Our Green History

oday environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Today environmentalism influences the language and decisions of government, corporations and individuals to an extent that was not possible a century ago.

The belief that the environment should be protected has become widely held throughout society as the global speed and scale of resource use and environmental destruction has been recognised and understood.

As western standards of living have increased, basic material needs have been met, and people have demanded higher standards of environmental quality. But beyond the basic belief that the environment should be protected, there is no agreement on why this is important or how this should be done. There is no unifying set of environmental ideas that society subscribes to nor a single environmental movement united behind a shared cause.

Environmentalism has evolved in complex and sometimes contradictory ways to span conservative, reformist and radical ideas about what the world should look like, as well as how change should be brought about. Each strand of modern environmental thinking brings its own set of ideas about how humanity should organise itself and interact with its environment.

Over the last 60 years these have evolved with each new environmental cause from nuclear power and pesticide use in the 1960s, to acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1970s and 1980s and biodiversity loss and climate change in the 1990s and 2000s. Often these causes have taken hold in different countries at different times, each prompted by particular historical circumstances. For this reason environmentalism has been taken up in many forms across generations and the continents of the world.

The explosion of environmental activity in the 1960s did not represent the creation of an entirely new set of ideas. In 1885 German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) wrote: “It would never occur to me to regard the enjoyment of nature as the invention of the modern age.” The same can be said for modern day interest in the environment.

The fact that modern environmental concern spread following atomic bomb tests and to the backdrop of the Vietnam War is a point much referred to by historians and environmentalists. Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962) was amongst the first to link the dangers of the atomic bomb to the misuse of pesticides, emphasising humanity’s capacity to destroy nature and itself.

Over the next ten years a number of publications followed suit, Tragedy of the Commons (1968), and Limits to Growth (1972), raised wider anxieties about the future of the planet, whilst Blueprint for Survival (1972), and Small is Beautiful (1973) sketched out green alternatives. Almost half a century later the anxieties expressed in each of these books are still at the centre of many environmental concerns today.

Media coverage of dramatic pollution events has been instrumental in raising environmental concerns over the last half century.The first major oil spill in Britain occurred when the super tanker Torrey Canyon struck a reef between the UK mainland and the Isles of Scilly in March 1967.

The resulting oil slick covered 120 miles of Cornish coast, killing tens of thousands of birds. Two years later an explosion on the Union Oil Company oil platform, six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara in California, resulted in the release of hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil.

These highly visible examples of humanity’s impact on the environment occurred as the age of colour television began and broadcasters discovered that major pollution events made visually dramatic news stories. Each decade since has witnessed at least one massive oil spill from a super tanker or oil platform, these serve as timely reminders that environmental issues have not gone away.

The history of contemporary environmentalism has been marked by the establishment of new institutions. Campaigns on issues such as pesticide use and nuclear testing led to the development of a new breed of professional campaign groups which have become the public face of environmentalism.

At the same time governments have responded to public concerns about the environment by establishing environmental institutions of their own. Agencies, scientific programmes, international agreements, laws and regulations have been established to support environmental goals.

All this has helped give environmentalism a permanence that has transcended the decades.

This article is based on the book Environmentalism Since 1945 by Gary Haq and Alistair Paul, published by Routledge in September 2011.

© Gary Haq 2011

The Impact of the Meat on Our Plate

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

FROM Paul McCartney to Lord Stern, more people are promoting the benefits of a meatless society.

Meat production not only contributes to climate change and land degradation but is also a cause of air and water pollution and biodiversity loss. The farming industry accounts for nine per cent of UK total greenhouse gases, half of which come from sheep, cows and goats. Is the meat on our plate really worth the impact on the planet?

Deforestation, manure and livestock flatulence all contribute to global warming and are associated with excessive meat consumption.

As nations become richer, they tend to eat more meat and more livestock has to be raised to keep up with the demand.

In turn, more grazing land is required and more forests are cut down to expand farmland. As trees get the chop the carbon dioxide that they have absorbed over their lifetime is eventually released back into the atmosphere.

Manure is a source of nitrous oxide which is a greenhouse gas 300 times stronger than carbon dioxide. A recent report warned that nitrogen pollution is costing each European citizen up to £650 a year in damage to water, climate, health and wildlife.

