The green movement at 50

The green movement at 50: Mission unaccomplished

In the fourth part of our series marking 50 years of the green movement, Michael McCarthy looks at the areas where environmental activism has failed

A A A

If you've ever seen large-scale deforestation, especially of the rainforest, and seen it close up when it's just happened, you feel you're in the aftermath of an armoured battle. The scale of the destruction stuns you: cleared ground which seems to be everywhere smoking, burning tree stumps flickering like huge candles. It feels as if some giant beast has torn off a great lump of the landscape and savagely consumed it, leaving bits of it bleeding behind.

Serious deforestation has been going on for more than 30 years across the tropical zones of the world, starting in Amazonia and gathering speed, spreading to Indonesia and then to West Africa.

The effect has been staggering: rainforests, which provide us with so much, from oxygen production to carbon storage, once covered 14 per cent of the Earth's surface; now they cover about 6 per cent, and the devastation is continuing.

This is something which the Green Movement, despite immense effort and a certain amount of progress, has not been able to stop. There have been many success stories in modern environmentalism, some of which featured in these pages yesterday.

But if we examine the 50 years of the Green Movement's existence and try to tot up its failures, the inability to halt deforestation would probably be near the top of the list.

We might bracket it with a similar calamity, this one taking place in the world's oceans: overfishing, and the parallel inability, despite great exertions, to bring it under control.

According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, some 77 per cent of the world's fisheries are either fully-exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, and the problem continues.

Why have green activists had such success in limiting pollution, but not in curbing overfishing and deforestation? The answer is that pollution is in essence a tactical environmental issue, something that can be dealt with on its own, while the other two are strategic, meaning they are part of the very structure of things.

So pollution can be brought right down by operating your company differently, and the only reason companies did not do that in the first place was either laziness or miserliness: truly bad publicity will always make them change.

But deforestation and overfishing are something else entirely, part of the human exploitation of natural resources. The pressure for these processes to continue may in the first instance be driven by the greed of private companies and particular individuals, but it is ultimately driven by rising demand, which is in turn caused by the rise in human numbers – or to put it another way, by the ever-expanding scale of the human enterprise.

How to deal with that? There's no "end of pipe" solution to the effects and demands of a world population which doubled from three billion to six billion between 1960 and 2000, is now seven billion-plus, and likely to be nine billion before 2050.

Dramatic confrontations by eco-warriors in small boats might have ended the dumping of British nuclear waste in the sea, but such actions will do nothing to halt the soaring demand for more and more forests to be cut down and turned into agricultural land to feed the coming hunger of nine billion.

Serious environmental thinkers realise the problem now is strategic rather than tactical, and although public attitudes have clearly been changed by the Green Movement, some of them would say that the biggest failure of all during its first 50 years has been not to change those attitudes profoundly enough.

Andrew Simms of the New Economics Foundation says: "If your objective is to give the greatest priority to nature and society, you cannot win in an economy built on endless accumulation and the legal guarantee that the interests of capital come first."

The former director of Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper, sees the problem as even deeper, about culture rather than economics.

"There are two really big failures of the Green Movement, underpinned by a third," he says.

"The first is that there are two parallel discourses going on: one is about planetary boundaries and nature, and the other is about is about economic growth, and they're going in polar opposite directions.

"The second is that we have failed to link an ecological narrative with popular culture. The fact that most people in the country regard a trip to the shopping mall on a Saturday as a better day out than a trip to a nature reserve says quite a lot." And he adds: "But the profoundest failure of all is our underlying disconnect from the Earth.

"We work to take on these environmental challenges without having any kind of profound connection with nature. We've lost it talking in a mechanistic, policy-oriented way.

"We've tried to make it all about numbers, parts per million, complicated policy instruments, and as a result, we've lost something that's essential. Most people couldn't tell you the names of country flowers by the side of the road, the birds that are singing. It's a disconnect in our world view – a failure in our philosophy."

Changing culture is much harder than changing what comes out of a pipe. It's a recognition that that the next 50 years of the environment movement may not offer the clear-cut, achievable victories of its first half century.

Additional research by Tim Greiving

Tomorrow: Part 5 - After the first half-century, we look at the green movement's next 50 years

Arts & Entertainment
A stranger calls: Martin Freeman in ‘Fargo’
tvReview: New 10-part series brims with characters and stories

Arts & Entertainment
Shaun Evans as Endeavour interviews a prisoner as he tries to get to the bottom of a police cover up
Review: Second series comes to close with startling tale of police corruption and child abuse
Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
football Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Arts & Entertainment
Schwarzenegger winning Mr. Universe 1969
arts + entsCan you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth-II by David Bailey which has been released to mark her 88th birthday
peoplePortrait released to mark monarch's 88th birthday
Arts & Entertainment
The star of the sitcom ‘Miranda’ is hugely popular with mainstream audiences
TVMiranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
Life & Style
The writer, Gerda Saunders, with her mother, who also suffered with dementia before her death
healthGerda Saunders on the most formidable effect of her dementia
Sport
Manchester United manager David Moyes looks on during his side's defeat to Everton
footballBaines and Mirallas score against United as Everton keep alive hopes of a top-four finish
Sport
Tour de France 2014Sir Rodney Walker on organising the UK stages of this year’s race
Arts & Entertainment
Jessica Brown Findlay as Mary Yellan in ‘Jamaica Inn’
TVJessica Brown Findlay on playing the spirited heroine of Jamaica Inn
News
YouTube clocks up more than a billion users a month
mediaEuropean rival Dailymotion certainly thinks so
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents
Arts & Entertainment
‘Self-Portrait Worshipping Christ’ (c943-57) by St Dunstan
books How British artists perfected the art of the self-portrait
News
People
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLE
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Geography Teacher

£130 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Secondary Geography Teacher Lo...

Do you want to work in Education?

£55 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Are you a dynamic and energeti...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: SEN TAs, LSAs and Support Workers needed...

Private Client Senior Manager - Sheffield

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Pro-Recruitment Group: The Sheffield office of this...

Day In a Page

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter: The man who could have been champion of the world - and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him

The man who could have been champion of the world

Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and the Bob Dylan song that immortalised him
Didn’t she do well?

Didn’t she do well?

Miranda Hart lined up for ‘Generation Game’ revival
The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

The Middle East we must confront in the future will be a Mafiastan ruled by money

In Iraq, mafiosi already run almost the entire oil output of the south of the country
Before they were famous

Before they were famous

Can you guess the celebrity from these British Pathe News clips?
Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is genius

Martin Freeman’s casting in Fargo is a stroke of genius

Series is brimming with characters and stories all its own
How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players