Skip to content

Environmentalism Should Not Be Intersectional

Sustainable progress requires that ecological concerns be taken seriously and addressed rationally.

· 11 min read
Environmentalism Should Not Be Intersectional
Extinction rebellion protest in Dublin city, Ireland. Alamy

Rational and moderate environmentalism should not be placed under the same rubric as ideologically motivated activism. Nor should it be synonymous with apocalyptic cult groups such as Just Stop Oil, Last Generation, and Extinction Rebellion, with their fearmongering and largely counterproductive tactics. Too few people make this distinction. As someone who cares about the environment, I find this frustrating.  

Conflating the cause of environmental welfare with the kind of coercive moralizing and extremist views common among large segments of the progressive left frequently leads to knee-jerk hostility against this legitimate cause. Take, for example, psychologist Jordan Peterson’s angry response to a sign on a paper towel dispenser asking people not to be wasteful: “Up yours, woke moralists. Tyranny is always petty—and petty tyranny will not save the planet.”

Such attitudes can promote paranoia and lead to a belief in conspiracy theories. Some of those who pride themselves on being anti-woke even regard concerted efforts to promote sustainable practices in business, industry, and agriculture as a Trojan horse for global communism. For instance, James Lindsay’s website New Discourses claims that “sustainability has become Marcuse’s ‘New Sensibility.’ In other words, sustainability is the new way of thinking about the world so that we can have liberation, which is to say Communism.”

Another case in point is Konstantin Kisin’s failure to differentiate between wokeness—which is perhaps best defined as pseudo-progressive identitarianism—and “climate anxiety” in his viral speech at the Oxford Union on 13 January 2023. In support of the motion “Woke Culture Has Gone Too Far,” the comedian and pundit condemned climate protection measures in the West as quixotic in light of global poverty and the material needs of developing countries. Kisin may be correct about the inadequacy of certain environmental policies, but he made a category error.

It is true that activists calling for “climate justice” are invoking social justice rhetoric. They often explicitly assert an intersectional connection with the equally abstract concepts of "racial justice” and "gender justice”—the implication being that true environmentalists support these causes because they are systemically interrelated. This has been going on for some time. According to a 2014 article entitled “My Environmentalism Will Be Intersectional or It Will Be Bullshit” (the title is a nod to intersectional feminist Flavia Dzodan),

we need to understand that our allies are those who are oppressed by the same system; the people who suffer most from the neoliberal, patriarchal, xenophobic, transphobic, disablist, classist, racist, heteronormative, imperialist, ageist complex in which we live—the same people, not by coincidence, who will be hit hardest by almost every environmental crisis.

There are even those for whom “Palestine is a climate justice issue,” a sentiment reflected in a controversial social media post by none other than Greta Thunberg, who soon afterwards appeared on stage at a climate protest wearing a keffiyeh and chanting, “No climate justice on stolen land!”

Simplistic slogans like this one echo a trend in activist academia in which ecology is merged with decoloniality. According to a 2021 paper published in Nature, “the growth of ecological science as an academic discipline is embedded within colonialism.” As a solution, the authors suggest “decolonization,” a concept also frequently invoked by Hamas apologists.

The academic efforts to intersectionalize environmentalism converge in an interdisciplinary field known as the environmental humanities. I recently came across a job posting for a postdoc position at an English department that listed, under “desired skills,” a research interest in “Postcolonial Studies, Critical Race/Ethnicity Studies, and/or the Environmental Humanities.” I’m not saying that interdisciplinary approaches to ecology have no merit, but this smacks of ideological capture. Indeed, scholarly articles such as “Theorizing the Gay Frog” and “Animal Sex in Public: Warping Time and Sexuality in the Zoo” bring to mind the bogus papers of the grievance studies affair.

Among my own circle of friends, I have heard the phrase “environmentally woke” used to mean “ecologically conscious.” The problem is that—like much of the neo-leftist jargon used in contemporary scholarship on the subject—such language muddies the waters. Not only does it gloss over the authoritarianism and illiberalism of the progressive left; it also gives environmentalism a bad name. Just because woke ideas have infiltrated the environmental movement does not mean that environmentalism is intrinsically woke or even left-wing.

The Right Needs To Grow Up On Environmentalism
All of us hope to enjoy our lives, of course, but much of what we do to help our fellow men, our children, and our children’s children involves sacrificing our immediate enjoyment for the sake of their interests.

While there are parallels between climate catastrophism and moral panics about, say, “transgender genocide,” environmentalism implies neither political correctness nor moral coercion and is perfectly compatible with liberal principles. I’m as anti-woke as they come, and I strongly disapprove of climate extremists blocking roads or vandalizing invaluable works of art to enforce their misanthropic doomsday ideology. However, I’m also an ethical vegan (including for ecological reasons) and a volunteer wildlife conservationist who cares deeply about the environment.

