Leading Article: Green pastures for a wilting movement

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Few Britons will be aware that today is UN World Environment Day, even though the celebrations are based here this year. Next week the Green Party will be lucky to gain more than 3 per cent of the votes in the European Parliament elections, having gained 15 per cent last time around.

The strength of Britain's environmental movement lies in mass- member pressure groups and wildlife and heritage organisations rather than a Green Party frozen out of Westminster and Strasbourg by the first-past-the-post electoral system. But putting aside imminent disappointment at the polls, the outlook for greens of all shades remains rather bleak. The glory days of 1989 and 1990, when their issues topped the national agenda, show no sign of returning even though opinion polls indicate that a large proportion of the population remains concerned.

This is partly because Britain is gradually coping with its own environmental problems. Acid rain is declining, our beaches and rivers are becoming cleaner, air quality should soon start to improve. Even our embattled wildlife and the thinning ozone layer show signs of recovery. In contrast, there is a palpable decline in the social environment. People fear the loss of a sense of community, rising crime and family breakdown. They dread perpetually high levels of unemployment and economic insecurity.

It is very different in the developing world, where the need to improve environmental conditions is a matter of life and death rather than of aesthetics and minimising small health risks. Dirty air and water impose a huge burden of misery and shortened lives for more than a billion people.

There is a further reason for Britain's green movement to spend more time looking overseas. If the developing nations follow the same path to prosperity as the Western world while their populations continue to soar, the earth will be unable to provide enough raw materials and food while its climate will change, perhaps disastrously.

There are links that can be made between this dismal outlook for the global environment and the deteriorating social environment at home. Liberal democracy, free trade and free markets are part but not all of the answer. A price has to be put on environmental resources previously taken for granted. Definitions and indices of economic growth that incorporate wellbeing and sustainability should be improved and new thinking about work and social obligations developed. Britain's green movement must campaign on this broader, more difficult agenda if it is to flourish in the long term.