Leading Article: Saving the world needs leadership, not arson

Share
Related Topics
Middle-class greens were brought face-to-face with the spectre of violence over the weekend, when a tipper truck was set ablaze by protesters in Newbury. Some of them (us?) will have felt a strong urge to hop into their Range Rovers and head back to respectability. But even without the actions of the Provisional wing of the ecology movement, the hardening of positions in the muddy trenches of the battles of the Newbury bypass and the Exeter-Honiton road raise important questions about the future direction of environmental protest.

We need to step back and review the position of the green movement in its broadest sense. There is a sense of millennarian unease about the environment and the sustainability of the modern capitalist way of life which lies beneath public opinion in this country. Opinion polls show that people think the environment is important, but beyond that they have relatively little idea what should be done to save the planet. In their environmental policies, the main political parties are surprisingly close to each other, with the Liberal Democrats the most green and Labour - even more surprisingly - the least. Meanwhile, the Green Party, which in 1989 seemed set to replace the "Social and Liberal Democrats" as the third force in British politics, has disappeared into its own leaderless ghetto. It seemed determined to copy the German Greens' split between realos and fundis before it had anything to get realo about. Meanwhile, journalists have been eager to hail the direct-action campaigns against roads and animal-rights protests against veal exports as evidence of a broad movement uniting the marginalised and the mainstream of middle England.

There is a danger that these campaigns are a bit like the old labour movement in what turned out not to be its heyday. Some of the green protesters seem to be getting into a losing mentality, glorying in heroic individual sacrifice and acclaiming defeats as dry runs for eventual inevitable victory.

It should have been deeply worrying to greens to see Tony Benn turn up at Newbury, "speaking under an old oak tree" (of course), and describing the campaign against the bypass as "brilliant". We all know what the old stager regards as "brilliant". Labour fought a "brilliant" campaign in 1983. The miners' leader, Arthur Scargill, fought a "brilliant" campaign in 1984-85.

Television pictures of arson and demonstrators smashing up earth- moving machines are the best way of putting off your potential supporters. But the spokespeople of the green movement already know this. Charles Secrett of Friends of the Earth had it exactly right: "The criminal actions of a few hotheads run the risk of turning public opinion against the campaign. Scenes like these will discourage the millions in middle England who believe in environmental protection."

However, the fundamental problem is not that a few people have run amok in Newbury, but that the green movement lacks leadership. Almost all anti- roads protesters, from Mr Secrett through to "Swampy", the 23-year-old buried 50 feet underground near Exeter who featured in our pages recently, know the sacred importance of preserving their claim to non-violence. They believe, in Mr Benn's ominous words on Saturday, that their protests have "raised issues of immense importance for everyone in Britain". They may have helped draw attention to the problems of the car culture, but we suspect that phase is over. A vibrant, successful green movement needs to be more flexible and imaginative, thinking of new ways of raising awareness without alienating the middle classes. Perhaps the campaign of civil disobedience against the Milosevic government in Serbia offers a model?

The public's Green consciousness is unformed, full of confusions about the relative importance of different environmental issues. This is not helped by what appears to many people as tree-hugging mysticism, obscuring the link between road-building and climate change, for example.

This disconnectedness of green politics is partly a function of the success of "single-issue" pressure groups. Greenpeace mobilised public opinion on the backs of whales. The International Fund for Animal Welfare on pictures of big-eyed fluffy seals. Prince Charles and Jonathan Dimbleby on the basis of nature trails for grown-ups. This last, the green wellie lobby, is perhaps the most important part of the whole movement, and its small "c" conservative members are among those most likely to be alienated not just by violence but by any publicity for the "dogs on strings" faction.

It is because many environmental dilemmas pose large questions to which the answers are uncertain that some doubt that there is a single green cause. Does the energy used in recycling do more damage than the depletion of finite resources in making new things? Is there any point in saving energy while the world's population grows so fast? But the truth is that these questions are linked. What is lacking is a strong lead for the general public on priorities. So far, our politicians have only shown what Margaret Thatcher called followership.

We need leadership founded on scientific method rather than sentimentality about animals or the countryside, although it can start from such things. Priorities need to be set, and a free market is one of the best ways of reconciling competing concerns, but too many green fundis confuse capitalism with markets and are suspicious of attempts to put a price on environmental damage.

While we respect individual acts of non-violent heroism, and while we agree with Swampy and Friends of the Earth that there can be nothing more important than the sustainability of human life - and therefore all life - on this planet, all greens need to reconsider what it means to lead public opinion.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Analyst - London - £38,000

£30000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Data Analyst - Lon...

Norwegian Speaking Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + competitive OTE: SThree: Progressive in Manchester...

IT Support Analyst - London - £22,000

£20000 - £22000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chel...

Learning Support Assistants-Nantwich area

£8 - £9 per hour: Randstad Education Chester: We are currently recruiting for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Prime Minister’s Questions: Yah Miliband versus Boo Cameron

John Rentoul
'Irritatingly Disneyfied': fashion vlogger Zoella  

Zoella is a great role model - she changed my life

Vicky Chandler
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London