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The Greening of Democratic Politics

Readers interested in some of the big political ideas and trends of our time may like to listen to a recent talk on the greening of democratic politics. Hosted in Sydney by the newly-founded Institute for Democracy and Human Rights, it aimed to provoke discussion about the long-term, ‘deep’ effects of green politics on the language and institutions and ‘imaginary’ of democracy.

Listeners are reminded that in half a generation, green-minded intellectuals, movements and political parties have helped ensure that such matters as chemical pollutants, nuclear power, carbon emissions, climate change and species destruction are ‘in the air’ and firmly on the policy agenda of democratic politics. Public awareness that humans are the only biological species ever to have occupied the entire planet, with potentially catastrophic consequences, is growing. Green politics has helped popularise precautionary attitudes towards ‘progress’ and its blind embrace. It has also tabled vital tactical questions: for instance, should priority be given to civic initiatives and social movements or to the formation of political parties and alliances with mainstream parties? How can green parties best be kept ‘democratic’? Does their political success require broadening green politics to include themes such as immigration and gender discrimination?

Despite these notable achievements, or so runs the argument, the profoundly radical implications of green politics for the way people imagine and live democracy remain poorly understood. Levels of support for democratic principles certainly run high within green circles, as confirmed by the widespread uproar triggered by James Lovelock’s suggestion that it ‘may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while’. Yet why people with green sympathies should embrace democracy for more than tactical reasons, whether democratic principles themselves can be ‘greened’ and what that might imply for the way people imagine to be the essence or ‘spirit’ of democracy are matters that remain obscure within green circles and beyond – or so this talk on green politics and the future of democracy suggests.

Mount Erebus, an active volcano, in Antarctica James Gealy/flickr