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The Ecological Power Gap in Sweden

Ecological imperialism is a "blind spot" for environmentalists who cannot see the connection between war and ecocide. We would expect environmentalists to fight for disarmament and support the conversion of military technology into civilian production.

Advertisement for a military submarine as a part of "nature" where defense firms are portrayed as ecological actors: A symbol of Sweden's new brand of ecological militarism. ,

On March 29, 2023 Swedish Television (SVT) reported the findings of the Climate Policy Council that the new right-wing Swedish government's policy was was insufficient for achieving the country's climate goals. Emissions had to be reduced more quickly if the parliament's climate goals were to be reached. The council was also critical of the government's climate policy and said that it was it was "the first time in two decades that a change in policy has led to increased emissions." Cecilia Hermansson, chair of the Climate Policy Council, stated that "it would be remarkable and serious if changes to Sweden's national policy would lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in our country." For several years this Council warned that emissions needed to be reduced more and even believe that Sweden lost control over the process even as the European Union tightened its goals. The Council's recent report stated that "instead of quickly reducing emissions, the changes decided and announced so far will, on the contrary, also according to the government's own assessment, increase emissions in the near term." A poll publicized in Dagens Nyheter found that the share believing that the ruling government was doing a bad job increased from 43% in November 2022 to 55% in March 2023. The poll found that 37% supported the Social Democrats and 37% supported the two largest right-wing parties (the Moderate Party and the Swedish Democrats).

The Displacement of Environmentalism is a Failure to "Connect the Dots"

How did a nation whose prime minister, Olof Palme, promoted the idea of "ecocide" on the global stage become one of the premier advertising agents for green militarism? The problems are not simply external to environmental and peace movements. The answer to the question tells us a lot about the failures of environmentalists to systematically accumulate power. These failures have to do with internal weaknesses and external threats from complexes of power that integrate economic, political and media capital. Let's relate these external threats to internal organizing logic. If complexes of concentrated capital stop ecological progress, then isn't the creation of ecological complexes based on systematic accumulation of diverse forms of capital the necessary answer? I have discussed elsewhere why this is the appropriate if not necessary response in various writings about left theories of technology, power and social change as well in other research about the advancement of green transit production. Simply deferring to state reform and market mechanisms won't work.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's forthcoming report, Brad Plumer in The New York Times explains, says that the world is "likely to cross a critical threshold for global warming within the next decade, and nations will need to make an immediate and drastic shift away from fossil fuels to prevent the planet from overheating dangerously beyond that level." A commentary on this report in Swedish radio on March 26, 2023, noted how crime and other issues have reduced the public's focus on climate change. Novus, the poll agency, presented data on their poll regarding the most important political question in Sweden for March 2023. Here they found the following: "Swedes' most important political issue continues to be the healthcare issue (57%), followed by law and order (51%). The third most important issue also continues to be school and education (44%). Energy policy rises again now to fourth place (43%). Immigration/integration (42%) thus drops to fifth place. When it comes to the question of the environment and climate, we have divided these political issues into two so that the respondents have had to take a position on the climate separately and the environment separately. The climate (31%) ends up in eighth place – a significant decrease compared to the previous survey of 11 percentage points, and the environment (27%) drops to tenth place."

The poll data which suggest that a down-grading of environmental politics in the face of other pressing concerns simply refers to a totality in which budget priorities, capitalism, bureaucratic/state failure, militarism and the unaccountable aspects of technocracy systematically generate problems. The technocracy represents the bureaucratic decision-makers who organize policy from above. Most political parties fail to connect the dots, celebrate the state or the market, and fail to understand the common root of problems in the weakness or absence of democratic accountability systems and mechanisms to advance power accumulation supporting social inclusion, equitable economic development, and sustainability. These mechanisms govern the organization of energy, transportation, and the provision of basic goods like food and clothing. The best way to advance ecological concerns is to show its relationship with other issues, e.g. more money for war is less money for alternative energy, social inclusion and the capacity to reduce the fragmentation that triggers crime. Far right parties capitalize on failures in integration which they promote by supporting militarist budget diversions, weakening of immigrants' capacities, and racist babble that dominates the airwaves.

