When a useful new idea comes, it comes not to politicians, but to scientists, academics, eccentric garden-shed potterers, poets or other loners. Then it migrates to policy wonks. Politicians intercept it, at best, shortly before it enters the comfort zone of dinner-party wisdom. They then express it, often rather woodenly, and always late. But we take notice because, by then, the idea may have an impact on our lives.
Tony Blair's speech on global climate change said nothing that hasn't been said better by Edward O Wilson or James Lovelock. But it was a speech very well worth reporting and thinking about. It was a speech that signals a change. It was the beginning of something real, not a piece of passing propaganda or point-scoring.
Labour's view has shifted quickly. Only a few years ago, I vividly remember a post-lunch conversation with an MP who is now in the Cabinet. I had asked about the environment and received a brisk, earthy description of the failings of the middle classes. Labour was the party of ordinary working people, and they required industry, and industry meant pollution. That was the price of economic growth. Environmentalism? That was all introspective middle-class digital manipulation.
Times change. I was recently at a seminar on climate change where ministers, scientists, pressure-group leaders, businessmen and civil servants debated global warming. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, argued that an important part of his role will be to act as a goad for economic and social change to avert environmental disasters. In a world of water shortages, trade arguments and global warming, foreign and environmental policy will fuse.
How very convenient for the left. And, up to a point, green politics is the new socialism. Greens and reds share a certain puritanism and a strong belief in state action.
The new environmentalism, like the old socialism, will require growing bureaucracies. It will need rules to check the free market and, indeed, individual freedoms. It will not be totalitarian. But it will be a finger- wagging, nannyish creed.
Here is what the president of Washington's Worldwatch Institute said seven years ago, when he gave the world 40 years to make the change to an environmentally stable society: ''If we have not succeeded by then, environmental deterioration and economic decline are likely to be feeding on each other, pulling us into a downward spiral of social disintegration.'' Doesn't that sound similar to the prophecy of economic doom made constantly by the old Marxians? And - oh joy of joys - it is still the Americans who are most to blame!
The great difference, however, is that the Marxist doomsters had a few bad economists and social scientists on their side: while the ecological watch-tappers have real scientists and, increasingly, serious business figures.
The last thing New Labour wants is a clash between the duties of government and the desires of new, New Labour voters. The evidence is convincing but up to now politicians, locked into a politics of ''our growth rate is bigger than their growth rate'', have been simply unable to handle it.
Edward O Wilson, in In Search of Nature, imagines extra-terrestrial observers of the Earth watching as ''the forests shrink back to less than half their original cover. Atmospheric carbon dioxide rises to the highest level in 100,000 years. The ozone layer of the stratosphere thins, and holes open at the poles. Plumes of nitrous oxide and other toxins rise from fires in South America and Africa, settle in the upper troposphere, and drift eastward across the oceans...''
The watchers, Wilson muses, might conclude that it was inevitable that some species would eventually gain intelligent control of Earth. But bad luck, he mordantly argues, that it was us, who have swiftly become a geophysical force, doubling to 5.5 billion in the past 50 years and scheduled to do the same in the next 50: ''No other single species in evolutionary history has even remotely approached the sheer mass in protoplasm generated by humanity. Darwin's dice have rolled badly for Earth.''
The extreme possibilities that are thrown up by ecological change create extreme reactions - from mankind-hating eco-warriors to the complacency of unapologetic Western consumerism - the ''let's buy a second Merc and stuff the planet'' brigade. That is blander than eco-doom but equally extreme, and in part encouraged by the very doomyness of the doomsters. There has been no middle way between panic and complacency.
Between the extremes, democratic politics must function. The job of politics is to take these ideas away from the prophets and into the market place; to domesticate them. This will happen in stages. First comes the softening-up speechifying of politicians functioning as popularisers.
Then come the first measures, next the carbon and petrol taxes, the road pricing, the reinvestment in public transport and insulation. But if the scientists are right, there will be a bigger political agenda after that, including the beginnings at least of a serious look at levels of consumption. One understands why politicians flinch at the thought of any serious threat to the ''great car economy''. But their current pitch of painless, high-consumption yet effective environmentalism is bunk: either the rhetoric is overstated or the politicians haven't thought about what their words imply.
Like it or loathe it, this is the politics of the future. If he is a true leader, it will be one of the issues that dominates Blair's time in Downing Street. How far should he push green taxes? How tough should he be in trade talks? Negotiating between contending extremists will be difficult, though it is good that Blair is moderate - no ideologue could find a compromise between panic-stricken flat-earthers and middle-class consumers in deep denial.
But unless Blair's speech in New York was an example of shameless, outrageous propaganda, then it presages a steady and eventually controversial pressure on our lifestyles and assumptions. The tax and regulatory changes may not come all at once. But come they will, one after another, and all in the same direction. Those who think that a New Labour administration will be necessarily bland had better go back and read that speech once more.Reuse content