Less Environment, more
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
? They are the narrowboat dwellers working to prevent
canal banks being covered in concrete and new executive
? 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
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.