Greenpeace & FoE at Forty: middle age spread?

Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth ’s 40th, and WWF’s 50th birthdays offer a good excuse to ponder where environmentalism is going, and particularly how it thinks about the passing of time.

A couple of years ago I wrote ‘What Do Greens Believe’. It proved tough to write, not just because I didn’t know what greens believed: it turned out that they didn’t either. Their relationship with technology, with politics, with business and perhaps above all with the way they think about ‘development’ varies widely, even within individual NGOs. They also play very different games with time. Here I consider two starkly different accounts of progress, technology and politics from people who start out with barely a cigarette paper between their thinking.

The UK’s first Green MP Caroline Lucas and the talented campaigner Andrew Simms have initiated a ‘new home front’ of making do and mending. They make reference back to the aesthetic and collective spirit of Second World War Britain. They argue that ‘the social change and national economic re-engineering around that time approach the scale of what is needed in the face of these modern threats…  (B)ack then, we met the challenge… with a remarkable mix of bold leadership, creative flourishes, bold social and economic experimentation… coupled with a… commitment to achieve the objective of winning.’ They are knowingly playing with a powerful cultural reference point in Britain’s recent history.

Where Caroline and Andrew draw down on the recent rash of austerity-chic and the 1940s blitz spirit of purpose and unity, Mark Lynas’ recent offerings regarding what to do about climate change pick up a very different cultural thread. His reference points are no less nostalgic, but for a more recent past. He is – I think unwittingly – channeling the sharp-suited confidence of a generation that promised moonshots and energy too cheap to meter. Mark’s technophilia follows in Bjorn Lomborg’s footsteps. Mark and Bjorn haven’t always seen eye to eye – the former custard pie’d the latter in a publicity stunt some years back. Both now argue (along with George Monbiot, oh, and George Bush) that a good slice of nuclear power and technology forcing is more likely than anything to deliver ‘solutions’ at a decent pace. In fact there is nothing new in this as an environmentalist stance. Although Stewart Brand was also promoted as a born again technophile recently the truth is that his wonderful Whole Earth Catalogs of the late 1960s and early 1970s were founded on the idea that if you could get your hands on the right kit all would be well (strapline: ‘access to tools’).

There are substantial hazards in both arguments. The propagandists’ construction of a vision of wartime British society unified by the goal of victory, and accepting of austerity, has been qualified by recent histories (see, for example, David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain). Perhaps more importantly, the ‘home front’ is a very narrow and located cultural reference. Moreover it is fast losing its resonance as those that experienced it age. I can see why that’s a good reason to try and capture people’s recollections of the time – and that this work also talks to a widespread desire to connect directly with history. But Britain’s wartime past just doesn’t feel like the time or place to build the argument for a global green political economy in the first quarter of the 21st century.

Mark and co’s 60s-inflected technophilia is rooted in the view that climate change mitigation ends justify risky means. It is an argument where scary futures rule out precautionary approaches to unfathomable uncertainties around nuclear power or geo-engineering. It is worth pointing out that it won’t be freelance environment writers who control the outcomes down the line in a society organized around such principles. In the hands of bankers and chancellors this approach would quickly revert to old fashioned concepts such as maximising near term wealth generation over, for example, protecting biodiversity.

Both of the positions sketched out here have been honed and focused with the intention of breaking through into the public consciousness, much in the way that Greenpeace and FOE sought to do in 1971. Old dogs – old tricks, and good ones. I’m certain all the people referenced above have a much more nuanced sense of the political challenge facing us than the blunt summary I offer above. I realise there is plenty more to say, but I think its fair to suggest that both positions are about tactics not strategy. However this betrays environmentalism’s consistent lack of a plausible political route to reshaping the political economy of energy, or for embedding, for example, biodiversity as a value within everyday decision-making.

Environmental NGOs have introduced new ways of thinking politically about time and space, and new ways of thinking about who and what should count. They have laid out clearly the idea that people, animals, plants and places distant in time and space should count in the decisions we make today. But they haven’t made these ideas stick. To achieve this will require more cohesive and shared strategies.

But I also suspect it will need another burst of cultural inventiveness of the sort that first put them on the map. That effort will need to play with memory, time in the present and how people think about the future. But rather than playing rhetorical games with time contemporary environmentalism needs to communicate a vision that is run through with a sense of excitement and anticipation about the near future. In place of nostalgia and future scare stories they need to tell people about a time a few years hence which could be so much better than the all-too-inadequate present.

But hey, enough griping; this is a party. Happy Birthday to Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and co. You do look well. But I’m glad to say there are plenty of youngsters present. Here are a few inspiring examples of contemporary environmentalism. At least one or two of them would vigorously disagree with each other, but that’ll keep things lively.

Feast on the Bridge: exuberant, funny, collaborative – the Feast takes over Southwark bridge each year for a sustainable food-themed day long party that suggests that the (sustainable) future will be a better place to live than the consumption crazed present. A central insight. Hope to get another post out soon on this.

Sandbag: a canny, light-touch and tightly focused campaign cum policy forum about EU climate policy. It binds together NGO communication and campaign techniques with business and government experience to contribute to dry as dust but critical policy discourses.

Dark Mountain Project: a long hard look at the possibility that everything could go really very wrong. Dark Mountain is culturally rooted and has a strong flavour of romanticism. It presents a nicely weighted challenge to my comfy middle of the road thinking.

Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Learning: at the other end of the scale, this seedbed of corporate sustainability thinking has run courses and programmes (including the Prince of Wales Climate Leaders group) that have been opening up thinking and capabilities within the business world over more than a decade.

new economics foundation: self styled ‘think and do tank’. Spawned out of the thinking of green economist E F Schumacher (e.g. Small is Beautiful, 1973), they have patiently pioneered the idea that quality of life means more than GDP. They have been creative, consistent and deft in binding together society, environment and economy in their work.

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