As livestock digest grass, they produce flatulence which contains the greenhouse gas methane. Research by Reading University suggests changing the diet of livestock could reduce methane emissions by 20 per cent.

Improving the efficiency of resource management when it comes to crop and livestock production could help reduce the environmental impact of meat production.

However, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the current prices of land, water and feed resources used for livestock production do not reflect true scarcities and create distortions that provide no incentive for efficient resource use.

This results in the overuse of resources and major inefficiencies in the production process.

Abandoning our carnivorous habits is both good for the planet and our health. Eating too much meat, especially processed meat, can be bad for a person’s health as it can contain high levels of saturated fat and salt.

An Oxford University study funded by Friends of the Earth showed that more than 45,000 lives a year could be saved if everyone ate meat no more than two or three times a week.

A widespread switch to low-meat diets would stop 31,000 people dying early from heart disease, 9,000 from cancer and 5,000 from strokes. This could save the NHS £1.2bn and help reduce climate change and deforestation.
I am one of the four million vegetarians in Britain and have led a meat-free life for the past 25 years. I still remember the day at primary school when I realised I did not like the idea of eating a dead animal.

However, it took me another nine years before I was able to proudly declare that I would eat “nothing with a face”.

Over the years, being a vegetarian in this country has got easier, people are more accepting and there is more choice of vegetarian food in supermarkets and restaurants.

There are now about 30 top-range vegetarian restaurants – an increase of 50 per cent since 2007. This reflects a growing interest in healthy lifestyles although many people would not necessarily call themselves vegetarian. One 2009 survey suggests 23 per cent of the population are “meat-reducers”, and 10 per cent as “meat-avoiders”.

Despite the increasing awareness of the environmental and health effects of carnivorous cuisine, the seduction of a sizzling sausage, the allure of the bacon butty and the prospect of the Yorkshire pudding with roast beef may simply be too much for many meat eaters to resist.

While there has been a change in eating habits the vast majority of Britons still eat meat, with one-in-five eating meat every day. This suggests education and awareness alone will not work to reduce our meat consumption.

One suggestion to address the harmful effects of meat consumption is to introduce a European-wide meat tax.

The EU is already committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and has taken a number of measures such as the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs.

A meat tax would be similar to taxes on alcohol, tobacco and petrol. Unlike petrol, which is harder to replace, the effect of the tax would encourage consumers to replace meat with other food products.

It is clear that we have to improve the efficiency of livestock production and reduce the demand for meat to make the transition to a low carbon society.

The recent discovery of horse meat in labelled beef products indicates how meat production has become increasingly mechanised and the extent to which we have become disconnected from the food we eat. Perhaps it is now time to reconsider our meat consumption.

Rather than shunning meat altogether, meat eaters could start by following a “demitarian” diet – reducing meat portions by half. It is recommended that total weekly meat intake should not exceed 210 grams – a small sacrifice to secure the future of the planet.

Naturally Unhappy Consumers

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

WE are all naturally born consumers. We consume to stay alive, to develop and to participate in community life. Yet today our level of consumption not only makes us unhappy but threatens our future existence.

Early hunter gathers consumed to meet basic needs such as food, water, shelter and warmth. In contrast, modern day homo spaiens consume to meet specific desires.

Throughout history material objects have been used to demonstrate wealth and identity. Ancient Egyptians exhibited the wealth of their occupants in tombs.

Our joy of overconsumption can be traced back to Roman times, when substances called emetics were used to induce vomiting during banquets to be able to continue eating – a form of early social bulimia.

Consumerism has its origins in Europe. Early Enlightenment thinkers adopted the Puritan idea that everyday life was invaluable in itself and that God was to be honoured through work as much as prayer. They were committed to progress, human rights, liberty, equality, rational individual utilitarian view of nature. This way of thinking contributed to the industrial revolution and the increase in productivity.

In constrast, the Romantics emphasised aesthetic appreciation, emotional individualism, personal creativity and self-expression. While the instrumental worldview of the early Enlightenment (16-17th Century), the Romantic (18th to 19th Century) idea of an emotional, interior, expressive human beings became a main driver of consumption.

The consumption of goods became an important form of cultural appreciation and a means of self-expression. Emotions, desires and wants were given a new validity. It became respectable to succumb to both desire for, and enjoyment of, material goods. It can be argued that the birth of consumerism was the result of Enlightenment science and the Romantic view of the individual.

