by Paul Lucardie
Whereas the 20th century could be considered the apex of comprehensive or thick-centred ideologies like fascism, socialism, or liberalism, the 21st century looks like an era of partial or thin-centred ideologies, such as ecologism, nationalism, and populism. Animalism can be included here as the most recent addition. In philosophy, the term denotes the view that human beings should be regarded as animals. This view seems to be shared generally by the animal advocacy parties that have sprung up in several countries during the last two decades. Some of them explicitly call themselves ‘animalist party’: the French Parti animaliste (PA) and the Spanish Partido Animalista Contra el Maltrato Animal (PACMA). If they articulate a relatively coherent set of ideas organised around core concepts that could qualify as an ideology, why not refer to it as ‘animalism’? Insofar as the parties focus mainly on the relationship between human and other animals, animalism must be a thin ideology.
In order to explore this question, I analysed the programmes and manifestos of seven parties that participated in national or European elections between 2014 and 2019: the Australian Animal Justice Party (AJP), the French Animalist Party (Parti animaliste, PA), the Spanish Animalist Party Against the Maltreatment of Animals (Partido Animalista Contra el Maltrato Animal, PACMA), the Portuguese Party Persons, Animals and Nature (Pessoas Animais Natureza, PAN), the German Party Man, Environment and Animals (Partei Mensch Umwelt Tierschutz (PMUT, also called the Tierschutzpartei), and the Dutch Party for Animals (Partij voor de Dieren, PvdD). They were all founded in the 21st century, except for the German PMUT which dates from 1993. The PMUT and the Dutch PvdD won a seat in the European Parliament in 2014 and again in 2019, while the PvdD and the Portuguese PAN have been represented in national parliament since 2006 and 2015 respectively.
Five out of seven parties investigated here presented broad programmes dealing not only with animal rights and with environmental questions but also human problems like health care, migration, foreign policy, education, and constitutional reforms; only the relatively new parties in Australia and France focused (in this period) purely on animal-related issues.
Compassion seems to be the core concept in the programmes, while equal rights (progressively extended to men, women, migrants, animals) and interdependence of all living beings can be considered adjacent concepts. Compassion seems broader than commiseration and less condescending than pity. It may entail awareness of both the suffering as well as the joy of another being and a desire to act, e.g., to alleviate the suffering. Compassion is decontested by the animalist parties as a political principle rather than a private virtue. It should be stimulated and implemented by the government, rather than by corporations, churches, or charity institutions. The state should legislate and implement compassion for non-human as well as human animals, such as discriminated minorities, migrant workers, and refugees, unemployed, and handicapped people. More specifically, it should ban cruel practices like hunting, scientific experiments with animals, and—in the long run—all livestock farming as well as all forms of discrimination between human beings. And it should provide welfare or a basic income for the poor at home and increase foreign aid to the poor abroad. The central position and specific meaning of compassion seems to distinguish animalism from other ideologies. Christian democracy and ‘compassionate conservatism’, as advocated in the US around 2000, do not imply strong state intervention but rely more on civil society.
The experience of compassion with non-human animals might facilitate the advocacy of animal rights by animalists. The extension of equal rights from human beings to (at least some) non-human animals seems to me the second basic element in the animalist ideology, or in Freeden’s terms, an adjacent concept. Parties like PACMA, PAN, and PvdD often compare the struggle for animal rights to the liberation of (black) slaves in the 19th century and the emancipation of women in the 20th century. Basic rights to life, liberty, and well-being are and should be progressively extended, and inequalities and discrimination progressively reduced, if not eliminated. To justify this claim, some parties refer to the argument of the Australian philosopher Tom Regan that non-human animals have an intrinsic value and are each ‘subject-of-a-life’, having desires, memories, emotions, and a psychophysical identity. Non-human animals and animals share this quality, and some animals like primates or dolphins may be similar or even superior to some human beings (e.g., infants or old people with severe dementia). Whereas other parties might agree that non-human animals have an intrinsic value and as a consequence should not be used and abused at will by human beings, they rarely argue for a progressive extension of equal rights (by the state) to non-human animals, as animalists do.
A third essential component of animalism appears to be the idea that all living beings are interdependent. Even if Christian democrats and conservatives may adhere to a more or less organicist view of society, they would not claim that ‘man, animal, and nature form a unity’ or advocate a vegan diet as a consequence. Interdependence is illustrated by the impact of human activities on biodiversity and climate, which in turn affects the life of plants as well as human and non-human animals. Animalist parties share this idea with green parties, but the latter regard animals as part of an ecosystem rather than as individuals, and do not use compassion as a core concept.
