Green Truth

Ghia Nodia

"Green" activism has returned to Georgia. This is its second wave. The first wave occurred in the sunset of the communist system when, as in many other countries of the region, green activists appeared in the avant-garde of opposition movements, only to disappear soon thereafter. Today, the situation is absolutely different: environmentalists have an ambition to find the "third way," a morally superior and genuinely European path outside the realm of the United National Movement vs Georgian Dream confrontation.

Although Green activism continued to exist in between these two waves, it came in the form of donor-funded non-governmental organizations. I know that many people working for such initiatives honestly and diligently performed the task of protecting our environment. However, similar to other segments of the "third sector" it was a closed sect and did not have much influence on public attitudes.

In contrast to such initiatives, both the current form of Green activism and the first wave that occurred 25 years ago are public, not professional movements. They can attract sufficient numbers of people to their rallies for these to be covered on television and thus draw the attention of politicians. A concrete manifestation of this can, for example, be seen in the recent election campaign, during which candidates for the position of Tbilisi Mayor competed with one another in their promises to "make Tbilisi green."

In the late 1980s, protest movements against the construction of the Trans-Caucasian railway and the Khudoni Hydro Power Plant had an even stronger resonance and both of these movements achieved their goals. That, however, proved to be a transitional stage: bringing environmental topics to the fore was a relatively safe, apolitical form of opposition – though, in reality, anticommunist and nationalist ideas lay behind such undertakings. Once the demand for national independence was openly made, the Green agenda ceased being fashionable for quite a long time. Such environmental activity actually proved to be the springboard for the most famous "Green" – Zurab Zhvania – to enter true politics.

Now, we can say that true Greens have emerged in Georgia. What does their emergence herald and what is the essence of this movement?

A Green middle class

Firstly, the enhancement of Green activism is an indicator that the urban middle class has increased and broadened in Georgia, i.e. the stratum of professionals with quite high levels of education and somewhat stable incomes. Secondly, a more or less stable and predictable social and political environment has been established – at least, a segment of society perceives the situation as such. The number of those who are no longer concerned about whether they will have enough money to buy bread tomorrow, about when electricity or water will be supplied, or whether a violent revolution or ethnic conflict will ruin their lives, has increased. A greater number of people can now spend their time and energy on such issues that sociologists sometimes define as "post-material."

Another prerequisite of Green activism is the creation of a critical mass of culturally westernized people. This is a necessity because this ideology and its methods are entirety Western imports.

It is a paradox, but the establishment of such conditions was a result of the rule of the United National Movement – a political party that has never been inspired by "Green" ideas. But it was that very party that turned Georgia into a modern state with a fundamentally modern economy (at least in the urban parts) and a relatively modern society. The Green mindset is a post-modern ideology, which means that it is only possible in a modern society.

It is also important that the nine year crossover period of modernization has ended. No matter how much we might argue about its merits, a large segment of society considered the rule of the United National Movement to have been authoritarian and perceived its departure from power with "relief" from being freed from some sort of burden. Switching to the Green agenda was one expression of this relief.

True, being Green is not the only attitude predominantly favored by the urban middle class. Liberalism, in its classic form, with both rightist or leftist branches, as well as socialism (no matter how much the latter camouflages itself as the ideology of working class) are other such attitudes. What distinguishes Green activism in particular?

Green rationalism

We can define the Green agenda in absolutely pragmatic and rational terms. It seeks a more efficient use of natural resources in order to provide as comfortable a life as practicable for as long as possible.

This is a form of the long-term egotism of mankind. At the same time, this is the mindset of the educated middle class, i.e. the prudent bourgeois, who think not only about an egg today but also about a hen for their as yet unborn grandchildren.

The term "sustainable development" has come to denote this attitude. Even the United National Movement made the decision to include this term in the official name of the Ministry of Economy. Although that rebranding has changed virtually nothing, it is noteworthy that the government labeled "neo-liberal" still paid tribute to the intellectual fashion. This term, however, is devoid of any specific meaning. It is a slogan, an expression of a wish to have strategies of economic development drawn up in ways that minimize negative environmental impacts.

That desire is natural and rational. In practice, however, economic development constantly comes into conflict with the imperative of protecting the environment, and it seems that nothing can be done to avoid that. However, this does not mean that we must choose between the two: either to ignore nature and implement any economically profitable project or to reject economic growth and gradually move into caves for fear of harming the environment. Compromises are always necessary and these compromises are achieved in debates between environmentalists and economic development agents. Although the developed world is "Green" to a certain extent, i.e. it undertakes certain measures to protect nature, any developed society also inflicts a degree of harm to the natural environment ("harm" in this case may mean any change).

If we understand the Green ideology in this way, then defining it as "post-material" or "post-modern" becomes rather questionable. This is a calculation of material interests undertaken by rational individuals, though these interests are calculated in the long-term perspective.

