The present-day morass of the environmentalist movement was foretold three decades ago by pioneers of radical ecology. In their writings from the early 1970s, they argued that only an ecological movement that embraced a de-growth economic agenda and called for the self-limitation of consumers, could avert collapse. Going even further, they warned repeatedly that the failure of reformist environmentalism to fundamentally challenge the structures of consumer society will embolden an authoritarian green movement.
In 1972, for example, Ivan Illich predicted that if in "the very near future man cannot set limits" to production and consumption then there will arise a "bureaucratic dictatorship" that enforces those limits. "Technocratic caretakers could be mandated to set limits on growth in every dimension," Illich wrote in Tools for Conviviality, "and to set them just at the point beyond which further production would mean utter destruction." Making it clear that for him, this hyper-managed, techno-authoritarian society was a nightmare scenario, Illich described this world of "managerial fascism" as a prison:
“Man would live in a plastic bubble that would protect his survival and make it increasingly worthless … People would be confined from birth to death in a world-wide schoolhouse, treated in a world-wide hospital, surrounded by television screens, and the man-made environment would be distinguishable in name only from a world-wide prison.”
Other theorists from the same time period – such as André Gorz, Rudolf Bahro and Robert Heilbroner – struggled with the same dilemma of how to build an anti-growth, pro-limit society. Some, like Gorz and Illich, had faith in the possibility of a society that imposed those limits without recourse to authoritarianism. Others, like Bahro and Heilbroner, would embrace authoritarianism as the only viable solution. But for all, the pressing question was how to significantly decrease the economic growth of society and the consumption of individuals. And each believed that to dodge this question only brought humanity closer to involuntary limits imposed despotically.
Today, few people remember Bahro or his split from the German Green Party over these ethical and political questions. Still, history is repeating itself as the same debate is coming to the fore again and this time with greater urgency.
Consider, for example, the well-respected climate scientist James Lovelock who recently said, "I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while." Lovelock has proposed life-boat politics as the only solution and called on the UK to cut itself off from the world by limiting immigration, building nuclear power plants, constructing a wall to block the rising sea and pioneering synthetic food production.
Similarly, in Finland, Pentti Linkola has called explicitly for strong totalitarian measures. Linkola, a primitivist, rejects Lovelock's technological solutions and proposes instead ending the freedom to procreate, abolishing fossil fuels, revoking all international trade agreements, banning air traffic, demolishing the suburbs, and reforesting parking lots. "The sole glimmer of hope," he declares, "lies in a centralized government and the tireless control of citizens."
The tragedy is, however, that while this debate over the necessity of authoritarian environmentalism has returned one side is largely absent. There are few voices today that uphold the possibility of a dramatic reduction in first world consumption without managerial fascism. This is because leftist environmentalism has excluded all those who uphold the de-growth agenda. Instead, mainstream, reformist environmentalism promulgates the dangerous, pro-corporate illusion that consumption can continue to increase as long as it is "green". With leftist, anti-authoritarian de-growth voices marginalized, the most persuasive ecologists today are authoritarians on the right.
If we are to avoid eco-fascism, we must now take up the difficult task of imagining how limits to consumption can be self-imposed, voluntarily by an entire society. Failure to do so will lay the foundation for a new form tyranny, one that is "green".