Why the green movement fails [ADDENDUM]

I went on the National Climate March yesterday, as those who read my tweets will be painfully aware. The march itself was the usual festive fun, although not well attended (the organisers say 10,000 people attended, the police say 5,000 – by my own estimate it was somewhere between the two):

(credit: Helen Duffett @ LibDemVoice)

I don’t usually stick around for the rallies of these things – I feel I’ve done my bit by marching – but as Cleggy was speaking I decided to hang about. I’m afraid that the speeches that followed highlighted for me everything that is wrong with the green movement.

The rally began with music by Seize the Day, a terribly earnest group of folk singers. Not content with singing songs, the lead singer (pace Bono), decided to try his hand at proselytising. I really do wish he’d kept his mouth shut. Leaving aside his rather confused attempt at sarcasm about being glad people hadn’t taken direct action against Tesco for selling patio heaters (I couldn’t work out if he was implying he was disappointed at the crowd’s failure to storm the nearby Tesco Metro), he ranted about how disgraceful it was that politicians had constantly failed to take action on climate change and called for people to “occupy” Parliament next year. At one point, I swear he said we needed to “tear down Parliament” to ensure that we have “proper laws.” Think about that for a second.

A bit later one of the other speakers denounced the fact that, as awareness of climate change has grown, the very same companies who grew rich from carbon fuels are now being allowed to diversify into environmentally friendly industries. Finally, speaker after speaker announced that the only way to make progress on the environment was to have more direct action. I’m afraid to say that, with the exception of Nick Clegg and to a certain extent Caroline Lucas (I’ll let her off for denouncing “that place behind me” – i.e. Westminster Abbey – for failing to take action on climate change; even the most fervant believer of the Da Vinci Code would probably assume she meant the place on her right), the nonsense on show at the rally was of such a high quotient that it qualified as organic, sustainably-sourced fertiliser itself.

First of all, politicians. In the 13 years I’ve been involved in party politics, I can honestly say that – regardless of political party – the average MP is ahead of the curve when it comes to the environment than the average person in the street. It isn’t that MPs “don’t listen,” it’s that they listen only too well. They talk to people on the doorsteps and in their surgeries, they read the opinion polls, and they are made painfully aware, day after day, that the vast majority of the public do not consider real action to minimise climate change to be a serious option. Far from being undemocratic, MPs are only too willing to bend to public opinion when it comes to this issue.

Now, it’s true that the political system could be more responsive than it is, although constitutional reform wasn’t on the CACC’s list of demands, but that responsiveness works both ways. If we had an electoral system which meant the Green Party was proportionally represented in Westminster, we’d also pave the way for UKIP, and even more denier-oriented parties to get representation.

Where the political class has arguably failed is to provide decent leadership on this issue. Even though there were two party leaders speaking at the rally yesterday, neither of the two main parties have taken a stand and held firm even as public opinion oscillates between environmentalism and consumerism. Dave Cameron was notable by his absense yesterday. But the green movement itself is hardly guiltless in this regard. Interest in the environment has increased substantially in recent years, largely thanks to Al Gore, but it barely hit the mainstream before being dumped in favour of economic concerns. If the green movement can’t inspire the public, it can hardly blame the political class for failing to do its job for it.

Regarding big business, here is an inconvenient truth the environmentalists themselves need to recognise: if we are to achieve a global shift towards green technology, Big Oil are going to end up being a large part of the solution not the problem. They have the spending power, the infrastructure and the global reach. Tear them down and nothing will replace them for decades.

Complaining about them for moving into the biofuels business, and implying this is all part of some vast, anti-green conspiracy, is just stupid. Cast your mind back five years ago and you will find that the biggest champions for biofuels (CACC insist on calling them agrofuels – presumably because it sounds a bit like “aggro” – but it should be agrifuels, surely?), was the green movement. Just 18 months ago I had a very loud and vocal argument with a friend, who fancies himself to be both an environmentalist and a scientist, who denied there was any evidence at all to suggest that biofuels could be environmentally harmful. Despite the West Wing being ahead of the curve on this one, awareness of how self-defeating the switch to biofuels could be has come extremely late. To hector corporates in the unforgiving tones that were on display yesterday is extremely misplaced.

On the merits of direct action, I would certainly agree that it has its place and if environmentalists want to try occupying the Houses of Parliament then good luck to them. But was the vote for women won by the Suffragette, as Caroline Lucas suggests? Only partly. It was the suffragists who did all the spadework; the Suffragette’s switch to direct action in reaction to Asquith’s betrayal may have kept the issue in the public eye, but it was the economic necessity of the post-War period that lead to women getting the vote. Maybe what we need to get action on the environment is a bloody great war? Any takers? No?

But again we return to the fact that the general public is largely disinterested and is resoundingly hostile to any meaningful action that might affect them. Direct action can raise awareness but ultimately, on this issue, it has thus far resoundingly failed to change hearts and minds in sufficient numbers. Direct action can’t affect a paradigm shift, it can only give voice to something that is already there.

The green movement has proven itself to be extremely good at winning battles, particularly battles that both the crusties and the nimbies can agree on, but it is losing the war. I wouldn’t bet on Heathrow’s third runway being built – the opposition has reached a real head of steam now – but when it comes to significant global action the picture is more mixed.

