Please go away, we're saving the world

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ASK ANY group of schoolchildren about the destruction of the rainforest, ozone depletion or global warming, and they will give you chapter and verse. They will produce amazing statistics, tell you about the ecosystem and atmospheric processes, and describe classroom plays in which they have dressed up as Amazonian Indians, rubber tappers, UN and World Bank representatives to sort out a hypothetical land-rights case.

Then ask them about poverty, inequality, homelessness and bad housing in Britain. Unless they are unfortunate enough to experience it, they will not be similarly forthcoming.

More than one year on from the world environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, with its grand statements and few gestures, environmentalists in this country have scarcely even begun to think about what 'environment' means for the growing number of people in Britain who have no control over their environment. These are disenfranchised people, who are in or near poverty, homeless, ill-housed or otherwise disadvantaged. They need a new environmental agenda.

The mainstays of the environmental movement in this country, as in many other Western countries, are the relatively recession-proofed A/B consumers. They are eager to 'do their bit' by buying unleaded petrol, organic produce and CFC-free aerosols, and recycling more paper and glass each year.

They are encouraged by government and local authorities, who are themselves adopting environmental policies, charters, statements and strategies with a vengeance. Businesses, realising that pro-environmental opinion and legislation are here to stay, are making friends where once there were enemies.

But these groups are hardly representative. They constitute an elite whose numbers and concerns, but not their influence, are limited. If the environmental movement is to develop further, it must choose. It must consider whether to continue as an elite minority which sets the environmental agenda on behalf of a majority that sees the movement as increasingly Nimby - 'not in my back yard' - and irrelevant to its needs. Or it must change.

In my view, attitudinal and practical change is needed, and fast. When the press officer of a major environmental organisation was asked recently if she felt her organisation reflected the cultural and social diversity of today's Britain and, if it didn't, whether it was an issue, she replied: 'No, it's not an issue for us, we're here to save the world.'

And, despite the movement's well-worn message of 'involving the local community', anyone who has ever attended a local environmentalists' meeting will know that in practice this phrase is synonymous with 'involving anyone who looks like us'.

Change is now the only viable option for a movement that Jonathon Porritt has described as 'not just middle-class, but middle-aged'. Such change means recognising that issues of social justice and equality are fundamental to an environmental agenda if it is not to exclude a broad cross-section of society. In the United States, the Sierra Club and branches of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have already realised this.

Is it not now time to build on the movement's well-deserved successes by broadening the agenda so that the slogan 'think globally, act locally' means something?

'Environment' should begin with peoples' basic and immediate needs, such as shelter, water, security and food. Yet how many environmental organisations even think of these as issues worthy of their attention, let alone act upon them? Typical agenda issues, such as global warming, threats to tropical rainforests and the ozone layer, serious though they may be, are hardly the most relevant environmental issues to the rapidly growing numbers, young and old, in inner urban Britain who suffer 'environmental poverty' - their basic needs unmet; their lives spent in drab, system-built environments strewn with fly-tipping, litter, dog mess and drug paraphernalia.

For many, these are the real environmental issues. They affect the immediate 'quality of life' of those unfortunate enough to have to endure them. Such victims, the most vulnerable in our society, also represent a natural, if ignored, constituency of the environmental movement.

Globally, of course, 'quality of life' issues are seen as important. When confronted daily on television with famine, flood, poverty, inequality and death, many environmentalists reach for their World Wide Fund for Nature or Royal Society for Nature Conservation credit cards and the nearest telephone. But what is the difference between environmental poverty in Moss Side, North Shields, Mogadishu or the Amazon? Why do environmentalists not accept that it is happening here, and recognise that poverty and inequality are to environmental quality what BSE is to cattle?

For the poorest in Britain, who live in degraded and degrading environments, the agenda of the environmental movement has nothing to offer. Agendas are set by those whose basic needs have been met and who are free to think about more distant and global issues. The agendas they set are reinforced by lobbyists and politicians and reflected by advertising and marketing managers because 'green' environmental issues sell products; environmental poverty does not.

The collective power and resources of the environmental movement must be tapped to form an environmental-poverty fighting fund. This should not be optional, it should be a moral imperative.

Allocating some of their relatively abundant resources to, and entering into, long-term projects with charities dealing with poverty, housing and homelessness, inequality and community development, will raise the profile of environmental organisations among those suffering environmental poverty. It will also help to create a much more sustainable and democratic environmental movement, able to respond to the needs of the majority, not just the minority.

The costs incurred in raising the environmental quality of consumer products are beginning to hit people in their pockets. Why should those who suffer environmental poverty pay disproportionately when they are scarcely affected by many of the improvements?

A new environmental agenda - a start towards which is being debated by the Green Party's rebel offshoot Green Realignment, led by Sara Parkin and Jonathon Porritt - should begin by focusing on social justice and equality in relation to a more broadly defined concept of environment. A mission statement for the new agenda might read: there will never be environmental quality until there is human equality.

The author is a social environmentalist. Colin Welch is on holiday.