What is a Green Party?
Updated: Dec 6, 2021
“The principal defect of the industrial way of life,” wrote a group of British environmental scientists in 1972 for The Ecologist, “is that it is not sustainable. Its termination within the lifetime of someone born today is inevitable—unless it continues to be sustained by an entrenched minority at the cost of imposing great suffering on the rest of mankind.”
These prescient words, written long before the terms “global warming” or “climate change” were coined, came when the New Left movement of the 1960s made its first strides in politics. Responding in part to the failures of previous socialist movements, the New Left sought to address environmental degradation and colonization. Its proponents suggested a reinterpretation of not only the relationships between different classes of humans but between humans and the planet.
When New Left activists entered politics, they often did so through Green parties. In 2001, adolescent Green parties from over 72 countries signed the Global Greens Charter in Canberra Australia. From then on, Green parties shared not only a name and color scheme but six core values: ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, nonviolence, sustainability, and respect for diversity. Still, Green parties vary tremendously from country to country in how they put these values into practice. There are conservative Greens, socialist Greens, anarchist Greens, and everything in between. Some fit in neat categories on the ideological spectrum—many do not. What, then, is a Green party? What function do they serve? Often, Greens are either “pragmatic” centrists, or committed to some other ideological cause. To realize their full potential, Green parties need to embrace their uniqueness and their New Left roots.
No Green party has ever been popular enough to lead a government, but several have been part of governing coalitions, as in Germany, Austria, and Finland. These parties are often “non-ideological,” or willing to subordinate ideology to the end of “greening” the agendas of the larger parties they form coalitions with. The German Greens, having won 15 percent of the vote in the German federal elections in September, will likely be part of a coalition government. With a chance to name the finance minister, their moderate stance may have won them enough voters to make Germany much more progressive with regard to climate change. The Austrian Greens, in a coalition government with the right-wing Austrian People’s Party, helped push an agenda of tax cuts, immigration restrictions, and ambitious climate targets.
"Often, Greens are either “pragmatic” centrists, or committed to some other ideological cause. To realize their full potential, Green parties need to embrace their uniqueness and their New Left roots."
But the appropriate response to the climate crisis cannot be understood non-ideologically. Emissions reductions are only one part of a broad set of necessary changes that the Austrian Greens’ agenda seems to work against: Bolstering corporate profits with tax cuts will only lead to more resource extraction projects (the OMV group, an oil and gas company, is Austria’s highest valued company), thus harming the environment. Restricting immigration will have profound implications for global human rights when large groups of climate refugees move to higher ground. Many on the left would argue that centrism or conservatism negates one’s “green credentials.” Given the deep roots of the climate crisis in economies built on infinite growth and resource extraction, it is clear that its solution extends beyond a few technocratic policy fixes. They are absolutely correct that climate justice is inseparable from racial, economic, and social justice.
For that very reason, some Green parties focus on the climate crisis as a vehicle to promote broader ideological goals. The Green parties of Egypt and Portugal, among others, are avowedly ecosocialist. They view climate action as irreconcilable with capitalist production and present an alternative based on state intervention. Conversely, the Mexican Greens have taken conservative positions, opposing same-sex marriage and supporting the death penalty, yet they are also part of an ecological tradition that associates decadent modernity with environmental destruction and thus supports a kind of regressive “ecofascism.”
Even more Green parties are consigned to irrelevance in byzantine electoral systems. The United States’s two-party system bars the American Greens from any power, such that their greatest influence on politics (even more than introducing the idea of a Green New Deal) was splitting the vote in the 2000 US presidential election, allowing former President George Bush to win Florida. On the bright side, without the burden of electoral potential, the American Greens are not afraid to openly espouse a “communalist” ideology reminiscent of the movement’s New Left roots.
The Canadian Greens, stifled by the country’s first-past-the-post system, have at times desperately staked out their position on the Canadian political landscape with slogans like “Not left, not right, forward.” The ideological divide between “pragmatic” centrists and ecosocialists have contributed to internal turmoil that has badly damaged the party. Many on the Canadian left have questioned the necessity of a Green party, given the existence of other left-wing parties with “credible” climate plans.
The short answer is yes — Green parties are still necessary, even when there are other parties that oppose capitalism as the principal cause of the climate crisis. A socialist party is not a substitute for a Green party; socialist regimes have approached the environment with the same human-centered arrogance as their capitalist rivals. Even in recent years, as the climate crisis becomes a key issue for left-wing voters, social-democratic and labor parties such as those in Norway are refusing to cut ties with the fossil fuel industry.
Ideologies are frameworks for understanding the world based on the prevailing political issues of the time. It is really worth asking whether or not eighteenth and nineteenth century ideologies are adequate for the twenty-first century or its problems. Just look at the generational divide between Germany’s left-wing parties: The world’s oldest and most successful Green party appeals to young progressives who are disenchanted with traditional political parties.
At their best, Green parties embody fundamentally different values and ideas from other parties, left or right. As a legacy of mid-twentieth century protest movements, their existence is based on the inadequacy of modern ideology to solve the problems of postmodernity. Their reach is not limited to solving one crisis; rather, Green parties strive to reconcile a society built on infinite consumption with a generous but ultimately finite planet. “Non-ideological” Greens have lost this, viewing Green politics as a pragmatic solution to a single crisis of limited proportions. As foremost scholar of ecofascism Peter Staudenmeier writes, the slogan “we are neither left nor right but up front” is “historically naïve and politically fatal.” An “ecological orientation alone, outside of a critical social framework, is dangerously unstable.” Yet, those who see Green politics as an entry point for their ideology into the mainstream are equally misguided. Green parties are not a canvas for old ideas but the start of something new—and necessary—for the twenty-first century.