'Romantic visions of pure indigenous communities - barriers to a radical ecology' - Russ Hiedalman

Russ Hiedalman takes a look at the problems of how indegenous politics are incorporated into radical environmentalism. Originally published in September 2009.

Everyone from the Conservatives to Labour, the BNP and the Green Party claim to have the most rational solutions for reducing CO2 emissions in the next 10 years (or however many it is until the end of the world). Considering these dire options this article looks at some of the barriers to a radical ecology that would place social and environmental justice at the top of the agenda. In particular, this article looks at three strands of political thinking, the left Greens (e.g. the Green party), the deep ecology movement and the BNP. It investigates the way these three broad groups use the words “indigenous community” a term that has become increasingly loaded with political meaning. From the housing estates of Stoke -on -Trent to the Amazon rainforest, the term is used to describe a variety of peoples: but what does it mean and what does its usage tell us about those who use it?

A romantic vision of small indigenous communities is overwhelmingly evident in a lot of green left thinking. Slogans like “small is beautiful” and “think global act local” reflect this. The deep ecologists also share this idea but in addition to this have an anti-humanist approach that has culminated in extreme views such as those held by the Finish activist Karrlo Linkola. For them pre- industrial society, even the hunter gatherer existence, is the pinnacle of human existence and they press for a return to small self contained communities that live in harmony with nature. The Greens don’t have a monopoly on these romantic visions of ‘pure’ communities. In the UK the BNP extends its usage to include the white British working class. The romanticised notion of ‘indigenous’ and ‘rooted’ communities is evidently connected historically to German romanticism (as epitomised by Wagner) and eventually fascism, and similarly for them the British working class are something to be lionised and protected against the threats of modernism and globalisation.

Practically these communities, whether in the UK or abroad, are all based upon a myth. For the Green left it seemed to grow out of Marx’s and Engels’ view that indigenous peoples often practised a “primitive communism” that showed market relations are not inevitable. However the reality of these pre-industrial societies are quite out of step with the modernist values that Marx espoused such as equal rights for women. The left often seem only too happy to tolerate in these imagined societies conditions that they would not want for themselves.

For the BNP the myth of Britishness is based on the idea of a pure white race made up of “Anglo-Saxon, Celtic and Norse folk communities of Britain”, what they refer to as “indigenous Caucasian” In reality Britain is a mixture of ethnicities brought together by a history of invasion, conquest and peaceful migration (a recent report in the Daily Star stated that Nick Griffin could trace his ancestors back to gypsies). These imagined indigenous communities are treated like endangered species. The BNP’s Land and People website contains a number of stories under the the heading of ‘eco- threats’ that are often about the extinction of indigenous British species (e.g. the grey squirrel) due to the influx of a foreign species. The left displays similar attitudes; treating and sentimentalising human Amazonian inhabitants in much the same way as the animals that dwell along side them.

For all three groups the extinction of species is one manifestation of the belief that we now live in an apocalyptic dystopia bought about by corrupting outside influences. For all three the main culprits are agents of capital. The World Rainforest Movement and Survival International are clear that the threat to indigenous communities in the Amazon are “western multinationals”. Some fascists are more specific blaming globalisation, specifically ‘finance capital’ (i.e. an international Jewish Conspiracy). “Think global, act local” is undoubtedly within the BNP ideology, where globalisation and the resulting mass migration and ‘diluting of culture’ is responded to with local solutions.

For the greens (both the left and the deep greens) the apocalypse is manifest in many other forms: from a move away from organic farming (the petro-chemicals will kill the land and hence people when it is no-longer able to provide us with food) to climate change (humans have altered the atmosphere to the extent that it can no longer sustain us). For the BNP the former is true but not the latter. Nick Griffin recently told radio 5 live “ that global warming is essentially a hoax. It is being exploited by the liberal elite as a means of taxing and controlling us and the real crisis is peak oil.” Instead they also see it manifest in immigration which is destroying not only the English countryside but also English culture. Rather than rejecting the system at the root of environmental degradation and advocating for a socially just future both ask for limits on human existence- whether in the form of taxes or immigration controls.

