03 April 2007

The Hijacking of the Green Movement

From an early age, I have worried about the environment. I have seen how our natural environment is gradually being eroded, polluted, destroyed, species made extinct and many other forms of damage - all as a result of the actions of man. For sure, in my early years my understanding of this was fairly limited. I was aware of traffic pollution, of oil tankers spilling their cargo being reported on the news, of the risk of extinction of various species and so forth. At some point, I became aware of the risk of global warming due to man's addition of large quantities of carbon dioxide and other chemicals to the atmosphere. All of this bothered me, and I vowed to do everything I realistically could to avoid making the situation worse. I have even been known to get on my soap-box and comment on those who flagrantly abuse the environment out of their own material greed, or in many cases, sheer apathy and carelessness when with little or no effort they could be more responsible.

And then, being 'green' suddenly became trendy. I can't pinpoint an exact date when this happened, but if pressed I would say it became clear this was happening during the latter half of 2006, although in reality some things were happening long before then. Politicians started espousing their green credentials in an attempt to win votes. Large multinationals started using the green message in their advertising, and many made big announcements about how they were now 'doing their bit' for the environment. Environmental activists suddenly seemed no longer to be shouting from the sidelines, but were a central part of the action. Documentaries about the environment started appearing much more frequently on the TV.

And yet, despite this bluster, I am left with a deep feeling of dissatisfaction, and at times despair. Toyota will use the fact that they sell the Prius Hybrid car with its improved miles per gallon compared to similar petrol-only cars to claim they are environmentally friendly, and yet their Chelsea tractors (4-wheel-drive vehicles) outsell the Prius by a huge margin. Tesco tell you they are working to use less energy in their stores, and that they will soon be labelling their food with 'food miles' - and yet they continue to develop huge out-of-town stores, thus making town centres like ghost towns where you can't go shopping unless you have a car. BP will tell you that they are investing huge amounts of money into solar panel technology, and yet they still continue to be at heart an oil company, whose only real financial interest is in selling as much oil as possible. Local authorities are even replacing perfectly good bus services with 'park and ride' schemes, which are the worst of all worlds - you still need to use a car to get into town, but you also incur the time and inconvenience of making part of your journey by bus. David Cameron is even installing a micro wind turbine in his house, an ostentatious act which will cost far more and be far less effective than simply installing more loft insulation. And the biofuels industry, while on the face of it providing a real, near-carbon-neutral alternative to petroleum, is actually guilty of wholescale destruction of the Indonesian rainforests for palm oil plantations, in the process releasing vastly more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than could possibly be saved by the reduction in petroleum-derived fuel. They are also largely responsible for inflating the price of maize and wheat on the world market, as the demand for feedstock for ethanol production increases - and causing hunger and hardship among certain groups who rely on these as their staple diet. This puts food and fuel production in direct competition with each other - there is only so much arable land available, and to supply the UK with biofuel would require vastly more land to be planted with oilseed rape than we actually have.

Where is this all leading us? There seems to me to be a very real danger that these high-profile conversions to the green cause will pull the wool over our eyes and convince us with marketing waffle, thus distracting us from the real issues. The individuals and organisations involved will convince the naive majority that they're doing something real, whereas they will in fact just carry on almost exactly as before.

So my question is, who is actually proposing the real solutions to the problem? When was the last time a politician tried to get elected by telling us we should drive more-efficient cars, or use public transport instead for some of our journeys? Where are the companies that are telling us they are setting up in city centres so as to reduce the need for their customers to travel, not to mention the convenience of not needing to use a car, therefore expanding their potential customer base very significantly? Where are the high-profile environmental activists who refuse to travel by air to the latest environmental conferences in far away lands? Where is the new legislation that requires all new dwellings to be built to standards similar to the Passivhaus standard developed in Germany, which is so well insulated that it eliminates the need for expensive central heating systems to be installed? Where are the tax measures to encourage use of environmentally less damaging products? OK, I will concede a very small amount of credit to Gordon Brown in his recent budget speech on that one, but he did the absolute minimum he could and still be seen to be doing something. All the real solutions to the problem (and their are many, I have not seen any one solution that solves more than a small part of the problem, but when many are used together the whole is greater than the sum of the parts) are strangely absent from the mainstream and can only be found when you look in the places you have always found them - small co-operatives, individuals with a passion, the third world.

Despite appearances, nothing has changed at all.

Copyright © 2007 Donald Allwright
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