Spreading the climate movement beyond the vanguard left: the power of tradition

BLOG: Climate Confessions

painting of a flock of sheep in the countryside
Driving Home The Flock, 1812 by Robert Hills (Birmingham Museums Trust)

I’m going to sit on the Extinction Rebellion platform…as a social conservative

What is the role of tradition in climate futures? The above quote is from Extinction Rebellion (XR) co-founder Roger Hallam. He was saying it to emulate many of the movement’s new recruits in Britain. For those that have come to see environmentalism as an inherently left-wing cause, Hallam’s statement sounds counterintuitive. And in one way it is. Anyone who’s been involved in XR, as I have, knows that the culture is radically socially liberal. But Hallam was reaching for an insight that the climate movement desperately needs to hear: that tradition is crucial to spreading the movement beyond the vanguard left.

— by Timothy Stacey

The term tradition is widely used among climate activists and researchers to refer to indigenous wisdom and fossil-free farming.[i] Such thinking is important in challenging modernist techno-optimism and highlighting neglected values and practices that we already know to be sustainable. But it also makes tradition seem like something that belongs to the past and political margins. This blinds us to the role that tradition plays in sustaining our own socio-ecologically toxic practices. More fundamentally, it robs us of insights into the ease with which seemingly entrenched values can be transformed in a relatively short amount of time. In particular, understanding tradition can help us reach out to the right, where it is typical to talk of inheriting from the past and passing onto the future.[ii]

To be clear, I am not by any means suggesting that climate activists should reach out to fascists or nativists. There is, of course, a long history of eco-nativism, the ideational kernel of which is that people, like plants, are indigenous to territories, their cultural habits being determined by the soil from which they emerge.[iii] Instead, I am calling to build a bigger movement with mass appeal by acknowledging parity between radical socio-ecological visions and more established and mainstream conservative ideas about preserving the land and passing it on.

In these contentious times, awash with cancel culture, some readers might question why we’d want to engage with conservatives. My answer is simple: as scholars of the American Revolution, [iv] the Civil War, [v] and the Civil Rights Movement [vi] have shown, causes aren’t won by a vanguard alone. Changing culture as a whole requires working with unlikely allies.

What is tradition, and why does it matter?

Tradition is often treated as a value, practice, or object that is passed on. I understand it as both this and the process of deciding what is to be inherited and passed on. Tradition is not only the shop but also the shopkeeper. Thinking of it in this way allows us to recall our active role in shaping tradition.[vii]

So why does tradition matter? For many, the answer is that tradition is one way of answering people’s need for naturalisation. It allows them to think that the world “has always been thus”. This insight is important, but it’s incomplete on two counts. First, it is temporally stunted. Tradition isn’t just about a nostalgic longing for the past. Rather, what makes tradition meaningful, philosopher Alastair McIntyre reminds us, is the notion of being on a trajectory between a past you are inheriting and a future you are helping to secure.[viii] Tradition is about belonging. Being a small player in a much grander story.

Tradition is about belonging. Being a small player in a much grander story.

This brings us to the second shortcoming of the tradition-as-inheriting the past account: it’s too passive. Reading from anthropologists like Saba Mahmood,[ix] it is important to recognise that humans are not merely vessels through which tradition pours, but are also actively engaged in the process of inheriting and passing on. We’re not just the jug but also the one holding the jug and choosing where – and how much – to pour. Tradition means something to us because we are engaged in making it.

Tradition in the climate movement: of damaged paintings and memories

Luckily, tradition is already core to the climate movement. We just fail to see it and work with it.

