Citizen of where?

by Caspar Henderson

humanity appears to be teetering between breakdown and breakthrough. A breakdown scenario would see us fragment into multiple smaller groupings as the primacy of disconnected selves and them-and-us politics gathers pace, with catastrophic results given our global interdependence and the scale of the challenges we face.

So write Rosalind Watts, Sam Gandy and Alex Evans, who suggest psychedelic experiences may help people overcome disconnection, individualism and loneliness by offering the same kind of spiritual ‘overview effect’ as a space journey.

The suggestion may have merit, but I’d recommend caution for at least two reasons. Firstly, as Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University puts it, “there’s all the difference in the world between a spiritual experience and a spiritual life.” Secondly, not all journeys into space necessarily lift people up.  Buzz Aldrin, the ‘second man on the Moon,’ suffered for years afterwards from depression and alcoholism.

In this time of crisis, them-and-us politics sometimes takes the form of ‘green and white nationalism.’ And, Elizabeth Chatterjee writes, there are signs that is it scaling up:

In the recent European elections, France’s National Rally claimed that ‘borders are the environment’s greatest ally.’ Marine Le Pen declared that someone ‘who is rooted in their home is an ecologist’, whereas those who are ‘nomadic … do not care about the environment; they have no homeland’. Across the Atlantic, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed to be against illegal immigration because it ‘produces a huge amount of litter’, while the far-right pundit Ann Coulter has suggested that Americans must ‘choose between a green America and a brown America’. In India, public tree planting and reverence for sacred groves reinforce the government’s majoritarian claim that only Hindus are the nation’s true stewards.

Naomi Klein is also concerned, and writes that only a ‘green new deal’ can douse the fires of ‘eco-fascism’ [1]: 

The [Christchurch] killer was not driven by environmental concern — his motivation was unadulterated racist hate — but ecological breakdown was one of the forces that seemed to be stoking that hatred, much as we are seeing it act as an accelerant for hatred and violence in armed conflicts around the world.

A green new deal to combat what Klein calls climate barbarism would be a massively ambitious programme to transform the world economy. According to Anne Pettifor it would pay for itself.

But what prospect of anything like this actually coming to pass?

Will Davies and others have asked whether ‘green populism’ could be an effective counterforce to the rise of the far-right. Green populism in this instance would be a form of ‘left populism’, “distinguished from ‘right populism’ by the fact that its critique of ‘elites’ involves no third party, in the form of the immigrant or minority group, but simply denounces unaccountable concentrations of power.”

But it’s an open question, to say the least, as to whether this kind of approach can and will prevail.  For one thing, a green new deal will require a widespread revival of belief in competent government, and in many countries this is in short supply. As Will Davies notes, in Britain at least:

the financial crisis of 2008, and the years of austerity that followed, [have] had the effect of discrediting neoliberal dogmas about the market, but – contrary to the initial hopes of the left – without restoring confidence in government or democracy.

Something on which, perhaps, almost everyone can agree is that emotions play a vital role in politics.   And among many challenges for those who seek to be inclusive is whether they can mobilise positive emotions in the face of anger and hatred.  

For them to have a chance, some (including me) will argue that you need not just to take account of people’s sense of place, nation and identity, but also to galvanise it. This need not mean undermining universalist ideals, but rather recognising that the two can come together.  As Elif Shafak tells Giles Fraser on his Confessions podcast, “for nationalists it’s a case of either/or, whereas we can have multiple belongings.”  According to the historian Jill Lapore, in conversation with Talking Politics, “in American history liberals [and progressives] have only defeated the right when they make appeals to national aims and ends.”

Grounding the universal in the local, then, is probably key. Pat Kane writes:

The overall aim is to grapple anew, and exuberantly, with the conditions of one’s existence – around food, energy, housing, mobility, culture, and much more. And in doing so, we celebrate and exercise our ability not only to see the systems around us, but to reshape them and steer them better. 

Caspar Henderson is an Associate at Perspectiva

Image: Shropshire Hills, Landscapes for Life

Note [1] I have argued previously on this blog that ‘eco-fascism’ is an oxymoron, or close to it, but let’s allow the term to stand for now.

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