Leading article: The green lining to this chaos

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There are two responses to the financial crisis that are wrong. One is to say that we can forget all that goody-goody guff about the environment now that people are worrying about how to pay next week's bills. The other is to say that our culture of consumption has been exposed as unsustainable and that we must abandon capitalism for a life that is closer to nature. Today we outline a middle way.

What started as a technical problem in capital markets is now moving quickly into the so-called real economy of jobs, homes and living standards. One subplot in this extraordinary story starts with defaulting banks in a country with a population the size of Coventry and ends (for the moment) with council workers across England worrying about whether they will be paid next week. While we wait for the scale of the recession to become clear over the coming months, many people may assume that green issues will slip down the news priorities.

The Independent on Sunday does not accept that they should. Today we publish the first comprehensive listing of those often unsung heroes of the environmental movement, the IoS Green List. It builds on the success of our Pink List, which celebrates the contribution that gay and lesbian people make to British life, and which was itself a reverse tribute to another list of a more material kind in a rival newspaper.

We hope that the Green List will allow us to recognise the remarkable contribution made by environmentalists in meeting the greatest challenge of our times: saving the ecosystem of our planet from the depredations of human activity. For many of those featured on our list, this will be the first time that their efforts – often deeply unfashionable and pursued for years without thought of personal reward – have been appreciated and marked. In no case do we think this is more true than in that of this year's winner, John Stewart, interviewed by Cole Moreton about his journey from the 2B London bus to the campaign against Heathrow expansion.

Readers may quibble with our rankings, and we hope that you will. We want to provoke a debate about what makes a good environmentalist and how you can evaluate the contribution made by any one person. So please take issue with us and argue that we have recognised the wrong people in the wrong order. Help us to make next year's List even better.

Join the debate, too, about our contention that now is the time, of all times, to focus people's attention on green issues. We believe that it is precisely while advanced democratic capitalism is going through one of its phases of "corrective" destruction that visionary leaders can best seize the chance to re-order its priorities. There is a green dimension to the financial crisis, in that it was triggered by steep price rises in oil and food, as production of both tested the limits of sustainability.

The argument here is one of balance, which is why we do not agree with the anti-capitalists who see the economic crisis as a chance to impose their utopia, whether of a socialist or eco-fundamentalist kind. Most of us in this country enjoy long and fulfilling lives thanks to liberal capitalism: we have no desire to live in a yurt under a workers' soviet.

Heathrow airport is a test case. We understand the conventional economic case, and we are not opposed to air travel as such. But there comes a point when the growth of carbon-based air travel has to be halted and probably reversed if the global ecosystem is to remain capable of sustaining human life at present numbers. It may be easier to adjust to new rules if they are introduced at a time of economic stringency. Now might be the time to say no more runways and that slots on existing runways will go to the highest bidder in a free market, so that the cost starts to reflect the damage done to the environment.

The Independent on Sunday is in favour of market forces, and recognises that they work effectively only when they are well regulated (and on the basis of sound money, which, as we have been forcefully reminded in recent weeks, requires governments to act as lenders of last resort). Market forces cannot respond to the costs of environmental degradation unless governments put a price on – above all – carbon.

To that extent only, we agree with the anti-capitalists: that now is the time to rethink the values that underlie our economic system. As Geoffrey Lean, our Environment Editor, reports today, the United Nations is already working on a plan for green growth, harnessing the power of market forces for environmental sustainability.

In the argument for better regulation of markets in the public interest – which must include mitigating climate change – we hope that the stars of our Green List will light the way.

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