Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Greens - grow up

The last year has seen a huge upsurge in the intensity and urgency in the climate change debate. Hurricane Katrina, the first climate refugees in the Pacific, the next generation of nuclear power stations, dire predictions from respected scientists such as James Lovelock, and the BBC’s climate chaos series have all contributed to the sense that climate change is happening now and has the potential to be catastrophic. Many climate change scientists argue that we have thirty years maximum before we cross the ‘tipping point’ when cataclysmic climate change becomes inevitable. Some say that we may already have passed it. A year ago it was mainstream to say that environmental issues were very important, but not the number one priority. Now most prominent public figures accept that climate change is very urgent and very important. A growing number of businesses are also pushing for a greener regulatory framework to promote investment and business solutions to climate change.

The Green movement should be pleased by this new found concern, but also has to adapt to the new reality in which it finds itself. The Green movement has its roots in the new ‘identity’ personal politics that began in the 1960s, along with gender and politics of sexuality. Its emphasis has been on living sustainably, building communities and making individual ‘green’ choices such as recycling, not owning a car and buying organically. Green campaigns, directly or indirectly have predominantly been about changing individual consumer’s behaviour rather than macro green policies: do your bit – we can change the world one by one.

The problem is that China is building as many coal power stations in a year as the UK operates in total – the Chinese have plans to build a further 544 coal power stations. The growth of the car market in India makes our vehicle journeys insignificant by comparison. As James Lovelock puts it: “Nothing we do in Britain is going to make a hill of beans of difference.” Trying to reduce the number of car journeys in the UK is a bit like putting all our energy into buying egg cups for people so that they everyone can help put out a fire, whereas what we really need is to club together and get a few aeroplanes with water jets. There may be ways of avoiding the worst excesses of climate change, but it’s not going to be through each individual changing their behaviour. Instead we need to be investing billions in clean technologies such as carbon sequestration techniques and transferring them to the Chinese, Indians and Brazilians as quickly as possible. The Green movement should be lobbying our government for the biggest investment in scientific research in history. If we’re going to prevent millions of climate refugees and the world’s poorest people being hit time and again by unnatural disasters we need to think big and quickly.

But can the green movement adapt? The idea of individuals taking responsibility for their own actions by changing their own lifestyles is deeply rooted. It rests on the assumption that doing good for others is also good for our own happiness, fulfilment and contentment – it’s a win-win situation. I have no doubt that this is true, but it is not the whole picture. The Green movement has always critiqued the descent into an atomised, consumer lifestyle, but like the rest of society has reacted against organised large scale, coherent collective action. We’ve focused so much on encouraging individuals to make good environmental choices we’ve lost faith in the potency of collective political lobbying and large scale human endeavour and scientific research. It’s time to “practice the latter without leaving the former undone.” It’s time to work with businesses, engineers and research companies to find large scale solutions to catastrophic climate change, without forgoing the critique on a wasteful, materialistic society out of touch with it’s environment. It’s time for the Greens to grow up.


  1. I agree completely, but I would probably go further. I think the green movement often does more harm than good.

    There's this annoying puritanical attitude to modern life, it's all down to making sacrifices and having the time and self-discipline to recycle every last tin can and never drive to the shops. People that fail to do these little things are somehow bad people, and should be ostracised until they fall into line. Green puritans are prone to forget that the person who won't sort out their rubbish could easily be saving thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide in other ways.

    It's very difficult to just be generally green, you end up opposing everything. You can't have wind farms and hydroelectric dams everywhere whilst still looking after wildlife habitats, but wildlife thrives around nuclear power stations. Leave it to pressure groups and nothing would ever be done. Green groups run the risk of forcing the government into ducking the issues, making popular, but not brave or rational decisions.

    Sometimes there is a very strong anti-science, anti-progress agenda. I heard that the Green Party want negative ecomonic growth. But we need really strong ecomomic growth so we can afford to pay for all the new cleaner technology we need, like genetically modified crops, hydrogen vehicles, carbon sequestration and new nuclear fission plants to last us until we have viable nuclear fusion.

    All this stuff is very exciting and fun, and a lot more fun than recycling your tin cans to stave off the apocalypse, but it's not something the green movement seems at all interested in.

  2. I'll restrict myself to two points...:)

    Firstly, you're right - 'green issues' can conflict. Windfarms are the obvious examples - people complain about them destroying their countryside. There are so many environmental single issue campaigning groups - we need coherent green politics.

    Secondly, you say "I heard that the Green Party want negative ecomonic growth." We need to distinguish between 'good' and 'bad' economic growth. Someone works stupidly long hours, neglects their family, has a mental breakdown and the government has to put more money into mental health services. The economy has grown on two counts, neither of them increasing human happiness - 'Bad' growth. The government invests in training schemes for the unemployed, which enables people to be active in the economy and gives jobs to trainers - 'good' growth. There's also what I would call false growth, where an activity is already taken place, but the government takes steps to monetarise it - e.g.there was talk of paying grandparents for caring for children.

    The economy (and especially a service economy) is essentially a way of measuring and exchanging people's activities and judging whether those activities are useful to society.

    We don't need strong growth, we, as a nation and as individuals need to make sure our activities produce good growth, whichwould include investment to deal with climate change, which is clearly a public *good*.

    And just in case you think I'm being hopelessly idealistic the 'moral economy' has been around since the 16th century, through Victorian times and made famous by EP Thompson.