Therefore, it seems fair to conclude that animalism can be considered a thin ideology organised around the concepts of compassion, the progressive extension of equal rights and the interdependence of all living beings. However, it may be an ideology in statu nascendi. Though it seems coherent up to a point, some important questions have not been dealt with yet. How far should equal rights be extended from human to non-human animals? Should domesticated animals acquire full citizenship rights, while animals living freely in a human (urban) environment should be tolerated as ‘animal denizens’ with limited rights and animals in the wild should be left alone as much as possible, as Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka have suggested? Will the animal-citizens need some kind of guardian to protect them, like children and mentally disabled human beings? Is a subtle or ‘stratified’ hierarchy among citizens inevitable? At some point in time, animalist parties may have to find answers to these questions, in particular when they continue to grow and acquire political responsibility. Their relatively coherent ideology might help the animalist parties to grow further and prove to be more durable than many other new parties. Besides, their emphasis on compassion might be a source of inspiration beyond their own electorate.
 M. Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory. A Conceptual Approach (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 485-487; see also M. Freeden, ‘Is Nationalism a Distinct Ideology?’, Political Studies, 46 (1998), pp. 748-765; B. Stanley, ‘The thin ideology of populism’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 13 (2008), pp. 95-110.
 Animalism has been defined as ‘the view (..) that each of us is an organism of the species Homo sapiens and that the conditions of our persistence are those of animals’, see: S. Blatti, ‘Animalism’, in E.N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), available at https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/animalism (accessed 28 July 2016).
 Here I follow S. Bein, Compassion and Moral Guidance (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013) especially pp. 1-2, 88, 95.
 See G. Dierickx, ‘Christian Democracy and its ideological rivals’, in: D. Hanley (Ed) Christian Democracy in Europe. A Comparative Perspective (London&New York: Pinter Publishers, 1994); B. Pilbeam, ‘The Tragedy of Compassionate Conservatism’, Journal of American Studies, 44 (2010), pp. 251-268.
 PACMA, ‘Declaración de principios del PACMA’, available at www.pacma.es/principios (accessed 21 July 2011); PAN, ‘Declaração de Principios e Objectivos do PAN’ (2009), available at www.pan.com.pt/declaracao-de-principios.html (accessed 6 March 2014); Partij voor de Dieren, ‘220x liever voor mens, dier, natuur en milieu. Verkiezingsprogramma Partij voor de Dieren’, in: H. Pellikaan et al. (Eds) Verkiezing van de Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal 22 november 2006. Verkiezingsprogramma’s (Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers 2006), pp. 373-405, especially p. 373.
 T. Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004, revised edition, e.g. on pp. 243-244; not surprisingly, the Australian Animal Justice Party quotes Regan in its charter, available at www.animaljusticeparty.org/about/charter (accessed 12 May 2016).
 In German: ‘Mensch, Tier und Natur sind eine untrennbare Einheit.’ This is the first sentence in the basic programme of the German party (‘Grundsatzprogramm Tierschutzpartei’, p. 3, available at https://www.tierschutzpartei.de/wp-content/uploads/grundsatzprogramm.pdf (accessed 26 January 2021)); veganism is advocated on p. 13.
 See A. Dobson, Green Political Thought (London: Unwin Hyman, 1990) p. 20; Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory, p. 527; R. Goodin, Green Political Theory (Cambridge: Polity, 1992); M. Smith, Ecologism. Towards Ecological Citizenship (Buckingham: Open University, 1998) pp. 1-17; Y. Stavrakakis, ‘Green ideology. A discursive reading’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 2 (1997), pp. 259-280.
 S. Donaldson & W. Kymlicka, Zoopolis. A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); see also see T. Benton, ‘Animal Rights: An Eco-Socialist View’, in R. Garner (Ed.), Animal Rights. The Changing Debate (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1996), pp. 19-41.
 The AJP suggested human guardians to administer the rights of animals, in its policy paper on Animal Law (on-line: http://animaljusticeparty.org/policies (accessed 26 May 2016)); Donaldson and Kymlicka do not seem to like the term ‘guardian’, without being able to get around the idea altogether, using clumsy terms like ‘human enablers’ (Ref. 3, p. 115) or ‘collaborators’ (p.153), ‘ombudsmen’ or ‘defenders’ (p.154).
 Even Regan, the philosopher who inspired not only the AJP but several other animal advocacy movements and parties across the world, discriminates between men and dogs in a crisis situation. In a sinking life boat or a boat without food a dog should be sacrificed to save a human life, as death would be a greater harm to a human being than to a dog, Regan argues (The Case for Animal Rights pp. 285-286, 324-327, 351). So implicit in Regan’s theory is a moral hierarchy, and some paternalism as well. In fact, he admits human beings have to be paternalistic when caring for animals as well as children (pp. 82-120). In the eyes of a more radical theorist like Gary Steiner, the Australian philosopher is too anthropocentric; see G. Steiner, Animals and the Moral Community. Mental Life, Moral Status, and Kinship (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) pp. 99-101. Yet even if Steiner’s theory of ‘cosmic holism’ based on ‘felt kinship’ with other living beings may be less anthropocentric than Regan’s right-based theory or theories based on compassion, in practice it might also imply a subtle hierarchy, as we, the dominant human beings, tend to feel more kinship with people of our own kind and more with furry or feathered animals than with snails, spiders and mosquitoes (ibidem, pp. 111, 117-163).
by Sabrina Martin
The Covid crisis has, by and large, been a positive time for ethical consumerism. Numerous people have used lockdown as an impetus to review their purchasing habits and make more conscious decisions about what and where they buy. Last year The Guardian reported that UK spending in the ‘ethical market’ is now worth £41bn (though statistics on this vary widely). Accenture has even predicted that Covid has ushered in a new era of ethical consumerism for at least the next decade.
