Apathy? Please not in my backyard: Local environmental issues are part of wider eco-disasters, and we must all fight, says Deborah Jackson

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Indy Lifestyle Online
IN A recent survey on people's attitudes to television news, 86 per cent said they would want to know if a nuclear power station was being built within five miles of their home.

The majority response does not surprise me, but the apparent apathy of the remaining 14 per cent does. It reminds me of the environmental battle we are currently waging in my backyard, a hilltop village to the south of Bath. The council plans to fill the old limestone mines under our houses with Pulverised Fuel Ash (PFA), a waste product from coal-fired power stations.

Our environmental concerns are numerous. Many coal ashes contain toxic heavy metals; the project is likely to involve years of dust and lorries; the water table may be threatened; and the EC is contemplating a ban on the use of ashes for landfill.

The old quarries could be filled instead with a sand and cement mixture, but the extra cost of about pounds 8m to a project costing pounds 21m is turning council officials pale. They have to persuade the Department of the Environment to part with the money, or the womb of Bath's architectural heritage will be left to crumble, and our houses with it.

Would you rather have industrial waste under your house that might one day qualify it to appear on a contaminated land register, or would you go for sand? In a straw poll taken at a recent public meeting, about 90 per cent of residents voted against industrial waste. I think 14 people actually voted for it.

I think I know what motivates those 14. It's a phenomenon I call The Right Not to Know, and it contradicts everything we believe about robust British attitudes of non-conformism and the questioning of authority.

In the Eighties, we labelled Nimbys (Not In My Backyarders) who had a predilection for signing petitions and lying down in front of lorries. Nowadays every local campaign official has to dodge the TV reporter's cliched accusation: 'But isn't this just Nimbyism, Mrs Jones?'

Of course it is] Only when the issue of dumping toxic waste affects us personally do most of us begin asking serious questions about environmental policy. It's all very well for Whitehall to draw an X on the map, but unless these officials plan to live over it, raise their children within a five-mile radius of it and take the consequences, they will never really care.

Yet the Right Not to Know is as much a part of the British mentality as Nimbyism, and probably a lot older. It's the modern equivalent of doffing your cap and keeping your head down. Politically, it leans towards the status quo. It's the desire to change nothing, to challenge nothing. Where once people said: 'Don't question your betters,' they now say: 'Trust the experts.' In my village, certain old-timers equate this attitude with pedigree - the longer you have been here, the more fuss you think everyone else is making. Let the council get on with it. It's nobody's business but theirs.

Our own environmental debate has attracted a queue of professionals - doctors, engineers, environmentalists - who have been making life rather awkward for the council and its advisers. They have asked searching questions, produced challenging data, offered creative alternative strategies for maintaining and supporting the old mines.

In fact, they are protecting Bath's archaeological heritage, which used to be the domain of the old right. Most people believe they have a right to challenge those in authority. But for just a handful of residents this is the ultimate treason.

In his book The Age of Unreason, Charles Handy points out that if you put a frog in water and slowly heat it, the frog will eventually let itself be boiled to death. We, too, he suggests, will not survive if we don't respond to the radical way in which the world is changing. We have stood by and watched industrial debris pile up for far too long; now our green spaces are nearly gone, our rivers past drinking, our sheep stricken by radiation from the fall-out of distant continents.

Change means staying ahead of the environmental game. It means anticipating the problems of future generations, acting with exceptional prudence and caution, where once we were cavalier. It means no longer accepting the word of one or two officials in a Property and Engineering Department, but networking our concerns and our findings around the world.

But what hope do we have of putting parochial problems in a world context if 14 per cent of us are content not to know that a nuclear power plant will be built nearer than the nearest hypermarket? It is vital that people take an active interest in local issues. We need to shout about our immediate environment and put our apparently small problems in a larger context. This is the attitude that has turned Oxleas Wood into a national monument for green space, and will inspire other such causes.

We need to search for similarities, connections; perhaps someone somewhere shares your environmental concerns. Perhaps there is a flurry of concerns that might reveal an epidemic. Or is it better not to cause a stir . . . and keep it in your own backyard?

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