Swans Commentary » swans.com November 19, 2007  



Whither Green Utopias
Journey To The Past Or Visions Of Future?


by Arnab Roy Chowdhury





(Swans - November 19, 2007)  Utopia is literally a "nowhere land," an ideal society in another place where liberty, equality, and justice prevails. A land beyond exploitation, war, poverty, and oppression. Utopias are generally extremely critical about the present situation of the society (Frankland, Barry, 2002). Utopic philosophies are recurrent in the course of history of ideas; they have resurfaced time and again in myriad of forms, in different ages. We have "Marxist utopia" as the most glaring example, which has the most pervasive influence in human history. Similarly we have green utopias, which is the topic of discussion of this paper.

"Green Utopias" or "Eco-topias" are model societies where man and nature exist in perfect harmony and interdependency. The eco-topist philosopher believes that there was an "ideal-type" condition in the past where actually this condition of perfect harmony prevailed, that is once they were "empirical reality" (Geus, 1999). Keeping ideal models of these societies intact in their mind, the "Green radicals," in a similar fashion as the "Marxist radicals," want to a create society where immaculate conditions will prevail.

Ecological politics burst out into the scene in late 1960s, a period when anarchism was revived as a major political ideology. The generation of 1960s was disenchanted with capitalist and Marxist ideas because of the debacles of these ideologies to find a proper solution for human misery and exploitation, and a proper direction for human happiness and emancipation. With the great economic depression of 1929 followed by the disasters of the Second World War and oppression by authoritarian Marxist regimes, this generation had lost everything, they wanted to go back in the nostalgic past, they wanted to live out of the "accelerated pace of history," they dreamt about their village their nature and their idyllic life which they once enjoyed, and they perceived that evilness of human greed for wealth and power has destroyed the nature and their life. This is the background from which green political thought has emerged.

The green politics in general has two approaches, one is more or less anthropocentric, shallow, less radical environmentalism; the other is deep, biocentric, radical ecologism. They both have their own utopias, the less radicals believe in an egalitarian society in harmony with nature, where nature definitely has an utilitarian existence; whereas the more radical proto-greens believe giving equal rights to man and other non-human biota, where nature has its own non-utilitarian intrinsic value. The form of Green movements that has developed in America, Australia, and Scandinavia, which are in fact developed capitalist countries, more or less depends upon the proto-green radical philosophy; whereas the environmental movements of the Third World countries, mostly poor and underdeveloped countries, depend upon the shallow ecological principles of environmental justice, where parity in distribution of the environmental resources is important, which goes hand in hand with the debate on sustainable development (Guha, 1997, 2000, 2006).

Both the radical and the shallow eco-political thought derives much of its inspiration from three lines of philosophies: Anarchism, Romanticism, and Deep-Ecologism, which are in fact similar in many ways. I will discuss them one by one.

Anarchism is mainly a French philosophy developed by Proudhon and Bakunin, and later by Peter Kroptokin. Murray Bookchin took Kroptokin's idea, gave it an ecological twist, and developed the school of "Social Ecology." Much of the environmental political thought comes from the eco-anarchists. The word anarchy derives from the Greek word "without rule," but without rule is not cognate with "without rules," so it would be wrong to equate "anarchy" with "chaos." Perfect anarchy is a condition of perfect political equality. The anarchists principally oppose the state and its coercive nature; they believe that a stateless society is both possible and preferable than a state-dominated one. Now a stateless society can very well be called a utopian society, but the very belief that once they existed lends the utopian label an empirical mooring (Light, 2002).

Romanticism was a literary and philosophical movement fuelled by the work of Rousseau in France, Goethe in Germany, and the poets Coleridge and Wordsworth in Britain. The Romanticists value creativity and liberty of individual experience and an authentic concern for unspoilt nature and rural tradition. The movement flourished in Western Europe and America from the 1750s to the 1870s. Its Individualism along with a melancholic appreciation of vanishing nature made Romanticism politically radical, and it can be seen as proto-green in linking these themes (Stephens, 2002).