Ethical consumerism has been around, in some form, since the early days of capitalism, with activist producers and abolitionists stamping ‘not made by slaves’ on various consumer goods to signify they were made ethically with free labour. Around the turn of the 20th century, it evolved into a consumer protection movement calling for product standards to be better regulated. Public regulation of goods and production standards remained at the forefront of what it meant to consume something ethically until the late 1980s and, in the UK, led to the passage of the Consumer Protection Act. The rise of our current version of ethical consumerism dates to approximately 1989 and the establishment of Ethical Consumer Magazine, which helps readers to “Discover the truth behind the products we buy and the companies we buy them from” and is still in publication today.
Ethical consumerism starts with the premise that goods and a growing number of targeted services available on the market have moral shortcomings: they may contribute to pollution or deforestation, they may perpetuate cruelty to animals, or use low-wage labour. Ethical consumers show their dissatisfaction with this status quo by purchasing products or services that don’t engage with these practices. On the face of it, it appears to be an individualist act of moralism and activism targeted at collective problems that relies on the market as its mechanism of action: ‘voting with your dollar’, as the saying goes. Yet, even the most self-interested or -regarding consumer is still, by definition, participating in a social act through the use of the market, so the individualism that we observe in ethical consumerism actually gives way to an acknowledgement of collective responsibility. So we have to ask to what extent the market is an effective tool for our activism.
There are myriad criticisms to be levied against ethical consumerism, ranging from the use of the free market to advance causes of justice to the claim that the onus of justice shouldn’t and can’t fall solely on individuals, from the fact that it’s a privilege to be able to choose to consume ethically to the idea that any system that tries to redress capitalism is doomed to fail. These criticisms are the subject of a later blog. Yet, given ethical consumerism’s growing prevalence, even among those who are critical of the movement (cards on the table: I count myself among these participant-critics), it’s worth asking what the ideological underpinnings of the movement are, and to what extent ethical consumerism is or can be seen as a critique of capitalism.
For one thing, to anti-capitalists, the use of market mechanisms to execute ethical behaviour or acts of justice seems counterintuitive and counterproductive. Further, ethical consumerism has been seen as a way for companies to greenwash or pinkwash—when companies play up their environmental and feminst credentials, respectively—our moral concerns away about their production practices. At the same time, at the very least, ethical consumerism does seem to be very much a critique of certain aspects and ‘negative externalities’ of capitalism. To the extent that externalities of capitalism can be separated from the market system itself we can see ethical consumerism as a type of repudiation of capitalist practices. The neoliberal backdrop against which we believe in and practice ethical consumerism, however, makes this separation nearly impossible.
To clarify, ethical consumerism isn’t trying to encourage us to buy or consume less. This is what we would refer to as ‘the ethics of consumption’ (see Crocker and Linden 1998), and seems to be more in line with an anti-capitalist stance. Instead, ethical consumerism’s main purpose is to make us think about the things we do consume, and treats the buying of goods and services as a moral and political action. But what are consumers doing when engaging with ethical consumerism? Is it simply ‘virtue signalling’ or ‘middle class guilt’? Figures seem to back this up: statistics commonly cite that the majority of people report that they are willing to buy ethical brands, but only about 26% actually do so. Lending more credence to this idea, another study shows that people are substantially more likely to participate in sustainable consumption if someone else is reported having done it first. Or is there ideologically something deeper to it?
Ethical consumer options exist in most markets: from FairTrade and Rainforest Alliance foods and other consumable goods, to sustainable fashion, even to finances and banking and investing in the covid vaccine. In addition to being able to buy ‘ethically’ for your chosen product or service, you can also find brands in almost every market to match your pet cause or ideology: animal rights, shattering the glass ceiling, environmentalism, human rights, etc.
For this reason, coupled with its use of the market to coordinate its outcomes, ethical consumerism is by no means a unified ideology or movement. As an ideology it seems to be ‘thin-centered’ in that it has a singular central theme, which seems to be a broad commitment to avoiding or rectifying some of the ails of capitalism. (Indeed, its supposed thinness is what seems to make it compatible with other ideologies like environmentalism and feminism.) As an activist movement it consists of a collection of consumer activists, kitemarking labels, and companies trying to make capitalism more palatable for buyers and suppliers, and the laborers in between. What’s important to note here is the use of the market as an activist platform and the use of a dollar as a mechanism of free speech.
