Thinking beyond that coloured label

GREAT movements in politics and history have always been underpinned by powerful ideas. In the historic conflict between capital and labour, one side championed the ideas of socialism, and the other a mixture of liberalism and conservatism.

But what powerful ideas underpin the newest global political force, the Greens? Although the Greens represent something new in politics, both their enemies and friends try to categorise their ideas under the old labels of right and left, based on the class war.

Some Greens supporters see their party as the rebirth of a defeated left. They emphasise it is not just an environmental party but one which stands for human rights, trade union rights and radical egalitarianism. In this mixture the genuinely new and profound ideas on the environment are sometimes in danger of being lost.

This plays into the hands of critics who label the Greens "watermelons": green on the outside and red on the inside.

But the Greens are not a rebirth of the left. In spite of their tough criticism of corporate power, they do not propose the abolition of capitalism. The clash between labour and capital is not fundamental to world view. Rather, it is about humanity's relationship with nature.

According to the Greens leader and author Drew Hutton, green politics are about "changing the nature of human relationships with the planet and other species on the planet".

The economic battle is not to redistribute wealth or abolish the market but to make the economy sustainable. Some greens have seized on the market mechanism as one way of allocating scarce resources, by attributing a much higher value to water, coal, oil and other finite resources. In its own way this is the direction of the Kyoto agreement.

But neither market liberalism nor socialism are the founding ideas of the Greens. Surprisingly, the central idea of the Greens is a kind of conservatism of a new kind.

The British sociologist Anthony Giddens points this out. He argues the modern free market economy brings radical changes. An ever-expanding capitalism runs up against the environmental limits of the world and the freer play of markets and globalisation has the effect of making communal life less traditional. The security associated with regular jobs, stable community and family life and social solidarity is undermined by the spread of markets beyond the economy.

As a result of this radicalism, he argues, "what might be called philosophic conservatism - a philosophy of protection, conservation and solidarity - acquires a new relevance for political radicalism today".

The old paradigm of right, meaning conservative, and left, meaning radical, is eroding. A conservative frame of mind does not necessarily rely on the old verities of race, church and nation.

Conservative instincts often lie behind the political support of the Greens. Take the issues of genetic engineering and biotechnology. Many regard criticism of biotechnology as left-wing, but one of the most thoughtful critics is the conservative Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama fears that continuing to apply biotechnology to humans will alter human nature and will move us into a posthuman stage of history. The stage may see the rise of new problems such as a genetically superior social elite, the creation of generations living well over 100 years, the possibility of new types of quasi-humans. He wonders what would happen to the notion of human dignity and equal worth of all humans. So do Greens.

Green ideas intersect with the conservative tradition in other ways. The conservative British philosopher Michael Oakeshott argued that to be conservative "is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss".

To prefer the sufficient to the superabundant could well be the motto of a society which rejects consumerism and which does not seek fulfilment through ever-increasing material goods. Frugal habits have been abandoned as a cornucopia of commodities are endlessly generated. This is common ground between greens and conservative church figures in Australia today.

Tradition is central to conservatism and green thinking. Practices handed down to us are the result of many generations of trial and error and should be valued.

But as well as the traditions of humans, tradition presents itself through the ecology of the planet. The inter-dependence of living organisms which has evolved through millions of years is a tradition indeed. But radical markets driven by profit attach no value to ecological tradition.

Conservatives in this instance strive for sustainability. The conservative philosopher Professor John Gray says that there is a natural congruence between the ideas of the great British conservative Edmund Burke and green ideas. Burke saw society governed by a social contract, not as an agreement among anonymous ephemeral individuals, but as a compact between the generations of the living, the dead and those yet unborn. This conservative idea that the present generation must act as stewards of heritage, on behalf of our ancestors and to the yet unborn generations, is virtually identical to that found in the Greens.

At its heart the shared ground between conservatism and green ideas is in scepticism towards ever-increasing progress. By contrast, Enlightenment theories of liberalism and socialism share a notion of unending progress based on the accumulation of material goods. Such theories have no concept of enough.

This version of the good life and progress is understandable, since material deprivation for masses of people is still in living memory in industrial countries and is a living reality for millions in developing countries. But endless material progress on the model of advanced industrial countries cannot be applied to the rest of the world because it is simply unsustainable at a global scale.

If the Greens are to consolidate their gains and expand, they need to recognise that part of their message is a conservative one. It is deeply attractive to certain conservative instincts and this should not be a matter for embarrassment but for celebration.

The image of green politics as left-wing and radical not only drives away potential supporters, it more importantly straitjackets new politics into old categories.