From Militarist Dystopia to Ecological Imperialism

People who have closely followed Swedish environmental policy have noticed that there are important gaps. The divides are not just based on fuel subsidies, culture wars against wind power and military forces' opposition to wind power. They are also based on the "social amnesia" (or displacement of memory) of key environmental thinkers as documented here.  The divide is also defined by the systemic import of goods from places like China; These imports represent ecological imperialism or ecologically unequal exchange.   Sweden lets China manufacture dirty products for it. Sweden also exports jet fighters, which increase the carbon footprint in countries such as Thailand, India and Brazil. In the past, Swedish leaders like Inga Thorsson supported disarmament and conversion to promote ecological goals as well as a more peaceful world. Today, the military industrial complex engages in poster campaigns that advertise ecological military submarines.

This ecological imperialism is a "blind spot" for some environmentalists or environmentalists who cannot see the connection between war and ecocide. If the military's big technologies promote ecocide, just as wars precipitated them, we would expect environmentalists to fight for disarmament. Disarmament requires the conversion of military technology into civilian production. John F. Kennedy, President of the United States, supported comprehensive general and complete disarmament. Some political scientists say that this speech was simply a political move and Kennedy was not serious. This argument is irrelevant because Kennedy's speech opened the discursive space to support disarmament, just like President Dwight D. Eisenhower's speech about the "military industrial complex."

Five Ways Ecological Power is Constrained

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The reduction of ecological power is based on five key principles, one of which has been explained. First, a memory failure, "social amnesia," where previous ideas are forgotten. The forgotten ideas include a discussion about "jobs blackmail" in which the advancement of ecological goals is said to threaten jobs. The problems generated by the failure to address the potential but not necessary tradeoff between ecological goals and growth is a lesson already learned by scholar activists within the United States during the 1980s. Yet, this lesson about the need to integrate ecological and economic goals has not been applied sufficiently within the ecological movement in Sweden. While the Green Party has talked about the integration, others promote a zero growth scarcity that simply provides fuel for extremist parties fueled by scarcity and austerity. Even the Green Party and others on the left have backed policies causing economic hardship for those dependent on fossil fuels or polluting measures. The purchase of electric cars is limited to those having greater financial means, although a limited number can use such vehicles as part of a service attached to their jobs, e.g. taxi drivers.

Second, another problem is created by the institutionalization and "fossilization" of social movements' driving force. Radical movements used to shape environmental policy, now much of this policy is mediated by politicians, corporations, NGOs and the technocracy. Some companies are pioneers, but sometimes the change is dependent upon collaboration with social movements. This coalition can bring about radical changes, e.g. partnership or connections between movements and wind power in Denmark. Basically, some movement people become co-opted by the deal-making and diplomacy required to work with Social Democrats (none of whom could bring themselves to vote against NATO, another machine supporting ecological devastation which attempts to greenwash a pathway to displace its responsibility for diverting resources needed to ecological renewal).

Third, systemic social change requires the deployment of mediating and proactive actors in religious institutions, unions, universities, study circles, community colleges, civil rights groups, and other actors involved in resource exchanges (or mutual aid) supporting transformative coalition politics.  Many environmental leaders cannot bring themselves to promote connections, however. The environmental movement is too white, often avoids discussions of demilitarization, and rarely addresses divestment from polluters (a key focus here must be on banks' contributions towards climate change, but there are no visible campaigns aimed at banks). Nor can the peace movement demonstrate a connection between social exclusion and military budgets (in contrast to what Martin Luther King advocated during the Vietnam War in the U.S.). Social movements are serialized, where various ideas and groups are disconnected from each other.