Love of nature is at the basis of my environmental activism. This love doesn’t require me to believe that everything found in nature is morally good (an error known as the “naturalistic fallacy”), nor is it tantamount to pagan nature worship, as Jordan Peterson has claimed. And it certainly doesn’t make me anti-human. Rather, it reflects the realization that we, too, are part of nature, dependent on it, and subject to its laws. To quote the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton:

We humans are animals, governed by the laws of biology. Our life and death are biological processes, of a kind that we witness in other animals too. We have biological needs and are influenced and constrained by genes with their own reproductive imperative. And this genetic imperative manifests itself in our emotional life, in ways that remind us of our body and its power over us.

However, now that even such basic categories as male and female are being increasingly called into question, many people have lost touch with their evolved nature. While the woke denial of sex can be traced back to theorists such as Judith Butler, who opined that “perhaps this construct called ‘sex’ is as culturally constructed as gender,” this trend has been exacerbated by the rise of social media. The disembodiment of our social identities and interactions online has made it easier for activists to repudiate human reproductive biology and sex differences and paint an ideologically distorted picture of human nature.

Wokeness is a phenomenon of the social media age. But the idea that socially consequential differences between people are all due to cultural and institutional socialization goes at least as far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote in 1754 of “the equality which nature established among men and the inequality which they have instituted among themselves.” This view underlies not only the belief in the infinite malleability of human beings that led to the totalitarian nightmare of communism, but also the notion that ideology can conquer nature.

Mao Zedong, who is still revered among parts of the left, famously declared a war against nature in revolutionary China, adding to his calamitous legacy. The mass extermination of grain-eating sparrows in the context of his Four Pests campaign, for example, had severe ecological repercussions, which led to a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. According to science writer Rebecca Kreston,

The sparrow’s intrinsic role in the ecological balance was unrealized and resulted in an unmitigated, well-orchestrated environmental disaster. Locusts came in droves and devoured fields of grain, their feeding left unencumbered by watchful, hungry sparrows. … The mass deaths of sparrows and nationwide loss of crops resulted in untold millions starving and 20 to 30 million people dying from 1958 to 1962.

In terms of its Marxist roots, wokeness is perhaps most closely related to Maoism, which “shifted leftist interests away from economic determinism and toward a cultural politics,” according to the scholar Michael Rectenwald:

Cancel culture, internet mobbing, the renaming of streets, word policing, changing the definitions of words, and the violent iconoclasm of Black Lives Matter—their penchant for destroying cultural artifacts such as statues and historical monuments—recall the features of the Maoist Cultural Revolution … Westernized Maoism fueled woke ideology.

Environmentalism, by contrast, is not inherently left-wing. “In fact,” Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill argued in 2012, “the left’s embrace of the pieties of environmentalism represents an historic betrayal of the ideas and principles that were once associated with being left-wing.” It is not surprising, therefore, that socialist nations had—in the words of economist Jeffrey Sachs—“some of the worst environmental problems in the entire globe”:

On just about every dimension of pollution, water, air, and toxic waste, the centrally planned economies of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were way at the end of the scale with respect to the destruction of the environment and the irrationality from all points of view of the environmental policies.

Economist Murray Feshbach and journalist Alfred Friendly, Jr. have summed up the resultant public health disasters as “death by ecocide.”

Widely considered a pioneer of the environmental movement in England, the Romantic poet William Wordsworth can hardly be described as a leftist. Despite his initial support for the French Revolution, he later adopted a Burkean conservatism. His themes of protecting the natural beauty of the world—manifest in his opposition to a railway project in his beloved Lake District—still resonate today. As he writes in The Excursion, first published in 1814,

With you I grieve, when on the darker side
Of this great change I look; and there behold
Such outrage done to nature as compels
The indignant power to justify herself;
Yea, to avenge her violated rights.
For England’s bane. …

Composed against the backdrop of the Industrial Revolution, Wordsworth’s eco-conscious poetry reflects a deep appreciation of nature’s beauty and a profound connection to his homeland. His appeal to emotion, however, emphasized subjective experience over reason and rationality. A vulgar version of this approach prevails in today’s woke culture. This is of course in no way to suggest that Wordsworth wasn’t a sublime and serious thinker. My point is that modern environmentalism cannot rely on feelings and “lived experience.” After all, not everybody feels the same way about nature and our place in it or intuitively grasps the value of intact ecosystems. Nor does taking environmental responsibility come naturally to all of us.

Local grassroots initiatives like the ones I’m involved with—we help preserve and restore natural habitats to mitigate biodiversity loss—are important and can yield great results. However, the only way to protect the environment on a large scale is through government intervention. This is because in economic life exercising voluntary restraint in exploiting or polluting the environment may pose a competitive disadvantage. Market incentives driven by eco-conscious consumer behaviour certainly have a role to play here. But we need to be able to rely on our institutions to safeguard the common good and negotiate with less developed countries, if real solutions are the goal.

