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

News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Sport
Christiano Ronaldo enjoys his opening goal
champions leagueLiverpool 0 Real Madrid 3: Ronaldo and Benzema run Reds ragged to avenge thrashing from their last visit to Anfield
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Six of the 76 Goats' cheese samples contained a significant amount of sheep's cheese
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Extras
indybest
News
Wilko Johnson is currently on his farewell tour
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Voices
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
voicesRenée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity, says Amanda Hess
Arts and Entertainment
Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are starring together in civil rights drama Freeheld
film
Voices
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella
voicesVicky Chandler: Zoella shows us that feminism can come in all forms
Life and Style
health
Arts and Entertainment
Pink Floyd on stage at Live 8 in 2005. From left to right: David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Nick Mason and Rick Wright
music New album The Endless River set to overtake boyband for most pre-ordered of all-time
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Solutions Architect - Permanent - London - £70k DOE

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

General Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Great opportunities for Cover...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama