Monday 8 April 2013

Why green civil disobedience will rise again

There is an argument brought to bear on the green movement by business groups and so-called ‘free market’ think-tanks that wealth and the environment go hand in hand.

It is quite true that conventional growth goes up.  So do environmental standards. The argument is used to assert that going for growth will paradoxically achieve all the objectives that the green campaigners want – less pollution, breathable air, happy bees, and so on. 

You have to take this seriously.   Poor places can’t afford to tackle the very pollution that makes them so poor. 

There is also an edge to the argument which is absolutely intentional.  It implies that environmental concerns are somehow secondary , the playful and pathetic byways of the affluent and bourgeois. 

I say 'so-called' free market think-tanks because they do not espouse the free market that I recognise. Both the CBI and the once fearsome Institute for Economic Affairs seem to me to have become apologists for monopoly.   But that's another story. 

I mention all this partly because I was staggered that the UK government allowed the ban on bee-killing pesticides to fail in the European Union, and partly because there is a paradoxical flaw in the argument.

It forgets what the process is whereby pollution is vanquished and environmental standards rise.  It assumes that we all need to relax, get rich and the world will get greener all by itself.

It won't.  Because people have to fight for it. 

Bit by bit, step by step, civil society demands it – just as the people of Beijing are demanding pollution statistics, just as Hazel Henderson in New York City demanded and achieved the same thing a generation ago. 

There is no green space, no pollution controls, no assertion of the long-term over the short-term, that has not been fought for. 

And the connection with rising incomes is very simple. It provides people with the space in their lives and the political power with which to fight, in a way that the precariat – monitored every minute by their employers – never can.

That is why the middle classes, or middle incomes in particular, are absolutely vital for green progress.  If we are all reduced to proletarian standards (see my forthcoming book Broke), nobody can fight.

So it is true that rising incomes leads to environmental improvement, but it is not good enough for the powerful to tell us to stop complaining – it isn't enough to say: let’s build more runways, forget the bees or live with the health effects of fracking, because wealth is good for the environment. 

It is good for the environment because it allows people to fight for it. 

My political antennae, which are not very sharp, suggest that we are entering a period when this is going to be very important – when people begin to mind very much indeed about fracking and nuclear energy. 

Not because of political or economic theory, or even because the green movement exhorts them to.   It will be because they are afraid they are ill because of them, and their children are getting ill because of them.  So strap in for a bumpy ride, starting around 2015.

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