Liberal Languages: Ideological Imaginations and Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought

By Michael Freeden | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Political Theory and the Environment:
Nurturing a Sustainable Relationship

NEW MAPS FOR OLD?

Consider sitting on a tree. Every year in Oxford hundreds of human beings sit on trees. Most of them are children, often in their backgardens, scrambling over branches, hiding in their tree houses. Some are adults, out for a walk, looking for a view, or a place to rest for a while when the ground is wet. Sitting on trees is a recreational activity, and has been so since time immemorial. Not long ago, one group of adults chose to sit on trees on the site of the Oxford-Business-School-to-be. Was that a recreational activity? I doubt it. The act was the same, but the human behaviour around it was far from routine.

So how do we make sense of such acts? We need to fold up the map we usually use when stumbling across people in trees, and obtain a new one. Political maps interpret practices, which are recurring acts (whether deliberate or not) engaged in by groups of people. If sitting on trees in anger is a one-off event, we may deem it insufficiently significant to map. Yet in recent years the innocuous activity of sitting on trees has been redefined as a saliently political practice, a protest. True, Robin Hood's merry men sat on trees in preparation for ambushing the Sheriff of Nottingham's cohorts. But changing military technologies have marginalised that particular tactic. Now once again we require a new theoretical map in order to realise that, rather suddenly, a set of observable actions no longer inhabits the semantic field in which we have been accustomed to find it. Indeed, even if we define sitting on a tree as a political act, further, competing maps may be necessary to decide what kind of political act it is. Political maps are never just descriptive of a terrain, but interpretative and organisational; they are themselves a form of scholarly as well as imaginative creativity. Moreover, the practices they identify may both embody and generate theory.

Some of the ecological protesters claimed to act as guardians of those trees' right to life, perhaps even—if this isn't overstating the case—to dignified life. This argument by analogy sounds more familiar to advocates of natural law, as well as to procedural rights theorists. According to that argument the tree-sitters were, at different levels of articulation, superimposing a set of fundamental philosophical beliefs drawn from current debates onto their actions and the objects of their actions. They were confer

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