Too nice to turn people green: Active right from the start, Lesley Whittaker explains why environmental party politics have become irrelevant

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About 20 years ago, a small group of people in Coventry became so disenchanted with the white heat of the technological revolution that they decided to plot its downfall. Ted Heath was Prime Minister. There were still pound notes. We had just been faced with a new coinage, new counties and Europe. North Sea oil was still a dream.

The Ecologist magazine had not long before published A Blueprint for Survival. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology had equally recently published The Limits to Growth, and Maurice Strong was organising the Stockholm conference on the future of the planet. I was a solicitor in partnership with my husband. We had friends in estate agency, Michael Benfield and Freda Sanders. Another friend, Bob Richley, and his colleague Grahame Cole, had just seen their new Anglo-American hi-tech company go into receivership. The outcome of weeks of discussion between these assorted people was a new political party.

It was named PEOPLE. Just that. Capital letters, no 'party', no 'apostrophe s'. People were causing all the problems, people were the only means of finding solutions, and the future of people was the motivation for trying to find such solutions as might exist.

PEOPLE started small. Thirty or so people attended the first public meeting in Coventry in February 1973. Among them were those who would become the national executive committee and, in subsequent years, four parliamentary candidates, two national secretaries, two treasurers, one chairman and one European parliamentary candidate.

The four of us who formed the core of the early activities travelled thousands of miles, addressing meetings from Cornwall to Aberdeen - even, eventually, London, where Jonathon Porritt turned up to see what it was all about and changed the direction of his life. It was evangelical work.

The world began to change. The party changed, too. Its name became the Ecology Party, then the Green Party. Its votes went from an average 300 in parliamentary elections to 15 per cent of the vote in the 1989 European elections. Since then it has slipped from the headlines.

In those 20 intervening years, the environmental cause grew, flowered and withered in the UK. Hard to think that such a short time has taken us from telling people how to pronounce 'ecology', through times when every television channel was offering some environmental essay, to the present, when people are suffering from green fatigue.

Some issues eventually became widely understood and legislated upon. Ted Heath was a member of the Brundtland Commission, which in 1987 produced its influential international report on the environment, Maurice Strong organised last year's huge Earth Summit in Rio and, ironically, the Green Party has been largely eclipsed by the Liberal Democrats, espousing what are widely perceived as comparable policies.

Through my involvement with the Green Party I had wanted to demonstrate that ecology was a political issue, capable of solution only by political means. My personal objective was to retire from political activity when every party in the UK had ecological issues and policies appearing high among its manifesto priorities.

I resigned from the Green Party some years ago when I thought this had been achieved. I was mistaken. The apparent courting of the Green lobby faded away as the Thatcherite ethic of personal greed took such a powerful hold that no party could afford to ignore it.

I used to hope that the Green Party would never be elected because it would become redundant. I now think it will never be elected because of its very nature. The party's supporters are committed to honesty and telling the facts as they see them.

Their policies address the problems they perceive. Their approach to government and administration is that of natural anarchists - they rely on the individual's sense of responsibility, on informed co-operation, not compulsion. Theirs is a party appropriate to a far nicer society than the one we live in.

That is why it is not electable, for its approach to politics is green in two senses, and the navety indicated by the second sense dictates a permanent place on the sidelines. The Green Party will continue to be an invaluable research agency and an excellent debating society for airing the problems, but a government - never.

Green Party politics have become irrelevant. It was a necessary stage to go through, but as a movement we should learn, develop and move on. Green is great, but not as a single-issue political force. We have to use the only raw material we have: human nature, in all its greedy, self-interested, self-deluding glory.

I abandoned party politics to work on the redirection of commercial activity, by means that the commercial world understands. Self-sufficiency farming taught me that, with slim resources, compulsion does not work. When I wanted to move my sheep I led them, following the feed-bucket in my hand. To have driven them would have required more dogs, more people and more fences.

Commerce will follow the market feed-bucket, so I have been working to take advantage of this, to encourage environmentally desirable restructuring of business.

Companies may be entirely convinced of the soundness of good environmental practice, but until it makes financial sense they won't adopt it. People may like the thought of clean air and clean water, but until they are actually made ill by lack of one or the other they prefer to buy the cheaper product. Who can blame business for giving its customers what they are prepared to pay for?

With a government that has four more years to run, the only way to solve the problems is to use the power of the market which has been created, just as in judo one learns to turn an opponent's weight against him. Twenty years ago North Sea oil offered an opportunity to fund the redirection. Now that the oil wealth has all been spent on presents for the rich, we must use the recession as our friend.

While the commercial world drowses in its semi-hibernation, we should grasp the opportunity to move into sounder, sustainable businesses. New investment, when it comes, should be in cleaner technology, better working practices, less damaging products. We must sell hope and dreams, not fear and despair.

Bryan Appleyard returns next week.

(Photograph omitted)