The use of the market here seems to be a reappropriation of the free market, which is seen as an unalloyed good in traditional liberal and converservative thinking, but is so often criticised in more progressive ideologies. This in turn, signals participants not only seeing the economy as a site of social and political struggle, but actively using it in its current form as a front to exert ideological pressure on political, economic, and cultural institutions. Ultimately, then, it seems that ethical consumerism may not be quite as ‘thin’ as it originally appears, and there may be a thicker set of concepts lurking within it. It shows a commitment to markets, which is of course compatible with economic systems other than just capitalism. It also speaks to an affirmation of the power of the consumer and an acknowledgement that that power can and should be used responsibly. Finally, as noted above, it also seems to be a nod towards the collectivity that markets and a globalised society create and a move away from a value-neutral picture of economics.
Further complicating the conceptualisation of ethical consumerism, it bucks trends in several established fields of study. Activism is usually portrayed as a social movement and therefore a collectivist project, making the individual purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the world of activism; markets are usually studied (at least in modern-economics) as value-neutral, making the morally targeted purchases in ethical consumerism a bit of an anomaly in the observance of markets. Seeing the economy as value-laden was commonplace in classical economics, but largely went out of fashion alongside the rise of the predominance of liberalism (for an interesting analysis of the history of linkage, see Machan 1995). There is, however, a recent trend in economics contesting the value-neutrality of markets and economics trying to introduce alternative norms into the economy, for example, Raworth’s doughnut model of the economy, Mazzucato’s Mission Economy, and the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission. While these are centered on the top-down policy or supply-side of the economy, like ethical consumerism, they show a tendency towards a belief in a moralised economy.
When studying capitalism in various disciplines from sociology to media studies, individuals’ motives are often divided into ‘citizen’ where people act outwardly, or in the interest of the common good, and ‘consumer’ where they act privately in their own interests. A prevailing theory of ethical consumerism argues that the movement bridges this gap with people acting as consumers by purchasing goods they want or need while simultaneously expressing outward, citizen commitments to a more just world (see Schudson 2007). From an ideological perspective, however, we might see less as bridging a gap and instead contesting the constructed binary between public and private, individual and collective, and indeed therefore citizen and consumer.
In the study of market economics, buyers are motivated by self-interest. This doesn’t seem to be the case with ethical consumers. Instead, they might be motivated by any number of private ethical commitments all of which express some discontentment with the status quo. For example, when it comes to buying FairTrade products, consumers might buy FairTrade because they believe they contribute to development (though the economic gains are dubious). Others might argue that it reduces poverty, and we therefore have a moral obligation to purchase these goods. Yet others still might be less focused on the consequences of Fair Trade and argue that there is a deontological moral imperative to pay a ‘fair price’ for all goods.
Under ethical consumerism, these individual moral commitments don’t actually matter; people don’t have to agree on ideologies to pursue their activism collectively or even hold internal consistent comprehensive moral positions. Instead, the invisible hand of the market takes care of the coordination of the activism and the ideology. It’s almost like seeing Rawlsian overlapping consensus being played out in the real world: individuals hold a plurality of moral commitments and the market coordinates and executes them. The problem is that the market is therefore the primary social institution of justice, which seems counter-intuitive in that the market is what brought about the injustices in the first place. This means either that a) ethical consumerism could have radical potential because it has found a way to bring justice into the workings of a previously unjust institution or b) ethical consumerism is doomed to fail because it relies on an inherently anti-justice (as well as unjust) institution.
Under capitalism, it’s essentially impossible to avoid being a consumerist. The extent to which we can see ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism, it seems, depends on where we think the onus of responsibility lies and what follows from our ethical consumerism practices.
One theory on the motivations behind ethical consumerism says that individuals believe that the onus of responsibility for these moral shortcomings falls on them because of their previous purchases, and it's therefore their responsibility to rectify. On this view, it seems impossible to view ethical consumerism as a critique of capitalism because it fails to acknowledge the structural backdrop against which the markets operate, and the causality of the moral failings. Under this version, participants of ethical consumerism are broadly committed to capitalism, but think that it can do better and that ethical consumerism is the best way to nudge the markets in that direction. In other words, they think that the exploitative production processes, environmental damage, racism, sexism, etc. perpetuated by these companies can be separated from capitalism.
Alternatively, we might see participants of ethical consumerism as individuals who are unconvinced by capitalism in its entirety, but feel that ethical consumerism is one course of action for improving it, either because it is low-risk activism, they don’t know what else to do, or don’t see any viable alternatives. Ethical consumers who fall into this camp, would seem to think that capitalism is at fault for the unethical products being produced (making it a supply-side, rather than a demand-side issue), but understand that market—not capitalist—mechanisms can be used as a means improving but not rectifying, the system. This conceptualisation relies on a reimagining of markets and their purpose, and being able to disentangle them from the capitalist system in which they exist. Here, we must believe that markets are capable of expressing civic will, rather than simply being an instrument of (profit-seeking) exchange.