The fourth problem concerns a failure to organize through coalitions from below as opposed to engaging in attempts that petition the technocracy. Ecological theory suggests that changes are needed from the top down as well as bottom up. Yet change from below is often absent or weak. Here are some examples: 1) Environmental organizations have a very weak presence on university campuses, concentrating efforts on a special green week, but do not showing up systematically on campuses to solicit and raise money; 2) There is no mobilization to transform universities to become more green; 3) There are no penalties for leaving lights on in offices and classrooms or failing to recycle products properly at universities; 4) There are no poster campaigns that are visible in the public sphere because it is considered old-fashioned in contrast to the Internet (yet any Internet intervention has to compete with millions of other websites and ubiquitous practices of corporations and franchise chains); 5) There are no mass meeting mobilizations where the whole country gathers in media-mediated face-to-face gatherings tied to strategic actions, e.g. boycott grossly unecological products, or forge connections among issues. The right seized the initiative by linking ecological controls to higher gas prices and electricity shortages to the left's abandonment of nuclear power. While the market and decay of nuclear power plants led to the abandonment of nuclear power, right-wing politicians systematically mis-represented the truth and blamed left or ecological parties. Swedish media, particularly on television, did not forcefully attack the lies. Those paying more for gas did not want to be economically penalized by taxes. The problems here are the moral vacuity of the middle class when it comes to paying more for fossil fuel usage, the absence of even greater state subsidies for electric cars, and the way in which the state, media, and military championed subsidies for militarism rather than a green transition. The Social Democrats' embrace of NATO, war and militarism and failures to capitalize on the crime issue helped sink their party in the recent parliamentary election.

The fifth problem concerns a failure to properly organize economic and media power. On the economic front, the key effort would be a campaign to invest in green entrepreneurs, innovators and cooperatives where employees democratically make decisions.  I recently attended a briefing of leading Scandinavian alternative energy companies in March (2023) and did not see many ecological organizations present. Economic democracy is a way to democratize capital for environmental work. I don't hear green politicians talking about it, even when they are addressing a supposedly "left" audience. When it comes to media power, the basic approach is to trust that established media will do their job properly. One idea is to just appear in the media. When Dagens Nyheter invited Greta Thunberg to edit a special issue of the newspaper, they thought it would bring change. Nevertheless, this newspaper has advocated Swedish military commitments and NATO involvement that represent ecocidal tendencies and budget restructuring towards militarism. When debates among parliamentary leaders come about, the media demonizes the Green Party as inconvenient and a nuisance or threat for the lifestyles of the middle class. The appropriate response is direct action and protest outside television stations and other media. Instead, the movement response is a passive do-nothing, fatalism, sadness and cheerleading by green politicians whom the media isolates when not demonizing them.

Towards an Ecological Solution through Economic and Social Reconstruction

All these failures indicate that we need a new political party in Sweden to compensate for incumbent politicians' limitations. A new political party could address the shortcomings of both right-wing and left-wing discourse. The survey identified in the link provided here tries to identify the gaps in Swedish discourse. The goal is to promote system change, not climate change. This link illustrates the issues at stake in Swedish discourse. The incompetence of contemporary parties suggests the pathway for system change. Of course, creating a political party before economic and media power is sufficiently accumulated might not be tactically wise. Yet, organizing for such a party to address the intellectual vacuum would be very wise. Ultimately, one needs a social movement and audience mobilization, that organizes consumption and financial power, that promotes proactive media power and thus political power and supported by cooperative/innovative interventions. The creation of new institutional spaces is an urgent need. Society needs to be reconstructed. The capacities of individuals to create such institutions based on their own capacities is a basic principle of economic and social reconstruction. Cooperatives are based on these principles of leveraging the power of consumption, work, finance and rent payments, etc., to build new institutional spaces for promoting social change and equitable development. Reconstruction also requires that we divest and pressure the banks, oil companies and defense firms wrecking the ecosystem as I have outlined elsewhere (ideas championed by Bill McKibben in the U.S. and Sasja Beslik in Sweden).

Note:  This is a slightly revised copy of an article that originally appeared in CounterPunch (…).

Jonathan Michael Feldman specializes in research related to political economy, disarmament, green economics and studies related to democracy. He writes periodically for Counterpunch and Portside. He is an associate professor at The Department of Economic History and International Relations at Stockholm University.