of anticapitalism and emancipation. Left parties gradually started to support ecologists’ demands. However, those claims were not regarded as crucial in the political platforms. This ideological mixture led to the unequivocal identification of ecologists’ movements with ‘the lefties’. Nevertheless, due to the passage of time and “the march through the institutions” of politicians for whom the revolution of 1968 was the generational experience, issue of environmental protection had become more popular and gradually entered the political mainstream, just as green parties themselves. In this context Angela Merkel’s former decision to close down nuclear power stations in Germany was a significant event–this was the critical German Green Party’s postulate since the establishment of this formation.

Since environmental protection issues had been taken care of by the left (in a broad sense), claims laid by this formation were instantly criticised by the right. Right-wing politicians distanced themselves from the idea of sustainable development, perceiving it not only as a threat to the economic growth but also as a part of the ideological collage created by the ecologists. However, we should not be surprised by the right-wing criticism. Among diverse demands, some clearly did not stand up to scrutiny, even for those sensitive to the environmental issues. The latest and most notorious examples are total shale gas ban, or a demand to withdraw entirely from fossil fuels and rely only on renewable energy, not to mention controversy concerning global warming problem. It is treated by ecologists as if it was a religious doctrine.

Taking up radical slogans and actions, what often went hand in hand with a lack of common sense, led to the fact that ecologists were perceived almost as ecoterrorists, ideologised weirdos, rejecting the anthropocentric vision of the world, and making use of a revolutionary method of ‘direct action’.

In fact, due to the activities of some radical green movements and impudent media propaganda promoting eco-lifestyle, for many people (not only identifying with the right) word ‘ecology’ was as a matador’s red rag for a bull. As a result, a significant part of the right-wing environments thoroughly declined to listen to the arguments and put ecologists on one shelf with feminists, pacifists and other New Left movements, which in their view deserved only to be criticised. Besides, they were not interested in environmental issues, treating them with contempt and disrespect, so they applied the same approach to ecologists.

It’s a pity. While ideological assumptions regarding abortion, euthanasia or other moral issues are in fundamental conflict with the right-wing believes, such clash does not occur with every problem taken up by the left. Moreover, not every political postulate is a product of a discrepancy between diverse moralities which are allegedly not possible to reconcile due to the entirely different assumptions on how the world does or should look like. The problem with a division between the right and left derives from the fact that both terms are not describing a solid reality, but relative ideas. Contrary to the political doctrines, such as liberalism, conservatism, socialism (though are also internally diverse), the right and the left do not represent unchangeable and fixed content. What seems to belong to the right in one state may be perceived as leftist in another.

It often happens that the interest in a new political issue is just a result of the previous reservation of the whole range of topics by one political side. Furthermore, it implies that division of the issues does not arise from the irreconcilable philosophical assumptions. There is no determinism in the fact that urban movements cooperate more with left environments (there indeed are urban movements with rightist inclination).

Similar examples also exist on the right side. Ryszard Bugaj’s anecdote is very telling on that matter–deputies with a past in the Solidarity movement were queueing for a place in the Human Rights Committee. However, none of them was keen on joining the Economic Committee. It was not due to the oppositionists’ ideological motives, but rather it was a result of pure désintéressement in economics. For the left, such a ‘reserved’ issue is ecology, though the right might as well construct it. It does not contradict with its fundamental ideas nor values or beliefs crucial for this political formation.

The left’s monopoly on the ecological issues is hardened by both sides. On the one hand, the left movements (justly) stress the fact that they were first to gain sensibility to the environmental protection, as well as to raise the question of sustainable development. On the other hand, the right-wing communities reinforced this setting the stage–their political agenda did not encompass ecology since it was regarded as a reserved topic, accordingly to the notorious mechanism of creating a political identity: we should criticise ‘their’ concepts, even if they seem to be reasonable. Ecology’s rejection by the right is then an effect of strengthening the rightist identity, constructed naturally as opposing to the left and its demands. Naturally, this process exists also among some left-wing environments – to mention the suffering caused by internalising an idea of patriotism.

Thus, the right should become more interested in ‘ecological industry’, still growing due to the EU environmental policy promoting the idea of sustainable development. However, this kind of interest is not necessarily intertwined with an acceptance of all ecologists’ demands. Pros and cons should be analysed carefully. With high probability, some of their ideas would be rejected, though other would appear valuable.

Let’s put it that way: the Polish right not only assimilated some ideas of left provenance but also made them a strong point of its own agenda. Realizing that fact could be helpful in changing today’s approach.

Firstly, referring to the concept of postcolonial state is nothing more than applying neo-marxists’ theories. Neomarxist scholars stress that in the international relations the true conflict happens not between the states, as realists would say, but between greater political formations: block of developed countries and block of developing ones. The latter are not capable of changing their ascribed and persistent position in the international division of labour. Secondly, the Polish right adopted the Marxist idea of cultural hegemony conceived by Antonio Gramsci. Italian philosopher assumed that the ruling class manipulates the society’s consciousness, that political power is subordinated to the cultural hegemony, and that political struggle relies on the fight against current domination and leads to establishing the new one. It is easy to guess what kind of cultural hegemony the Polish right has on the mind, and how would like to overcome it.

One of the promising and interesting topics is efficient energy use. Though this term does not sound so attractive as energetic security and for sure does not give the creeps like the phrase ‘Gazprom turns the faucet off’, it still important for the Polish power industry. Implementing solutions aimed at reducing energy consumption has a great yet not exhausted potential now in Poland. Measures such as thermo-modernisation of buildings or raising the level of awareness regarding long-term costs of using diverse technologies enable to save billions of zlotys. Thus, low awareness concerning waste separation is an embarrassing issue. This process not only enables to save energy needed to convert raw materials almost with no costs but also reduces air and water pollution. Hence, the discussed topic should not be limited to the group of ‘young, educated, and living in big cities’.

Reducing a backlog could begin with the current ecological problem–struggle against smog, happening mainly in the southern cities. It seems that part of the right automatically criticised the anti-smog bill, which confers competence to regulate fuel quality on the local governments. It should be stressed it is not fighting for better comfort, but rather concerns fundamental issues of health and life. Data of any kind on the poor air quality in Poland are highly alarming. Besides, health care costs exceed costs of the possible help for those using the cheapest yet most detrimental coal (which, in fact, is a mining waste), as well as burning toxic waste. We should bear in mind that supporting the anti-smog bill, signed by Polish president Mr Andrzej Duda, need not go hand in hand with quitting coal. It is what ecologist demand, however, it would weaken Polish economic competitiveness. Coal may be used in CHP plants, where smog will not be produced, as well as this process may supply citizens with cheap heating.

Such an idea proves that it is possible to solve significant environmental problems without losing sight of economic issues. Therefore, the right ought to get acquainted with ecology, and afterwards construct reasonable approach towards issues of that field. We cannot afford to leave such an important topic to the left ideologists. It would be a pity if they got support from the political centre (which regards environmental protection as an important issue) only because the right belittled their sensibility.


Translation from Polish: Katarzyna Nowicka



This publication has been cofinanced by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within “Cooperation in Public Diplomacy 2018” programme.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.