Divide and Rule: How the Growing Rift between Peace, Climate, and Social Justice Movements Is Cementing a Ruinous Status Quo

By Fabian Scheidler

Environmental and peace movements are profoundly divided in many countries today. The Covid crisis and the Ukraine war have further deepened these divisions. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many Green parties, especially in Germany, have increasingly advocated rearmament and a militarization of foreign policy.

Yet environmental and peace movements were closely linked for decades. Greenpeace, for example, emerged from the peace movement; it was founded in 1971 against U.S. nuclear bomb tests in Alaska. Subsequently, it was concerned with saving whales and resisting militarization.

In Germany, the founding of the Green Party in the late 1970s brought these movements together and linked them to a postcapitalist social transformation. The 1980 manifesto stated, “Ecological foreign policy is nonviolent policy. . . . Nonviolence does not mean capitulation, but securing peace and life by political means instead of military ones. . . . The development of a civilian power founded in the guiding value of peace must go hand in hand with the immediate dissolution of the military blocs, above all NATO and the Warsaw Pact.” The manifesto also demanded the “dismantling of the German arms industry and its conversion to peaceful production, e.g., to new energy systems and manufacturing for environmental protection.” With regard to our economic system, it stated, “The large corporations are to be disentangled into manageable enterprises that are democratically self-governed by the people working there.” And finally: “We condemn the presumption of the industrialized countries to impose their uniform technical-materialistic civilization on all people on the basis of economic interests.”

How the Green Party turned around 180 degrees

And today? The party with a green name is doing exactly the opposite of what it once advocated in practically all areas. As early as 1999, during the war in Yugoslavia, Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer helped push through the bombing of Serbia alongside the U.S. in violation of international law—the first war of aggression from German soil since 1945. For today’s Green Foreign Minister and chief diplomat Annalena Baerbock, diplomacy in the Ukraine war is taboo. She thus unconditionally adopts the positions of the neoconservative hawks in the U.S. State Department. Her role model, according to her own statements, is Madeleine Albright, who famously stated that the deaths of an estimated 500,000 children as a result of U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq were “worth it.” Baerbock, like many party colleagues, has long been involved in transatlantic networks, for example as a fellow at the German Marshall Fund. Many Green Party leaders, including Claudia Roth, Cem Özdemir, and Karin Göring-Eckhardt, were members of the Atlantic Bridge, a network of bankers, military strategists, media pundits, and politicians whose goal is to tie Germany even more deeply to U.S. economic and military interests. The party’s current chairman, Omid Nouripour, is even on the organization’s board. The co-optation has paid off: the party advocates rearmament, NATO expansion, and the militarization of foreign policy more vehemently than any other. The Greens are also the most loyal acolytes of the U.S. hawks in the confrontation against China.

In terms of environmental policy, the party has also made a 180-degree turn. In order to replace Russian natural gas, Green Economics Minister Robert Habeck is pushing through the fast-track construction of LNG terminals in sensitive nature reserves. In this way, one of the most climate-damaging energy sources in the world is being imported on a grand scale: fracked gas from the U.S. In spring, the Green Minister of the Interior of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia used massive police force to clear protest camps of thousands of climate activists protesting against the expansion of opencast lignite mining. The federal party leadership had previously agreed to the destruction of more villages for this largest source of CO2 in Europe. The devastating environmental and climate impact of the new arms race is also not an issue for the Green Party—not to mention a conversion of the arms industry to green technology, as once called for.

In the field of human rights, which Green politicians loudly claim to champion, the party has meanwhile betrayed almost everything that was once in its program. In the case of Julian Assange, leading Greens had called for the journalist’s release before the last federal election. Since the party has been in government, however, almost no word has been heard about the case. And this despite the fact that Assange’s extradition could now be imminent and even the Australian prime minister is calling for the case to be dropped. The Green Party’s subservience to U.S. interests is now seamless. Most recently, the party also agreed to further tighten EU asylum laws. Already, tens of thousands of migrants have died at the EU’s highly militarized external border, and the new regulations are likely to increase that number.

The deep rifts between the climate and peace movements

The Green Party has hardly any intersections with what it once was; today it stands neither for peace nor for human rights nor for credible environmental and climate protection. But what about the movements? The climate movement has galvanized and mobilized millions of people for its cause and successfully challenged the fossil core of the military-industrial complex, often against the policies of the Green Party. But it wants nothing to do with the new peace movement. In Germany, supporters of the left party MP Sahra Wagenknecht and the feminist Alice Schwarzer, for example, who were able to mobilize 50,000 people for a peace demonstration in Berlin in February, are considered by many climate activists to be too soft on Russia, if not Putin stooges in disguise. Conversely, many of those who today advocate a negotiated solution in Ukraine are at the same time calling for cheap fossil fuels; some see climate protection as a threat to their model of prosperity. The rifts are deep.

Yet peace, ecology, climate, and social justice are inseparable even today. The new bloc confrontation with China and Russia means that hundreds of billions of dollars and euros are flowing into the most destructive industry on earth—the military—and are no longer available for a socio-ecological transformation. The new cold war also blocks urgently needed international agreements to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Diplomacy and détente, as difficult as they may be today, are therefore indispensable for preserving our livelihoods.

Conversely, peace and justice cannot be gained without ambitious climate and biodiversity protection. We are facing dangerous tipping points in the Earth system, whether in the Amazon rainforest, the permafrost soils of Siberia, or the ice masses of Greenland and West Antarctica. If they are exceeded, the Earth threatens to tip into a completely new state, the “Hothouse Earth,” parts of South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa could become uninhabitable. The already devastating droughts in Europe could escalate into water emergencies that threaten our very existence.

Left to their own devices, all individual movements, whether for climate, peace, or social justice, are doomed to failure. An isolated peace movement has little chance against a new cross-party militarism; a climate movement that focuses only on its own core issue and does not form broad alliances will not be able to gain sufficient strength and social acceptance. The increasing polarization and division benefit only those who want to maintain the current ruinous world order as long as possible.

For these reasons, attempts to bridge the gaps are crucial. This is quite challenging, to be sure. For it would be necessary to look at what has made the rifts so deep. That doesn’t only apply to the war in Ukraine and energy policy. A serious reappraisal of the Corona era, which has left many wounds, is also key. It would mean overcoming social and ideological barriers and restart talking to each other, where dialogue has broken down. It may feed our egos to be out and about in one’s Twitter / X bubble and to occupy panels with one’s political friends, but it is of little help in the current global situation.

“Alone, they will wear you down” was once sung by the legendary German band Ton Steine Scherben. The history of social movements proves them right. It is only when movements of different milieus and thrusts join forces that things get uncomfortable for the political and economic elites. In the 1960s and 70s, it was the confluence of the black civil rights movement with resistance to the Vietnam War, Indigenous movements, the women’s movement, and, finally, the emerging ecology movement that shook the postwar structure of power. The U.S. government was so concerned about this system-shaking cooperation that it tasked the FBI with extensive clandestine operations designed to “discredit, destabilize, and demoralize” the movements. This program, known as COINTELPRO to the general public through leaks in 1971, sowed the spirit of division with the help of agents provocateurs, among others, who propagated sectarian positions.

The left has always been very good at dismantling and dividing itself; it doesn’t necessarily need the FBI to do it. But there is one thing we can learn from history: nothing scares people in power as much as the cooperation between ecology, peace, and social justice movements. And nothing makes it as easy for them to govern as dividing them.


Fabian Scheidler is the author of the book The End of the Megamachine. A Brief History of a Failing Civilization, which was translated into several languages. His most recent book is Der Stoff aus dem wir sind: Warum wir Natur und Gesellschaft neu denken müssen (“The Stuff We Are Made Of: Rethinking Nature and Society”). Fabian Scheidler has written as a free lance journalist for the Berliner Zeitung, Frankfurter Rundschau, Wiener Zeitung, Taz, Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik, Jacobin, The Progressive, Radio France, and others. In 2009, he received the Otto Brenner Media Prize for critical journalism.

This blogpost was first published on Scheerpost on 21 July 2023. Republished with permission.

Counterpoint  blogs may be reprinted with the following acknowledgement: “This article was published by Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge on 16 August 2023.”

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Photo credits: Election campaign for the state elections of North Rhine-Westphalia 2022 by Bündnis 90/Die Grünen on the Heumarkt in Cologne. Robert Habeck (Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection) and top candidate Mona Neubaur were guests. © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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