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.

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

A New Age of Green Localism

A greater focus on grass-roots action and ‘green localism’ could re-engage a public that is sometimes disinterested and suspicious of environmental issues.

As the world enters an age of natural resource scarcity and climate change, food and energy insecurity will affect the way of life of local communities.

A greater focus on grass-roots action and ‘green localism’ could re-engage a public that is sometimes disinterested and suspicious of environmental issues.

The notion of ‘decentralisation’ is not a new concept and has been at the heart of the environmental movement reflecting its commitment to localism balanced by global responsibility.

Empowering community groups and strengthening community bonds could deliver multiple social and environmental benefits. People could be encouraged to take action to tackle issues that are local priorities and within their immediate sphere of influence.

There are already many groups and projects that are ‘acting locally and thinking globally’ such as cooperatives, transition towns and neighbourhood schemes. One such initiative is the York Green Neighbourhood Challenge that was undertaken by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York and the City of York Council (UK).

The York Green Neighbourhood Challenge developed a targeted social marketing approach to engage selected areas of the City of York in Yorkshire and work with residents to reduce their carbon emissions.

Using national data on household expenditure and green attitudes as well as data on local infrastructure (e.g. proximity to local services, potential of housing stock for energy conservation and access to transport links), the initiative targeted neighbourhoods which had the greatest potential for behavioural change.

These were York neighbourhoods where households considered themselves to be ‘green’ but had a high carbon footprint.

Six teams from the targeted areas were recruited: three neighbourhoods, two primary schools and one church. Over a six-month period each team was supported by a green mentor. Team members received expert advice on home energy, recycling, travel and other action they could take to meet their target of a 10 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

The participants who successfully completed the challenge achieved an estimated average carbon footprint reduction of 2.0 tonnes of CO2e a year. This is a total reduction of 11 per cent – which equates to an estimated total emission reduction of 98 tonnes of CO2e a year.

The largest reduction was seen in the area of shopping and home energy use.

The initiative demonstrated the benefits of taking a targeted approach in reducing household carbon emission. With support and encouragement residents can saved money, met new people and reduced their environmental impact.

The York Green Neighbourhood Challenge was effective in achieving a statistically significant reduction in the carbon footprint of households. The initiative has provided a legacy of a tried and test model of engagement. It helped to foster community spirit by giving a reason for neighbours to work together. Two of the winning teams have merged to establish one large local community group which is continuing to promote local neighbourhood change.

The ‘York model’ has now been adopted sub-regionally. The North Yorkshire Green Neighbourhood Challenge will work with community teams in seven local authorities in 2011.

People are disillusioned with the broken promises of politicians and the inertia of government in implementing the measures that can guarantee a transition to a low carbon society. A age of green localism will empower individuals to take action to create change at the local level. For many years a handful of doorstep champions have campaigned locally and raised local awareness, there is now a need for more sections of the community to get involved and to help improve the local quality of life and increase feelings of wellbeing and happiness.

More projects such as the York Green Neighbourhood Challenge are needed to encourage and foster local activism. By working in partnership with local authorities and businesses local groups could contribute to building community resilience by becoming more self-sufficient. This would enable local communities to tackle climate change, improve health and well being, secure a healthy natural environment and make their neighbourhoods safer and more cohesive.

© Gary Haq 2011