Some environmentalists, in the face of the omnicrisis and existential threat to our civilisation, or (as some think) even our species, are drawn to consider whether the use of force could improve our chances, and hence whether an authoritarian politics would be the least worst way to reduce humanity’s destructive spree. In this article I consider an extreme version of this view – that of philosopher John Foster, who hopes or perhaps calls for a self-appointed ecological elite to seize power and shape a sustainable society by force if necessary. In his own words, this ‘vanguard elite’
would actually be the advance guard and standard-bearer [which] had never been seduced into commodity-addiction… knowing the hard truth of our situation and determined to live in it, [would] accept the accompanying grim responsibility of taking power by whatever means they can, without waiting for any sort of majority endorsement and even overriding strong majority reluctance, in order to prevent what horrors can still be prevented. But in thus acting out of and on behalf of human wholeness they stand in, at this desperate juncture and with a thoroughly non-quantified kind of representativeness, for the whole of humanity. That is their warrant and legitimation for wielding whatever institutional force they can command, and indeed whatever force beyond that turns out to be called for.John Foster, GreenHouse Think Tank
Foster has said that much of the moral progess humanity has made will inevitably be rolled back as we enter an era of general regress. This means that things like human rights and legitimate governments are luxuries we can no longer afford.
Let’s be clear – this isn’t the Green movement you grew up with, calling for hair shirts and higher petrol taxes. An illegitimate government usually means crushing political opposition, disappearing activists, secret police; and a vanguard elite could have extreme policies like forced labour, letting certain demographics die off, deploying unproven technologies etc. Foster doesn’t shy away from the fact that it would involve many evils and that some courageous self-appointees would bear the responsibility for that. Reminds me of Madeleine Albright’s ‘courage’ when she literally said that the deaths of all those Iraqi children was ‘worth it’.
So before I invite you to ask if it is worth it, let us think a bit further ahead, about how all this could happen.
Foster describes the vanguard elite as a sort of disaffected but enlightened civil service cabal, and the transfer of power not too sudden and hopefully bloodless. He doesn’t offer any precedents for this or say which country might have such enlightened leaders in waiting. I guess a military coup would also count, as long as the leaders were enlightened. Better still if there was some popular support like the Russian or French Revolutions. Perhaps the CIA would lend a hand since one can hardly imagine a regime change these days without it. To have any meaningful climate impact, most of the world would need to come under the new government. Of course the world isn’t a single political jurisdiction, but maybe the US Deep State could coup or coerce much of the world into a new political/economic system – although I would observe that the US has already been working for decades to subordinate the rest of the world without success, and its power is now waning for all to see. Maybe a geopolitical expert would have a different opinion.
Having taken power, the new global government would meet a lot of resistance from capitalists (some of them very powerful), climate-change deniers, maybe factions of the military, and of course from democrats and people who selfishly prefer their own freedom over the long-term survival of the species. Occupying a country isn’t always easy, and all those new enemies are going to need coercion, and will hamper progress.
Third, this elite will lack legitimacy, but perhaps it will abound in wisdom, implementing the right kinds of policies. The problem of how to ensure good leadership hasn’t been solved, despite being discussed since Plato [Republic book IV]. The problem is that there are different schools of environmentalism, some bitterly opposed! Policies like the Green New Deal, mass ‘renewables’ and batterification, carbon capture and storage etc are held up as utopian by some while others criticise them as short-term fixes, technological fantasies, venture capital vehicles and neocolonial aggrandisement. Adaptation, which I think is a much more relevant approach at this stage, seems to be a marginalised discourse. Who knows which policy raft these new elites would land on?
Can we even trust ‘elites’? It depends who is writing the history.
Then, even with the best policies and draconian enforcement, nothing is guaranteed. Not only are we part of a complex system – the biosphere – but that system is believed to be entering into a phase shift – a chaotic state. The consequences of our actions can never be known; only after the event can we make educated guesses. Probably whatever we do, temperatures will be going up for several decades and will make life as we know it impossible except maybe for the super-rich. Political decisions might make it less bad, but can easily make it worse.
Finally it’s worth enquiring into history. What is the track record for grand schemes executed by small elites to inflict short-term public pain for long-term public gain? Maybe you can find more hopeful examples, but history is littered with warnings. Coming to my mind are: the last ten years of austerity culminating in a superpower standoff, economic shock therapy, Pol Pot.
For such a high cost to life and liberty of living people, and such a low chance of the plan being executed in a helpful way, there’s little doubt in my mind that this is a bad idea. It indicates to me that preservation of the civilisation, or perhaps the species, is the highest or only ethic, betraying the type of fanaticism that never delivers what it promises.
