Published by Cambridge University Press, 2019
Reading any textbook on green politics is a remarkably different experience now to even just a few years ago. My memory harks back to September 2015 when, at the start of my final year at Newcastle University, and only at the outset of any serious thought on the subject, I pulled the first green-coloured and titled tome I saw from the shelves of the Robinson Library. That was John Barry’s Rethinking Green Politics, published in 1998. Frankly I was glad to see that it was being rethought, having had then the same unfair images of wispy hippies as most people still had at the forefront of my mind. The immanent critique central to Barry’s thesis was thus a tonic – a deft line that took stock of green politics’ substantial theoretical achievements but also questioned much of the unnecessary baggage these entailed, and insisted that Greens must have a closer relationship with the present.
Since then the dizzying demands of previous decades have seemed to turn finally towards some hint of political fruition. The Paris Agreement, ‘1.5 to stay alive’, discourse on climate justice, Extinction Rebellion, school strikes, declarations of climate and biodiversity ‘emergencies’ and now, in the midst of a pandemic, the international chorus for governments to build back better. Escaping the lens of impending strife and potential catastrophe is now difficult no matter the sector, level of governance or sphere of influence. As Kate Aronoff and company write in A Planet to Win, “In the 21st Century, all politics are climate politics”.
Peter Newell’s first goal in this book is to guide the field of International Relations (IR) towards that simple fact, an endeavour long overdue. As Newell sets out in his first chapter, IR of all disciplines is one you would expect to have some appreciation of ecology and the biosphere, as the basis for wellbeing and security. And yet, notable interventions aside, mainstream scholars and practitioners continue to fail to treat the environment as much more than just another ‘issue area’, and one easily marginalised at that. Look at any IR textbook and ecology/green politics is inevitably at the end of the book if at all. (This chimes with my experience helping run a Chatham House event on climate diplomacy last summer. Never mind ecology, even the climate only seemed to matter to the extent that it was a driver of political pressure or legal obligations. The actual breakdown of the planet’s biosphere was peripheral.)
Newell’s second goal is in the other direction: this neglect is mutual, he argues. Greens’ localising tendencies can lead to a lack of confidence operating in an international field that by rights should be second nature, but too often is reduced to the same platitudes (‘small is beautiful’ etc.) that were the target of Barry’s critique 20 years earlier.
One great early caveat is that these goals are set not out of concern for the field of IR itself, nor its future. Rather the case is for the scale and urgency of the contribution that Green politics has to offer. So there is no extended foray into the type of decade-long IR scholarly disputes that you get the impression the author – a Professor of IR at the University of Sussex – has had to endure. At the same time the introduction and various critiques and references are sufficient to provide a sense of the discipline over time and as it stands, with all its shortcomings, today.
Each chapter deals with a different area of global politics – security, economy, state, governance, development and sustainability – and each follows the structure of critique, normative vision and strategy. It’s a satisfying approach and lends itself well to the referencing role the book seems geared towards. Overall Newell sets out the Green argument(s) with great balance and little fuss, and covers substantial ground in only 220 pages.
Along the way he deals with a number of the modern iterations, or repetitions, of the sacred cows Barry took aim at 20 years before. In a crucial early chapter titled ‘What is Green politics?’ those who prefer to reduce the field to one parody or another are reminded lucidly that there is no one shade, and that all have historical threads worth pulling. Newell grapples seriously with the question of the state, making a good case for one that is ‘post-liberal’ rather than illiberal, its restrictions based on protecting freedoms now and for future generations. As co-founder of the Rapid Transition Alliance (of which Green House is a member), Newell is understandably attuned to the challenge of both “exposing the darker side” of the state and wielding it to the urgent ends that current crises demand.
There are also rejoinders to ecological determinism, the thinking that sets ecology as the positive limit not only to what is possible but what actually occurs, to the neglect of power and other players in the short run. The chapter and strategy on security is particularly useful given the contention in emerging debates on ‘climate security’ and the role this is increasingly playing in the upper echelons of the world of green-shy foreign policy.
I do wonder, however, whether Newell has underestimated the extent of recent ideological change. Politically, and of course, ecologically, so much is the same; so much more is worse. But we know that culture and ideas are powerful parents to the material world. The immanence of Barry’s rethinking is even more necessary now precisely because both capitalists and socialists are considering whether their own versions of ‘transformative adaptation’ are necessary to earn them a place in global politics for the rest of the century.
Green growth is a failed attempt to adapt on the capitalist side, as the Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity is now informing the Treasury. But on the other ‘side’ it would be churlish to reject where theoretical inroads have been made, even if they are into our turf. Newell writes that “it is perhaps the proposition that human needs are not best met by continual economic growth that most clearly sets Green thinking apart”. And yet the most on-the-money and (ideologically) ascendant parts of the modern British left are now increasingly ambivalent towards growth or outright hostile to it. Mark Burton has written recently in Renewal on how this is occurring in and around the Labour Party. In the think tank world, Positive Money produced a flagship new report on The Tragedy of Growth in May, and the new kid on the block Common Wealth represents much of the Green message – perhaps in everything except its refusal to catastrophize politics (and even this is arguably a matter of tone). Taking together these ascendant left thinkers’ aversion to industrialism and centralisation, respect for nature, and less arrogant anthropocentrism (“from extractivism to stewardship”) you don’t get the ecologism of Andrew Dobson – but might you not have the Green politics of Barry and Newell?
This is not of course to suggest Green thinking might be redundant, but that it can be found in more places than Greens. As Newell accepts, the last decade of stutter and decay has pre-empted both the left and the right to think again and seriously about their utility for this century. What this book does is express comprehensively a pure set of politics but less sense of how it is infecting the politics of others; indeed the ideas presented and authors most frequently referenced will not be new to many Greens. (This is only occasionally to the book’s disservice. Conspiracy theorist David Icke, who even YouTube and Facebook have now seen fit to ban, is referenced as a ‘Green author’ without even a disapproving caveat such as that which accompanies Milton Friedman.) Newell’s perspective, while absent from many lingering orthodoxies, is finally taking root and in need of close attention that may involve questions of synthesis. Nonetheless, the book does provide a detailed collection, a sound intellectual guide and trustworthy framework to do exactly that kind of work.