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Green and Red: Ecosocialism and Ireland

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Ecosocialism promises more equitable social relations and less damaging, extractive technologies; a society that serves people rather than capital.

by Niall Flynn

Since survival of our species is at stake, all politics today, whether explicitly or otherwise, are ecological politics. Following this premise, all elections are now climate elections. 

This, again, was supposed to be Ireland’s climate election, but it has not transpired that way. Health and housing have taken precedence, with climate in the back seat in much of the discussion happening around the country, as well as in the televised leaders debates.

This may be traced to the fact that, as an article in Village claimed earlier this week, Ireland just does not get the environment. In this country, policy promises are broken and legislation goes unimplemented.

Raising the problem of responsibility and obligation, the article by Village’s editor defends a progressive carbon tax through which “the richest corporations should be hammered but all of us should get a price signal”. In 2019, the ESRI published a report that showed how a well-designed carbon tax does not necessarily hurt poorer parts of society, and could in fact reduce inequality. The economics of carbon pricing remain contentious for now, retaining leverage across the political spectrum.

In other words, the same mechanisms can be used to different ends: for right-wing environmentalism or for a progressive and equitable environmental politics. Smith suggests it is not clear whether Ireland’s Green party is of the left, and there is certainly a question mark as to whether we have an environmentalism in Irish life and politics today that understands how political, economic and ecological crises are entangled, and that works for normal, working people. With the current election campaign in full flow, it is worth focusing more on this.

Free Market at a Crossroads

Environmentalism has gone mainstream, with responses coming from diverse sectors of society. It is fair to say that forces like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion, and the mass media coverage they attract, have transformed the global political scene for the better. 

In Ireland, many interest groups are offering their own manifestos on what climate action and policy in Ireland should look like. Often accompanying these manifestos is a critique of mainstream environmental politics. The Greens, for example, have come under fire for regressive taxation policy and for confused infrastructure plans. Even within the party, there is a struggle for policy direction, and differences around key topics like carbon tax and reducing the national herd.

At the same time as environmental awareness is rising, institutions like the OECD and World Bank still believe in economic expansion, and seek to mitigate ecological disruption through technological solutions. Cracks in the system are beginning to appear as the realisation occurs that the dominant market power defended by these global organisations is necessarily challenged by ecological awareness and actions. Free-market capitalism has arrived, in disorienting fashion, at a crossroads.

Mainstream Environmentalism Lacking

Environmental politics in Ireland face a strong agricultural industry and a tax-averse populace. More troubling though is the political indifference that has emerged during this campaign. Lack of political will is the intractable barrier to sincere and concerted action on this fundamental issue. 

Inaction on climate crisis is simply bad economics. More-than-decade-old warnings, such as the UK Government’s 2006 Stern Review on the economics of climate change, have not been heeded. Predictions about coming economic conditions continue to worsen, and all informed commentators agree a tardy response to climate crisis will far outweigh the costs of prompt and decisive action.

Despite progress like the internationally leading Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill and innovative Citizens’ Assembly recommendations on climate action, Ireland is a poor performer in addressing EU and international ecological targets. The country is ranked low – and the worst in the EU – on the Climate Change Performance Index, which states that “near-term ambition needs to be ratcheted up quickly”

Successive governments are not doing enough on this, and continue to fudge key issues like agriculture and transport. While the current government has gone further than predecessors, it is nowhere near enough. The target of reducing carbon emissions by 2% per annum should be at least 10% for the likes of Ireland, the Science implies.

Nonetheless, General Election 2020’s party manifestos broadly represent more of the same: capitalism and incremental worsening of conditions. The major parties are wedded to market solutions and an economically-driven worldview. This is not adequate to the multiplying conjunctures of ecological crises.