In Enlightenment Now, author Steven Pinker shows that international environmental agreements have had a measurable positive effect on the planet. Pinker also draws a somewhat counterintuitive causal link between rising prosperity and ecological progress: “As the world has gotten richer and crested the environmental curve, nature has begun to rebound.” That’s a remarkable civilizational achievement, made possible by Western liberal democracy.

It is this very civilization, however, that woke radicals are trying to “dismantle” while opportunistically advocating for “climate justice.” They scorn Western capitalist society as a white supremacist patriarchy irredeemably rooted in exploitation and oppression—and offer no viable alternatives. Rather than support the spread of Western environmental standards, knowledge, and innovation, they demand “decolonization” and emphasize “Indigenous wisdom,” a modern reiteration of the Rousseauian myth of the noble savage.

The woke have not been the only ones to associate ecological interventionism by the West with the colonial era. Back in 2009, Germany called a French proposal to impose carbon tariffs on countries that failed to reduce greenhouse gases a form of “eco-imperialism.” Five years later, a Japanese official used the same term to defend commercial whaling. And President Joe Biden’s 2021 “Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad” has been referred to as “green imperialism.” According to author and journalist Michael Shellenberger, demanding climate action from developing nations is “monopolistic imperialism dressed up as green altruism,” a scheme to stifle those countries’ economic progress.

The fact of the matter, however, is that ecology knows no national borders and concerns us all. While international environmental protection measures must be carefully calibrated to ensure global human flourishing, the cliché is true: there’s only one planet Earth. It’s also true that the West has committed shocking acts of environmental destruction. Nevertheless, we have no moral obligation to look the other way when the developing world repeats our mistakes in terms of overexploitation, pollution, habitat destruction, and so forth. Liberal democracy, after all, asserts universal principles and values. Besides, those who oppose ecological interventionism abroad and those who consider domestic efforts to reduce environmental harm to be futile because other countries fail to follow suit are often the same people.  

Of course, contemporary environmental legislation is not without its flaws. Thanks in large part to policymakers’ preoccupation with carbon emissions, many initiatives aren’t even particularly eco-friendly. This is because other issues, such as biodiversity loss, often take a backseat to concern about climate change. Conservationism helps protect the climate, but today’s energy revolution frequently foils conservationist efforts: pristine landscapes and natural habitats are being sacrificed at the altar of Net Zero to make way for wind and solar farms or hydropower stations.

The European Union’s new Nature Restoration Law appears to be a step in the right direction. It will require member states to implement measures to restore nature on at least 20 percent of the EU’s land and marine areas by 2030, and ultimately in all ecosystems in need of restoration by 2050. The law has been criticised for containing “significant loopholes.” But it would be unwise to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Ideology, however, frequently wins out over pragmatism. Germany, where I live, has got itself into a predicament by phasing out nuclear power amid an energy crisis, as a result of which the country was forced to burn more coal while energy prices remained high. The reasons for this are both ideological and psychological: the German Green Party, which is part of the current coalition government, has roots in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and 1980s, whose ill-informed scaremongering has become entrenched in the German psyche.

Germany’s Energy Catastrophe
If Russia permanently cuts off natural gas exports to Germany, it will likely send the country, the world’s fourth-largest economy, into a severe recession.

The Greens also have a well-founded reputation for being elitist sticklers for political correctness and naïve open-border enthusiasts. But no amount of politically correct rhetoric can change the fact that mass immigration has severe social and ecological ramifications. For instance, it exacerbates the housing crisis and thus incentivizes both urban sprawl and densification, which in turn leads to more soil sealing as well as habitat and biodiversity loss. In addition, immigrants from less developed countries, thanks to their cultural backgrounds, tend to be less environmentally conscious.

To be fair, Germany’s most prominent Green, Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck, who demonstrated great moral clarity in condemning antisemitic pro-Palestine rallies following the 7 October attacks, has publicly denounced the radical climate protesters who glue themselves to streets and airport runways as “unhelpful” and “downright wrong.” This may indicate a step towards a more pragmatic and sober-minded approach. Hysteria, after all, is a terrible guide to environmental policy. The goal should be to get ordinary people on board, not alienate them.

It is legitimate to criticize wrongheaded policies or call out individual groups and organizations for being ideologically captured or extremist. But it makes no sense to reflexively oppose environmentalism across the board as “woke.” Sustainable progress requires that ecological concerns be taken seriously and addressed rationally. One key to this is the realization that we’re not above nature but part of it—a reality the woke movement routinely denies.

On Instagram @quillette