The environmental movement is overdue a rethink. It is for this reason that I very nearly decided to go to the march with these guys, Serious Change:

I didn’t in the end because, to be frank, I’m already in the “serious change” business. That is, I’ve joined a political party, work within that party to ensure it is as environmentally conscious as possible, and work to get that party elected (less so these days, but still). If every individual who marched yesterday joined one of the main parties and campaigned within it for change, I can guarantee that things would change pretty quickly. But just as the general public requires a paradigm shift to recognise how its behaviour and attitude is destroying the planet, so the green movement needs a paradigm shift to recognise that the boring old job of influencing the public and working with the dreaded “men in gray suits.” Party politics is often far too slow, and it needs outside influences, but the greenies allergy to engaging with it has become self-defeating. It is time to stop the anti-politics bollocks and recognise that if you are interested in anything more than the onanism of hairshirt puritanism, you have to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty.

ADDENDUM: Yoink! I missed out a whole section of what I planned to write!

At the end of the march, one disappointed Lib Dem said to me that he felt we should have encouraged people to go on a by-election campaign instead. Well, leaving aside for one moment the fact that that wouldn’t have worked on me, I couldn’t disagree less. It shouldn’t be a prime concern of the party, but turning up to marches like this is crucial. If the change in mindset highlighted above is to happen, the Lib Dems will play a crucial role in bridging the chasm between mainstream politics and the green movement. Although my much ridiculed idea for a samba band has wider applications too, it would be a real boost in getting people at demos to, quite literally, dance to our tune.

But for it to be really worthwhile, much more work needs to go into promoting the event and getting people to come along. We did this for the 2003 Iraq march and it paid dividends. Looking at the free applications available online at our disposal these days, it can be done with far less effort now.

This really ought to be something Liberal Youth should be excelling in. Genuine question: what’s stopping you?


  1. Great post. The Green movement has all sorts of problems.

    As you say, we desperatly need to get the big companies that can actually make a difference on board. We need the car companies, oil companies and the rest of them to be part of the solution.

    The green faction that sees big capitalism as an evil to be destroyed and the future as low-tech small-scale organisation is all very well (nothing wrong with low-tech or small-scale) but totally unrealistic.

    If they want to go down that route, that’s fine, but they could have the decency not to whinge when they fail completely to change behaviour or reduce climate change.

    Like it or not, big political parties, national governments and big companies are an essential part of the solution.

  2. James (and Costigan Quist)

    I agree with a lot of what you say, though politicians should lead public opinion as well as following it.

    Perhaps the climate crisis is too important just to be left to the established “green movement”? The environmental lobby, in all its forms, has done very well to get the issues up this far, but they go wider than “the environment” – into, the economy, health, foreign affairs and more.

    The point is, the crisis is now so great that humankind needs to embrace a lot of new technologies and behaviour changes, very quickly. The point of “environmental politics” now is making all that happen. How do we encourage big business, consumers etc. to change their behaviours?

    I think that, ultimately, it will be all about economic incentives — money — and regulation where those cannot work. Not enough people have realised that.

  3. I did say that politicians need to provide leadership. My point is merely that the green movement has, thus far, failed to provide it either.

    The person who has done the most to bring the environment to mainstream public opinion is Al Gore, a politician (albeit one who failed to provide the same leadership when he was in office). Politicians aren’t angels, but they aren’t the villains of green mythology.

  4. I don’t think Asquith betrayed eh suffragettes. He always had a principled objection to women’s suffrage, which was that he thought future government’s could neglect women’s interests but plead the fact of women’s suffrage as a defence.

    He might have been wrong but he wasn’t treacherous.

  5. Great post, James. The type of issues, incidentally, that our mainstream journalists should be taking up but instead decide to wallow in soap opera nonsense.

  6. Hi there James. I found your blog whilst doing some research on what impact the climate march had on either the public’s perception of climate change or politicians’ willingness to take some serious action on the issue. Whilst I disagree with some of your analysis over what’s wrong with the mindset of the green movement, I agree with you that there is too much antipathy among protesters towards politicians that they themselves have the power to elect and re-elect!

    There is a curious disconnect in modern British politics, and one that I had hoped Obama’s campaign would shed some light on. The public think politicians are doing nothing for them, but conversely do little to hold the same politicians they elect and pay, to account! The job of any constructive movement, and by extension political parties, is to make it easier for the public to shape politics, whether at Westminster, Brussels, or in their local communities.

  7. It amazes me that no one addresses population.

    The huge increase in numbers living on these islands of Britain is causing irreparable damage to our environment. Why is nobody pushing for an optimum population?

    We in Plymouth have been told that we must increase our population by 100,000. Our green open spaces and parks are under threat and it will do nothing for the environment or CO2 emissions. The
    LibDems are at the forefront when it comes to building hundreds of thousands of new homes to accommodate an incoming mass of immigrants.

    The LibDems have also bought into a EU monster that is driven by corporatist industries such as the large superstores. Local farming and fishing don’t stand a chance. How about addressing the food mile issue.

    How about condemning politicians, and the people in the bubble that surrounds them, for owning three or more houses.

    Why don’t they do away with their chauffeur-driven cars and ride on the trains and buses as they would have us do?

    Why don’t they video-conference instead of jetting around the world on self-aggrandizing junkets.

    Incidentally, I’m not a denier of global warming and I do despair at the way the industrialized countries are so wrapped up in this uncaring throw away culture. I am also very angry about my disappearing countryside; an issue directly connected to immigration and population growth.

    From my point of view it seems that the politicians ‘want their cake and eat it too’.
    It’s of absolutely no worth whatsoever politicians talking about the environment if they don’t make any effort themselves.

    To RAYYAN above – it is not the failure of people to hold their politicians to account that is at fault it is the fact that no political party will face the facts on immigration and the destruction of our environment. The corporatist machine must roll on – for that it needs an excess of labour that it can exploit. The LibDems play right into their hands. I am praying that the economic conditions of the next few years will focus attention on these problems.

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