Green, Left and Right

A review of Peter Staudenmaier, Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics between Left and Right (New Compass Press, 2021).

Last month, I decided not to review the book I had ordered, because it was academic writing about an interesting subject that, as so often with academic writing, did not go anywhere. The good news is that academic writing doesn’t equal scholarly writing, and that scholarly writing, when in tune with social movements, can go somewhere, helping to draw important analytical conclusions and, in turn, inform political action and decision-making.

Peter Staudenmaier has provided such writing for 30 years, with a focus on environmentalism and its manifestations across the political field. Peter’s work has been of particular interest to me personally, because he has a profound knowledge about relevant discussions in the German-speaking world – something that shines through in almost all of his writings.

New Compass Press has now published a collection of essays by Staudenmaier under the title Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics between Left and Right. It is – unfortunately – a timely subject. In recent years, eco-esoteric belief systems such as Anastasianism have formed alliances with the far right, and references to “a natural state of being” are common in the blend of libertarianism, conspiracy theory, and “anti-vax” sentiments that has emerged as a political force during the corona pandemic. On a more personal level, I have had to endure eco-fascist forays into the straight edge movement, and radical environmentalists once supported by the left (“Green Scare” defendants among them) taking a sharp turn to the right.

Ecology Contested contains five essays and a short introduction titled “Ecofascism Past and Present.” Two of the essays are older: one, “Disney Ecology,” is a short reflection on the Disney movie Bambi, originally published as an Institute for Social Ecology pamphlet in 1998; the other is the text “Ambiguities of Animal Rights,” which first appeared in the journal Communalism in 2003.

I have never seen Bambi, but I’ve been very close to the animal rights movement, not least because it has been so influential in the straight edge scene. Staudenmaier’s essay, which examines incongruities and weaknesses in animal rights theory, remains highly relevant today. For example, in Sweden, where I live, animal rights are one of the main reasons why it is difficult to build alliances between the radical left and Sámi activists. (There are some brief comments on this in my book Liberating Sápmi.) Staudenmaier points out the problematic implications of certain currents of animal rights philosophy for indigenous societies. His attempt to “provoke a more thoughtful debate on the merits of animal rights” is much appreciated.

The piece “The Politics of Nature from Left to Right: Radicals, Reactionaries, and Ecological Responses to Modernity” was first published in 2020 in the Institute for Social Ecology’s online journal Harbinger. It serves as the opening essay of the book at hand and lays out our main challenge, namely how to tie environmentalism to a liberatory project rather than a reactionary one. Staudenmaier’s conclusion is as simple as it is convincing: “If environmental politics have historically been susceptible to the authoritarian right, perhaps ecological activists today would do well to align themselves with the anti-authoritarian left.”

At 70 pages, the longest piece in the book is an original contribution, carrying the title “A Revolution Against Technology: The Unabomber Manifesto in Historical Context.” I was terribly excited to read such a detailed, engaging, and thoughtful text on Ted Kaczynski (a.k.a. the Unabomber). Frankly, I thought that Kaczynski was largely forgotten. When Staudenmaier suggests that “the Unabomber seems to be enjoying an online renaissance,” I suppose it only goes to show how little I know about what’s going on online. In the political circles I move in, any association with Kaczynski has pretty much become an embarrassment. His prison writings revealed what should have been clear from the outset, namely that he is not a champion of “total liberation,” propagating intersectional struggles against all forms of oppression, or even showing any particular interest in the exploitation or discrimination of human individuals or social groups. Kaczynski rather appears to be a grumpy old man at war with the world, smart enough to coat his fury in environmentalist rhetoric. And yet, for activists of my generation and political persuasion, Kaczynski used to be a very important reference point. His actions were among the most notable expressions of the radical environmentalist movement that swept across North America in the early 1990s, with numerous Earth First! chapters, the anarcho-primitivists, tree-sitters, and an increasing number of people engaging in eco-sabotage. In this context, there was no way around Kaczynski and his manifesto, no matter your apprehensions. Even critics within the movement admired him for what seemed to be a principled, no-compromise pursue of his convictions.

It is difficult not to think of that era and Kaczynski at a time when radical environmentalist action is championed by prominent leftist authors such as Andreas Malm (whose work was reviewed earlier on this blog). It is both puzzling and frustrating to think that people in the early 1990s were far ahead of contemplating solutions to the ecological crisis in the form of “Green New Deals” or other variations of Green capitalism. Everything had to come down, and even if many of the proposed changes were short-sighted and naive, they were certainly radical. The dangers of these proposals are at the heart of Staudenmaier’s writing, so there is no risk of missing them in his book. Yet, as he states: “I will argue that scholars, social thinkers, and activists alike would do well to take the Unabomber Manifesto seriously as a powerful form of protest grounded in genuine concerns, while subjecting its core claims to careful analysis.” I couldn’t agree more.

The final piece in Ecology Contested, “Blood and Soil Revived? Ecological Politics on the Far Right,” is another original contribution. It provides an unsettling overview over the role that environmentalist politics play in the far right today, and emphasizes the importance of sharpening environmentalist perspectives on the left. We are facing a crucial battle over the direction that environmentalism will be taking. We don’t know how it’s going to play out, but Staudenmaier’s book helps us to be well equipped.

Gabriel Kuhn

(December 30, 2021)