Over 50 years of environmental activism I find that I, among thousands of stronger, more dedicated people am living in a world that would have horrified me as a youth, because the situation is worse than I think I could have imagined. Had you told me that the human population of The Earth would have more than doubled, from 3 billion to 7 billion, and that each of us would be using vastly more resources than in, say, 1960 it would have seemed blindingly obvious that we were heading for trouble. Add to that an increase in atmospheric CO2 from 0.3% to 0.4%, global warming and rising and horrifyingly dramatic species depletion and I’d have been screaming the question “Well, why aren’t they doing something about it?”
Certainly, environmental activists of all hues (and there are many, unfortunately) have failed, in spite of all the many gains:
* Media coverage. We see and hear information about all the dire environmental issues that face us today on the media far more than previously.
* Protection of land and waterways. We have European Environment Directives, subsidies to help farmers do less damage (and certainly, the poisons that were brought into focus by Silent Spring have largely disappeared), protection of fish stocks, clean waterways, control over wastes and so on. In fact, industries complain that there are so many environmental regulations that it is difficult to do business.
* Protection of green countryside. We have planning rules that make it quite difficult to build on green field sites, particularly green belts and national parks so that people involved in many aspects of housing say that we are not building anywhere near enough houses: this does beg the question why we want to build on more green field when there are large numbers of empty houses and bits of land that could be brought into service, but it is a big issue now.
Yet the global problems listed above haven’t gone away, they just get worse: how can this be?
* World GDP will grow an average 3.1%/year through 2030, driving oil demand from the current 84 million barrels/day to 103 million b/d, when European governments and others have targets to reduce imissions as early as 2020, and dramatically by 2050.
* The human population is growing exponentially: it doubled between 1960 and 2002 and the rise is not slowing.
* That population is demanding ever more resources per head: energy, water, richer food, travel, consumerism.
The combination of population and resource demand means that we simply devastating the system that we depend upon for survival; the atmosphere, water, land to inhabit, wilderness, forest, mineral resources.
Even if you go against the science and believe (yes, believe) that, if global warming is happening it isn’t caused primarily by human activity, you have to admit that there is a serious threat to the stability of existence 20 or 50 years down the line. This means that there is a serious threat to our childrens’ and grand-childrens’ futures. Although we often hear that children are “the most important things in our lives”, we still we don’t take the action needed to negate the threats to their futures.
I was therefore fascinated to hear that a new political movement has got underway, focused on environmental conservation that is even causing concern in David Cameron’s true blue Witney constituency. These people (who probably include those in the movement against wind turbines in the countryside) are against changes in the English planning law designed to simplify and streamline regulation. Currently, if you want to build on a green-field site adjacent to many towns, you are likely to be confronted by a strong local opposition that can be very organised and effective, and that often prevents important housing and infra-structure projects from proceeding. This is very expensive, and politicians are concerned that the UK economy is suffering as a result and that this is the cause of the low level of house building which people, apparently, need. So the Government is proposing to cut planning law down to make it much simpler and also, and here lies the rub, to shift the balance towards the developers to overcome this log-jam.
The protest movement has worked out that there are sufficient voters in potentially affected constituencies to vote out many sitting Tory MPs if they vote tactically, and this they are threatening to do if the houses and factories start appearing on their beloved countryside. All strength to them I say! There is little enough open countryside left in this crowded isle.
But what has made me think hard, is that the environmentalist movement has rarely managed to gather such political momentum: we have remainedout of the mainstream of society, seen either as sandel-wearing nutters or at best as do-gooders who’s ideas we really should try to implement… a bit (see ‘Death To The Environmentalists’ blog below). Politicians are boasting of being “The greenest government ever!” (D.Cameron) and other such guff, but both this government and New Labour before them have seemed unwilling to really put the coordinated, funded policies into action that bring these aspirations about.
Environmental activists can and do strive to engender positive action by governments through lobbying, the media and direct action, and these days web petitions, and these do have an affect that supplements the more powerful long term economic need highlighted by Nicholas Stern and others. We local activists often feel that we are on the edges, nudging peoples’ attention and consciences, but actually achieving little in the way of changing attitudes and behaviours towards the environment. We have to content ourselves with tiny successes, be very patient, and believe that just plugging away year after year WILL make a useful difference. I have my doubts.
So why have the Tory heartlands suddenly become avid conservationists? Because they do love the countryside and, being among the better-off part of society, spend more time it than their poorer urban fellow citizens. It is naked self-interest, centred on this generation’s preferences and narrow in it’s focus. Like anything, it is a gut reaction, from the heart, emotional: “My glorious countryside where I walk the dogs and enjoy the spring flowers, my heritage..” etc.
So there is a passion there, and a willingness to act: how can it be broadened such that the mainstream of society starts to demand stronger action by government, and starts to modify it’s behaviour to deal with our big environmental problems? What is going to put a ‘fire in the belly’ of Mr & Mrs Averge Middle-Class start to threaten to change their votes if local councillors and MPs across our country do not take significant action on the environment?
It’s the old ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ we are looking for, but as in 1939, it is likely that only a dire and immediate threat to our country, and therefore to all of our best interests, is going to bring about the change that we need: and that will be far, far too late.