Election 2015: Would conservation charities vote Green?

Everyone knows that the Green Party is particularly interested in environmental issues. But perhaps less widely appreciated is their left-wing position on how to deliver the social change that would lead to more positive environmental outcomes. Their vision is based on a return to a large and interventionist state and a reversal in what they call the ‘marketisation’ of public policy, as demonstrated by the following quotes from their manifesto:

  • We need to remake society. And in this remaking we need finally to realise that consumer capitalism is the problem, not the solution. The solution lies in a democratically managed economy that operates within the Earth’s resource limits
  • The market has been in charge for so long that it dominates our imagination and colours our view of ourselves. The market is short sighted and short term. It’s time for change – time to put the market to work for the common good and for people to be put back in charge
  • We want a One-Planet economy that will address the challenge of climate change and unacceptable levels of inequality. We have to throw off the shackles of market ideology and consider afresh what really needs to be done
  • The market makes us impatient with the suffering of others, tolerant of inequality, prone to prejudice, suspicious of difference. We know we can be cooperative, appreciative, understanding and fair. We just need a world that encourages us to be these things

This radical alternative to mainstream UK politics seems to be striking a chord with the public. The early phase of campaigning for today’s UK General Election saw widespread reporting of a ‘green surge’ as the Green Party’s membership swelled to unprecedented levels. As polling day approached, the larger political parties returned to their traditional dominance of the election narrative, but the Greens are still set for their best ever performance in a national poll; something in the region of 5% of the vote according to the latest BBC poll of polls.

It would be reasonable to assume that a political party focused on a specific policy issue would represent some kind of watered-down and voter-friendly version of the more radical demands of civil society organisations working on the same issue. If this were the case, it might suggest that environmental NGOs would have similar or more radical points of view on the environment than the Green Party – they would bang the drum and make extreme demands, while the political party would shape that message into a more palatable format in order to seek election.

So is this what we see? Consider first the generalist environmental sustainability organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth that campaign on everything from clean air to protecting species. These organisations do indeed have views that are closely aligned to those of the Green Party – in fact Friends of the Earth said it could find “no downsides” with the Green Party manifesto. However, if we turn to look at the biodiversity-focused conservation NGOs, a very different picture emerges. Rather than adopting the broadly anti-markets and anti-corporation perspective of the Green Party and generalist environmental NGOs, most big national and international conservation NGOs have, over the last few decades, broadened the definition of ‘green’ by adopting a decidedly pro-markets version of environmentalism that has been described as ‘neoliberal conservation’. This approach follows the pragmatist philosophy of ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’, in which it is argued that the private sector has the greatest power to influence conservation outcomes and political processes, and that conservation is therefore most likely to succeed by working with, rather than against, the hegemonic power of the market.

The widespread adoption of the neoliberal conservation approach by conservation NGOs is demonstrated by the significant partnerships they have with major corporations that do damage to biodiversity, and their enthusiastic support for the idea of natural capital – an economic metaphor for the value of nature which many (including George Monbiot) have argued leads to nature needing to pay its way in order to justify being conserved. These NGOs also support the Green Economy Initiative, which some see as nothing more than an excuse for business as usual in the global economy (although this perspective is controversial – see the excellent Why Green Economy blog for the full debate). Many of these NGOs also support and implement controversial developer-friendly conservation strategies such as biodiversity offsetting, which the Green Party proposes to ban (they would “prohibit developers from being allowed to destroy unique habitats by way of biodiversity offsetting elsewhere”).

My inescapable conclusion is that the Green Party has a more radical agenda for social change to tackle the underlying drivers of conservation problems than most major conservation charities. I’m sure that to many readers this will be quite a surprise, so it is worth exploring in more detail. How did this come to pass? I see two possible and somewhat related explanations. First, perhaps being radical is actually a good idea if you are a minor political party, because it will differentiate you from other more mainstream parties. After all, the same approach is working quite well for UKIP in the current election. Of course the challenge is what to do when support for your party grows and you eventually get into government, where it turns out that implementing your ambitious plans is more difficult than you hoped (see the Lib Dems and their tuition fees pledge debacle for a case study of how that can go wrong).

Second, maybe pragmatism pays for NGOs. Conservation NGOs have done rather well out of toning down the radical demands of their environmentalist cousins, and have found new sources of influence and funding in adopting a pro-business stance within the context of a rapidly neoliberalising world. In some cases this has been driven by ideology and in some cases pragmatism, but either way it has worked quite well as a means for making friends and influencing people. At the very least it has been a good strategy for achieving institutional survival in a difficult funding environment. Still, the big problem with this approach is that if the analysis of the Green Party and many social scientists writing about conservation is correct, it is not sufficiently radical to challenge the neoliberal economic model that drives the loss of biodiversity in the first place.

I can understand why the pragmatist strategy of neoliberal conformism has been appealing to so many conservation NGOs. But I find it profoundly disappointing that they have become so bland; lacking in ideology, and distant from the socially progressive views of the Green Party that were once their bread and butter. Indeed, if major biodiversity conservation NGOs had a vote in this election, I’m not sure they would vote Green at all. They might just as easily choose the Liberal Democrats, who are much more supportive of a pro-business and pro-markets approach to environmental policy, even if they do support fracking. The creep of NGOs away from the left and into the political middle ground (or away from public politics altogether) is repeatedly justified as a means of finding supporters and influence, but if a left-wing political party campaigning on environmental issues can win 1 in every 20 votes cast in a general election, surely there is room for some bolder and more radical alternatives to be put forward by our conservation charities? In the meantime, if you are a conservationist with left-wing views, don’t join a conservation charity – join the Green Party.


