Out of wetsuits, into pin-stripes: Sara Parkin is the latest green campaigner to break with fundamentalism and address real economic, scientific and social complexities, says Richard North

Share
Related Topics
Sara Parkin has backed into the limelight by withdrawing from the ballot for the leadership of the Green Party. The manner of her going - a robust letter and media interviews - may have been designed to shock the party into a realisation of its growing irrelevance to British politics. It would be unlike Ms Parkin to have to have acted out of spite or to damage the party, and she insists that green politics remains important to her.

It is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about Sara Parkin, except in some sections of the Green Party that are noisier than they are numerous. Mind you, she has always been a gift to journalists: decently objective in her account of green politics, articulate, moderate. These qualities propelled her to stardom. It is hard to see what future the party has without her, if not at its helm, at least as an attractive figurehead.

The Green Party has always depended on its stars, however much it claims that the idea of leadership is unsound. Jonathon Porritt was by far its greatest asset before he (like Ms Parkin after him) grew fed up with its wrangling and became the director of Friends of the Earth.

His defection, and perhaps the messianism of David Icke, must have contributed to the halving of the party's membership since it peaked in 1990, the year after its successes in the elections to the European Parliament, when it won 15 per cent of the UK vote.

The Green Party faces several difficulties, any one of which looks enough to sink it. The electoral system is against it; the public is deeply sceptical about its claim to have redefined the economics and politics of running industrial societies; it refuses to operate coherently. But its greatest problem is one faced by all green organisations in the modern world: they are now surrounded by voters and politicians who want to be some shade of green, are increasingly going to some pains to work out what that means - and are even acting on it.

The greens, therefore, are being challenged where they live: they are no longer unique, only uniquely committed. They also have to defend their claims in what is an increasingly sophisticated debate. Green politics, like green campaigning, has always depended on the media finding the cause compelling, and often allowing people working for green issues a softer ride than they accord people with opinions on, say, education or health.

This is beginning to change, even for the most glamorous green organisation of all. As Peter Melchett, director of Greenpeace's UK office said yesterday: 'Environmentalists now operate in a much more sophisticated and knowledgeable environment. There are more NGOs (non-governmental organisations), there are more expert environmental journalists, and more expert environmental consultants.' He believes that Greenpeace has had a lot to learn in recent years, as it appointed and then listened to scientists, lawyers and increasingly wised-up campaigners.

Partly, Greenpeace has learnt to wear a pin-stripe as well as a wetsuit. Direct action has always been crucial to Greenpeace's charisma, but it is just as successful when it attends a meeting of the International Whaling Commission, or threatens or undertakes legal proceedings against companies or - very much the American model - the regulators.

What is less clear is how long campaigners can stick to fundamentalist language and purity of ambition. Greenpeace, always simplistic, is currently campaigning against the way pollution is contained within a legal framework. The campaigners claim this is licensed planet-wrecking. Industry responds: you wanted pollution reduced and it has been, by law; how would you have done it?

Well, Greenpeace habitually wants outright bans, including - at the moment - bans on incineration (which many argue is crucial to clearing toxic wastes) and all chlorine chemistry (which makes many plastics and cleans our water, among much else).

Greenpeace faces a dilemma. If it does not insist on being very tough, it becomes little different from Friends of the Earth, which has struggled for years to find a line between realism and excitement. Lord Melchett - the great- grandson of Sir Alfred Mond, whose family firm joined with others to form Greenpeace's great enemy ICI - believes that the group's fundamentalism does not look odd in Sweden, Germany or the Netherlands.

'In Britain,' he says, 'our audience is well behind its equivalents abroad. Opinion formers, industry, government and the general public all seem to answer green questions differently to those abroad.'

Lord Melchett defends Greenpeace's use of strong language to describe the effect that ICI's pollution has on rivers and the North Sea. Press releases say these are being destroyed by effluent. Yet the worst of the damage was historic, and industry is not lying when it argues that it is imposing a rapidly reducing load on the aquatic system around it.

Increasingly the media are capable of reflecting this debate: earlier this year BBC 2's Nature programme broadcast a very Greenpeace-ish account of the damage the chlorine industry does; within weeks it ran a film criticising Greenpeace for being unrealistic in its claims and demands.

The public still strongly supports green campaigns: both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace maintain strong UK memberships and incomes, despite the recession. There remains a following wind for faster improvement in environmental performance. Yet some serious greens see real problems even here.

Richard Sandbrook, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, believes that some campaigners have failed to respond properly to the post-Earth Summit world: 'Governments are beginning to shift, and some corporations are shifting quite radically. The question now is how you deliver on the commitment which is coming through. There was a green kneejerk reaction that Rio was a failure. But actually it was a remarkable first shot in laying out the terms for a North-South debate.' Greens refuse to admit such progress, and look churlish.

These perspectives are sharpened by an increasing realisation that industry and science hold the key to feeding and nurturing the billions of people who are now on the planet, and will inevitably quickly reproduce. Increasingly, greens are having to lose their romantic anti-industrial stance.

Even in super-green Germany, the Greens suffered severe reversals in the first post-unification election, when they were seen to be at odds with the emerging realisation that West Germany had cleaned itself up (in so far as it had) because it was a rich and successful industrial state, whereas East Germany's dirtiness flowed from being the reverse.

Perhaps the problem for greens is simply that having had to shout for attention for so long, they now find they have lost the capacity to hold conversations. There are signs that Mr Porritt, for one, is adjusting the volume and style, now that he is a commentator rather than a campaigner - he gave up the leadership of Friends of the Earth in 1990. His recent writings, according to one green-watcher, Keith Pike, the public relations manager of ICI Seeds, are increasingly 'addressing the social, scientific and economic complexities of the real world'.

As Sara Parkin frees herself of the Green Party's constraints, will she lose some if its fundamentalism too?

The author is writing a book on the dilemmas faced by a future world population of 10 billion, to be published next spring by Fourth Estate.

(Photograph omitted)

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Skilled Machinist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled machini...

Recruitment Genius: Toolmaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of additional skilled toolmak...

Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; up to £55k

£50000 - £55000 per annum: Langley James : Head of IT; e-commerce; Blackburn; ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you have experience of B2B s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

David Cameron’s immigration speech: I broke my promise; this time will be different

John Rentoul
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game  

Manchester was ahead of the pack in honouring Alan Turing

Simon Kelner
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game