Dr Gary Haq: Why greens need to get back to the grassroots

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THE past five decades have seen groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) successfully campaign to raise awareness of environmental issues.

The green movement has promoted a way of speaking and thinking about the environment that was not possible or imaginable decades ago.

Today green issues are a feature of the modern world that that everyone now recognises. As the green movement reaches middle age, it is coming under increasing criticism for being bureaucratic, ineffective, out of touch and set in its ways.

Environmental concern initially focused on the protection of selected species and habitats, reducing polluting emissions to air, water and soil and improving the control and management of waste and hazardous substances.

As society became increasingly globalised, industrialised and interconnected, environmental issues changed in their complexity and geographical scope.

With the recognition of acid rain, the hole in the ozone layer and climate change as environmental problems, the focus moved from the local to the regional and global scale.

Efforts are now being made to control greenhouse gases and specific pollutants from sectors such as energy and transport. This has involved improving the efficiency of resource use and adopting cleaner technology.

While progress has been made in improving the state of the environment, human activity continues to drive environmental problems such as climate change, deforestation, depletion of natural resources and loss of biodiversity.

Despite many achievements the green movement has failed to win the hearts and minds of a large part of the electorate. The urgency of reducing greenhouse gases, the slow progress made in achieving a binding international climate change agreement, the style of campaigning and the rise in climate scepticism have caused fractions within the green movement.

Early this year, Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth, accused the movement of betraying the public by not supporting the grassroots campaign to stop the sell-off of England’s forests.

Porritt claimed the green movement was either too concerned about its relationship with the Department of the Environment to criticise the sell-off or that they hoped to gain from it.

More recently, the movement has been criticised for its opposition to the role of technology in addressing environmental issues such as nuclear power and genetically modified (GM) crops.

US environmentalist Steward Brand believes the failure to embrace technologies has hindered environmental and social progress. He suggests we will be saved from global warming by densely populated cities, nuclear energy, GM food and planet-wide geo-engineering to manipulate the Earth’s climate to counteract climate change.

Lynas accuses the green movement of having helped cause climate change through their opposition to nuclear power.

In contrast, Porritt warns of the dangers of being seduced by nuclear and argues that a 100 per cent renewable supply strategy for the UK is feasible by 2050, assuming that total UK energy consumption can be reduced by at least 40 per cent by 2030. This could be achieved by massive investment in energy efficiency.

As the world enters a new age of natural resource scarcity and climate change, food and energy insecurity will the affect the way of life of many communities. Therefore a renewed green movement will be required for a new age of global challenges. This will require agreement on the different technologies it supports.

There has been a tendency for green groups to scare people into change. There is now recognition of the need to provide a positive agenda.

A greater focus on “green localism” could re-engage an often suspicious and uninterested public by taking action within their immediate sphere of influence. Working in partnership with local authorities and businesses, local groups could contribute to build stronger communities able to fight climate change, improve health and wellbeing and secure a healthy natural environment.

The green movement has the potential to evolve through a network of grassroots groups that contribute to national and international campaigns using social media. It remains to be seen how the environmental idea can be captured and shaped by new generations in an age of new challenges. What is certain we will have to develop ways to respond to the effects future environmental change will have on our current way of life.

Dr Gary Haq is a Human Ecologist at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York. He is the co-author of a new book, Environmentalism Since 1945, recently published by Routledge.