Thursday, July 18, 2013

Environmentalism as Romanticism.


"The modern environmentalist revolution thus benefited twice over: it was a break from the callous nostrums of the recent past—and it had roots in a more distant history, unremembered but atavistically reassuring. Environmentalism (like pacifism) often aroused in its wake a revival of nationalism—or regionalism—but with a human face."  Tony Judy, Postwar.

 By 1970 the baby boomers of post-WW2 were entering middle age in a post-prosperity Europe plunged once again into recession by two unexpected oil crises and the US abandonment of fixed currency exchange.  Young adults who once talked of "alienation" and "liberation of the proletariat" developed into middle aged men and women more concerned with supporting their families and the health of future pension plans in social welfare states now living beyond their means. Worse, the rise of constructivism during the 60's  - the claim that all behavior, opinion and knowledge was socially derived and therefore politically instrumental and should be regarded with suspicion - had by the 1970's hardened into a widespread cynicism where an aging population was forced by circumstances to give precedence to their own individual well being.  The politics of the Left and Right become closer than ever before, distinguished only by social issues like marriage and reproduction.

This was the environment that a new generation came of age, a generation that viewed their parents switch from production to consumption with suspicion.  Consumption, they believed, was false progress. Western civilization had became separated from it's social justice roots by embracing profit driven competition without goals or restraint. Cities, town, landscapes were ripped and torn apart by new highways for the movement of unnecessary mass products;  local culture was displaced as waves of desperate immigrants were imported as cheep labor to fuel the ever hungry economy.  Consumption ushered in crass products, false values and an inhuman economic machine driven only by profit in which humans were turned into rectified cogs.

The natural expression of this new generation was not found in traditional Left or Right political parties, but in what emerged as "single issue politics"  -  movements whose members are united only by a single cause and with a reluctance to formally support any existing political party.  Three such movements would have lasting impact:  feminism, environmentalism, peace activism.

Feminism and peace activism failed to achieve any independent political traction; their success or otherwise depended on the willingness of established political parties to champion their cause. Environmentalism however achieved notable political success. The year 1973 saw the founding of the Farmers Congress in West Germany, a forerunner to the Greens, and in the same year the first 'ecology' candidates stood in local elections throughout France and Britain.  By 1985 the Greens were a ruling party in West Germany with Joschka Fischer as the Minister for Environment and Energy.  In Scandinavia, Green success had to wait until 1987  for Sweden and 1988 for Finland.  In Ireland the Green party was contested its first general election in 1982 and entered government as a junior partner in 2007.

The success of the environmentalism is directly traced to the Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.  At the core of environmentalism, largely a middle class obsession, is the romantic rejection of progress, reason and science in favor of a largely imaginary past.  In Germany this manifested itself in a nostalgic longing for quintessence German landscapes; in France romantic environmentalists day-dreamed of peasant harmony untainted by cities or cosmopolitanism; in England of a once and future country harmony.

The core elements of romanticism are all present in modern environmentalism: the rejection of scientism, a longing for national renewal, an importance on a sense of belonging, of being your true self freed from the chains of consumption and instrumental reason, the emphasis on symbols and language and myth.

Environmentalism also contains the dark side of romanticism: the sense that the universe is working against mankind, of some impending future disaster which will inevitably befall civilization.

In the following posts I will explore these themes in more detail.

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