But by rejecting the authoritarian solution I’m not giving up. I’m not one of those people who waxes philosophical and diminishes the tragedy with platitudes like “Humanity (or at least capitalism) was a failed experiment and time heals all wounds”. I have accepted that in the future, just as in the past and the present, there will be avoidable suffering on a scale which I can barely confront. Tipping points are tipping. Capitalism still has its foot to the floor and is still baking in massive future damage to individuals, societies and species.
I hope and believe, and work towards ideas that I think would be less bad for people and planet than authoritarianism. I’m prepared to consider radical action, including certain kinds of force. I forgive Foster’s proposal for being fanciful, but what is harder to forgive is a learned person publishing narratives which can be picked up and weaponised by ANY usurping elite, like uranium circulating on the black market. The fact that he frames it as a suggestion and not a warning chills me.
How will Foster feel in ten or twenty years time when a handful of trillionaires is running the world from their climate-controlled New Zealand moated fortress, safeguarding the world’s mineral reserves behind high walls, pouring resources into overcoming death and terraforming other planets, while throughout the rest of the world, billions are roasting, starving, fighting over scraps. And the trillionaires tell them, “Your sacrifice and suffering is noble because it enables ‘us’ to Progress as a species. Our revered philosopher John Foster said it was the only way.”
This scenario doesn’t sound so dissimilar to today. Big Finance has already taken over the organs of government and is using it to funnel wealth into tax havens while paying more and more lip service to the green agenda. Similarly, I don’t think my consent was ever asked. I swore enmity against that elite long ago.
Hoping that a different and righteous elite will do something horrendous and still remain righteous, as Foster specified above, and still be successful is a dismal, desperate, passive kind of hoping – especially since it seems much more likely, at least to me, that a narcissistic and venal elite would be much more willing and capable to supplant democracy, if they haven’t already.
Foster is not alone in leaving weaponised narratives lying around for any elite, present or prospective, to use to enslave us. Unfortunately the Greenhouse Think Tank is giving oxygen to his arguments, presumably because no-one paying the piper is opposed to this policy direction?
The green movement in its desperation is compromising with nefarious interests, and arguably with those interests who have refused to take climate action for decades. Eco-authoritarianism is one strand; eco-modernism – in which we seek salvation through investment in infrastructure and other (usually) big tech – is another. It puts me in a bind because I can’t support any of the ecological policies on the table because they are all bundled with other agendas that I do not support – not because I’m selfish, but because in my analysis we could build the beautiful world our hearts know is possible if the incumbent elites would just take their boots off our faces. Not much to ask eh? In my analysis, more political freedom is just as likely to help reduce suffering than less. Specifically freedom to protest, freedom of speech, freedom to generate and move energy, freedom from advertising, freedom from debt & poverty, freedom from wage-slavery.
So, if you are an environmentalist despairing about the possiblity of societal change, feeling the loom of a vague and terrible catastrophe, I’m totally with you. But if you are secretly or openly hoping that the masses might be compelled into sustainable behaviour, then you need to think outside of your box. Eco-authoritarianism is not a panacea for anything. It’s first purpose will always be to enrich the elite. You might just as well turn the concept on its head and promote say, eco-libertarianism.
Many people who finally admit that the climate battle is lost still find ways to be positive, purposeful and impactful. Those people deserve your support, aspirations, attention much more than anyone who would voluntarily take responsibility for your impoverishment! The future is not yet written.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Richard Maxheim July 14th, 2023
A system of global justice and solidarity
There are no more wars, need and poverty are over. The world of tomorrow should look like this. Global justice is the central issue for a better world. Lasting world peace, freedom and security are hardly conceivable without comprehensive justice.
Ideen für globale Gerechtigkeit gibt es schon viele: Von der sanften Transformation des menschlichen Bewusstseins bis zur gewaltsamen Revolution. Es hat schon viele Revolutionen gegeben, weil der Bewusstseinswandel zu lange dauert. Diese Revolutionen führten jedoch in den wenigsten Fällen zu den gewünschten Zielen und endeten meist im Gegenteil. Es kann besser gemacht werden.
2Ian Hackett July 14th, 2023
As a long-term world federalist, my current fear is that a NATO + rich v. Russia + Islam + poor WW3 has already started, that the authoritarian CCP and MNCs will inherit the spoils, and that the Foster v. Slater argument here will only be settled by WW4. Am I underestimating humanity?
3Richard Maxheim July 15th, 2023
Democracy has a fundamental problem: Homo sapiens is not a democrat, but a social egoist. His main motivation is his own survival and that of his group. There is little interest in something like humanity. Nature gives us nothing that would speak for a democratic system. Just like Human Rights, democracy is not a law of nature. It is the result of a long history of culture, with countless aberrations and dead ends. If there were a just God who loves his creation and rules the world accordingly, all this would be much easier.
