The poverty of identity politics

‘Identity politics’ sees injustice as rooted primarily in people’s possession of certain identities, especially racial, sex and/or gender, and sexual orientation. The resulting orthodoxy often goes by the name of ‘political correctness’. It is now virtually unassailable among many university students, political activists, the Twitterati and the relatively young, well-educated and middle-class.

This is not to say it hasn’t been criticised.[i][ii] But its adherents can make critics pay dearly, and there is no doubt that many doubters decide to keep quiet.

It seems odd to seize on those aspects of life and valorise them exclusively. It may be true that as Nietzsche said, ‘The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality’ – and a woman’s, no less – ‘reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit.’ (Not bad for a dead white male heterosexual ‘cis’ European.) But class, for example, seems to have entirely dropped out of the picture without mattering a whit less in our lives. As Adolphe Reed has pointed out, current identity politics could have no problem with 1% of the populations controlling 90% of wealth, as long as it was correctly apportioned to BAME and LGBT people and women.

Beyond that, can one’s identity really be determined entirely by an act of will? Rather than deciding and foreclosing, isn’t it better approached as an ongoing and open-ended discovery? And although one may sometimes need to affirm it, in passing from personal choice to a demand for social confirmation by a group there lurks an obvious potential authoritarianism. Others have pointed out the narrowing and hardening effects of identity politics on intellectual enquiry and moral development, but I’m not going to rehearse those problems here. Instead, I want to point out something else, together with one of its consequences.

To say that humanity as such and as a whole is self-involved and self-important would surely win some prize for understatement, but identity politics – encouraged and exploited by social media – takes this endemic egoism and pushes it to a new level. It is, quite literally, all about us. And I suspect it’s made worse by understandable despair. After all the marches, demonstrations and online petitions, progress remains painfully slow, incomplete and reversible. Easier to turn in on ourselves, then.

The trouble is, such narcissism lies at the heart of the most serious problem of all. Known among environmental philosophers as ‘anthropocentrism’, it underlies and drives all the practices whose outcome is ecocide. In this view other animals, these wild places, in fact all of non-human nature, can be freely killed or trashed, appropriated and ‘developed’ for us to use, because they simply don’t matter as much as we do. We may try to save some of the cute species and pleasant places, but our security, convenience and comfort still come first.

Thanks to the new Living Planet Report 2020 and Global Biodiversity Outlook 5, what was never in much doubt has now become undeniable: the destruction and degradation of the Earth’s remaining ecosystems, from the climate crisis, mass extinctions and crashing biodiversity, and rampant pollution, are all still getting worse. Meanwhile, some of our most intelligent and progressive citizens are finding their way into, but less often out of, impassioned quasi-theological debates about their identity, as illustrated by the ever-increasing number of refinements of the LBGTQ+ formula. More seriously, many conservation and environmental organisations are being guilt-tripped into putting human needs first and foremost, to the detriment of biodiversity.

In the context of deepening ecocide, identity warriors might want to pause and consider three things.

One: Do you consider yourselves to be ethical? If so, where is the anguish and activism on behalf of by far the most unrepresented, persecuted and exterminated victims of all? Ecocide stands with, and far outnumbers, even the worst cases of human genocide. Nearly 70 percent of the population of wild animals has been killed, directly or indirectly, by humans since 1970, starting from an already obscenely diminished number. These are, and were, animals, like us, with emotions, thoughts, mates, young to protect and educate, homes, and lives to lead. (The habit of restricting personhood to humans is as stupid as it is iniquitous.) And what about the much greater number of living, feeling domestic animals brought into this world, subjected to unimaginable barbarity and then killed, solely so we can eat them, wear their skins and perform experiments on them (for, needless to say, our benefit alone)? Where is the shame? As the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer said, for other animals we are an eternal Treblinka.

Two: Setting aside concern for others for a moment, are breathable air, drinkable water, edible and nourishing food and sustainable shelter optional for you? I guess not. Yet these are just what are increasingly in peril. Do you really think the human animal, as ecologically interdependent as any other kind, is magically exempt? All human activities without exception, whether political, social or cultural, depend for their existence, let alone flourishing, on the Earth’s natural ecosystems retaining enough integrity and autonomy to function. And that is what is now in jeopardy.

Relatedly, I must point out that since we depend utterly on the Earth but the Earth so does not depend on us, there is an unavoidable hierarchy of value. In other words, social justice does not exist on the same level of importance as ecological justice (in the true sense:  not for humans alone). So where and when human needs or desires conflict with the well-being of the planet, therefore – as they sometimes will – it is the former that must give way. No more ‘Too bad about the forest but we’ve got jobs for now’, for example. Let there be overnment-led amelioration, by all means, but we can no longer afford to sacrifice the remaining wild. (‘Wild’ is to be understood as nature which has not been wholly instrumentalised for human purposes.)

One arena in which this problem is especially clear is human overpopulation. That makes it a kind of litmus test for genuine ecocentrism – not the kind which can simply be tacked onto the end of a ‘woke’ wish-list. Best estimates of the maximum number of humans which can be sustainably supported in the medium to long term on this planet, potentially rich but necessarily limited, are between two and three billion.  But we are now at 7.8 billion and still increasing.

The net effect will be, and already is, to cancel out any actual or potential reduction of consumption, production, and so-called development. And those who ignore this fact, and portray any discussion of this huge problem as merely disguised racism, should be ashamed of themselves. There are far too many humans everywhere. As David Attenborough says, we’ve overrun the planet, and all that varies from place to place are the dire effects. So this is a problem for and in the overdeveloped-world problem as much as anywhere else. And is there some issue with the most urgently needed counter-measures: radically increasing female empowerment and education, as well as freely available contraception?

Three: Suppose we say that it is understandable for human beings to be interested in human nature. Agreed, but what is human nature? We need to remember what we are under such enormous pressure to forget (‘Because you’re worth it’, repeated ad nauseam in so many vulgar and sophisticated ways): that however special we are, we are still special animals. And so too are all the others special, each in their own ways.

In other words, human nature is just nature, humanly inflected. Wolf-nature is nature lupinely inflected; oak-nature is nature quercusly inflected, and so on. Culture is simply part of this more-than-human nature. And it’s a package, so as well as spiritual sensibility and artistic imagination, say, human nature includes the possibility of fantasies about escaping or transcending it, or simply thinking that it doesn’t really matter. Likewise, our supposedly godlike future as cyborgs (for a very few) is something only an embodied, limited, mortal and analogue organism could ever dream up.

But the fact is, we cannot ever get outside of ourselves. We would just be the humans who think they are post-human. Nor can we leave our home, because for us there is no other. (That includes the Moon or Mars, to which we would simply bring along some fantastically impoverished version of it to support us.) And what a mind-blowingly glorious and precious home it is! So please: let’s concentrate on taking care of it, shall we? The Earth now needs all the friends it can possibly get. And so do we, and all the countless other Earthlings.


[i] Dubreuil L (2020) Nonconforming: Against the erosion of academic freedom by identity politics. Harper’s Magazine, September 2020.

[ii] Pluckrose H and Lindsay J (2020) Cynical Theories: How universities made everything about race, gender and identity – And why that harms everybody. Durham NC: Pitchstone Publishing.

Read ‘The poverty of identity politics’, by Patrick Curry, on the #EarthTongues blog