Environmentalists’ potential allies on the populist Right

Eureka Street
Eureka Street

DISCONTENT HAS REACHED AUSTRALIA. The brash anti-establishment populism of the Tea Party and Trump in the US, Brexit and UKIP in the UK and a menagerie of left and right parties in Europe has finally washed up on our shores.

It’s been coming for a while. Australia escaped the worst ravages of the Global Financial Crisis and was largely spared from the populist backlash that spread across Europe in the aftermath. But the historically high vote for protectionist independents in the federal election is a sign that we’re still caught up in these turbulent times.

So what’s driving this populism? Writing about Brexit, Trump and the fracturing of conservatism, academic Clive Hamilton has argued ‘the underlying issue is the widespread uneasiness many feel about the loss of control over their lives due to the forces of globalisation’.

He identified three broad concerns: the ubiquity, power and apparent impunity of transnational corporations; the ability of ‘global finance’ to wreak local economies (e.g. through the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs); and apparently uncontrollable immigration, which seems to jeopardise the social fabric of communities.

We can see concerns about the power of transnational corporations and the vagaries of the global marketplace in Donald Trump’s bellows about ripping up free trade agreements, or in the overwhelming support for Brexit among former manufacturing hubs in northern England.

Closer to home, we can see discontent with globalisation in Senator Nick Xenophon’s opportunistic protectionism, Bob Katter’s rejection of privatisation, and One Nation’s talk of ‘sovereignty’.

All of these are about reclaiming the local jobs and industries, not to mention the national identity, lost in the neoliberal phase of globalisation during the 1980s, when financial regulations, trade barriers and social welfare systems were swept aside with the rise of free market ideology.

For political elites, it’s terrifying — a slide into the nationalism and fascism that precipitated the Second World War. But it’s also worth asking if there are opportunities in the chaos, particularly for progressive causes that have withered under the stranglehold of the neoliberal agenda.

Take environmentalism as an example. At first glance, right-leaning populism might seem incompatible with the goals of protecting our natural wonders or acting on climate change. And yet what is most incompatible between environmentalism and right-wing worldviews is neoliberal economic theory — the belief in minimal government intervention, unfettered free trade and economic growth as the sole measure of human progress.

At its most basic level, the environmental movement is a criticism of rapacious industrial expansion. It asks awkward questions of neoliberal economics: Is endless economic growth really possible on a planet of limited material resources? As the juggernaut of the economy rolls on, how do we protect and preserve natural wonders in its path? Ultimately, environmentalism rejects the idea that progress can be measured in purely economic terms. It inserts moral, social and ecological arguments into the political discourse.

While this is anathema to neoliberal ideology, it overlaps with some concerns at the heart of right-leaning populism, which also injects moral and social arguments into what would otherwise be a purely economic debate. Right-leaning populism argues that global or even national economic growth is not an end itself, that free trade hasn’t benefited everyone and that increased immigration and multiculturalism aren’t always wanted. Like modern environmentalism, it asks awkward questions of neoliberal economics: What has been lost in the great globalisation project? How do we protect and preserve aspects of our society from the side effects of more open global trade?

Given these overlaps, it’s possible to see left-leaning environmentalists and right-leaning populists working towards the same goals for different reasons. The opposition to coal seam gas mining in the Lock the Gate movement, for example, shows how unlikely allies can find common ground.

So what draws right-leaning populists to environmental causes? The answer is often ‘sovereignty’, in this case expressed as asserting control over natural resources. There’s a belief that individual farmers should have a right to the water under their properties, and nation states should be able to control their land, air and water. The opposition to some free trade agreements and foreign ownership of agricultural land is another expression of this emphasis on sovereignty.

All of this could play well for environment groups, which are concerned about aspects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal. The TPP includes Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, which Friends of the Earth argues would ‘give foreign corporations the ability to sue our government if they believe environmental, public health and other policies affect their expected future profits or are a barrier to trade’.

There’s a precedent here — as Naomi Klein documents in her book This Changes Everything, several government renewable energy programs have been challenged under international trade deals because their encouragement of local manufacturing is considered protectionist. This is exactly the kind of impingement of sovereignty that gets right-leaning populists so riled up, making them potential allies against the TPP.

But there are many pitfalls, too. While these populists might want to smash the current global architecture of trade, they don’t end there — they also want to undo many other global agreements, including those relating to environmental protection. Trump, for example, has said he would have the US pull out of the Paris climate agreement. The UKIP, which campaigned strongly for Brexit, has anti-renewables policies and links to prominent climate sceptics.

To hard-right conspiracy theorists, the United Nations is a socialist plot to create an eco-totalitarian New World Order. Some populist parties regurgitate these crackpot theories in the media, giving credence to nonsense. Malcolm Roberts, a Senate candidate for Australia’s One Nation, is a project leader of climate denial front group the Galileo Movement and believes the objective of climate change is ‘global control through global socialist governance by international bankers‘ (pdf). Again, it’s really about sovereignty.

There’s more scope for collaboration with the moderate ‘centre’ populists like Australia’s Nick Xenophon Team, which have a protectionist bent without spouting climate denialism or United Nations conspiracy theories.

This shift in politics is frightening, but it has a silver lining. The neoliberal right is losing political power to the populist right, which isn’t filled with the same ideological zeal for free-market capitalism. Suddenly debates can expand beyond the narrow confines of economic growth. Moral and social arguments won’t be relegated to the intellectual fringes anymore. Mainstream parties of the left and right, both of which bought into the neoliberal agenda, will have to break their bipartisan dismissal of discontent with the side effects of globalisation.

Are we entering a new dark age — that much-feared slide into ignorance and facism? Or is this an opportunity for governments to claw back some power and self-respect lost during neoliberal economic reforms? As politics reshapes itself, can nation states regain their appetite for the regulations and interventions needed to solve the climate change crisis?

It’s scary, unpredictable and dangerous. But neoliberalism was a dead end for our environment, and at least we’re heading somewhere new.