If you want a good "green populism", its heroes need to be more like nurses and doctors, than scientists and politicians
A very interesting paper presented this Monday by the sociologist William Davies at the Centre for Understanding Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), in the grand context of the Royal Institution. It’s titled Green Populism? Action and mortality in the Anthropocene, and is worth reading closely.
But we were immediately struck by Will’s clear thoughts about the kinds of figures that could be trusted to stand at the front of a “green populism” (by green populism, we mean a kind of environmental politics that vigorously counterposed “the people” against an “establishment”).
Yet we live in an age where there is a deep (and often justifiable) distrust of the expert and political classes above us. So what type of character could engage us sympathetically enough, in order to get us on board for the radical changes demanded by climate breakdown?
Davies comes at who that might be from a different angle - health, rather than environment:
Reflecting on the intersection of health policy and democracy in the time of Trump, the health policy scholar Ted Shrecker has argued that “we can and should envision an alternative populism, organised around a rubric like: ‘Stop, you’re killing us!’”
Shrecker refers to the mounting evidence of how social and economic policies in the global north since 2008 have been leading to risks to public health. And, in certain populations, they have reduced life expectancy and rising mortality rates.
One thing that stands out from the survey evidence on trust in professions and institutions across liberal democracies is that medical professions, and especially nurses, retain very high levels of public confidence, compared to other sources of expertise.
We might speculate that the expertise and authority of medical practitioners do not suffer from the political problem of unworldliness that besets scientific expertise, or technocrats.
By focusing on and caring for the human body across the cycle of birth, life, loss and death, medical practitioners are fixed on the sphere of action where human beings appear before one another as unique and irreplaceable.
…My proposition is that, echoing Shrecker’s claim, the very safeguarding and mourning of life itself can become the trigger for political engagement.
The expertise involved is modelled around the ideal type of the nurse, rather than of the classically modern scientist.
And yet, in the Anthropocene, the care for life cannot stop at the bounds of humanity, but must extend beyond that. To recognise our ‘terrestrial’ being [rather than just our ‘territorial’ being, countries and states] is not only to reject borders as the limits of ethical commitment, but also species.
Our modern conceit - that the value of ‘progress’ can be oblivious to losses - is no longer tenable. On the contrary, we must recognise and publicise the meaning of specific losses, through rare deeds and mourning.
This is integral to the politics of conservation. “Stop, you’re killing everything!” should be the cry.
It’s really interesting to imagine a medical type, and particularly a nurse-like figure, at the head of a green populist movement. What kind of figure embodies, personifies the knowledge that we must believe, so we act urgently enough on climate change?
A nurse is not like our standard-issue scientist, who “withdraws from the flux of change and loss”, as Will puts it, his authority resting on her/his distance and objectivity.
Instead, these medic-leaders will have “the capacity to pacify, temper, slow and remember”. They will be, writes Will, “rooted in ideas of care and rescue, in such a way that is mindful of the fact that we don’t have endless time”.
Will is also interested in bodies in the street, the direct action that typifies XR and the climate strikes:
They seek specifically to move a mass of human bodies, in solidarity with one another and with the non-humans that need rescuing.
Mass mobilisation, which historically has arisen in the context of nations at war, creates a ‘people’ in a populist sense. But this needn’t only be organised around nationality or excluding identities.
What it does require, however, is the sense of urgency that action is needed now, and a recognition of the unique status of the present opportunity. This is what the modern scientific vocation is definitively unable to achieve.
These movements are all ways of apprehending that which is lost, being lost, or could be lost in the future. Hannah Arendt argued that political action occurs “against the shadow of death”. This becomes more apparent in the age of the Anthropocene. Hence movements such as ‘Extinction Rebellion’.
And yet, the climate crisis in particular has also brought the question of youth and future generations into politics. This is most arresting where children take to the streets in protests such as School Strike for Climate.
For Arendt, political hope consisted in the fact that action always brings a new world into being, giving birth to something: “Since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought”.
The hope of such a democracy would not only lie in a cry such as “stop, you’re killing us!”, but of new lives entering the world.
It’s a philosophically super-charged language that runs throughout the paper, and it’s not an easy read. But we hope Will’s point is clearly extracted here. It also chimes with our interest in feminine/womanly leadership, involving a crucially different take on what counts for reality and truth, and thus what appropriate actions to take, in order to make change - particularly behaviour around climate change - happen.