A Spectrum of Green Politics
The Biden Administration’s recent approval of the Willow Project, an oil drilling project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, shocked and outraged progressives and environmentalists across the country. To some, President Biden’s decision may have seemed out of character; after all, he is a Democrat with a few progressive environmental policies in his back pocket. However, whatever shade of Blue or Red that a politician identifies as does not indicate what shade of Green their policies are. What’s key to understand as we, as a nation and as a global society, move through a time of climate crisis and reckon with its implications is that environmental politics and policy represent a spectrum as much as any other type of public policy. In this blog post, I’ll talk about what this spectrum of green politics looks like, how it is applied, and why it’s critical to understand.
The terminology surrounding the spectrum of green politics does not seem to be universally accepted at this stage, as definitions and terms are subject to change depending on where you are in the world and who you are asking. I will be contextualizing the spectrum of green politics as a range from light to medium to dark green. It’s important to not consider this spectrum as a measure of good vs bad but instead as a measure of extremes. All environmental policies and ideologies fit somewhere along this spectrum. Let’s begin in the shade of green that most mainstream political perspectives operate in today: light green politics.
Light green policies and politics are reformist, meaning that goals are accomplished through gradual advancement within an existing system rather than in abolition or revolution. Additionally, light green policies embody the strength and power of the individual in lieu of the collective. They prioritize meeting human needs in ways that minimize harm to the environment. Most mainstream political perspectives, including liberalism, socialism, and conservatism, operate within the realm of light green politics because they stem from beliefs that separate human beings from nature. These light green political beliefs are also alike in viewing nature either as a force to be conquered or as a pool of unlimited resources. In other words, these mainstream political perspectives all share an anthropocentric worldview. Two great examples of light green policies are the conservation of natural resources for continued usage and “sustainable development”.
The next scope to consider on the scale of green politics are medium green policies and practices which draw on Indigenous customs, knowledge, and ways of understanding the world. Instead of viewing the world from anthropocentric or biocentric lenses, medium green outlooks recognize the symbiotic relationship and interdependency between homosapiens and all other forms of life. There is no line drawn between the two. Humans (and the social structures that they create) are recognized as a part of nature. These understandings materialize in green policies that benefit all living beings collectively. Both the Indigenous-led Landback movement and Indigenous land management practices serve as great examples of medium green policies.
Finally, we arrive at the dark green scope of the spectrum of green politics. Dark green politics stem from radical roots in biocentrism, which is the ethical framework that the rights and needs of humans are not more important than those of other living things. Examples include rolling back development and extending protections of nature in its “raw” and “wild” form, but also things like population control and eugenics. The limitations of dark green policies are numerous as they often engage in spaces where Indigenous existence, experience, and history is ignored.
The Intersection of Green and American Politics
As stated previously, modern American green politics mostly exist within the light green scope of environmental politics. For example, Texas’ “Don’t Mess With Texas” anti-littering campaign, which has been running since 1985, works to empower Texans to reduce litter and channels nationalism into a sense of responsibility. This campaign, which has an annual budget of 2.1 million dollars, calls upon individuals to discard waste properly but does not address the root causes of waste or issues of waste management. We also have light green policies like Newsom’s plan to phase out gasoline-powered cars for electric vehicles.
In the way that light green policies can be unproductive, dark green policies can be dangerous, especially when environmentalism and right-wing beliefs align. In El Paso, Texas, in 2019, a mass shooting left 20 people dead and wounded more than 20 others. The shooter left behind a manifesto stating “The decimation of the environment is becoming a massive burden for future generations. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable”. This is an extreme example of conservative, anti-immigrant environmentalism that primarily places responsibility on individuals, specifically people of color in the El Paso shooting’s case, to resolve he climate crisis. Furthermore, eco-facism strains may be growing today as a form of right-wing, dark green politics, but eco-facism also has a long history that we must acknowledge to understand how we got here. For example, the eugenics craze, which stretched from the 1890s to the 1940s, falls under the umbrella of dark green, right-wing policies as the Progressives (progressive by this era’s standards) were trying to prevent the genetically “inferior” from having children in an effort to control the population. Clearly, dark green policies can get really dangerous really quickly, and we can learn two main things from these realities. First, dark green and light green are not inherently good or bad. Instead they represent two extremes of political thought. And second, environmental policies are not always left-leaning.
To support my argument that environmental policies are not always left-leaning, we can take a closer look at the Biden Administration’s approval of the Willow Project (because liberals can operate in conservative environmental territory as well). On March 13, 2023, The Biden Administration approved the ConocoPhillips Willow Project in Alaska. ConocoPhillips is one of the world’s largest independent exploration and production companies based on oil reserves and production of fossil fuels and natural gas. They are also Alaska’s largest crude oil producer and the only company that is currently drilling in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The Willow Project was initially approved by the Trump Administration, but the Biden Administration inherited the privilege of carrying out the project and ultimately decided to approve the highly-protested plan on a number of grounds. For example, expanding drilling within U.S. territory would reduce reliance on exported fossil fuels and provide more jobs. But perhaps the most impactful argument was that ConocoPhillips already had existing leases in the area. As Alaskan Senator Murkowski put it, “there was no way around the fact that these were valid existing lease rights”. The fact that the decision made by the Biden Administration was made on legal grounds, not environmental grounds, is telling enough. Ultimately, androcentric environmental decisions can be made by conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between.
It’s clear that light green environmental policies aren’t enough for us but dark green policies represent a threat to human rights across the nation and globe. However, it’s also important to note that although there are extremes on either end of the spectrum, light green policies are not inherently good or bad and neither are dark green policies. So it’s not truly about good or bad but instead, what’s best for our future. What’s needed is to find a medium, or a mix, that supports the growth of all life and also takes the environmental crisis seriously. What’s needed is to listen and uplift the voices of Indigenous peoples who have been stewarding the land respectfully and sustainably for thousands of years and who are calling for reforms to our flawed ways of interacting with the environment. Now that we can understand how to critique and interpret environmental policy, we can advocate for the policies that will serve all living beings moving forward.
- “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Jan. 2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_Mess_with_Texas.
- “Green Politics.” Encyclopedia.com, Encyclopedia.com, https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/green-politics.
- Ludwig, Hayden. “A Darker Shade of Green: Environmentalism’s Origins in Eugenics.” Capital Research Center, Capital Research Center, 7 Dec. 2018, https://capitalresearch.org/article/a-darker-shade-of-green-environmentalisms-origins-in-eugenics/.
- Nilsen, Ella. “The Willow Project Has Been Approved. Here’s What to Know about the Controversial Oil-Drilling Venture.” CNN, CNN Politics, 14 Mar. 2023, https://www.cnn.com/2023/03/14/politics/willow-project-oil-alaska-explained-climate/index.html.
- Shapiro, Ari, et al. “The Far-Right and Environmentalism Overlap Is Bigger than You Think – and Growing.” NPR, NPR, 1 Apr. 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/04/01/1089990539/climate-change-politics.