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No good news for UK Greens

By Stuart Hertzog
June 9th, 2008

Anti-ecological thinking keeps Britain’s Green Party marginalised

Country Report by Sandy Irvine

The United Kingdom

NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE, UK — Despite increasing political rhetoric about the necessity for ‘going green’ to combat climate change, the UK Green Party has not been able to capitalize on the precipitous decline in public support for New Labour under the leadership of prime minister Gordon Brown.

Even though it has tightened up its act in recent years with some effective ‘public faces’ such as MEP Caroline Lucas, and three or four municipalities have enough Greens on council to make a difference, the UK Green Party’s fortunes are firmly stuck in a very small rut indeed.

The party’s poor public support cannot be blamed on internal factors. While the Green Party struggles, Britain’s mainstream environmental groups are doing no better. The terrible truth is that public enthusiasm for ‘going green’ — support for recycling schemes and so forth — has largely proved to be superficial and short-lived.

Sales of organic produce are falling. The growth of the organic sector seemed spectacular, but this mainly reflected the tiny base from which it started. Deep hostility to charges for waste disposal (the ‘bin tax’) means that any attempt to make people pay for the waste they create only results in more illegal tipping. Most Britons want fuel prices to come down and opposes extra taxes on over-size, inefficient, or polluting cars.

More generally, most people refuse to pay their ‘ecological way’. A recent poll found that 72% of the public simply do not want to pay green taxes. They may say that they are worried about climate change or species extinction, but clearly they are not prepared to do much about it if it means extra cost and inconvenience to themselves.

Enjoying material prosperity

Despite the effects of tax changes, rises in food and fuel prices and the fall in house prices, most people in the UK remain quite prosperous in material terms. People might complain that their shopping bills have gone up yet most continue to buy unnecessarily expensive ‘convenience’ food and then throw much of it away (roughly a third of what is bought).

‘Essentials’ such as plasma TVs and wii games consoles continue to sell by the truckload. Given the deafening chorus of complaints about belt-tightening, it might be remembered that the cheap ticket airline Flybe has a solid base of customers who take 40 (sic) weekend leisure flights a year.

It seems that most Britons are not prepared to sacrifice any of the baubles of consumerism. When interviewed people will often say that they voted against New Labour because Gordon Brown’s 10p tax threshold change had hurt the poor. In reality, such statements camouflage more selfish motives.

The Conservative have spotted this fiction and are making noises about easing the ‘pain’ of motorists. As a result, Tory ‘greens’ such as millionaire Zac Goldsmith are being progressively marginalised out of party decision-making.

Ecological implications

Any serious programme for sustainability will indeed mean much belt-tightening since the UK is living well beyond its ecological footprint. But mass hostility to such measures seems to doom any purely electoral road to a green society, at least within the necessary timeframe. This alone creates terrible strategic problems for genuine friends of the Earth.

How this gulf can be crossed is far from clear. Some of the Earth’s more shallow friends are becoming even more timid. The UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, a government advisory body, recently issued a report on UK airport expansion. It called for more research to establish the ‘facts,’ as if the unsustainability of present levels of aviation isn’t already blindingly obvious.

Apart from the usual suspects, other groups are coming out into the open in opposing ecological policies. There had been much debate about, for example, the impact of long-distance transport and especially so-called ‘food miles’. Now third-world development and anti-poverty campaigners are openly attacking those who advocate local sourcing and seasonal eating.

Similarly there have been more attacks on organic production, dismissing it as a silly middle-class fad. One recent instance was the influential TV chef Delia Smith who duly received widespread praise for her “common sense”. Books and TV programmes on motoring have many fans and are enormously popular.

Crazy red-green logic

Recent developments in the UK also seem to undermine dreams of some sort of environmentalist-labour movement alliance. Large sections of the British working class seem especially indifferent, if not actively hostile, to green ideas. Indeed support for cheap air flights, low cost motoring and so forth is strongest in this social stratum, whose concerns about the environmental and health costs poor diet are among the lowest of any British social class.

Much ecosocialist rhetoric about such social alliances seems just pie-in-the-sky. The radical Left has abandoned its once implacable hostility to organised religion and, in the case of the George Galloway’s Respect Party, has allied itself to some of the worst Jihadist elements in the Muslim community (where, it must also be noted, some of the bravest voices about the threat from fundamentalist Islamism are to be heard).

There is even silence among the Left on perhaps the biggest long-term ecological threat to Britain. High levels of immigration in recent years from eastern European countries and, to a lesser extent Africa, have substantially boosted population. Contrary to demographic transition theory, immigrants from poorer countries have been using their increased affluence to have larger families than would have been the case had they stayed in their birth country.

It would appear that to have a family of four kids also has become more fashionable amongst the more well-heeled, white middle classes. Yet all ‘reds’ and most ‘greens’ denounce immigration controls as ipso facto racist, and generally refuse to entertain any notion that Britain might be seriously overpopulated. With friends like these, the Earth’s chances fall even further.

Slip-sliding away

The ecological consequence of recent trends in Britain seem likely to give the spiral of ecological breakdown a faster spin. Fears about rising food prices will likely lead to the scrapping of wildlife-friendly set-aside schemes as well as more intensified farming of existing fields and pastures. The consequences for biodiversity most likely will be terrible. Genetic engineering of food production, with all its attendant risks, will also be speeded up.

More roads and airport runways will be built while more green field sites will be buried under housing estates and other buildings as the preferred solution to housing problems (laughingly called ‘ecotowns’ by Gordon Brown). The home construction industry is also averse to ‘fiddly’ renovation and adaptation jobs. Southern England may one day become one big suburb, broken up by patches of heavily chemicalised fields and the odd postage stamp-sized nature reserve.

Remoter parts of the UK will not be safe since large-scale wave and wind energy programmes are actively being pursued, along with nuclear power, to keep down electricity prices. Of course, developments like leisure and tourist facilities will be encouraged to ‘get the economy going’ wherever possible. Meanwhile, the Atlantic frontier west of the British Isles will be ravaged by exploration to postpone the inevitable decline in oil and gas production.

It has been probably conceded, at least behind closed government doors, that the battle against climate change has been lost. The feeble measures adopted thus far on resource use and waste management could be be watered down further. More likely, government money will flow into massive engineering projects such as flood prevention schemes; measures that use mountains of material and energy, accelerating global warming.

Those who the Gods destroy, they first drive mad.


Sandy IrvineUK political activist and writer Sandy Irvine first joined the Ecology Party in the late 1970s. He created and co-edited Real World quarterly journal and contributed articles to other publications including the late and much-missed Wild Earth, as well as being a member of the editorial advisory board of The Ecologist magazine. A vegetarian and a real ale aficionado, Sandy teaches film studies at a local college and is currently working on a book tentatively titled A Deeper Shade of Green. You can read more of Sandy’s work at www.sandyirvine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk.


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