Narratives and the Environmental Politics

Arran Gare, Senior Lecturer, Philosophy, School of Social & Behavioural Sciences (E-Mail) 


     Writing in 1981 about the globalization of the economy and the growth of transnational corporations, Richard Barnet suggested: 'There is a misfit between politics and the natural order which neither economists nor scientists nor corporate executives nor government bureaucrats quite understand.'[i] Over the last three decades increasing efforts have been made to understand this misfit and to show how it might be addressed. At the centre of these efforts has been the concept of sustainable development. But while apparently straightforward and uncontentious, this concept has given rise to widely interpretations and diverging programs for action. Economists and politicians have promoted a reformist notion of sustainable development, believing that with some modifications, societies can continue of their paths of economic growth much as in the past. More radical environmentalists have been so disenchanted with the implementation of such reformism that they have suggested the notion of sustainable development be abandoned.[ii] In these circumstances it is necessary to look more closely at the misfit referred to by Barnet and at what underlies the differences between reformist and more radical environmentalists.

     While reformers hope to be able to accommodate environmental problems within existing decision procedures, evaluating projects and formulating policy using cost-benefit analyses and manipulating the market to take into account externalities, radical ecologists, that is, social ecologists, deep ecologists, eco-socialists and eco-feminists, believe the misfit is due to a profoundly defective comprehension of both the natural and the human worlds.[iii] This, they believe, must be addressed before we will be able to think clearly about such issues as sustainability.

     In their efforts to reveal the root causes of the global ecological crisis, radical ecologists have attacked prevailing modes of thought and the class and gender relations which have engendered them. Some have attempted to resurrect not only a number of previously marginalized philosophical doctrines, but also the cultures and religions of a variety of 'primitive' societies and Asian civilizations. But such efforts have so far had little impact. Radical ecologists are too divided and their insights tend to be too fragmentary and disconnected for them to orient the vast numbers of people required for concerted and effective action on a global scale. Radical ecologists suffer from their divisions and their failure to put their ideas into perspective. Consequently, in practice, they tend to be reactionaries, opposing environmentally destructive economic development where-ever and whenever they are able, rather than taking the initiative to create ecologically sustainable forms of society.

     In this paper I will propose a different starting point for radical ecology. Rather than promoting a particular philosophy or non-European culture or analysing the root causes of oppressive ideas and institutions, I will begin by looking at a central but presently devalued component of every culture, its stories or narratives. These, I will argue, bring into focus the concerns of the radical ecologists and provide the orientation required for more effective action.


[i] Richard J. Barnet, The Lean Years, London: Abacus, 1981, p.16.

[ii] See for instance Sharon Beder, The Nature of Sustainable Development, Newham, Scribe Publications, 1993.

[iii] For a review of the ideas of the radical ecologists (excluding the eco-socialists), see Michael E. Zimmerman, Contesting Earth's Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodernity, California: California University Press, 1994.

[iv] Roland Barthes, 'Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives' in Image, Music, Text, (London: Fontana Press, 1977), pp.79-124.

[v] This analysis is based on the work of David Carr, Time, Narrative, and History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.

[vi] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Notre Dame, Notre Dame University Press, 2nd ed. 1984), p.216.

[vii] On this, see Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Volume 1, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984, Ch.3.


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