4 thoughts on “Election 2015: Would conservation charities vote Green?

  1. Hi Chris

    Cracking blog. I actually met Nathalie Bennett on the tube in London a few weeks back and we had a wee chat about tax policy.

    I liked how you finished your blog – we do indeed need more conservationists and environmentalists in politics. I’ve recently decided to jack in my membership of the Alliance party over here (the NI equivalent of the Lib Dems) – due to their excessive quantity of neoliberal policies and politicans – and join the Green party of Northern Ireland. So we’ll see where that goes…

    Best regards


  2. Hello Chris

    The landscape this morning has taken a scarily blue-hue. We’re planning an escape (Costa Rica inviting) though we may be needed in London to build defences against the surge of nationalism.

    We find your article below very interesting and pertinent. Indeed, recently found ourselves in deep waters of neo-liberal conservation. There is an article here that expresses some of the dilemma. http://platformlondon.org/2015/04/29/the-tiger-the-artists-and-the-oil-dictators-daughter-ackroyd-harvey-pull-out-of-aliyev-funded-exhibition/

    We hope to write at length about the experience. Your December ‘Is conservation really better together?’ gave us much food for thought at the time, and we quoted it whilst debating our position with other artists involved in the Here Today exhibition. Our decision to question the sponsors and their agenda was seen as radical, and by some as potentially damaging to the cause of conservation. For us, we could not entertain further participation knowing we were being used as ‘art puppets’ or to appropriate term below in Guardian comment, ‘useful idiots’ by a regime seeking to sanitise its image through a charade of care.

    Yes, we voted Green and support proportional representation. Maybe we should escape to Brighton…..

    All best,

    Heather and Dan

    from the Guardian comments this morning:

    “With hindsight it is clear that David Cameron only offered Nick Clegg and other LibDems a seat in government, not merely to buy their support, but as a poisoned chalice. In other words, Cameron knew that as soon as he played his more extreme than Thatcher hand, it would make the LibDem Cabinet Ministers, appear like Quislings, for facilitating a Tory regime more extreme than Thatcher. I don’t claim any credit for this insight, because a large proportion of the Guardian’s commenters could see this, because it’s why they were claiming Nick Clegg was a Quisling. This was most definitely not an accident, because David Cameron also used Labour, and especially Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown as useful idiots, during the Scottish referendum. He offered them a role in the referendum, not because he was being conciliatory, but as a poison chalice, which would destroy them. This is the thing, when David Cameron offered Nick Clegg the role of deputy PM, he was using Clegg as a “useful idiot”. In political jargon, useful idiot is a term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useful_idiot Most LibDem seats were either formerly held by the Tories, or the Tories were the second party. So the collapse of the LibDems, could and did give the Tories a whole bunch of seats. Even better for David Cameron, Nick Clegg acted like a fig leaf for the Tory’s nasty hidden agenda. Essentially Cameron was saying we can’t be that nasty, because look the LibDems are supporting us and justifying it. I think David Cameron is the most slippery, unprincipled and devious Machiavellian politician, ever to be Prime Minister. He makes Tony Blair look like Pope Francis in comparison. David Cameron doesn’t merely do it to politicians from other parties. He does it to politicians in his own party. Cameron puts nasty ideologues like Iain Duncan Smith in Ministerial roles to do his dirty work. These useful idiots, then take the flak for the unpopular policy they carry out, when really it is what David Cameron wants. Take Owen Paterson. The only reason David Cameron made Owen Paterson Environment Secretary, was to push through Badger culling, because he knew Paterson had a long history of lobbying for it. Yet as soon as Paterson had taken the flak for implementing the culling, Cameron sacked him.”

  3. Interesting piece, Chris. Perhaps one reason the large NGOs are less radical than the Green Party is that they are “already in power”. They are having to deal with the world they way they find it, and unfortunately, markets and corporations are a prominent part of that world. Even if we think of them as large, conservation NGOs are very small fish when it comes to having the power to change the system. I’m glad there are the more radical groups out there such as Greenpeace, but I’m also glad that conservation organisations like WWF are working with companies to help them reduce their impacts, such as by setting up commodity roundtables.

    That said, I think conservation organisations could do more to educate their members about what’s wrong with the prevailing system, for example by promoting discussions about alternatives to the paradigm of economic growth.

    About your final line, I’d suggest that conservation organisations have done far more for conservation than the Green Party has ever achieved. So why not join both?

  4. Hi Chris, reading this now I think a case can be made within traditional parties like Labour which has had a heated leadership contest with a left leaning contestant in Jeremy Corbyn. His views on the environmental issues of the day are quite impressive (check Carbon brief website for a comparison of these). An opportune time for turning tables for real change even within a larger party and if it comes to party in these lovely Isles. Just some thoughts about quite a provoking piece from you.

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