What will recharge the batteries of a tired popular movement? popular movement run so low?

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The Independent Online
THIS, you will almost certainly not been have told, is European Conservation Year. It is supposed to be "a year of action", and no less a personage than John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, has described it as "a wonderful opportunity". But almost four months into the year, this is, I think, the first time it has been mentioned by name in the national press.

Mr Gummer's department has provided no money to finance or promote the year - the 25th anniversary of a predecessor, which did much to launch the environmental movement despite being quickly and justifiably dubbed European Conversation Year. No national events whatsoever are planned in Britain, in contrast to the United States where more than 5 million people turned out yesterday in some 300 towns and cities around the country to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, which provided a similar catalyst in North America.

The environment secretary urged "all those interested in getting involved" in the year to contact an office in Peterborough. But, when I tried, this turned out to be an answering phone which asked me to leave a message, adding without much conviction: "We will hope to get back to you within two working days of receiving your call."

The original European Conservation Year changed my life, starting my career as a specialist on the environment. I was a young trainee reporter who had just joined the Yorkshire Post. Its editor had taken it into his head that someone should cover Conservation Year and, much to my consternation, I was chosen. My last brush with science had been seven years earlier when I had comprehensively failed my physics-with-chemistry O-level.

Yet, without knowing it, I was getting in on the start of something that was to grow explosively and being given a chance - which comes to only a few journalists in each generation - to be one of those involved in defining a new area of specialist writing. Environmental journalism, and my career, has had its ups and downs since. The nuclear industry attempted to have me fired from one paper, as did a leading environmental organisation. For many years the subject went so out of fashion that I would meet the entire national environment press corps in the shaving mirror each morning. Yet despite my initial misgivings I have stayed with the subject - because it soon became clear that the environment was not primarily about the fate of flowers and trees, or even about toxic waste or global warming but that it was about the well-being of people.

And people have responded: the most marked development of the past quarter of a century has been the growth of popular support for environmental issues. Opinion polls in both Britain and the United States consistently show that 80 per cent or more of respondents support environmentalist positions and want stronger government action. A more interesting survey, by Mori, which measures what people actually do rather than what they say, classes more than a quarter of Britons as "environmental activists" - nearly twice as many even as in the late 1980s, the high point of government and press interest.

But despite this, the environmental movement is becalmed - even drifting backwards. After a decade or more of explosive growth, groups on both sides of the Atlantic are cutting budgets and staff. Publishers in both countries are producing a series of, often right-wing, "contrarian" books attacking them. The new Republican Congress is preparing an all-out assault on US environmental legislation and controls are being eroded here through the Government's deregulation drive. Though they have had some one-off victories, such as getting lead gradually phased out of petrol, "greens" have failed to mobilise their support and force thorough-going policy changes. The environment may be, as Robin Cook once put it, "the sleeping giant of British politics", but it shows little sign of stirring.

Part of this failure is down to the pathetic showing of the Green Party, apart from the freak result when 2.3 million people supported it in the 1989 European elections. Its entrenched opposition to economic growth and its persistent habit of purging prominent figures who want to engage with the real world have long alienated even most leading environmentalists.

These pressure groups, once the dynamos of a genuinely popular movement, have mostly become sluggish and bureaucratic, taking endless meetings to make decisions. They have often found it hard to handle criticism, sometimes even inconvenient truth: I bear the scars of the reaction when I reported some years ago that the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was systematically killing seagulls and for long was scarcely on speaking terms with Greenpeace (both are under new management). When I suggested to one leader that my report on his group had been accurate, he retorted: "That's not the point; you're endangering my funding."

Politicians and civil servants are becoming adept at taking the steam out of "green" issues, increasingly seducing (or attempting to seduce) pressure groups into the establishment they once so vigorously opposed, inviting them (in strictly limited roles) to join government committees and the like. After the European vote Margaret Thatcher secretly instructed three ministers - Chris Patten, Lynda Chalker and David Trippier - to get "green" issues off the political agenda by the next general election: they did it with a judicious blend of fair words, personal decency, and small (but well-hyped) policy changes.

Yet the gathering environmental crisis has not gone away and nor has popular concern. Denied adequate release through political parties or pressure groups, it is finding a new outlet - fast-growing radical groups who espouse non-violent direct action. In Britain, mass protests uniting a remarkable range of people from tweedy Tory women to young anarchists with painted faces have shaken the Government over road building and veal exports. Similar groups in the US are successfully opposing toxic-waste tips and protecting forests - there are 1,000 grassroots groups fighting inappropriate logging. New leaders are emerging. Last week in San Francisco the Goldman Prizes - among the world's top environmental awards - recognised two of them: Aurora Castillo, an 82-year-old California grandmother who mobilised opposition to inner-city toxic-waste disposal and Emma Must, a 29-year-old former children's librarian from Winchester, who has been a leading force in the British anti-road building campaign.

In fairness, many, if not all, of the traditional pressure groups are beginning to respond to the crisis. Some who originally rejected the new radicals are now belatedly trying to reach a rapprochement with them. Groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are earnestly trying to develop solutions rather than simply crying "havoc". And they are putting more and more emphasis on showing that looking after the environment increases employment and prosperity: Mounting evidence shows that this is indeed so - and that the right, which knows a bit about destroying economies on both sides of the Atlantic - is wrong to pillory environmental measures as damaging.

This last is important, for most environmental problems have a social root. They arise out of poverty and over-consumption. Lack of sanitation, for example, contaminates the drinking water of more than a billion Third World people, while excessive use of cars aggravates the asthma epidemic in rich-world cities. That is what originally gripped me, has kept me at it for quarter of a century and - inshalla - will continue to occupy me for a few decades yet.

Neal Ascherson is on holiday