Britain's Brand of Fair-Weather Environmentalism

A couple of small but thrilling items of local news might be included in the papers of Hilary Benn when he travels to Bali next week for the United Nations' great climate change conference. Ipswich Borough Council has announced that it is joining the great plastic-bag initiative. Warning that as a nation we produce 10 billion bags a year, ("If laid end to end these would stretch to the moon and back five times!"), causing 100,000 tonnes of waste ("That's 70,000 cars!"), the council has listed some useful guidelines for the townsfolk. There are even rumours that a bag-ban may soon be introduced.

The second bit of good news, announced on the same page of the local paper, was that this year's Christmas lights - according to the mayor, "bigger and better than ever before" - have been switched ON and will be in place for the next month. The oddly competitive business of lighting up one's house with an seasonal extravagant display of flashing and twinkling lights will for many be a personal response to the municipal displays glowing in every town centre.

If he were to read these brief, slightly dull press reports on his way to Bali, Mr Benn may notice a certain disconnection between the two announcements. On the face of it, a town council lecturing the public about conservation because of the terrible plight of Planet Earth might think twice about putting on a month-long display of conspicuous energy consumption. After all, the dazzling Christmas lights are likely, while bringing seasonal cheer to shoppers, to be sending out a secondary message: conservation is important but so is having fun. Not everything needs to change. Life and business must go on.

Since this approach, a kind of fair-weather environmentalism, is a microcosm of the attitude of central government, it would be absurd to cast any blame on the council or the owners of those spectacularly illuminated houses. A Prime Minster who can boast that the UK is a world leader in combating climate change within a few days of announcing that an already vast international airport would be permitted to expand, enabling it to double its capacity in the next 25 years, has, to put it mildly, a selective view of the problem.

Politicians invariably use the threat of global warming in a way that is expedient to them. Solemn promises to put public money into renewable energy and to push hard to achieve EU targets make them look responsible and earn them votes. But when it comes to the truly difficult policy decisions - those which will anger the public and lose them popularity - they take the usual line, supporting big business and pushing for growth.

Those luckless people in different parts of the United Kingdom who have awoken to find, in order to save the world, that their little bit of landscape has been designated as a site for industrial wind turbines are regularly accused of self-interest when they protest - a particularly silly Labour MP dismissed them as "windbags" in the House of Commons this week - but in truth the selfishness is not there, but in the culture as a whole.

We talk about climate change, but buy bigger cars every year, produce throw-away technology, build larger airports. Industrialists piously urge the need for sacrifice on their customers, and then join the unseemly scramble to make money from the biggest gold-rush since the dot-com boom.

It is a human instinct, when in difficulty, to take a macho, pro-active approach - to build our way out of difficulty rather than live more moderately - and that reaction suits the politicians and the freshly green business leaders just fine. Open the financial pages these days and there will be stories about how green is the new gold and interviews with so-called eco-millionaires.

Care and conservation - the more radical versions of doing without Christmas lights - not only cost politicians votes but rarely make money for business. By contrast, business expansion with an attractive green hue, what Richard Branson calls "Gaia capitalism", is both profitable and a perfect, an easy way for a firm to market itself as being socially responsible and globally aware. In its turn, the government obediently plays its part - singled out for particular praise in Gordon Brown's recent speech were those great heroes of the environment, Tesco and Sky.

Last week it was reported that the head of one of the world's most famous oil dynasties, George Bush Snr, had erected a wind turbine over his ranch. Journalists, as usual, were suitably impressed. The convenient myth of the moment, that money-making and ecological responsibility can go hand in hand to lead us to a better, cooler world, without any of us changing the way we live, had found its perfect symbol.


(c) 2007 The Independent

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