Time for Greens to Return to the Grassroots

The past five decades have seen groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) successfully campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The green movement has promoted a way of speaking and thinking about the environment that was not possible or imaginable decades ago.

Today green issues are a feature of the modern world that that everyone now recognises. As the green movement reaches middle age, it is coming under increasing criticism for being bureaucratic, ineffective, out of touch and set in its ways.

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THE past five decades have seen groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) successfully campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The green movement has promoted a way of speaking and thinking about the environment that was not possible or imaginable decades ago.

Today green issues are a feature of the modern world that that everyone now recognises. As the green movement reaches middle age, it is coming under increasing criticism for being bureaucratic, ineffective, out of touch and set in its ways.

Environmental concern initially focused on the protection of selected species and habitats, reducing polluting emissions to air, water and soil and improving the control and management of waste and hazardous substances.

As society became increasingly globalised, industrialised and interconnected, environmental issues changed in their complexity and geographical scope.

With the recognition of acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and climate change as environmental problems, the focus moved from the local to the regional and global scale.

Efforts are now being made to control greenhouse gases and specific pollutants from sectors such as energy and transport. This has involved improving the efficiency of resource use and adopting cleaner technology.

While progress has been made in improving the state of the environment, human activity continues to drive environmental problems such as climate change, deforestation, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

Despite many achievements the green movement has failed to win the hearts and minds of a large part of the electorate. The urgency of reducing greenhouse gases, the slow progress made in achieving a binding international climate change agreement, the style of campaigning and the rise in climate scepticism have caused fractions within the green movement.

Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth, accused the movement of betraying the public by not supporting the grassroots campaign to stop the sell-off of England’s forests.

Porritt claimed the green movement was either too concerned about its relationship with the Department of the Environment to criticise the sell-off or that they hoped to gain from it.

More recently, the movement has been criticised for its opposition to the role of technology in addressing environmental issues such as nuclear power and genetically modified (GM) crops.

US environmentalist Stewart Brand believes the failure to embrace technologies has hindered environmental and social progress. He suggests we will be saved from global warming by densely populated cities, nuclear energy, GM food and planet-wide geo-engineering to manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract climate change.

Mark Lynas accuses the green movement of having helped cause climate change through their opposition to nuclear power.

In contrast, Porritt warns of the dangers of being seduced by nuclear and argues that a 100 per cent renewable supply strategy for the UK is feasible by 2050, assuming that total UK energy consumption can be reduced by at least 40 per cent by 2030. This could be achieved by massive investment in energy efficiency.

As the world enters a new age of natural resource scarcity and climate change, food and energy insecurity will the affect the way of life of many communities. Therefore a renewed green movement will be required for a new age of global challenges. This will require agreement on the different technologies it supports.

There has been a tendency for green groups to scare people into change. There is now recognition of the need to provide a positive agenda.

A greater focus on “green localism” could re-engage an often suspicious and uninterested public by taking action within their immediate sphere of influence. Working in partnership with local authorities and businesses, local groups could contribute to build stronger communities able to fight climate change, improve health and wellbeing and secure a healthy natural environment.

The green movement has the potential to evolve through a network of grassroots groups that contribute to national and international campaigns using social media. It remains to be seen how the environmental idea can be captured and shaped by new generations in an age of new challenges. What is certain we will have to develop ways to respond to the effects future environmental change will have on our current way of life.

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

Can The Tories Lead a Green Revolution?

WHEN David Cameron became leader of the UK Conservative Party, he vowed that the Tories would lead a new green revolution in Britain. In the 2006 local elections he urged voters to “Vote Blue, Go Green”.

As Britain approaches a General Election, the environment policy of all political parties will come under scrutiny. What will the Tories need to do in order to achieve their promise of a green revolution in Britain?

Climate change poses the greatest environmental threat to the country. Action will therefore be required to address our contribution to the problem as well as ensuring we are able to cope with the impact of extreme weather events and a rise in temperature.

It has been claimed that most Tory MPs are sceptical about the party’s focus on climate change policy and at least six shadow cabinet ministers are sceptical about the economic consequences of a low-carbon policy.

Not only will David Cameron need to convince his colleagues that climate change poses a real threat to our way of life, he will need to reduce our dependency on coal and increase in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

About 27 per cent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are the result of domestic energy use. Mr Cameron should follow the example of Kirklees Council’s award-winning Warm Zone scheme.

This home insulation scheme targeted at 170,000 homes has resulted in the average household saving £200 on fuel bills each year while reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by over one tonne. He should roll-out similar schemes across the region and provide cavity wall and loft insulation, energy efficient glazing, draught proofing, improved boilers and low energy light bulbs free to every home.

All new buildings should meet stringent energy performance standards. And we should move away from using energy and resource intensive materials such as steel and concrete to straw bale and timber. To see an example of sustainable construction in practice, Mr Cameron should take a look at York’s Eco-Depot – a timber framed building with straw bale cladding all sourced in regionally in Yorkshire.

There is great potential in the country to use renewable sources of energy. As the saying goes “Where there’s muck there’s brass” – Britain’s sewage could be used to produce biogas. Wind power could be harnessed by constructing Danish style offshore wind farms along the region’s coastline while water turbines in major rivers and streams could be used to provide hydropower.

These measures, together with the introduction of community-based low carbon technologies such as solar water heating, solar electricity, ground heat pumps, micro-wind turbines and combined heat and power, could allow regional “smart grids” to be developed and reduce the region’s dependency on energy from the National Grid.

Britain has already experienced its share of flooding due to torrential rain. This has resulted in serious disruption to roads, schools, offices and caravan parks and has caused great distress and millions of pounds in flood damage.

Mr Cameron should invest in flood and coastal defences to ensure all flood prone towns and villages are adequately protected. In addition, there should be a major tree-planting programme throughout the country to increase the uptake of rainfall and prevent future flooding.

The creation of new woodlands will also have the added benefit of providing fuel wood and wildlife habitats.

We also need to see a revolution in the way we grow our food. Greater incentives should be available to adopt sustainable agricultural practices such as permaculture – an ecologically harmonious efficient and productive approach that stresses the value of diverse crops.

Support should also be given to promote small-scale local food production, which not only increases food security, but also reduces food miles.

Mr Cameron should visit Todmorden’s Incredible Edible initiative to see how public attitudes to local food production have been revolutionised. The whole community – including businesses, schools and farmers – have been “growing their own”. Public flowerbeds have been transformed into community herb gardens and vegetable patches. The initiative has increased the amount of local food grown and eaten in the town.

Our urban environment desperately needs to be made safer, cleaner and more people friendly. Mr Cameron should promote car free cities, walking and cycling and convert car parks to green spaces.

In order to maintain local distinctiveness, he should limit the number of supermarkets and chain stores allowed to open on our high streets and promote local businesses instead. Reducing pollution, improving the character and feel of our local environment will result in happier and healthier residents.

A green revolution cannot take place without its foot troops. Mr Cameron should provide funding for a nation-wide “Green Home Front” to encourage residents, businesses, public bodies, community organisations and schools to work together to make their communities greener. Only by harnessing people power can we revolutionise the way we live and ensure a transition to a new greener age.

If Mr Cameron succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, he will need to deliver on his promise to put environmental policies at the heart of government. In doing so he should remember the words of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who said: “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”

© Gary Haq 2010
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