Green Thoughts

Colin Ward

  • Seasons of the Seal by Fred Bruemmer and Brian Davies
    Bloomsbury, 160 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 7475 0214 5
  • Whale Nation by Heathcote Williams
    Cape, 191 pp, £15.00, August 1988, ISBN 0 224 02555 4
  • Falling for a dolphin by Heathcote Williams
    Cape, 47 pp, £4.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 224 02659 3
  • Prisoners of the Seas by K.A. Gourlay
    Zed, 256 pp, £25.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 86232 686 9
  • Progress for a Small Planet by Barbara Ward
    Earthscan, 298 pp, £5.95, September 1988, ISBN 1 85383 028 3
  • Future Earth: Exploring the Frontiers of Space edited by Nigel Calder and John Newell
    Christopher Helm, 255 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 7470 0420 X
  • Sizewell B: An Anatomy of the Enquiry by Timothy O’Riordan, Ray Kemp and Michael Purdue
    Macmillan, 474 pp, £45.00, September 1988, ISBN 0 333 38944 1
  • Early Green Politics by Peter Gould
    Harvester, 225 pp, £29.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 7108 1192 6
  • Dreamers of the Absolute by Hans Magnus Enzensberger
    Radius, 312 pp, £7.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 09 173240 9
  • The Coming of the Greens by Jonathon Porritt and David Winner
    Fontana, 287 pp, £4.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 00 637244 9
  • Ecology and Socialism by Martin Ryle
    Radius, 122 pp, £5.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 09 182247 5

The membership of environmental organisations in Britain is double that of the political parties and three times that of Sunday worshippers in the Church of England. Each of us has some links with the green movement and each of these books reflect one or other of these concerns. Everyone outside the farming industry is outraged by its subsidised destruction of woodlands, hedges, wetlands and wildlife, as well as by the pollution of water sources by nitrogenous fertilisers. Others are worried about the seas, their mounting pollution and the fate of their creatures. Still more are troubled about the air we breathe and the skies: the ozone layer, chlorofluorocarbons, acid rain and the radioactivity released by nuclear fission.

At another level, each of these issues comes together in a criticism of the rich world’s squandering of non-renewable energy sources as well as its looting of the poor world’s resources, like tropical rain forests. Finally there are some for whom all these issues combine to form the supreme political concern of the coming century. They brush aside the political Right’s preoccupation with economic growth and the political Left’s insistence on the working-class share of this growth.

Is there a ladder of green awareness? Do we move on from supporting the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or the Society for the Protection of Rural England, to an understanding of the broader concerns these particular enthusiasms reflect? Is saving the whales inextricably tied up with saving Wales?

Disasters, dramatic events and news stories undoubtedly increase the general level of green consciousness. Tales of dying seals, stranded whales and dolphins abandoned in the swimming-pool of a Cairo hotel will have brought adventitious purchasers for the first three of these books. Fred Bruemmer’s remarkable photographs follow the lives and the 4000-mile migrations of seals southwards from Greenland, and Brian Davies, founder twenty years ago of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, tells of his success in 1983 in persuading the EEC Governments to ban the import of baby seal products. By 1987 he had procured a similar ban in Canada. Davies ‘fanned the flames of public protest’ in trying to destroy the market for seal products and succeeded as a result of the worldwide protest that ‘was fired by Bruemmer’s images of the cute pups’.

No doubt the concept of cuteness as a criterion for recruiting people to the minority who believe that other creatures have a right to survival on this planet is nauseous to the committed, but if you are involved in green propaganda you have to be flexible and appeal at every level of sophistication. The peaceable whale is the least cute and most awesome of our fellow animals, and Heathcote Williams rises to his subject with a volume which is not only a picture-book of the whale, and an anthology of human observations of the creature and its meaning for us, but is held together by his long poem which lists, in a Whitmanesque way, the utterly trivial, yet profitable, uses to which humans put whale products. The catalogue is devastating and shameful, and has already become immensely effective green propaganda.

It was, no doubt, the success of this book that led his publishers to issue his poem in praise of the dolphin, that immensely shrewd observer of mankind and its follies, always yearning to be friendly and helpful. But over his shoulder, and mine, is the environmental lobby, firmly pointing out that beyond our anthropomorphic fantasies about these fellow creatures, best served by refraining from destroying them (a business decision), is the broader issue of reversing the pollution of the seas. Dr Gourlay’s book, which will have one-tenth of the readings of the accounts of sea mammals, describes the increasing destruction of marine life from oil, sewage, mercury, toxic chemicals and radioactive waste. As the author says, ‘faced with “eutrophication”, the “thermocline”, “benthic” or “euphotic” zones or communities, “biogeochemical “diagenesis” and “oleophilic contaminants”, the non-specialist gives up, especially when this unfamiliar terminology is embedded in an impersonal, “scientific” prose, constant reading of which induces a form of hypnosis that begins by causing a decrease in one’s attention and ends by sending one to sleep.’ And in his introduction Stanley Clinton Davis comments: ‘the pollution of the seas is not principally a scientific or an economic problem. It is a political problem.’

The late Barbara Ward tackled global green issues on the plane of international politics: the rate at which the rich nations squander natural resources, the desperate needs of the poor nations, and the ways in which ‘a planetary bargain’ could reconcile the demands both make on limited and finite sources of food and energy. Her synoptic account of the issues first appeared a decade ago. It has not been outdated, simply ignored. Ecological consciousness filters into our thinking only slowly and patchily. Some comfort may be gained from the volume Future Earth. This is one of those superlatively produced and illustrated popular accounts of current science that are food and drink for the enquiring young. A dozen topics are considered here that would never have been included in such a book fifteen years ago: the limits to growth, the greenhouse effect, acid rain, the fuel and agriculture crisis of tropical countries, the significance of ‘low-tech’ solutions, and a deep disquiet about the implications of nuclear power. ‘Nuclear waste cannot yet be safely disposed of, and the fuel produced can be used in nuclear weapons, perhaps illegally. Such technology raises as many questions as it answers.’