Economist, Thorstein Veblen, coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to explain why people seek status and consume material goods such as expensive jewellery, designer clothes and luxury cars that set themselves apart from others.

This is in contrast to consumption that derives its value from the intrinsic worth of a good. Material goods have become important in social comparison and positioning.

Consumer behaviour has been seen as being partly conditioned by sexual and social competition resulting in display and status-seeking behaviour. We tend to gauge our well-being in relative terms. Evidence suggests that indivduals feel worse off when other in their neighbourhood earm more. We need to consistently consumer to “keep-up wit the Jones'”.This is behaviour is seen as being pathological.

According to Professors Curtis Eaton and Mukesh Eswaran greater affluence can seriously damage a nation’s health – while we get richer we do not become happier.

Once a country reaches a reasonable standard of living there is little further benefit to be had from increasing the wealth of its population. Their work demonstrates that as a nation becomes wealthier, consumption moves increasingly to buying status symbols with no intrinsic value.

Eaton and Eswaran write:
Those with above-average wealth consume Veblen goods with a positive impact on their happiness. But those with below-average wealth simply cannot afford these goods, so they have a negative impact on their happiness. This is known as ‘Veblen competition’. As average wealth rises, people grow richer but not happier.

Their research helps to explain why levels of happiness and feelings of community in affluent countries have stabilised despite growth in real incomes. For example, despite spectular growth in income in post-war Japan there has been no change in average happiness.

As we own more status symbols we seem to have less time or inclination to help others which damages community and trust. This is essential for the economy and society.

Eaton and Eswaran conclude that our emphasis on economic growth is therefore misplaced. Conspicuous consumption can have an impact not only on people’s well-being and the growth prospects of the economy but also on the planet.

Our overconsumption of the world’s resources is being driven by an insatiable apetitie to consume more and more in the misconception that being richer, and distinguishing ourselves from others, will make us happier.

Only when we tackle this inherent need to consumer and reconnect with nature can we achieve a greener, fairer and happier future for all.

References

Jackson, T. (2006) Earthscan Reader in Sustainable Consumption, Earthscan, London.

© Gary Haq 2010
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The True Carbon Cost of Our Consumption

S world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true cost of our consumption.

shoppingAS world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true carbon cost of our consumption.

UK Government policy has maintained that we are only responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions in our national boundaries. However, this week the government’s new energy scientist, Professor David MacKay, has acknowledged that the reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions since the 1990s are an illusion.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the UK must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per below 1990 levels by 2012. According to official government figures, since the 1990s UK emissions have fallen by about 15 per cent.

However, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York published in July 2009 calculated the true carbon dioxide emissions associated with UK consumption. Using an approach based on consumption rather than production the study found that UK emissions actually increased by 18 per cent (115 million tonnes) between 1992 and 2004.

Since the 1980s we have transferred our manufacturing base abroad and replaced it with an expanded service sector. We now consume a large amount of goods produced in China and India. We have therefore exported our pollution and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the many goods and services we consume on a daily basis.

power-stationMany of us are shocked by the news that China is building two new coal power stations a week. Yet the polluting coal is being burned to provide energy for Chinese industries that manufacture goods such as electrical equipment and toys for the British market. We are therefore all partly responsible for the carbon cost of the goods we import and consume.

In the current negotiations for a new climate deal developing countries are demanding that developed countries acknowledge their contribution to global carbon emissions. With China calling for countires which consume their products to take the responsibility for the carbon emissions generated in the manufacture of the goods.

copIf a bigger, bolder, wider-ranging and more sophisticated treaty is to replace the Kyoto agreement to stop climate change, we need to own up to the fact that we are polluting much more than official statistics suggest.

When we have acknowledged the full impact of our high consuming lifestyles only then will we be able to do our fair share in cutting our carbon emissions and stoping runaway climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

The Power of Carbon Abstinence

THE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

airline-carbon-footprintTHE 10:10 campaign is asking us to reduce our CO2 emissions by 10 per cent in 2010. Can voluntary carbon abstinence make a difference?

For the last couple of years it has become fashionable to do one’s bit to tackle climate change. Individuals have voluntarily decided to abstain from certain activities such as flying, using the car or eating meat in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

In September 2009 the 10:10 campaign was launched as an ambitious project to unite every sector of British society behind the simple idea: that by working together as a nation we can achieve a 10% cut in the UK’s carbon emissions in 2010.