The problem seems to be that by continuing to buy, it doesn’t really matter what they believe. The choices on the market take a lot of the individual onus of responsibility away from them. Whether or not ethical consumers are critical of capitalism, the outcome seems to be the same: they use the market to make a statement about what goods are acceptably just and purchase those both as a signal of their own virtue as well as a sign to ‘unjust’ corporations that their products aren’t of an acceptable standard. Market mechanisms should then respond to these cues and slowly move towards a more ethical equilibrium.
Fashion brands have started putting out sustainable clothing lines, and supermarkets now offer ranges like ‘plant kitchen’ or products kitemarked with ‘sustainably sourced’ to satiate the concerned consumer. It’s worth noting that these are often sold alongside, rather than in place of, ‘normal’ product lines. What ethical consumerism has done is, in effect, created a separate market (markets) for these conscientious consumers. It exists alongside the ‘regular’ or ‘unethical’ markets. Ethical consumerism has, in effect, created more consumerism. It might drive demand down a bit in these regular markets, but because not everyone is buying from ethical markets, it doesn’t seem likely to drive demand down enough to replace them. Eventually an equilibrium will be reached, unethical capitalist practices will continue to be perpetuated, and a select few who purchase exclusively ethical products can be satisfied that they are not perpetuating any of the problematic externalities of capitalism that they have identified.
Indeed, it’s hard to view ethical consumerism as a wholescale critique of capitalism, because it works with and within the system, but it seems reasonable to see it as a critique—from any number of ideological standpoints—of the problems that capitalism perpetuates.
I propose that the best way to view ethical consumerism is as a belief that consumers have so that they can bridge a broad commitment to neoliberalism, capitalism, or market economics to more specific ideological environmentalism, anti-racism, feminism, etc. Participants view ethical consumerism as bringing these values into supply chains so that we eventually have a more moral global system of production and consumption. In this way, we might see ethical consumerism as a manifestation of a sort of intersectional capitalism.
The market itself does not yet actively reward ethical consumerism. Indeed, ethical consumers willingly pay a premium. But the market-based reward is not the point; instead it’s societal betterment that matters. Ethical consumerism does not (yet) have the power to reconstruct the structure of the market so that its guiding norms foster or indeed reward ethical-consumerist activism. But, in theory, it does seem to have that potential. This is why we can imagine ethical consumerism as a means by which consumers act as citizens, thereby breaking down the public vs private illusion and the individualist vs collectivist mentality that both liberalism and capitalism can perpetuate. More than the ethical consumerism itself, it seems to me that the ideological standpoint(s) from which ethical consumers make their purchases are more telling and what those purchases signify is more important.
Instead of seeing themselves as atomistic individuals being swept along by the tides of capitalism, ethical consumers are using the system to try to speak out and acknowledge some of global collective responsibility.
As any good economics student knows, however, the consumer (demand) side is only half of the story. Perhaps ethical consumerism is a radical instrument for change. But in order for the goals of ethical consumerism to be met, and for the market to truly be a meaningful tool of activism, both the supply-side conditions and the policy will have to be put in place, as well.
Other pieces in this series will include, a history of ethical consumerism, critiques of ethical consumerism, and a discussion of ethical consumerism’s varying ideological compatibility with some of the causes it purports to support.
 Note that while the markets for ‘ethical’ and ‘non-ethical’ goods are often treated separately in the literature, the goal for ethical consumerism is for ethical products to replace non-ethical ones in terms of demand. The degree to which we have separate markets seems to depend on the industry in which the ethical goods and services are being offered. Despite the separation of markets, the consumers are likely the same people. So instead of seeing ethical consumers and markets as separate entities, it seems more accurate to see them as counter-hegemonic tendencies within the bigger scheme of the global economy.
by Eloise Harding
Introduction: the shifting landscape
Environmental scepticism as an ideology has spent the past six years on a political rollercoaster. From a niche political outlook with a moderate public face and a wealth of conspiracy theories hiding in the shadows, it developed a level of prominence in mainstream discourse with the advent of leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The more extreme forms of scepticism—such as outright denial of climate change—blended in well with the emerging ‘post-truth’ political culture, described by Jane Suiter as one ‘where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions’. The public face of environmental scepticism also evolved to incorporate some of the political characteristics of the leaders who embrace it. In the aftermath of the 2020 US election, however, it faces the loss of one of its more powerful proponents.
I will start with a bit of background from the timeline of my 2019 article. As is the nature of such things, the initial submission was slightly longer ago, and in the first instance reviewers were concerned that the article dealt with an ideology too inconsequential to be worth investigation. I mention this, because it did not remain the case. While I was doing the research that would lead to this article, environmental scepticism—usually manifested in public conversation as climate change denial—was moving from a niche political outlook to part of mainstream discussion, thanks largely to the presidential campaign and electoral victory of one Donald Trump. As I write this blog post, Trump prepares to (grudgingly) vacate the White House and hand over the reins to Joe Biden. Early indications suggest that environmental scepticism may suffer a dent to its role in mainstream discourse. The size of this dent depends on the strength of the ideology in its remaining proponents when a powerful ally is removed. However, we should not assume that it is going to fade out of public consciousness any time soon.
