Global Alternatives 2024
The Backlash Against the Environment

The green movement across Europe needs to reflect on strategy – on the arguments it uses to convince people. This is needed not so much for the environmental movement itself to survive, but mainly to avert a real environmental disaster, Francine Mestrum writes.

The major European countries have faced major agricultural protests these past several weeks. Roads and cities were blocked, which is not too difficult for farmers with heavy tractors.

These protests had some particular characteristics that are worth mentioning.

First of all, generally speaking, a huge majority of the public supported these actions, even if it made their daily lives a lot more difficult. This support is far from usual. When trade unions or the climate movement try to block a road or access to the highway, discontent follows rapidly and the police are more than ready to come out with their water cannons. This leaves us to wonder, where does this difference come from? What does it mean?

Secondly, the support for these actions was general, irrespective of the heterogeneity of the group of farmers. Livestock farmers, greengrocers and pig breeders work in very divergent circumstances and one cannot lump all their problems together as if they were all the same. Quite the contrary; responsibilities for some of their demands are as heterogeneous as the agricultural sector itself. Some point to the profit margins of the distribution sector, and others to the agricultural policies of the European Union; still others point to the far-too-rigid environmental rules. 

Thirdly, one sector was not mentioned at all in these protests, the global food markets. It is a fact that these markets are dominated by a very small group of transnational corporations that make more money through speculation on the financial markets than through the “commodities” themselves. There is a market, but it is not a free market. In the wake of the conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia, this market has been seriously disturbed, with severe consequences for a major part of the European farmers. This was hardly mentioned.

In the meantime, governments and the European Commission have reacted in a worrisome way. Negotiations with different sectors are going on, but the first responses all indicate that it is the environment that is going to suffer. Several “rigid” measures have been withdrawn. It is a sign of the growing backlash against environmental policies, which has a clear political dimension. As during the “yellow jackets” movement in France, the far-right is playing an important role.

Yellow Vests and Tricolor: From Environment to Politics
Anna Barsukova
The events in France painted the autumn with a special color. The actions of Yellow Vests, which began from dissatisfaction with environmental changes, so popular in Europe, became a source of internal political demands and added new nuances to the development of the Fifth Republic.

It goes without saying that ecological solutions have economic consequences. They affect the interests of citizens who want to keep their cars or do not have enough money to insulate their homes, as well as the interests of farmers who want to use pesticides in order to enhance their yields.

This makes it clear that the environmental movement stands for so much more than a healthy environment. Inevitably, it requires simultaneous social compensation and a different economy that cares for people and nature. It is about social change which is, by definition, a gigantic task. One thing is certain: the environmental movement has right on its side, substantiated by science. The left, which has been trying to bring about change in its own way and with its own arguments for more than a century, knows that “being right” is not enough. If people do not want to abandon their cars or if farmers want to use pesticides, it is not because they lack the knowledge about the dangerous consequences, but because they prefer to ignore that knowledge, fearing to lose income and comfort. Hence the importance of the movement’s strategy.

In knowledge transfer, the environmental movement has succeeded, but it hasn’t achieved a psychological-emotional turnaround.

With the growing outcry against environmental policies, the far-right is gradually making progress. They know better than anyone else how to spread social discontent, how to tell farmers that they should indeed not change, how to propagate fake news via social media, particularly about how the whole environmental crisis is being blown up and that, after all, there are only “natural phenomena” at work. The farmers’ strikes were very much supported by far-right political forces. In France, the National Rally party is cashing in on the current farmers’ resistance. The Farmer Citizen Movement in Holland openly promotes conservative structures and policies. In Flanders, the Vlaams Blok in particular supports the farmers and says nothing at all about the environment, which is tantamount to denying the problem. In Germany, Alternative for Deutschland was very present among the protesting farmers.

In short, the green movement, across Europe, needs to reflect on strategy – on the arguments it uses to convince people. This is needed not so much for the environmental movement itself to survive, but mainly to avert a real environmental disaster. The environmental movement has grown significantly in recent years but unfortunately, the vast majority of people, companies and governments are still not acting accordingly. If we are not careful, the environmental disaster will come in the clothes of the far-right.

The question “What to do?” remains, therefore, very relevant. The only argument heard so far is “less consumption” and hence a better “quality of life”. That may sound reasonable, but is it correct? The energy transition will actually require more non-fossil energy and global demand continues to rise. Hundreds of millions of people in the world do not even have a bedside lamp. Therefore, to make the notion of “less consumption” credible, it would be good to know exactly how much. Can everyone, all over the world, have access to a minimum amount of electricity while maintaining prosperity? If the answer is “no”, then presumably, we should know how to change people’s behaviour.

Global Alternatives 2024
Consequences of Climate Change in 2023
2023 was a year of climate records around the world. There are risks of extreme weather conditions. By the end of this century, between a third and half of the world’s population — three to six billion people — could be pushed beyond the “livable zones”.

The promise of “greater happiness” and “a better quality of life” is neither credible nor sufficient. People continue to go on city-trips, drive their cars, eat meat and continue to go to the supermarket. Again, this is not because of a lack of knowledge, but because of what Tadzio Müller calls a “Verdrängung”, not wanting to know and rejecting the concrete consequences of knowing. It is psychology. Going for a walk in the woods and listening to the birds is fun, but so is a trip to Barcelona. First and foremost, this means that the social policies that should accompany climate action need to arrive at the same time and be strong enough. Climate justice and social justice go hand in hand, it is constantly repeated but far too little is made concrete. As for the farmers, if their only alternative is to stop farming, the majority of them will not accept it. It is their livelihood.

All the facts speak for greens and for the left. The Earth is warming rapidly and social inequality is increasing. Of course, these problems are not the only ones that can explain the growth of the far-right. Migration also plays a major role. Perhaps the most important reason is general social discontent: the lost confidence in the political class that is quite powerless in the face of corporate globalisation and an austerity that it did approve of internationally. In the current conjuncture, it is mainly fear that rules. People are afraid of increasing insecurity, afraid of migrants and refugees, afraid of war, afraid of environmental disasters. With both hands, they cling to what they know and what has protected them in the past. They reject anything that threatens their few remaining certainties. Neither the left nor the greens offer new certainties, let alone protection. Only the far-right has a story they trust and want to believe in. Without migrants, everything will be fine again. The environment is not even a problem.

It cannot be repeated often enough: the greens and the left are right, but they need to come up with a strategy that allows them to be proven right, too. 

The success of the far-right is partly due to the fact that the left and the greens lack a credible and protective narrative. Listening to people’s needs can help a lot. A story about work, justice, poverty, inequality and broad social protection, alongside one about living well with material prosperity, distribution and redistribution, would be very welcome. An effort should be made to create a convincing narrative for people who resist the hard facts and blindly chose disaster.

Ecology as a Black Elephant: The Challenges of Climate Policy
On December 3, the Valdai Club held a discussion, titled “The Global Political Climate: Will the Green Agenda Become a Priority of the Post-Covid World?” together with the presentation of a new report, “Climate Policy in a Global Risk Society”.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.