Green religion

The true form of Green activism is not, however, as a rule, confined to rational calculations. It is based on a sort of new religion made up of an interesting mixture of rationalism and mysticism.

It stems from double negation. On the one hand, people are no longer content with a liberal order built upon the cult of the individual, something which requires constant calculation and boring – and as a rule highly debatable – compromises: how to balance the inviolability of a person with the need for public order; minority rights with the inviolability of borders; free entrepreneurship with social solidarity; an egg today with a hen tomorrow; and so on and so forth. The result is always unsatisfactory whilst a number of important values are compromised. Individuals, however, want something absolute and morally unambiguous.

Something of that nature is usually provided by religion, however – and here lies the second negation – traditional institutionalized religions no longer seem to be satisfactory for the educated middle class: those religions are backward, dogmatic, in conflict with science, et cetera. Something more, something genuine, is needed. What can be more genuine than nature, life and its eternal cycle? A natural equilibrium, a form of homeostasis, thus occupies the place of sacred order; interfering with and altering it with the help of technological means is indicative of the inherent sinfulness of human beings. Any person with such a mindset is ultra-modern, but, on the other hand, such a view is a return to initial perceptions that precede not only science but also universal religions. The new ideal is related not to a person and his/her autonomy, but to something preceding people: natural organic harmony. Nature has a principled advantage over people: it is without vice. If there is any intellectual movement that deserves the epithet of being "post-modern" it is definitely the Green "religion" (but not just pragmatically caring for a sustainable and stable environment).

Like other religions, the Green religion is also marked by absolutism and radicalism that rely on the sharp opposition of vice and virtue. Business represents the enemy which, nudged by sinful motives (material greed), destroys and angers sacred nature. Nature may retaliate against this with such punishments as natural disasters and global warming (was not the flood described in the Bible also a natural disaster?).
Rejection of the Green agenda is automatically viewed as an unforgivable sin, a moral defect against which psychological aggression is legitimate. The categoricalness of Green activism (just like its cousin, animal rights protection) has developed into fanaticism. It resembles religious fundamentalism in its ethos.

An example of this is found in attitudes towards global warming. I personally treat this issue with caution and skepticism: I do not have sufficient competence to discuss this issue, whilst some scientists I respect believe in this hypothesis, others do not. The former category is in the majority, but when has a scientific truth ever been established according to the principle of the majority? For me, the key issue now is not the scientific dimension, but the tendency for the subject to be moralized. Some environmentalists, with absolute sincerity, call for the denial of global warming caused by human beings to be made a criminal offence similar to that of denying the Holocaust. Many of those who disagree with such an opinion still tend to view the issue of belief/disbelief in global warming not as an issue for scientific discussion, but rather as part of a moral vice vs virtue debate.

The radicalism of the Green religion can also be seen in its attitude towards the law. Such movements often openly call for a breach of the law. During the discussions that our "guerilla gardeners" and defenders of Vake Park conduct on social networks a clear ideological line has emerged: we must use the law for our interests wherever we can, but, in general, our ideals are more important than the law. The rule of law is not something that the "Green activists" acknowledge. This is logical: laws drafted by the sinful cannot compete with the absolute nature of homeostasis. Nor is it necessary to protect the bourgeois principle of "truth:"

if need be, in order to alert society, deliberately exaggerating the situation and openly spreading lies is also justified because "Nature is with us."

Rational and religious

What kind of conclusion can be drawn out? Protection of nature is an inseparable attribute of a developed society. The fact that groups have emerged in Georgia to, for example, voice their protest against trees being cut down, is good. First, this is an indicator that we are becoming a more developed (and more civil) society; second, it is definitely better to live and breathe in a green environment than in a concrete desert, and we must get more people engaged in taking care of that.

But moderation is necessary in everything, including in the happiness caused by the fact that the emergence of "guerilla gardeners" brings us closer to Europe. The line between rational environmentalism and religious-fanatic environmentalism exists in theory, but it is not easy to find it in practice. It is especially difficult to observe moderation based on common sense in a society that has a culture of, and tendency towards, radicalism.

I have observed that our new Green activists become very irritated when they are asked specific questions (for example, "what, specifically, is wrong with the construction of a namesake hotel on location of the former Budapest restaurant?"). They get irritated not because they do not have any answers (though they sometimes get confused), but because such questions move them from the general discourse of moralization (Green virtue vs capitalist vice) into the realm of calculations and the search for a desirable compromise that must be found between the interests of specific individuals and mutually conflicting priorities.

Green activists are good when they serve as a group helping to prevent a society oriented on economic development from forgetting about the important issue of the long term protection of the environment. However, if they become excessively influential, their radicalism and their claims about having a monopoly on the truth may become dangerous. It is especially so in a poor society that requires fast economic development in the same way that a person needs air.


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