In addition to the increased prominence, there was also something of an ideological evolution in the public face of environmental scepticism—what Michael Freeden would describe as a shift in proportionality. As a thin-centred ideology (one without a fully developed conceptual core of its own), environmental scepticism must by necessity graft onto more developed ideologies to survive on the political landscape. Until 2016 or thereabouts, there was some ambiguity about the political leanings of environmental scepticism as an ideology. While the USA had always had undercurrents of outright climate change denial stemming from right-wing think tanks such as the Heartland institute, for the rest of the world the public spotlight tended to be occupied by the more measured approach represented by Bjørn Lomborg.
Lomborg, a left-liberal political scientist with some environmentalist tendencies of his own, has always claimed to be motivated by humanitarian concerns and particularly by concern for people in the developing world. Climate change, he argues, is a far less urgent problem than many environmentalists regard it as, and ranks lower than a range of other concerns when measured with regard to the respective cost in human lives. In short, he portrays climate change as a problem, but not the most urgent problem: it can be sidelined until the more urgent issues have been dealt with. Previously, the more overtly denialist manifestations of environmental scepticism relied on moderates such as Lomborg to give their arguments a veneer of humanitarian respectability, lifting some of the suspicion away from what is often seen as a corporate shill.
For the past four years, however, a serving US President who has variously described climate change as a ‘hoax’ on Twitter and, on acknowledging that it might be real, proceeded to claim on live TV that the climate ‘might change back’, has provided a replacement source of respectability. Indeed, the locus of ‘respectability’ has been moved somewhat by a changing political culture: Donald Trump has no scientific expertise and his political rhetoric has a tenuous relationship with the truth, but he did gain just over half the electoral votes in 2016. As such, the image of environmental scepticism has shifted away from global humanitarianism and towards an insular variety fuelled by right-wing populist and nationalist values and in which outright denialism plays a more central role.
Environmental scepticism today
The basic conceptual landscape has remained largely consistent from 2015 to now. Environmental scepticism has three basic core concepts, the removal of which would significantly alter the nature of the ideology: deep anthropocentrism, a form of Prometheanism, and a suspicious framing of environmentalism and the motives of environmentalists. The most significant adjacent concepts—proximity to which helps to shape the core—are a highly specific framing of science and, maybe surprisingly, climate change denial itself. I say surprising because environmental scepticism and climate change denial are often seen as synonyms, with the latter having more of a public profile. However, while denial plays a key role in how environmental scepticism functions in practice, the ideology of environmental scepticism would not collapse entirely were it removed. For example, it is feasible to accept as Bjørn Lomborg does that climate change is a genuine, but exaggerated and non-urgent, problem (what Stefan Rahmstorf calls ‘impact scepticism’); or indeed to argue as Trump does that the pattern of global warming may spontaneously reverse (‘trend scepticism’).
It is also possible to regard global warming as a real but natural phenomenon (‘attribution scepticism’), not caused by humans and as such not our responsibility to fix. An element of denial does, however, help environmental sceptics reach definitive conclusions on some of the moral balancing acts which arise around climate change and carbon emissions. For example, when faced with a decision regarding whether to restrict human freedoms in order to reduce emissions (the UK’s upcoming ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles being the latest example), the ability to sideline the realities of climate change makes the preservation of freedom seem like the obvious priority.
In economic terms, meanwhile, the costs associated with adopting lower-carbon business practices are usually justified by reference to the associated benefits in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change. Denying or diminishing these benefits again casts doubt on whether the costs are really worth it. So, in brief, climate change denial plays an important role in shaping how environmental sceptics engage with everyday moral dilemmas, but can be classified as helpful rather than essential to the formation of environmental scepticism as an ideology.
With that in mind, let’s look at the core concepts. The first of these is deep anthropocentrism: broadly speaking, the idea that only human interests matter. For example, Bjørn Lomborg’s arguments in The Skeptical Environmentalist hinge on the idea that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’, because ‘people debate and participate in decision-making processes, whereas penguins and pine trees do not’. Lomborg, I should point out, does not discriminate between groups of humans when making this assessment: if he has distinct priorities, they lie in the developing world. He does, however, create a clear line of division between human and nonhuman interests, which can be construed as a competition for resources.
Other environmental sceptics, more openly intent on politicising the issue and usually (although by no means inevitably) coming from the right, frame this as a direct and immediate conflict between human interests and environmental concerns. When I wrote the original article, my main example of this pattern was UKIP’s Roger Helmer, who regarded green energy policies as a surefire route to fuel poverty for the elderly. More recently, Donald Trump has framed environmentalism as a threat to the ordinary American. Trump’s rhetoric on this topic ties deep anthropocentrism in with the populist conception of the ‘pure’ people (see the work of Cas Mudde for more detail) who are under threat from a ‘corrupt’ elite. In doing so, Trump unwittingly helps to resolve a contradiction in the use of anthropocentric—literally, human-centred—reasoning to sideline phenomena which are having dramatic negative impacts on particular groups of humans.