A group of people standing in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London
Visitors in front of Van Gogh's Sunflowers at the National Gallery in London (Hanlin Sun)

Let’s start with the past. October 2022 saw climate activists Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland throw soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers as it hung in the National Gallery in London. Copycat actions swiftly spread across the world. What’s often missed about these attacks is that they are not empty gestures. “What’s art go to do with oil?” I so often hear. “It’s just a shock tactic.” But let’s go deeper. Why is it shocking? It’s an attack on our collective heritage. Those visiting museums to see Van Gogh paintings are partly inspired by the brilliance of the painting. But they are also there to cherish their cultural inheritance. And that’s the point. Attacking paintings is a way of challenging those concerned with our cultural inheritance to show concern for our natural inheritance. As Holland put it, “[a]re you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet?”[x]

When I talk to climate activists and researchers about what inspires them to act, one of the most common answers is childhood memories of being in the woods, playing in the meadows, or swimming in the river. There is a profound fear that the past will somehow be lost. Of course, were this about landscapes alone, it would be superficial, if not NIMBYist:[xi] showing concern for one’s own sources of enchantment while allowing the earth to burn. But the point is that the love of these landscapes can inspire bolder and broader action.

The romanticization of experiences in nature is standard conservative territory.[xii] Many have a justified fear that the romanticization of the past will descend into nativism. But I suggest that ignoring such sentiments creates a vacuum that extremists can fill.[xiii] What is more, it may even be, as Kate Rigby has suggested, that reconnecting with romanticism will enable Europeans and settlers to better understand and creatively engage with indigenous peoples.[xiv] There is real, bountiful, and quite literal common ground to be found between the left and the right.

When we talk about the past, we’re also talking about the present and the future. Our experiences of wonder and relaxation in the woods and water, and our memories of them, form a significant part of our identity. When we fear losing landscapes, we fear losing a sense of continuity between our past and present selves. Hence the line chanted by one troupe of XR activist as we, full of fear of being put in jail, linked arms and legs to form a road blockade in Amsterdam on a cold autumn day in 2019: “to police, we love you, we do this for your children.” We weren’t alone. Messages about saving the world for children, grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren abound in activism.[xv]

There is real, bountiful, and quite literal common ground to be found between the left and the right.

As Hallam’s intervention suggests, to think of activists as passively parroting ideas of the past and future is misguided. In her justification of throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Anna Holland carefully juxtaposed two rival ideas of what must be protected from the past and why. Knowing the painting sat behind glass, she desecrated without deleting one vision of the past, aware that ultimately it was up to her audience to choose their own trajectory. Most activist actions begin and end with extensive reflections on the narrative employed and the likely impact. Indeed, a week after we sang our song of love to the police on the streets of Amsterdam, many of our comrades held us to account for extending an olive branch to representatives of the state’s monopoly of violence, which disproportionately targets those that are not white, heterosexual, or cisgendered. Particularly among climate activists, for whom it feels that both the past and the future is being stolen, the chance to actively engage in the crafting of a trajectory from past to future is part of the appeal. Likewise, most climate activists know that they cannot impose their vision but rather can only ever trigger others to reflect for themselves.

A new green centre

At a time when our discourse has never seemed so divided, I believe that our traditions may be tantalisingly close together. The pasts conjured by conservative writers like Dostoyevsky [xvi] and, in the Netherlands, Geert Mak,[xvii] are not too far from the future yearned for by the more radical climate activists and scientists: a revived rural economy characterised by low-tech farming and sustained by the voluntary labour of a wide community; a transformed urban economy focused on private sufficiency and public luxury;[xviii] the safeguarding in perpetuity of relatively untouched nature. Of course, we should never forget that these are idealisations and that the reality of global food supply systems, public planning, and climate mitigation are far more complicated. Yet my concern here has not been with the grittiness of day-to-day environmental decision making, but with the imaginaries that make that work meaningful for people at a societal level. There is great work already being done that draws the left and right together. On the conservative side, I think of work to safeguard “natural heritage”. On the radical side, I think of XR’s engagement with farmers. But the odds are against us. Now more than ever we must recognise that tradition isn’t something we passively receive but something we actively make. Crucially, the broadness of the appeal will be best achieved by actively engaging a wide constituency in the creative work of conjuring a past and imagining a future. Our common ground has long lay fallow. It’s time to start planting again.

