The UK general election in May effected a further rightward shift in politics. Similar trends can be seen elsewhere in Europe. In a time of economic and environmental crisis the ensuing right-wing policies look set to head in exactly the wrong direction and thereby exacerbate the problems. I think it’s useful to recognise that both the impulse and the consequences of right-wing politics are deeply rooted in ecology.
Labour voters switched to UKIP, Lib Dem voters to the Conservatives, and Scots voted for the SNP. The SNP may espouse left-wing economics, but surely to vote nationalist reflects a right-wing impulse too. That is, to defend the interests of yourself, your family, your tribe at the expense of anyone or anything that seems different enough from you to provide some basis for denying them resources and opportunities. Maybe they speak a different language, have a different complexion, wear different clothes, don’t have any money, do ride bicycles; whatever. Maybe they’re not even human: maybe they’re badgers or foxes – or trees – or rivers – or green fields that haven’t yet become housing estates.
If we pursue right-wing policies, one way or another we end up driving people into poverty, abusing power, wrecking the environment, persecuting anyone or anything that won’t fit in with the convenience of the rich and the powerful. Science fiction has rung the changes on the different kinds of dystopia that can ensue, from the authoritarian state of Nineteen Eighty-Four to the laissez-faire Sprawl of William Gibson’s cyberpunk and the vicious pursuit of business as usual in the midst of ecocatastrophe in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Lately, my students have been obsessed with the spate of teen dystopias epitomised by The Hunger Games (pictured). At the same time, they seem more pessimistic about the future than my generation at their age. I fear that many of them believe in the inevitability of dystopia because they’ve inhaled since birth the neoliberal dogma of ‘no alternative’. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the world’s a tough place, so right-wing policies are an unfortunate necessity, which make the world yet tougher, and so it goes till we’ve trashed our environment and are murdering each other. It’s not just science fiction; my parents’ generation are the last witnesses to exactly this cycle of destruction and murder in the World War of 1914 to 1945.
There are two main reasons why I think all this is ecologically rooted. First, our impulse to look out for ourselves, our family, our tribe is biologically embedded by our evolution. It’s not the whole story of evolution, but it’s an important part of it: human beings are hardwired with a right-wing instinct. The second thing is that if we uncompromisingly pursue our material self-interest, then at some point, at some scale – and this has happened countless times in history – we exhaust our environment’s resources and our population will be culled by famine, disease, and war. The right-wing ideological response is that you can’t change human nature, you just have to accept the way things are, and compete to survive; there’s no alternative. But if you think human beings have the capacity to be better than that, if you don’t want the world to sink into ever worse dystopia, then there has to be an alternative and it has to be worked for. One way to start is by endorsing politicians and parties that appeal to ethical principles rather than narrow self-interest.