Leaders such as Trump, Australia’s Scott Morrison and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are overt and unashamed in identifying a particular anthropos on whose interests their anti-environmental rhetoric and policies are centred. Put simply, the interests of the groups who would allegedly be negatively impacted by increased environmental protection are given greater weight than those currently feeling the effects of industrial water pollution (USA), rising sea levels (Australia’s island neighbours) and forest fires (Brazil). It should be noted that there is also a nationalist dimension to this modified deep anthropocentrism, particularly regarding climate change, with many world leaders dismissing the possibility that their own country will suffer significantly. Indeed, the UK’s Michael Gove has been heard to proclaim that global warming will be beneficial for Britain: it will sweeten our grapes and enable us to produce home-grown sparkling wine that ‘will soon bring a level of cheer to British drinkers greater than that provided by French champagne’.
Gove’s comments bring me to the second core concept of environmental scepticism, namely a form of Prometheanism. Broadly speaking, Promethean outlooks see all problems—including environmental ones—as ultimately solvable through the wonders of human ingenuity. Examples of Prometheanism in action include the large-scale overhaul of agricultural practices in the Green Revolution and the use of genetic modification to produce hardier crops. Some would also put geoengineering in the Promethean category. In itself, it can refer to a pro- or anti-environmental outlook: however, certain forms lend themselves to absorption into the environmental sceptic’s canon of ideas.
Prometheanism is usually seen at the less overtly denialist end of environmental scepticism, since it requires at least a grudging acceptance that such problems exist and require solutions. Milder forms of Promethean environmental scepticism (such as that embraced by Bjørn Lomborg) refer merely to harnessing and gaining mastery over nature, for example the ability to transcend through technology and innovative farming practices the limits on nature’s capacity to provide resources. More extreme versions regard nature as irrelevant. Peter Huber, in a book titled Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, argues that due to human ingenuity we could feasibly and justifiably ‘Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers.’
Recent developments, however, suggest that the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ may be being transcended, at least in the case of climate change. Michael Gove’s comments, mentioned above, once more add a nationalist dimension to Promethean environmental scepticism. His overall argument, about which I have written more here, alludes to a peculiarly British ability to turn a negatively-perceived phenomenon such as climate change into a positive through what might (if we want to risk falling into clichéd territory) be termed Blitz spirit. Rather than being demoralised by climate change like our neighbours across the Channel, we gain an advantage by harnessing what Gove terms the ‘opportunities of a changing climate’: in his terms, this ‘is a harbinger of the inventiveness, of the creativeness and the resilience, the imagination and the sheer joie de vivre that you can find here in Britain.’
Meanwhile Donald Trump, while less convinced of the reality of climate change, has spoken many times of America’s ability to transcend the food and fuel shortages feared by others. The common threads are the Promethean tendency to believe that no environmental crisis is insurmountable, and that some may indeed be beneficial; and the belief that the solutions will come not from human ingenuity as a species-wide trait but from the attributes of a particular nation whose collective myth includes a large dose of overcoming adversity.
The final core concept, of which we’ve already seen glimpses, is the highly suspicious framing of the motives behind environmental protection measures. The mildest version merely holds that there is money in environmental campaigning and hence an ulterior motive to exaggerate the extent of the problem. More extreme iterations of this narrative portray environmentalism as a deliberate attempt to limit people’s freedoms: indeed, as a harbinger of outright authoritarianism.
There is some variation in the perceived ideological position. For example, former Republican senator Harrison Schmidt describes climate change and measures to limit it as a ‘stalking horse for National Socialism.’ However, since the bulk of this narrative comes from environmental sceptics on the right of the political spectrum, the usual culprit is authoritarian communism. For example, the former Czech president Vaclav Klaus claims that environmental regulation reflects ‘the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire city.’ Meanwhile in the USA the Heartland Foundation president Joseph Bast cites climate change as ‘the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.’ (The Heartland Foundation were also behind the short-lived billboard campaign featuring the ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski alongside the statement ‘I still believe in global warming.’)
This is another area where climate change denial (and occasionally other forms of denial, for example regarding the dangers of certain pesticides) comes into its own. The removal of certain freedoms to mitigate a possible environmental crisis that threatens us all can be justified (if not always implemented) relatively easily. Remove the environmental crisis from the equation by declaring it non-urgent or even non-existent, and suddenly any infringement of liberty appears spurious.
While the suspicious framing of environmentalism is still front and centre in the rhetoric of environmental scepticism, its visible form has adapted to a more favourable political climate. Environmentalism has always been portrayed as a threat to freedom, and possibly to life itself, but there has always been a level of ambiguity about whether it constitutes an enemy within or without. The explicitly nationalist politics of the world leaders embracing environmental scepticism have tipped the balance towards positing environmentalism firmly as a threat from outside, potentially aided by an enemy within in the form of the country’s metropolitan elite.