[i] R. D. K. Herman, “Traditional Knowledge in a Time of Crisis: Climate Change, Culture and Communication,” Sustainability Science 11, no. 1 (January 1, 2016): 163–76, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-015-0305-9; Dyanna Riedlinger and Fikret Berkes, “Contributions of Traditional Knowledge to Understanding Climate Change in the Canadian Arctic,” Polar Record 37, no. 203 (October 2001): 315–28, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0032247400017058; Jan Salick Ross Nanci, “Traditional Peoples and Climate Change,” in Planning for Climate Change (Routledge, 2018).

[ii] Michael D. Robinson et al., “The Politics of Time: Conservatives Differentially Reference the Past and Liberals Differentially Reference the Future,” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 45, no. 7 (2015): 391–99, https://doi.org/10.1111/jasp.12306.

[iii] Rafał Riedel, “Green Conservatism or Environmental Nativism?,” Zeitschrift Für Vergleichende Politikwissenschaft 15, no. 2 (June 1, 2021): 207–27, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12286-021-00490-9; Niels Spierings and Saskia Glas, “Green or Gender-Modern Nativists: Do They Exist and Do They Vote for Right-Wing Populist Parties?,” Australian Feminist Studies 36, no. 110 (October 2, 2021): 448–68, https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.2022.2051166.

[iv] Joel Richard Paul, Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, 2009.

[v] Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2005).

[vi] Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Civil Sphere (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[vii] Timothy Stacey, Saving Liberalism From Itself: The Spirit of Political Participation (Bristol: Bristol University Press, 2022), 138–58; see also Richard Bauman, “Tradition, Anthropology Of,” in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), ed. James D. Wright (Oxford: Elsevier, 2001), 503–7, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.12158-0.

[viii] Alasdair C MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981; repr., Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 217.

[ix] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject [New in Paper (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ucm/detail.action?docID=767224; see also Shaheed Tayob, “Islam as a Lived Tradition: Ethical Constellations of Muslim Food Practice in Mumbai” (Utrecht University, 2017), http://hdl.handle.net/1874/350128.

[x] quoted in Damien Gayle, “Just Stop Oil Activists Throw Soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers,” The Guardian, October 14, 2022, sec. Environment, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/14/just-stop-oil-activ….

[xi] Maria A. Petrova, “NIMBYism Revisited: Public Acceptance of Wind Energy in the United States,” WIREs Climate Change 4, no. 6 (2013): 575–601, https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.250.

[xii] Katey Castellano, “Romantic Conservatism in Burke, Wordsworth, and Wendell Berry,” SubStance 40, no. 2 (2011): 73–91.

[xiii] Jan Willem Duyvendak and Josip Kešić, Return of the Native: Can Liberalism Safeguard Us against Nativism?, ed. Timothy Stacey (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[xiv] Kate Rigby, Reclaiming Romanticism: Towards an Ecopoetics of Decolonization, 1st edition (Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 189.

[xv] Jens Koehrsen, “Eco-Spirituality in Environmental Action: Studying Dark Green Religion in the German Energy Transition,” Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture 12, no. 1 (June 7, 2018): 34–54, https://doi.org/10.1558/jsrnc.33915.

[xvi] Matthew McManus, The Political Right and Equality: Turning Back the Tide of Egalitarian Modernity, Eerste editie (Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, NY: Routledge, 2023).

[xvii] Geert Mak, God Has Left Friesland (Vintage Publishing, 2000).

[xviii] George Monbiot, “Private Sufficiency, Public Luxury: Land Is the Key to the Transformation of Society,” Schumacher Center for a New Economics (blog), 2021, https://centerforneweconomics.org/publications/private-sufficiency-publ….

Climate Confessions is a monthly blog series in which Timothy Stacey reveals the “religious repertoires” associated with sustainability in various sectors. From the myths of great floods that dominate in Dutch politics to the rituals of reconnecting with other humans and the other-than-human found among activists, each month, Tim invites you into the repertoires that lurk beneath the surface, shaping sustainability in an otherwise secular world. For more formal reflections, see Tim’s peer-reviewed research: www.uu.nl/staff/TJStacey/Publications. To discuss how repertoires might transform your practice, get in touch t.j.stacey@uu.nl