Barry Sheerman: We must work together to save environment following Blue Planet II

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OUR marine environment is at risk in a way that we have not previously fully considered, certainly not until I reread an old favourite of mine by the man who created the term “the dismal science” for economics.

Thomas Malthus predicted that, eventually, the population would outgrow the food supply and that we would all perish, unless two wonderful things happened – war or pestilence. That was Malthus’s way of suggesting that there would
be a natural ability of the economy and society to renew themselves as we ran out of food.​

The old counter-argument to Malthus was that human beings were clever, innovative and creative. They would discover new forms of science, applied science and engineering. Agriculture would become highly sophisticated in how it treated the land and grew crops, and we would become so much more productive.

The critics of Malthus were absolutely right, but the fact is that, although humans are creative, clever and innovative, they are also greedy, careless and exploitative. That is the truth. I said to one of my staff: “It’s not the sort of thing you run round your constituency saying to your constituents.”

I do not pick on the British people particularly, but humans are clever, careless and exploitative, and they are in danger – one species – of destroying this planet through climate change and global warming and what we are doing to the oceans of the world, let alone what we have done to the poor species that we have shot, eaten, killed and driven into extinction.

Anyone who saw the last David Attenborough film knows that it offered one little chink of light. Viewers get to the stage where they are feeling quite suicidal about the future of ​the marine environment, and then suddenly he mentions that, actually, there is some possibility of the oceans renewing themselves in some areas, although not as well as we might hope.

There has been a slow awakening to the peril in which the marine environment is in, but now is the time that we must act. David Attenborough says that we have 50 years to save ourselves, but I think that he is being generous. I think that we have to act much more quickly and decisively, and have the right kind of organisations.

One of the real strengths of the European Union over a number of years has been in helping us to co-operate across nations to tackle some of the great problems of the environment.

I remember meeting Surfers Against Sewage in my early days in the House of Commons. So many of our coastal towns used to pump sewage, in a pipe, out into the sea and, of course, back it would come. There has been a remarkable change because of European regulation on discharge to the sea. We rapidly cleaned up our seas and beaches, and also those right across Europe, so that when holidaying there we would know how clean the environment was; there is a standard and a system of flags.

I also remember the tiny amount of recycling that was done in our country. Local authorities were at 14 per cent recycling. The rates across the country have since zoomed up. Why? Because we took on board European regulations that meant the payment of a levy on any waste that was put in a hole in the ground. What a society we used to be, not long ago, putting all our waste product in holes in the ground.

It is still there – a great treachery, a misspent youth. For 150 years, going back to the Victorians, we threw everything we had finished with into holes in the ground. That was a disgrace, and it was only European regulation and landfill tax that turned it around. We now have a much better – but not perfect – situation. Funnily enough, only recently I asked how much each local authority in Britain pays in landfill tax. I have not yet had a reply; the Government are very reluctant to give me the information, saying: “It is so difficult to collect. Inland Revenue cannot provide it.” It is, however, a very good indicator of how effective the authorities are in their recycling.

We are sometimes too polite, aren’t we? If we look back over 400 years, we in Britain, as the earliest industrialised nation, with the greatest sea power, have not been good at keeping the global environment clean. I think we chopped down most of our trees to build warships. The biggest problem today is that as China is the most polluted country, followed by India, and then the United States, if we do not work with those large countries, everything we do in the United Kingdom will be of much less value.

We need international co-operation, but not in a colonial way, pitching up in any country – even in Russia, which is a great polluter – and saying “You should do what we do”. They would point to us and say, “Well, you don’t have a very good record. You’re a late convert”. We are late converts, but we know a great deal now about how to change the environment in which we live and make it more sustainable.