I'd Rather Be a Hypocrite Than a Cynic Like Julie Burchill
Give me a posh, preachy eco-activist over a narcissist without a moral compass any day
In her new book, Not In My Name, Julie Burchill reserves her grandest fury about hypocrites for environmentalists. We are, she (and her co-author, Chas Newkey-Burden) say, pious, sexless and contemptuous of humankind. We are all are posh and rich, and have found in environmentalism a new excuse for lecturing the poor. We tell other people to live by rules we don't apply to ourselves.
Like all stereotypes, these claims are lazy, familiar and sometimes true. Burchill knows nothing about environmentalism, and, almost as a point of pride, hasn't bothered to find out, but when you use grapeshot you are bound to hit someone. Yes, many prominent greens are posh gits like me. The same can be said of journalists, politicians, artists, academics, business leaders ... in fact, of just about anyone in public life. But it is always the greens who are singled out.
In truth, while the upper middle classes are, as always, over-represented in the media, the movement cuts across the classes. A recent ICM poll found that more people in social classes D and E thought the government should prioritise the environment over the economy (56%) than in classes A and B (47%).
Environmentalism is the most politically diverse movement in history. Here in the Kingsnorth climate camp, I have met anarchists, communists, socialists, liberals, conservatives and, mostly, pragmatists. I remember sitting in a campaign meeting during the Newbury bypass protests and marvelling at the weirdness of our coalition. In the front row sat the local squirearchy: brigadiers in tweeds and enormous moustaches, titled women in twin sets and headscarves. In the middle were local burghers of all shapes and sizes. At the back sat the scuzziest collection of grunge-skunks I have ever laid eyes on. The audience disagreed about every other subject under the sun - if someone had asked us to decide what day of the week it was, the meeting would had descended into fisticuffs - but everyone there recognised that our quality of life depends on the quality of our surroundings.
The environment is inseparable from social justice. Climate change, for example, is primarily about food and water. It threatens the fresh water supplies required to support human life. As continental interiors dry out and the glaciers feeding many of the rivers used for irrigation disappear, climate change presents the greatest of all threats to the future prospects of the poor. The rich will survive for a few decades at least, as they can use their money to insulate themselves from the effects. The poor are being hammered already.
In reality, it is people like Julie Burchill - who is, incidentally, far richer than almost any green I have met - who treats the poor with contempt. So that she can revel in what she calls "reckless romantic modernism", other people must die. But at least you can't accuse her of hypocrisy: she cannot fail to live by her moral code, for the simple reason that she doesn't have one.
Sure, we are hypocrites. Every one of us, almost by definition. Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations - they want to live more ethically - and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn't moral purity (no one manages that), but cynicism. Give me hypocrisy any day.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008