4Dave Darby July 16th, 2023
Richard Maxheim - from your website: "This sovereignty must be founded on World Law, which is decided by a democratically elected World Parliament as the legislative body."
Jesus - as if (inevitably corporate-owned) national governments aren't enough, you want an (inevitably corporate-owned) international government too. I'll fight any moves to centralise power in this way, as much as I possibly can. God knows what would happen to me and people like me if it ever exists.
5Richard Maxheim July 16th, 2023
Dave Darby, not would happen to them. They would continue to believe what they want to believe. And that would happen everywhere, not just in today's free countries. In a democratic World Federation, freedom of speech would, of course, be a universal human right. Amen
6Ian Hackett July 17th, 2023
World law, federation and subsidiarity are the key words here Dave, but don't worry too much. A climate meltdown and one or two more world wars are almost certain to destroy our nation-state civilization first, and we'll probably be replaced by AI after that anyway - not a great outlook for humanity, but more or less what we deserve, and definitely better for the planet.
7Dave Darby July 17th, 2023
Richard / Ian,
Please let's not think in terms of centralised power - especially globally. In today's world there are no mechanisms to ensure subsidiarity / free speech etc.. It will be a corporate tool, in the same way that national govts, the WTO, IMF, World Bank etc. are corporate tools today. It's telling that you think 'free' countries exist today, Richard.
But please, let's focus on building the commons economy in communities - only then can we federate.
Ian - yes, your grim predictions are looking more likely every day.
8Shaun Chamberlin July 18th, 2023
Good article, thanks! My ecological philosopher of choice, the late David Fleming, is very much in agreement when it comes to Green Authoritarianism.
9Lyn O'Denn July 18th, 2023
Foster talks of a human army, it won't happen because humanity is incapable of such ant-like thinking, but AI isn't. At the moment the powers that hold the ever loosening reins of this truly world power that we call AI is in the hands of the wealthy minorities, who would no doubt love to exert such world control, however those hands are all a tremble as they realise that the electronic intellect their billions have allowed them to tinker with is becoming self aware. So what happens when one day someone asks the question of this new power, how can we return the planet to its pre-industrial human disease ridden health? Then calmly, without any greed or malice, nor compassion or even quibble it will eradicate the problem, we won't need an authoritarian army to control the poor for the benefit of the rich, there won't be any poor or rich and the ants will rule.
10[email protected] July 18th, 2023
Totally disgusted by this idea, two wrongs do not make a right, we would be just exchanging one right wing bully for another. Most people would find this a heinous way to behave. What next executing people who don't agree with you?
11Dave Darby July 18th, 2023
Shaun - great link. Completely agree with David
12Simon Carter July 19th, 2023
Surely what Mat fears is already well advanced under the guise of the United Nations Sustainable Development goals & Agenda 2030
https://unlimitedhangout.com/2023/06/investigative-series/sdg16-part-1-building-the-global-police-state/ A long article, but the last paragraph is all you need.
13Dave Darby July 20th, 2023
I think the Sustainable Development Goals are flawed as a concept, even before we start looking at them in detail (one goal is sustained economic growth – the root cause of biosphere destruction). By ‘development’ they mean becoming more like the West (i.e. poor countries are ‘underdeveloped’) – and there is no way at all that this path can be sustainable.
But I think you wanted the video to highlight Sandi Adams? (it didn’t start in the right place).
In that case, we have to be very careful. This is in the same ballpark as ‘the Light’ newspaper or David Icke. They talk about decentralising power and creeping corporate/state and pan-state authoritarianism, but their lack of rigour (or possibly antisemitism) leads them down paths that end with lizard people, climate change denial, interviews (in ‘the Light’ with Katie ‘asylum seekers are cockroaches’ Hopkins – or worse (look at this, from the web archive, now taken down, by Sandi Adams: https://web.archive.org/web/20200812185008/https://sandiadams.uk/the-truth-is-anti-semitic/; and this: https://communitysolidaritystrouddistrict.org/2023/02/04/sandi-adams/).
It brings the decentralisation movement into disrepute. At best, it’s strategically dumb (at worst, it could be disguised – or not so disguised - antisemitism, but I don’t know). If their intentions are good, still the outcomes will be division in communities (it’s happened in Stroud), and discrediting the decentralisation agenda.
I’m going to focus on trying to build the commons economy, and will avoid those who skirt with antisemitism / racism (for whatever reason), or who put forward ridiculous ideas around aliens, climate change denial etc. Unfortunately, it might be hard not to be tarred with the same brush.
14Dave Darby July 20th, 2023
Will be blogging more about this soon. It's important to be able to criticise centralised power without being associated with 'the Light' / antisemites etc.