The Green Movement and Populism
by Hugo Santiago Barrail
At the start of my final year at Loughborough, the Extinction Rebellion movement was occupying most headlines around the world. The topic of climate change was propelled to the front of policy agendas and the world seemed a better place for it. But through a module called “The Populist Challenge”, I spotted some worrying trends.
The module began with a simple, yet complicated, question: how do we identify a populist? I learned about the different methods and theories which are conventionally used and I immediately identified several populist elements in the narrative adopted by the Green movements around the world:
- Antagonising society into an “us” against “them” narrative
- Creating a notion of an existential crisis
- Simplifying a debate
- Appealing to the emotions of the public
We often associate all these tricks with far-right or far-left politicians, a political style or ideology used by Hugo Chavez, Donald Trump or the Brexit campaign. Could these young environmentalist activists have unintentionally adopted a populist approach?
So, much to the confusion of some of my classmates, I decided to write an essay on Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion as the leaders of what I dubbed “green populism”. My lecturer advised to me to use an approach which defines populism as a style. Scholars who abide to this approach claim populism has different shades of grey and should be studied through their rhetoric and style, rather than their ideas.
This definition seemed perfect for my essay. I did not intend to classify Greta and the XR movement as the fiercest populists in line with Donald Trump or Nigel Farage. While I also agreed with the emphasis on rhetoric since Greta and the XR movement campaigned for policies which are never associated with populism. So, in the essay I argued that Greta and the XR movement are gradually embracing populism similarly to other left-wing movements such as Bernie Sanders and the Occupy Wall Street protests.
I found that the XR movement adhered to conventional tactics in their early days, as did Greta in her initial speeches. They centred on scientific facts and on seeking compromise with mainstream policy-makers, combining urgency with optimism, just like most European Green parties. But I found that a shift took place in the spring of 2019. XR statements started using expressions such as “ordinary people” to target the “elites” and calling for “rapid change”. Greta changed her narrative to address what she calls a “disaster of unspoken suffering” while calling out the “inaction of the elite”. XR leaders also started encouraging their supporters to commit crimes and they sought to alienate mainstream green actors such as Greenpeace.
I found these conclusions to be very significant, since they evidence the perils that a shift towards “green populism” entails. This approach is coercive, rather than persuasive. This only harms the prospect of green policies gaining popularity, as opposing sides feel increasingly alienated. Through my essay, I then hoped to contribute to a rethink of how best it is to advance such an important and urgent cause.
Bio: I graduated from Loughborough in 2020 with a Bachelors in Politics, History and International Relations. My degree included a placement year which I spent working for a business lobbying organisation in Brussels, where I tracked EU policies. I am specialised in issues of democracies and development, particularly in countries in Africa and South America. Currently, I am interning at the Democracy Program of the Carter Center, a US-based organisation focused on promoting good democratic practices. I am originally from Paraguay, although I am now based in Spain, where my family resides.
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