The motivation for the campaign was that politicians have so far failed to do what needs to be done. The campaign believes it is time for ordinary people to show that they are ready to defend our children’s futures.

The 10:10 campaign follows similar campaigns to reduce personal carbon emissions such as Earth Hour, Act on CO2 and Stop Climate Chaos. It builds upon a recent history of collective action and awareness raising such has the 1985 Live Aid concert, 2005 Make Poverty History campaign and more recently the 2007 Live Earth event.

These events create a critical mass of public support and awareness. People join in herds to be part of something that is big and trendy and often backed by key celebrities.

There is no doubt that such big events create a tsunami of awareness that galvanises the public to take action. However, once the razzmatazz is over and the publicity has faded away does such events leave any lasting impression? More importantly will the change in behaviour or pledged action such as carbon abstinence continue?Logo-for-1010-campaign-001

There is a public willingness to be greener, individuals are often waiting for an enabling and supportive structural framework to collectively facilitate desired behaviour. They often look to others such as the government and business to take the lead, i.e. the notion of “I will if you will”.

While regulation and enforcement are key elements in reducing carbon emissions, they have yet to deliver the fundamental shift required in our level of consumption. Structural and psychological issues can limit and influence our lifestyle choices and behaviour.

Voluntary carbon abstinence can be effective approach to achieving sustained greener beahviour. However, the messsage has to be communicatd in the right way and a supportive institutional/ social, infrastructural and fiscal framework needs to be available.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) suggests that an approach based on saving public money, and giving the public greater control over energy bills and independence from suppliers would be more effective to engage people in adopting a low carbon lifestyle.

The report suggests that a reduction in carbons emission requires convincing consumers that in adopting lower-carbon lifestyles they can save money and have control in a chaotic world, and they can do the right thing and look good without being an environmentalist.

carbon-footprint-leavesIndividuals who participate in voluntary initiatives are acting as environmental citizens and voluntarily internalise externalities of their current lifestyle for the sake of the common good, i.e. averting the global climate crisis.

Reducing our carbon footprint requires moving from environmental awareness and concerns to collective action. Voluntary carbon abstinence is one way of empowering, educating and achieving attitudinal change in individuals.

Campaigns such as 10:10 provide the vehicle to do this. However, maintaining the mometum once the campaign is over is essential. This requires campaigning groups to keep the issue alive in the public consciousness.

Morely importantly, it will require government and business to provide the incentives and infrastructure to make a low carbon lifestyle the easy, affordable and enjoyable and natural option for everyone.

© Gary Haq 2009

Climate Camp: A Pointless Protest?

IS the Climate Camp protest at Blackheath, the historic London open space that was key in the peasants’ revolt, really making a difference on climate change?

153673902IS the Climate Camp protest at Blackheath, the historic London open space that was key in the peasants’ revolt, really making a difference on climate change?

The Camp for Climate Action has become an annual grass roots event that brings together a wide range of protesters concerned about climate change and the role of “climate criminals”- companies, institutions and government departments which are guilty of helping to cause global warming and/or not doing enough to stop it.

The first Climate Camp was held in 2006 at Drax Power Station, the UK’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In 2007 the Camp descended on Heathrow airport to protest about the contribution of aviation to greenhouse emissions. Last year the Camp took root at Kingsnorth, the proposed site of a UK’s new coal power station for 30 years.

The Camp has become a base for direct action and a focal point for activists to meet and exchange information and learn protest techniques. It also aims to showcase sustainable living and community spirit in action, organised in a non-hierarchical way, with decisions taken by consensus. Workshops at the Camp range from the “Nuts of Bolts of Direct Action”, “Destroy the Banks! Destroy the Investors! Destroy the Arms Trade” to “Eco-Feminist Story Telling for Kids”.

Climate Camp provides a catharsis for many individuals who are angry at the capitalist system and the lack of progress in tackling the climate issue. The Camp receives much media attention most of which tends to be negative, highlighting the disruption and mayhem caused by protesters. This year attention has focused on the role of the police who, unlike April’s G20 protests, are keeping a low profile. Over the coming week climate campers will target the headquarters of Shell and BP to Heathrow Airport and the Bank of England. Direct action will involve demonstrations, entrance blockings and attempts to occupy office blocks.climate camp 2009

If we are to inspire action in those individuals who are either sceptical about climate change or just not interested then is Climate Camp the most effective and positive way of doing it? Already, the protesters have been compared to football hooligans.