Looking to the UK, Labour’s recent General Election manifesto was a proportionate response to ecological crisis, which built upon principles of social justice and a vision of a radical Green New Deal. With the emergence of UK Labour as a force for social and ecological justice in their recent General Election, the UK Greens lost their central identity, and thus their legitimacy as an electoral force. Notwithstanding adroit politicians like Catherine Lucas, the Greens in the UK have been consigned to a fate of making minor, tokenistic manoeuvres without the ability to effect real change in the UK’s political landscape.

In Ireland, however, the Greens still have a vital role to play. Indeed, Eamon Ryan asserts a strong agenda of ecological and climate action. At the same time, however, mainstream green politics are lacking teeth. Going forward, Ryan and his Greens must forcefully articulate a more radical, progressive environmentalism. This would supplant an environmentalism aimed at tackling individual patterns of consumption, which reproduces a neoliberal mindset. 

A legitimate fear surrounding this dominant form of environmentalism is that impoverished people will bear the brunt of the costs of climate action. According to Social Justice Ireland’s Election 2020 Briefing, rural Ireland – with its low rates of meaningful work, and access to services and infrastructure – is particularly at risk from regressive climate action. Under current proposals, rural areas and agricultural communities would be disproportionately impacted by low-carbon policies and the push for green jobs.

Conservative environmental policies also inform a media culture through which individuals become scapegoats for broader questions of responsibility. Primary labourers like farmers and  peat workers are at risk of losing income from such right-wing carbon economics, and in 2019’s well-publicised beef protests, farmers were personally attacked in what became a divisive media campaign. 

Such unsympathetic environmentalism aims to cause assimilation of guilt by individuals. Guilt becomes the chief experience of ecological problems – not the  ideal emotion from which to launch sincere action. This is a damaging kind of environmentalism that disparages the basic labour power that serves a fundamental role in society in favour of modish, carbon-reductivism.

Towards an Irish Ecosocialism?

Politics-as-usual does not face up to the challenges of the necessary radical economic transformation. Nor do politicians talk enough about the consequences of inaction. In this context, subsidising fossil fuels on a grand scale – as with the Public Service Obligation levy charged for electricity in Ireland – is bad economics.

On the other hand, proposals around ‘just transition’ and the Green New Deal represent a shrewder approach. Ireland needs to harness the energies driving international development of these policy platforms, and not just disingenuous or conservative versions of them. 

The demand for systemic transformation is necessarily an anti-capitalist one. Moderation of capitalism’s worst excesses, as in traditional Green politics’ progressive taxation and economic regulation, is not enough. Neither humans nor the whole pantheon of nonhumans inhabiting this planet can survive if the unfettered growth required by free market capitalism is allowed to continue.

Divisions between climate justice and social justice are not tackled by politicians who bring their market-based ideologies to the issue. Buying electric cars or retrofitting homes is a big cost to working people, and in a lot of cases indentures them further into financialised economics –  generating, for the longer-term, the opposite of the desired effect.

For some voters, the Greens lose a real claim to progressive legitimacy by refusing to present themselves as an anti-capitalist force. Instead, the Greens say they are against neoliberalism. There is pragmatism at play in this feebleness: the Greens harbour intentions to go into government, and need to retain negotiable policy directions.

On the other hand, Solidarity-People Before Profit calls for decarbonising the economy, green jobs and system change, not climate change. Their manifesto proposals tally with government climate policy on electrification and retrofitting, but move to more radical proposals on public ownership of energy, free public transport, and widespread reforestation. This is the kind of radicalism that needs to be catapulted to the forefront of the debate, but establishment media instead reverts to blaming individuals.

Ecosocialist economics reimagine the role of the state, with transport and housing investment taking place on a new scale that are also more energy efficient. 

Can present, market-based systems adapt to this challenge? This question remains undecided for many ordinary people.

For the moment, the political will required for a rudimentary transformation of Irish society does not exist on a considerable scale, and neither does the public appetite.

What may be needed first is a move beyond dominant green ecological thinking, towards a red ecology, a multicoloured, prismatic ecology.