Whither green?

Published in the House Magazine, published in May 2005.

What ever happened to the environment? This question has puzzled commentators and environmentalists alike since the election. It certainly had no significance as an issue. There was a brief burst of media attention on the Green Party but it quickly faded. The main political parties all delivered the compulsory environment photo opportunity and anodyne manifesto promises. But, despite the Prime Minister’s own focus on climate change and the on-rushing avalanche of controversial land-use issues over runways, roads, houses, ports, windfarms and even the reincarnation of nuclear power and reservoirs, the environment simply did not register.

To some extent this was an inevitable result of an election that was predominantly about personalities. Few issues surfaced other than those which could be used to define and differentiate party leaders. There were no big choices on offer. You picked the party whose management style you preferred and on the way took the opportunity to punish the Prime Minister for beguiling us into an unwinnable war. Not surprisingly, this did not inspire the electorate whose lack of enthusiasm was amply manifest by the return of a government with the lowest level of public support in modern times.

The absence of the environment is even more extraordinary when you consider the preferences of the British public. There are perhaps three million members of environmental organisations in Britain – more than five million if you count the National Trust. Even allowing for double counting that it still vastly more than the half a million or so that belong to all the political parties combined. Being a member of a political party these days puts you well outside the mainstream of public life. Being a member of an environmental organisation makes you a core part of Middle Britain.

This loss by the political parties of any rooted connection to the base of society helps to explain the increasingly sterile nature of political life in general as well as the absence of any environmental focus in party politics. Modern political discourse is increasingly an hermetic conversation between a tiny group of professional politicians and an even tinier editorialate. The politicians only talk about issues that will make the headlines and the editors only write about the things that politicians talk about. Since the environment is a highly technical issue with few simple answers and many difficult choices it suits the needs of both editors and politicians not to talk about it in any coherent way.

The environmental community must also take some responsibility for its political marginalisation.  We environmentalists often sound as if we understand the environment better than we understand people; as if we are only concerned with our own preoccupations and not at all with theirs. This is a common consequence of self-righteousness.

Without a stable climate national security and economic prosperity are impossible, the world will not be fairer, communities will not endure, families will be hurt, personal opportunities will be limited and our children’s future will be stolen. But we rarely sound as if we are talking about these everyday concerns. Parts per million may matter but they do not resonate.

Nor do we appear serious to politicians. The dominant debate among politicians is over how much gets spent by whom on what. Too often environmentalists seem more intent on winning the argument than on changing the outcome. Changing environmental outcomes in the 21st Century to maintain the environmental conditions that are essential for our economies to function will require serious money.

Britain spends about £300 billion a year on social protection, health and education. We spend about £55 billion on internal and external security. We spend just over £7.5 billion on the environment. It is hard to believe that these are the right proportions to ensure the well-being of the British people as environmental problems accumulate faster than we kind find solutions for them. Until the environment community learns to set out its spending plans and argue cogently for them however, this disproportion will continue.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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