Take for example Trump’s statement, in his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech, that ‘This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States. The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement—they went wild; they were so happy—for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.’ Here, the push to mitigate climate change is portrayed not as the harbinger of a particular ideology, but rather the acceptable face of a systematic anti-Americanism on the part of the rest of the world.
Trump has previously described global warming as a hoax on the part of China in particular, intended to undermine American industry; since admitting that there may be some truth to the scientific findings, he has maintained nonetheless that any attempt to mitigate the problem has the ulterior motive of disadvantaging America to benefit its rivals. China, while named most often as a beneficiary of the losses Trump sees America sustaining, is not alone in deriving an advantage: his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech implicates the entire rest of the world. The key point, however, is that America is allegedly disadvantaged for ‘the exclusive benefit of other countries’, deriving no benefits of its own from an overall reduction of carbon emissions. Obama, he argues, was duped by economic rivals purporting concern for the environment, while he himself as the ‘America First’ president sees through the ruse.
In this economically-motivated framing of the enemy, we can see a resurgence of the idea of the ‘green scare’ as the natural successor to the ‘red scare’ of the Cold War. Peter Jacques has documented how environmental issues started to enter the public consciousness around the same time Soviet-style communism was on the decline in Europe: to advocates of unbridled capitalism, a new problem was arising as the long-standing one receded. However, until recently, this element was not a key part of the public face of environmental scepticism: it was the preserve of well-funded but not well-known conservative think tanks and somewhat in the shadow of more humanitarian manifestations. In the Trump era, however, this quiet part of environmental scepticism has more frequently been said out loud, with greater concern expressed about the economic effects of environmental protection measures.
The future of environmental scepticism—some speculative points
So, what next for environmental scepticism? From January 20, 2021, it will no longer be part of the ideology of the serving US President. This development suggests a certain decline of influence. For example, the viewpoints outlined in this post and my original article will no longer define American environmental policy to the extent that they have done since the same date in 2017. Leaving aside Biden’s own moves (broadly speaking) towards greater environmental sustainability, such as placing a known environmental regulator with a strong track record in charge of the EPA, there are signs of a wider and more substantial shift towards pro-environmental attitudes. It is worth noting, as just one example, that the attempts to incorporate ‘green’ elements into the Coronavirus Relief Bill are to a great extent a bipartisan effort rather than a purely Democratic one.
Outside the US Government, the more strictly neutral parts of the mainstream media will have less requirement to treat denialist perspectives on climate change with the same seriousness as the prevailing scientific evidence. Furthermore, the loss of Trump as an ally may tip the balance regarding policy change in more environmentally ambivalent nations. For example, the need to build a working relationship with President Biden has been cited as one of Boris Johnson’s key motivations for introducing the sweeping ‘Ten Step Plan to a Green Industrial Revolution.’
However, we should be wary of assuming that environmental scepticism will fade away once Trump has passed through a more-or-less peaceful transfer of power. To begin with, he is not the only environmental sceptic to occupy a position of political leadership. The global environment still has Australia’s Scott Morrison (protector of his country’s coal industry moreso than of their island neighbours), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (he who denies the existence of forest fires in the Amazon) and Poland’s Andrzej Duda to contend with, to name the most vocal.
It is also worth remembering the associations which have built up between environmental scepticism and right-wing populism in the past few years. It remains to be seen how strong the connection between the two ideologies is: divergence would be possible, but so would a continued convergence. While Trump’s electoral loss could represent the beginning of the end for this variety of populism, it could also merely represent Trump’s own failures and leave the door open for a more personally competent candidate of a similar political ilk. The resentments which fuelled pro-Trump sentiment in 2016 are real, including the perception that environmentalism is a danger to ‘rust belt’ livelihoods.
The liberal humanitarian iteration of environmental scepticism may also return to the fore. Bjørn Lomborg, the usual public face of this form of scepticism, was positing the respective fights against climate change and pandemics as opponents for scarce resources before the advent of coronavirus; we may yet see a resurgence of this narrative, aimed at the ‘green’ elements of many recovery packages. In the past year, Lomborg has been joined on this ideological stage by Michael Shellenberger, a former environmental activist who is keen to apologise for ‘crying wolf’ on climate change. Shellenberger is the founder of a thinktank named ‘Environmental Progress’, whose London office is fronted by former Extinction Rebellion activist Zion Light. It is feasible that, if the association with leaders such as Trump begins to fade, this more moderate form of bounded environmental scepticism—with some pro-environmental tendencies and a level of scientific awareness—will gain prominence and be more difficult to challenge.
In short, the future trajectory of environmental scepticism is currently difficult to predict due to the sheer range of possible variables in play. It will be interesting to see the prevailing form it takes when the dust settles from the US election, and consequently where it will fit in the wider discourse on tackling environmental issues.
 Jane Suiter, ‘Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight 7(3) (2016), 25–7.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (London: Allen Lane, 2014) for a more detailed picture of this strand.
 Speech at Countryfile Live, 2018.