This idea of cultural degradation is also a concern for the Greens. The “Clone Town Britain” and Tescopoly campaigns are good examples of how they hark back to a romantic vision of the past, to a nation of corner shops and small artisans. So it seems that the idea of purity and Englishness also leaks into Green thinking. Environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth states “As myself and a growing number of other people feel that our ‘English’ identity matters. A nation is a people who feel they are bound together by a culture, a history, a language, a homeland (in most cases) - in other words, a shared sense of self.” Evidently it is not just the BNP that are obsessed with a romantic (and historically absurd) notion of English ethnic identity and culture merged with concerns for the preservation of the environment.

What I’m not trying to do here is exaggerate the rhetorical similarities between sections of the green left and far-right parties such as the BNP, however it is important to explore why these similarities manifest and to ask: how do we distinguish ourselves from such positions. The problem is that all three positions as outlined above believe that our communities have simply become too big and as a consequence of this unsustainable. The BNP say that the environmental damage done to the UK could be reduced if we stopped immigration (reducing their criticism of globalisation to an attack on national ‘others’). Their website states “Britain is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and our population is increasing, due entirely to immigration… independent environmental organisations believe that Britain’s population needs to be significantly reduced. Our immigration policies will achieve this.” The British National Party also argues that “our countryside is vanishing beneath a tidal wave of concrete” and argue that “the biggest reason all these new houses are needed is immigration. One-third of all new homes are for immigrants and asylum-seekers”, “Britain will become a tarmac desert”. They attack the Green party’s stance on immigration and claim their more liberal approach shows they are not true environmentalists. However environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth has similarly described Britain as “a small, overcrowded and overdeveloped country”. While an organisation closely connected to Jonathan Porritt, The Optimum Population Trust, argues that mass immigration is causing environmental collapse. Mark Lynas has said greens must now openly address ‘rising levels of immigration’ which are contributing to ‘urban overcrowding and rural over-development’. This logic has also been applied globally, owing in some way to an emphasis on global warming. People will be polluting the sacred earth whether they do it in England, Germany or Angola. At the extreme end of this some deep greens have advocated a global reduction in population (Karrlo Linkola has even talked of his admiration for Stalin and the Nazi holocaust). With this comes an elitist attitude. They are the vanguard, the enlightened minority who can deliver the masses from themselves and also the belief that nature will judge us in the end and destroy the human race if we don’t change our evil ways.

The logical consequence of all of these arguments is the diversion of attention from the root causes of climate change and the shifting of attention to easier targets (whether that’s migrants, supermarkets, the rich…). This ‘foreshortened’ analysis of capitalism and it’s inherently destructive mechanisms is evident in the apparent attitude that indigenous communities cannot, and will not, repeat the mistakes made by the ‘bad humans’, those that have caused this dystopian world. Ironically some groups seeking to ‘protect’ people and natural habitats have attempted to do this by introducing western capitalist models to their traditional ways of living. The Centre for Amazon Community Ecology aims to “develop the sustainable harvest and marketing of non-timber forest products” in order to preserve the community. I’m not sure how turning social relationships into value based ones will “strengthen its traditional communities” or ensure that they don’t succumb to the very thing that is responsible for environmental destruction, capitalism. Again what is overwhelmingly evident here is a ‘we know best how to protect you’ syndrome.

This failure to break with capitalism, the very thing they blame for the desecration of sacred communities, is shared by the Greens and also by the BNP. Neither have managed to display any radical anti-capitalist views, both are essentially reformist and the BNP reactionary. From big capitalism and multinationals to ’small is beautiful’ and nationalisation. In the end it is safe to say that the three strands of political thinking are very different. However they do have a strong belief in a dystopian present that tends to equate big and global with capitalism, which in turn is equated with environmental destruction. Consequently all are guilty of upholding some form of indigenous, small community above all other form of social organisation, whatever their geographic location or racial extraction might be (however this romantic vision only extends so far as they attempt to guide and change the ‘pure’ communities to fit with their own elitist narrative) and, despite intentions, we have seen what the consequences of that can and will be.