Alex Begg, 'Empowering the Earth'

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Review by Alan Paxton

“We started in a small way, but now this has snowballed to an extent where you don't know what will happen next....” (Guardian Weekly, 14 September 2000). It was one of the most successful protests in Britain for years, causing severe disruption to road and rail transport. Within two months the government was making concessions to the protesters' demands - lower taxes on road vehicles and their fuel.

Resistance and empowerment are sometimes commanded by activists almost as ends in themselves. But are some forms of empowerment right and others wrong? Alex Begg's book addresses these issues, drawing on his wide experience as an activist in British Green Party politics, in environmental direct action, and in the co-operative movement. He develops a theory of power to help Greens and other activists work effectively for social change.

Begg distinguishes hierarchical “power-over”, in which an individual or group controls others, from the non-hierarchical “power-to” of people exercising power over themselves. Power-to is his preferred “natural way”, for the natural processes which sustain life embody its compassion, creativity, connectedness and balance. This requires nonviolence, for direct action must not become coercive “eco-fascism”. With the aid of systems theory he suggests how Greens can construct social and economic alternatives which engage with the dominant system of power over without being co-opted by it.

He also advocates an empowering Green spirituality which will enable us to be authentic without succumbing to the “archaic and superstitious” organised religions of “power-from”, with their male sky-gods mediated by Priestly hierarchies. What is authenticity? “No one can tell anyone else what is authentic for them”, Begg replies, it is a “power coming from within us” which is “a drive to be what we can be”.

This kind of talk raises several problems. It considers values to be a matter of individual preference, not of nature's way or any other shared ethical system. The prophetic witness of, say, Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day or Martin Luther King, is ruled out. It assumes that “spirituality” can exist outside religious tradition, but equips Begg with a vocabulary comprising little more than personal growth cliches intuition, “inner nature”, being `true to yourself. This “de-traditioned” spirituality looks suspiciously like the liberal individualism which legitimates consumer capitalism.

How are Greens to respond to the cheap fuel lobbyists? Their ways are not just or sustainable, but they may reply that nature is not necessarily compassionate, either. And what if my inner self, constituted by the discourses of consumer capitalism, decides that, to be “authentic”, it must buy a bigger car and drive to the out-of-town shopping mall? Perhaps we need a book on Green ethics to accompany this one on power.

Topics: Green
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