Jonathon Porritt: Where's the energy to keep fighting for the planet?

You won't find much poetry in today's environment movement. Some even argue that it has lost its soul

Jonathon Porritt
Thursday 14 June 2012 22:18

There are many reasons why Rachel Carson remains such a powerful inspiration for the modern environment movement. No other writer during the 50 years since the publication of Silent Spring – the legacy of which The Independent has been marking this week – has more eloquently demonstrated that for environmental ideas to flourish they need to draw on a combination of science and soul. Commenting on her earlier work, The Sea Around Us, Carson herself said: "The winds, the sea and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry."

You won't find much poetry in today's environment movement. Some would even argue that it has lost its soul, or at least the intuitive understanding of the deep links between ourselves and the natural world. When the Coalition proposed selling off the whole of the public forest estate in England, early in 2011, our national environmental organisations sat on their hands and did absolutely nothing about it. They were astonished when hundreds of thousands of people and dozens of community groups rose up as one and forced the Government into a humiliating climbdown.

I argued at the time that the environmental NGOs had betrayed the many millions of people in the UK who see themselves as environmentalists, by not properly representing their passion for those woodlands and forests. It may be hard for today's environmental leaders to comprehend those feelings logically, but political movements are about a lot more than logic.

Two years into this Government, it's now clear that if the environment was any further down its list of priorities, it would have fallen off the bottom. Any thought on the part of our NGOs that "working the corridors of power" is still the best way of defending the environment is folly. Regrettable though it may be, it's hard to imagine that this Government is going to be influenced by anything other than unremitting, full-on confrontation. And one can't help but think that the NGOs may have lost their appetite for that.

So much for the soul. But we all know that anger alone will not suffice – not least because environmentalists need to reach out and work with much wider coalitions of people to secure the kind of lasting change that is needed. For instance, in these harsh economic conditions, the environment movement has to be able to prove its worth in terms of economic policy: what exactly should we be doing to help create jobs, rebuild prosperity and promote innovation?

As it happens, all the hard work has already been done on this – from Friends of the Earth to the New Economics Foundation through to the National Trust and the Town and Country Planning Association. "Greenprints" abound; policy prescriptions are already finely honed; and wonderful case studies are out there to be shared and inspire others. But there's no political momentum behind this persuasive body of work.

In Brazil next week at the Rio+20 Conference (so called to remind people just how little has happened since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992), UK ministers will no doubt proffer upbeat accounts of their Green Investment Bank (still just a "shadow bank" as far as any actual investment is concerned), their Green Deal proposals to retrofit existing housing (now diluted to homeopathically inadequate levels), and their policy on renewable energy – which is rapidly turning from customary incoherence into out-and-out omnishambles.

This represents two years of staggering failure. Labour appears to have lost interest in providing serious opposition on this theme. The Lib Dems are lost in the belly of the beast they helped to create, and the Green Party can only do so much.

So what might the environment movement be doing to transform that miserable outlook? Where is the coalition of interests (NGOs, businesses, trade unions, local authorities, venture capitalists, community groups and so on), all of whom have already enthusiastically bought into the idea of the green economy, but can do little on their own to make George Osborne's life the misery it should be – given his personal role in destroying any serious prospects for new jobs, new skills, new technologies, and new export opportunities from the green economy.

One of the most important developments since the Earth Summit 20 years ago is the step change we've seen in technological innovation – on energy, resource efficiency, transport, water, new materials, IT-enabled "smart systems" and so on. This promises not just a green economy, but a green revolution in the way we live.

It's a breathtakingly exciting and upbeat agenda – with jobs, skills and prosperity at its heart. But it's hard to detect much enthusiasm among the established environment NGOs for making the running on this, even though we all know that this is the only way to get environmentalism reconnected with the bigger economic agenda. Which, in turn, is the only way to get environmentalism reconnected with the economy. Which, in turn, is the only way to get the environment back up that agenda all over again.

Jonathon Porritt is Founder Director of Forum for the Future.

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