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Less Environment, more Place

The text of my 2006 John Preedy Memorial Lecture.

Friends of the Earth AGM, 8th September 2006

Let me start by saying that I don’t care about the environment.

Neither do I care about sustainability.

The reason is that I’m not sure what either of these words mean, and I’m not sure that many of the public do either. Perhaps they meant something once. Today, they have become so overused – and by the wrong people – that they have become meaningless jargon.

Let me give you an example. This morning I went online. I brought up the websites of a selection of organisations of all different kinds, some which you would associate with green issues, and some you wouldn’t. I typed in the word ‘sustainability’ to each of them, to see how many times they mentioned it. In descending order these were the results I got:

Shell – 682
Greenpeace – 639
Green Party – 489
FoE – 385
BP – 200
US government – 110
UK Government – 74
Monsanto – 46
Rio Tinto – 39
BNFL - 0

It’s hardly a scientific survey, but it should tell us one thing: that this word is now meaningless. Like ‘the environment’, like the prefix ‘eco’, like the various other bits of jargon we are often tempted to use, it can mean anything to anyone, and consequently, it means nothing to nobody.

The reason I say this is because, if we are going to ‘better engage the public in our agenda’, as the question posed by this lecture invites us to do, we need to think first about the language we do it in.

Most people would call me an ‘environmentalist’. For almost fifteen years I’ve been doing what I can to prevent the ongoing rape of nature, and to urgently question the values and the structure of the society that is responsible for it. We’re all in that business here. But I find it useful to look back and ask myself why I got involved in the first place. How was I ‘engaged in the agenda’.

I’ll tell you how. Fifteen years ago, I went to a place called Twyford Down, where a small group of people were trying to stop a motorway extension being ploughed through an ancient downland in Hampshire. Nobody had heard of road protesters at the time. Supermarkets didn’t sell organic food, BP was still called British Petroleum and wasn’t pretending to be a charity. People who talked about ‘sustainability’ wore tie dye, not pinstripe.

There were plenty of good economic, cultural and ecological arguments against that road. It was going to destroy SSSI, nature reserves and rare species. It was going to destroy an iron age hillfort, and some rare maze carvings. It was going to increase traffic to the south coast. It was going to encourage more driving – ‘induced traffic’, they called it. Friends of the Earth, amongst others, put together some excellent information which explained all this. There was a hard-hitting, rational case against that road.

None of this interested me at all. I chucked these facts and figures out, of course, like the rest of us, but that wasn’t why I was interested, It was my heart that got me involved, not my head.

What made me passionate about that place, and what eventually got me chucked into a police cell because of it, was what I felt about it. The beauty of the sun setting over the chalk downland. The smell of the air over the grass. The peace, so near to a city, Winchester, where there was no peace. The views. The birdsong. The feel of the air on my skin when I crawled out of my tent in the morning. This was what made me passionate, and angry and determined. This was what moved me, and the others who were there, to fight for that place.

And when we think back on it, isn’t this how we all got involved, and what brought us here? Passion. Emotion. Feelings. Not figures, facts, statistics. Not economics.

We live in a managerial age. We are told that big ideas are dead and that global capitalism has triumphed everywhere. We are told that politics is now about management. Our leaders talk about modernisation, globalisation, reform. They use words like this so often that they become meaningless. They talk about sustainability too. They talk about environmental protection, conservation and the economic value of ‘nature’.

Then they wonder why people don’t vote for them.

I can’t speak for FoE, but I can speak for myself when I say that we, as ‘environmentalists’, need to remember who we are and why we got here. We need to be careful not to use the language of the enemy. We need to be careful not to become managers too – bureaucrats who draw up graphs and talks about sustainability. There’s a place for research, for figures, for detail. They’re vital, they back up our case, we need them. But they must not usurp the real reason we are here – and that reason comes from a love of the natural world, and a determination not to see it destroyed.

In other words, let’s start talking more about beauty, wonder and unspoken things. Let’s talk less about sustainability, carbon trading and the ecological importance of desmoulin’s whorl snail. Let’s not always get drawn in to debating the economics of issues, on the enemy’s terms. Talking about how many jobs green energy will provide, or how many votes there might be in it.

I don’t care two hoots whether the Twyford Down extension made economic sense. At the time we argued that it didn’t. But what if we had been proved wrong? Would that have made it OK to build it? No, because the rational arguments were never the point. We need to be brave enough to say that. In this kind of climate, it can be hard to say. But it needs to be said, and surely it is up to us to say it.

In other words, if we are to better ‘engage the public’ we need first to re-engage ourselves. And I think we need to challenge ourselves. It’s easy to keep talking to people we feel comfortable with. It’s easy to get stuck in our little activist ghettoes, with our copies of the Guardian, our ecological worm composters and our organic vegan shoes.

We need to remember two things:

1. Most people don’t live like us. They don’t think like us. They don’t speak our language. They think we’re weird. Who knows, they may be right?

2. Most people do care about greenery, about breathing space, about wildlife. Most people have an intrinsic love of nature – a passion, or even just a vague feeling. They might not care about the figures, or the economics. But they care about the trees and the butterflies and the clean air and the sunlight.

I’ve been travelling the country for the last nine months, researching my new book about the effects of globalisation on the cultures and landscapes of England. All over the country, in town and country, city and village, I have met people passionately defending ordinary places. Not SSSIs or county wildlife sites or European designations, not lists or dots on maps – places, with which they have a relationship.

This, to most people, is ‘the environment’. Ordinary places which are special to ordinary people, like us. Ordinary places which conservation bodies or environmental bureaucrats might not designate as worthy of protection, but which are worthy, by the very fact of their giving meaning to peoples’ lives.

These people, to me, are real environmentalists, though most of them would probably never use that word.

? They are the middle-aged homeowners in Oxfordshire, trying to stop Didcot power station filling their local lake with waste coal ash.

? They are the community in a Cumbrian village who bought out their local pub to stop it being taken over by a giant corporation.

? They are the market traders in East London fighting to stop their market being levelled and replaced by a new branch of Asda.

? They are the shop-owners in Cornwall fighting to prevent wealthy second-home owners from draining the life out of their villages.

? They are the old farmers in Devon working to save the culture and lifestyle of traditional, conventional, family farms.

? They are the narrowboat dwellers working to prevent canal banks being covered in concrete and new executive housing.

? They are the people of the Welsh borderlands who are trying to save ancient orchards from destruction by making them viable again.

If we are reach out to more people, we need to reach out to people like this. Beyond the policy wonks, the eco hippies, the people eating growing organic foods and feeling comfortable with their liberal, ‘green’ identity. Beyond people like us. We’re easy to reach. We’re all here. We need to do the harder work.

We need less self-conscious ‘activism’ and more real, local action, working with people we might not normally work with.

Less ‘sustainability’, more butterflies.

Less ‘environment’, more place.

We all need to keep our eyes on the prize. This conference, my writing, our landscape of ‘green activism’– these are all simply a means to an end. That end is the continuation of natural beauty and wonder in this dirty, over-fast, ever-shrinking world. Everything else is just window dressing.

If it comes from our hearts, we need to speak from our hearts. Then, if we’re lucky, we might win.