About 7.1 million (18%) of the UK population are classed as Positive Greens who think it is important to do as much as they can to limit their impact on the environment. Unfortunately, there is a similar number (7.4 million) who are Honestly Disengaged and are indifferent to whether we are on the verge of a global ecological disaster or not. The rest of the population are divided in other types with varying degrees of willingness to engage in environmental issues and greener living.

In order to gain support for the radical changes to the British way of life that is necessary to survive in an increasingly resource and climate constrained world then we need to both convince our politicians and the different segments of the population to wake up and take action. Images of “hippies”, “new age types”, “anarchists” and “serial protesters” congregating every year and creating havoc makes the Camp a self-indulgent event where only “extremists” are concerned about the issue.

images-2A number of regional Climate Camps are also taking place in Scotland and Wales. If we are to succeed in making a global issue such as climate change a local issue and of concern to local people then it would be more effective to engage the public in local Climate Camps. Equally, such events should be positive and a celebration of what individuals and groups are doing to make a difference and what can be done locally, for example Transition Towns Movement and Carbon Rationing Action Groups (CRAG).

By raising awareness, inspiring action and creating a critical mass at the local level then perhaps then the issue of climate change will be owned by the many not the few and the voices of the majority will finally by heard by our decision makers and global leaders.

© Gary Haq 2009

Enoughism – The Route to Happiness?

When is enough, enough? Is it possible to become worse off, when we possess everything we ever wanted?

According to evolutionary psychology, our brains were created in the Stone Age and evolved some 130,000 to 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era when our ability to obtain food, water and shelter was limited.

happinessWHEN is enough, enough? Is it possible to become worse off, when we possess everything we ever wanted?

According to evolutionary psychology, our brains were created in the Stone Age and evolved some 130,000 to 200,000 years ago in the Pleistocene era when our ability to obtain food, water and shelter was limited.

These days we have developed the know-how to exploit natural resources and create goods and services. As a consequence, we find it hard to operate and cope in a world of abundance. Enoughism suggests that there is a point where consumers possess everything they need, and buying more actually makes their life worse off. It emphasises less spending and more restraint in buying and consuming goods.

However, this view has been criticised . It has been argued that our minds are not fixed in the past but are immensely flexible and develop. We have created and transformed our environment. It therefore seems strange that our brains are “wired up” to invent modernity but not to cope with it. If the brain is flexible enough to do the one, then why not the other?

Although we may be mentally more flexible we still seem to be locked-in into a modern society where many aspire to wealth and celebrity. Richard Layard in his book Happiness shows that there is a paradox at the heart of our lives. Most people want more income. Yet when our society becomes richer, we do not necessarily become happier. The evidence suggests that although average incomes have more than doubled in the last fifty years on average people have grown no happier.

images-1The Asia country of Bhutan has devised a Gross National Happiness (GNH) in an attempt to define quality of life in a more holistic and psychological terms based on Buddhist spiritual values rather than Gross National Product. The concept of GNH claims to be based on the premise that true development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

Statistical data have been used devise a ranking of the world’s happiest nations. Top of the list is Denmark due to its wealth, natural beauty, small size, quality education, and good health care. At the bottom of the list are the countries of Zimbabwe and Burundi. world_map_of_happiness

There is now a grass root movement beginning where people are rethinking their consumerist lifestyles. Some people, such as Dave Gore , have pledged to take the 100 thing challenge and whittle down their possessions to 100 items. While in the current global economic recession people are thinking more of mending and making do with clothes and other items rather than buying new.

Economic growth has provided some people with greater choice and access to a wide variety of goods and services. Having more choice and more things does not necessarily bring more happiness. If anything, we value things less when they are in great supply. People living in the austerity of post-War Britain valued and appreciated food and goods much more due to rationing than we do today when they are considerably cheaper and in abundance.

Our cosumer society has resulted in many environmental problems which have affected our total mental and physical wellbeing. In addressing the root cause of many of today’s environmental problems we can achieve better environmental quality but also a better quality of life that may just provide the happiness that so many of us long for.

© Gary Haq 2009