Leading Article: Saving the world needs leadership, not arson

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The Independent Online
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.