Independent Decade : Green tide just ebbed away

Mother Earth
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The Independent Online
A great green wave swept through the late 1980s. It dragged politicians and the media in its wake, boosted membership of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth and deposited so-called 'environment friendly' products all over supermarket shelves. Opinion polls showed threats to the environment were at the top of people's list of concerns.

But it all proved unsustainable, to use a favourite word of the green movement. The wave began to collapse soon after house prices did and continued to fade as the recession deepened; negative equity and mounting employment gave people more immediate worries. The Green Party, which won 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European Parliament election, became an irrelevance and remains one to this day.

There was a brief, glorious reprise in 1992 with the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, a giant gesture of an event attended by nearly 200 presidents and prime ministers which produced many declarations of good intent. For an entire fortnight the environment was right at the top of the news agenda before sliding away once more.

Yet there has been an underlying shift in our lives. Unleaded petrol has become the norm. We recycle more; taking old newspapers, cans and bottles down to the banks is no longer a minority middle class activity. Industry and local councils are having to implement two major environmental bills enacted during the past six years.

Protecting the planet also costs each family several hundred pounds a year more than it did in 1986, after accounting for inflation. Water bills have risen to finance major improvements in sewage and drinking water treatment. New cars are more expensive partly because they have catalytic converters. The duty on petrol grows by 5 per cent per annum because the Government wants us to drive less and curb pollution (and it also needs the extra revenue). Even the 8 per cent VAT on domestic energy was justified, unconvincingly, as an environmental measure aimed at discouraging wasteful consumption of fossil fuels, the main cause of global warming.

All of these things are much more than mere consequences of the high priority the environment had seven years ago. Attitudes and understanding have changed for good among a substantial chunk of the population. Most people, even highly educated ones, could not explain the different man- made causes of ozone holes and climate change but they still sense that we ought to at least think about altering our lives. While only a few per cent of Britons have made significant voluntary changes many more, perhaps most, see road building, out-of-town shopping centres and car use as controversial and troubling. That could not have been said ten years ago.

As the economy strengthens and people feel more secure and prosperous in their personal lives their fears for the environment we share are growing once more. The big domestic issues are now traffic, house-building in the countryside (a great construction boom is gathering) and the need to reform the Common Agricultural Policy so that farm subsidies do less harm to what remains of our wildlife. The countryside continues to be swallowed up by urban sprawl and nature is still in retreat, but Britain's air, rivers and seas are certainly cleaner than they were in 1986.

Nicholas Schoon