Similarly, "Deep Ecology Movement" can be traced from an article written by Norwegian philosopher and environmental activist Arne Naess in 1973, entitled The Shallow and the Deep Ecology (long Range) Movement: A summary. Naess rejects the "Shallow Ecological" approach in favour of the latter and writes that the "Deep Ecology" is concerned with (a) rejection of man-in-environment image, in favour of relational total field image; (b) biospherical egalitarianism in principle; (c) Principle of Diversity and of Symbiosis (d) Anti-Class posture (e) Fight against pollution and resource depletion (f) Complexity not complication (g) Local Autonomy and Decentralisation (Barry, 2002). All these philosophies have strains of "deepness" and "shallowness" in them, they differ in their radicalism and they have different visions of Utopia.

Now, there is no problem with Utopias as such, in every society and every culture it exists in different forms, but myopic visions of the future often create problem en route achieving them. The shallow ecologists have been accused of political naiveté of populism and revival of right-wing anti-secular forces in India; because of their immediate material concern they have often formed uncomfortable alliances with communal forces, they are often reactionary in nature having no particular political ideology or even alternative visions of future and thus their movements become an end in and by itself. Critics say that their perfect image of oppressionless society in fact never existed in the history of human civilisation, and that's why they are utopias (Prasad, 2003, 2004). The radical "Deep-ecologists," have been accused of anti-human views, they have formulated an "eight point platform," in the fourth point of which they say, "the flourishing of human life and culture is compatible with a substantial decrease in the human population, while the flourishing of non-human life requires this decrease" (Barry, 2002); and in the eighth point they say, "those who subscribe to the above have an obligation to implement the necessary changes" (Barry, 2002), it can be clearly comprehended that there is an uncanny implication of extreme fascist ideology in these tenets. This means that they can go to any length to "implement the necessary changes" to reduce the human population and it can lead to another Nazi or a Marxist "holocaust" (Staudenmaier, 1995).

As I said there is no problem with utopia as such -- I admire dreams that give cause and reason to live, that push us towards achievement of better living conditions, happiness, and freedom, but these dreams should be adjustable. When a cause or reason becomes greater than itself and its goal becomes more important than its means, then the objective goal overpowers the human subject, initially for whose betterment the goal was formulated. Historical accounts of environmental loss should give us a warning signal that we should use our environment with prudence and not with profligacy (Guha, 2006); it is good as long as history acts as a teacher, but neither should it act as a commanding authority nor it should be used as a pretext of taking revenge. The past can certainly be a model that inspires us but the answer lies in the future, for which we have to workout amicably with our present resources.




Barry, John (2002) "Deep Ecology" in John Barry and Gene Frankland (ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Environmental Politics, London: USA: Canada Routledge.

Geus, M.A. de (1999), Ecological Utopias: Envisioning the Sustainable Society, International Books, Ultrecht.

Guha, Ramachandra (1997) Varieties of Environmentalism: Essays North and South (with Joan Martinez-Alier), Oxford University Press, India.

Guha, Ramachandra, (2000) Environmentalism: A global history, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

Guha, Ramachandra (2006) How Much Should a Person Consume? Thinking Through the Environment, University of California, Berkeley Press; Permanent Black, India.

Light, Andrew (2002), "Murray Bookchin" in John Barry and Gene Frankland (ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Environmental Politics, London: USA: Canada Routledge.

Prasad, Archana (2003) Against Ecological Romanticism: Verrier Elwin and the Making of an Anti-Modern Tribal Identity, Gurgaon, India Three Essays Collective.

Prasad, Archana (2004), Environmentalism and the Left, New Delhi Leftword Books

Staudenmaier, Peter (1995) "Fascist Ideology: The Green Wing of the Nazi Party and its Historical Antecedents" in Peter Staudenmaier and Janet Biehl (ed) Ecofascism; Lessons from German Experience, Edinburgh, Scotland

Stephens, Piers H.G.(2002) "Romanticism" in John Barry and Gene Frankland (ed.) International Encyclopaedia of Environmental Politics, London: USA: Canada Routledge.


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About the Author

Arnab Roy Chowdhury is a PhD student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences (HUSS) at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), in Delhi, India. He is doing his PhD on Environmental Sociology, focusing on the particular area of anti-dam movements.



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Published November 19, 2007