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Could “environmental populism” be the answer to the climate crisis?

Five things you should know about how populism could work for the planet

Populism is usually associated with right-wing reactionaries who tend to be hostile to climate action, but the idea of a “progressive,” environmentally oriented variety may not be quite as mad as you think. Here’s why:

1. It (sort of) already exists. Greta Thunberg and other global climate-strike activists might not think of themselves as populists, but they are part of a bottom-up movement that has rapidly sprung to international prominence, not least because it represents the views of people who feel unrepresented by mainstream politics. Significantly, groups such as the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion remain active despite the pandemic.

2. There’s already a long-standing progressive strand to populist thinking. True, the intellectual influence of this variant of populism probably peaked in France in the 1960s, but the Arab Spring was a reminder, albeit a short-lived one, of the emancipatory and transformative potential of mass movements. Given the existential stakes and the lack of credible centrist alternatives, populist uprisings could be an idea whose time has come. The challenge is to make progressive populist policies popular, well-informed, constructive and even healing. U.S. President Joe Biden’s appointment of John Kerry as “climate envoy” suggests that the message is getting through.

3. The times suit populists. There’s no in-principle reason why populist leaders and supporters should all be reactionary racists or rabid nationalists. On the contrary, contemporary forms of mass media and communication mean that new ideas and patterns of political and social mobilization are potentially easier to organize across national borders. Recognition of our common humanity and problems is something enlightened populists can highlight, especially if it includes those who feel left behind by “globalization.”

4. The planet needs progressive forms of populist participation if it is to be “saved.” In reality, the planet can carry on without us, of course. But if we are to survive in a vaguely civilized condition, we have to act – or compel our existing leaders to act – immediately. Only widespread, bottom-up pressure looks capable of encouraging the current generation of leaders – who generally seem either incapable or unwilling – to face environmental reality.

5. Populist participation could be a good thing. Sure, populism’s got a bad name and a discouraging historical track record, and Trump’s MAGA crowd doesn’t inspire confidence, but what’s the alternative? Plainly, democratic participation is not transformative enough on its own, even when it actually works and slightly more enlightened leaders get voted in. Biden could hardly be worse than his predecessor, but powerful feet need to be held to the fire by popular pressure. There’s also a demographic imperative that can be adequately addressed only if the growing political activism of young people is taken seriously and actually influences policy.

If you teach young people for a living, as I do, you’re obliged to try to envisage alternatives to the sort of business-as-usual that has got us to where we are: on the brink of civilizational collapse. Could progressive populism actually be the answer?

Mark Beeson is a professor of international politics at the University of Western Australia. He is the author of Environmental Populism: The Politics of Survival in the Anthropocene.

This article is part of a series of stories from our Winter Issue cover package: What it will take for us to get the climate message before it’s too late.

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