I used to be New Labour to my core. But lethargic progressive politics has no answer to the climate crisis

When every single day counts for saving the planet, there can be no place for slow debate and the protracted parliamentary and electoral timetables so beloved of progressives

Adam Lent
Wednesday 28 August 2019 10:09
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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to change the way we talk about climate change

Apart from a dalliance with Marxism in my student days, I have been a progressive my whole life. I was an enthusiastic supporter and member of the Labour Party during the New Labour years (sorely challenged admittedly by the Iraq War). The coalition government inspired mixed feelings rather than outright hostility and I have been deeply fearful of the rise of extremist ideology on both the left and the right of British and global politics.

But the news this week that the Amazon rainforest is burning has made me realise, after many months of self-doubt, that the time for my chosen political perspective has now well and truly passed.

Three factors have led me to my conclusion.

First, in the face of accelerating climate change, the progressive mindset seems, frankly, irrelevant. Being incremental, consensual and ever-so sensible strikes me as a total mismatch with the urgency and desperately high stakes of the climate crisis.

If the citizens of Pompeii had been forewarned of volcanic eruption, I hope I would not have been standing with those calling for careful research and the construction of society-wide coalitions before action was taken. The razing of the rainforest, shamefully late I admit, has been my Pompeii moment.

Second, there is the fact that the world now faces a criminal political force that requires an aggressive response alien to the tamer mindset of progressives.

People like Trump, Bolsonaro, Farage and Salvini would, in most other circumstances, be almost mundane. History is littered with narcissistic authoritarians who use hard economic times to lie, cheat and bully their way to power. Usually they cause various degrees of suffering before they are dealt with.

But this time it’s different. With their clear willingness to take action that is exacerbating the likelihood and severity of global warming, this particular bunch of authoritarians are uniquely dangerous. Trump and his acolytes are going beyond the autocratic taste for crimes against humanity to commit a crime against a whole ecosystem. In short, authoritarianism this time round threatens the future of the human race and millions of other species.

Again it is the burning rainforest, with its multiple self-reinforcing climate impacts, that has brought this fact home to me more starkly than the other destructive acts of this malign network.

In the face of such historic criminality and when every single day counts for saving the planet, there can be no place for the slow debate and protracted parliamentary and electoral timetables so beloved of progressives.

My final point is more complex and controversial. It would take more than a handful of paragraphs to describe in full. So I will just state baldly that I now doubt the idea at the very heart of the progressive project: progress itself. This doubt deepened when I saw the self-destructive idiocy being committed in Brazil.

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I accept that great strides have been made over the last 250 years to create a much more wealthy and healthy global population. However, I am now convinced that that progress has been bought at an enormous and unjustifiable cost.

Technology has enslaved and destroyed as much as it has liberated and enlivened in multiple ways. Most worryingly (although bizarrely the world seems to have stopped worrying), we now possess weapons that can eradicate all complex life at the touch of a few buttons. And fundamentally, of course, we have polluted our planet to such an extent that we are on the brink of undoing what achievements have been made.

None of that sounds to me like real progress. Believing otherwise is only possible when one suppresses troubling thoughts about the current fragile state of humanity and the planet we occupy.

Of course, the belief in human progress is hardly unique to progressives. In fact, it is an unspoken and deeply embedded assumption across the whole political spectrum from far left to far right. But progressives tend to have a particularly Panglossian perspective believing inherently that benign state action combined with an entrepreneurial population will ensure the onward march of humanity for time immemorial.

That optimism leaves them particularly unquestioning of the values that underlie the industrial society that has got humanity into the mess it currently faces.

So my time as a progressive has come to an end. I am instead convinced that we need to fight back with all the non-violent resources and methods we have against the climate criminals now controlling some of our most powerful nations.

But we also need to rapidly develop a new politics that has climate at its heart and is rigorous about refocusing society on goals that don’t encourage the destruction of our environment. I don’t see such a politics emerging anywhere in the UK’s main political parties. It is absent even within the supposedly radical Labour Party.

For all the main parties, climate is just a discrete policy area playing second fiddle to another issue they each see as the real priority. While the lungs of the world go up in smoke, it is an approach that reeks of a fatal and irresponsible complacency.

Only one political force now gives me hope: the rise of direct action movements such as the school climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion. They alone seem to have grasped the necessary sense of urgency and the need for radical change that this historical and ecological moment demands. It is to them, not the self-designated progressives, that I now look for genuine progress.

Adam Lent was formerly head of economics at the TUC and formerly director of programme at the Royal Society for the Arts. He writes here in a personal capacity. The article was originally posted on Medium

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