There is, and has been from the beginning, much confusion about the difference between ‘environmentalism’ and ‘ecology’, as can be seen in statements put out by PEOPLE’s founders all the way through to the national Green Party in 2018.
Although they often used the word ‘environment’ to describe their politics PEOPLE (the first name of the Green Party) was really an ecological party, from the beginning. The name PEOPLE (always spelt in capitals), however, caused some confusion. Because of it many observers believed the party was primarily concerned with social justice. To correct this impression the party decided, in 1975, to change its name to the Ecology Party. It wanted to firmly root its approach in the new thinking being promulgated by The Ecologist magazine and others.
The reason the party called itself ‘Ecology’ and not ‘Environment’ is that the two concepts are really quite different. The ‘environment’ is literally our ‘surroundings’, that which is outside of us, and it includes our natural, social, built and historic environments etc. ‘Ecology’ is, in contrast, the study of the interconnections that comprise life, and ‘Political Ecology’ is the political philosophy that grew out of the realisation that everything is inter-connected. And humans are very much part of the picture, as is all of life and all non-living things; rock, concrete, light etc. Ecology is a new way of looking at the world. It recognises the inherent oneness of life, holism. It’s about life itself.
‘Ecologism’ is a new word. It’s basically the theory of ‘political ecology’. It gives inherent value to life and to nature. This is in stark contrast to the anthropocentric (human-centred) approach of other political traditions, which give value to nature only in so far as it has utility for humans. ‘Environmentalism’ can be, and often is, anthropocentric. It should not be taken as synonymous with green politics. It is really quite different The key words that describe political ecology, or ecologism, are ‘life’, ‘health’ and ‘systems’. And the primary duty of political ecologists is the preservation of life itself.
The inherent problem with ‘environmentalism’, and even the concept of a ‘natural environment’, is that it only concerns those things outside of us humans. It’s a word that assumes we are inherently separate, observers rather than participants, and this reflects human estrangement from nature, from life. ‘Environmentalism’ is an approach that can be associated with liberalism, socialism, conservatism and so forth. This is why so many mainstream politicians are happy to describe themselves as ‘environmentalists’. It can signal support for a wide range of single issues like renewable energy, species protection or even litter-picking, but it doesn’t inherently make links with other issues, or require change to our economic and political systems, as ‘ecology’ does.
At its foundation there was a close association between the Ecology Party and The Ecologist magazine. In 1972 The Ecologist set up the Movement for Survival, the world’s first ecology ‘party’. Movement later merged with PEOPLE, before becoming the Ecology Party, and eventually the Green Party. The Ecologist’s editor and Movement’s founder, Teddy Goldsmith, was an early member of PEOPLE and stood as a PEOPLE candidate during the October 1974 General Election. He also authored what has been labelled the world’s first ecological manifesto, Blueprint for Survival.
Green politics is rooted in ecologism and the practice that stems from that, political ecology. On this site we make every effort to ensure correct terminology so that the two concepts, ‘environmentalism’ and ‘ecology’ are not confused.