The fact is that ‘one important reason why a majority of the British public has growing misgivings about nuclear power is that they can no longer seek reassurance from science.’ This observation comes from the independent analysis into the Sizewell B Inquiry produced by Professor O’Riordan and his colleagues for the Economic and Social Research Council. Sizewell has already generated several books. What we have here is an exhaustive account of the public inquiry which cost over £25 million, involved over two hundred witnesses and lasted over two years. The defence of the proposal was publicly funded and had the effect of burying the voluntary objecting groups in paper and expensive time. The Inspector had to limit himself to evidence relevant to the application. This not only ‘served to restrict his examination of non-nuclear options’: it also meant that ‘the assumptions that favour the promotion of nuclear power were not seriously examined and tested. New events such as the collapse of world oil and coal prices and the Chernobyl accident could not be taken into account.’

The implications of the book are deeply disturbing. Everyone knew what the outcome would be, and local people in the area know that the statutory providers were preparing for the new construction work long before the Layfield Report came out at the end of January 1987. After debates in the Commons and the Lords in February and March, the CEGB began its work on site on 23 March that year. An open and shut case. Despairingly, as I write, the objectors are squaring up to the task of attacking the Central Electricity Generating Board’s confident proposal for a second pressurised water reactor at Hinkley C, near Bridgewater in Somerset.

Environmental issues, whether they concern whales, tropical rain forests, famine or nuclear energy, are deeply and inextricably political. So the question inevitably arises as to whether the disparate green lobbies can be enfolded within our political party system. And if so, where? No sooner had Porritt and Winner declared that ‘there is no more chance of a deep green tendency developing in the modern Conservative Party than there is within the Socialist Workers Party’ than Mrs Thatcher addressed the Royal Society on 27 September last with the message that her government was alerted to the ‘greenhouse effect’. She said that her government supported the international agreement to halve the use of chlorofluorocarbons and to reduce the emissions from power stations in order to cut down acid rain. The greening of the Prime Minister was sceptically welcomed in the press and it quickly became evident from her ministers, Messrs Ridley and Parkinson, that nuclear power was welcomed as a non-polluting source of energy. Public misgivings were disdainfully set aside as ignorant Luddite obstructionism. At the same time, the machinery of development control under the post-war town and country planning legislation, criticised by Conservative ideologists as a bureaucratic impediment to growth, suddenly became important for the ‘green belt’ areas, described many years ago by our foremost environmental geographer, Peter Hall, as ‘a civilised form of apartheid’.

Greenness is flexible. It means whatever each of us decides it should mean. Plenty of people, undeterred by history or events, see it as the natural habitat of the political Left. Peter Gould, in his very agreeable disinterment of the ideologies of the dawn of socialist parties in Britain in the last two decades of the 19th century, shows how they were linked with aspirations to restore the peasantry and get back to a simple life on the land. These notions were impatiently discarded by realists, determined to face ordinary industrial realities and win political power. Even so, the view lives on that Labour could be the party of green hopes and aims. ‘The future of socialism may lie more with William Morris than with Herbert Morrison,’ Robin Cook said in 1987. Morris died over ninety years ago, but remains wise and relevant for his insistence on combining social justice with a respect for nature. Can the Left recover his kind of vision, and can it win the support of its fellow-citizens? Or is the ideology of the political Left obsolete?

Plenty of European socialists – Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudolf Bahro, for example – have made an ideological shift from red to green. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, whose essay ‘A Critique of Political Ecology’ is included in his volume Dreamers of the Absolute, argues, however, that green people are ‘overwhelmingly members of the middle class, and of the new petty bourgeoisie’, and that the insistence that ecologically we are all in the same boat has itself an ideological purpose: ‘The aim is to deny once and for all that little difference between first class and steerage, between the bridge and the engineroom.’ To this comment Jonathon Porritt and David Winner respond by saying that ‘greens, by contrast, object to the standard Marxist indifference to ecology and point out that it is usually the poor who suffer the worst effect of environmental degradation.’ The interviews recorded in their book contain a telling comment by Harold Evans on the arrogance of middle-class Labour Party leaders in assuming that their traditional franchise is not interested in the environment:

They have a vision of the working class as proles just waiting to be liberated. You see a similar attitude in the new breed in the Tory Party, the ones with a microchip on their shoulder. They all have a philistine contempt for the environmental movement and for anything they see as ‘soft’ or ‘effete’. They underestimate the appreciation which working-class people have for things of beauty and value – you don’t actually have to like urban sprawl to be a Labour voter! They think that working-class people live in terraced houses in sooty Lancashire out of choice rather than lack of choice.

Porritt has always urged us to see the arrival of green politics as indicating the end of ‘the redundant polemic of class warfare and the mythical immutability of a left/right divide’, and his new book argues that unless harsh environmental realities are taken into account, ‘any socialist approach to building a fairer industrial society will be doomed to failure.’ This is the challenge to which Martin Ryle seeks to respond. In a closely-argued book he works his way through the relationship between green politics and the politics of the Left, and looks at other European countries where the green percentage of total votes cast in elections is significantly higher than it is in Britain, but is still on the borderline of political importance. He goes on to outline the concept of ‘green economics’ and sets out a programme for ‘eco-socialism’.

It is boldly and sympathetically done, but Ryle, like Porritt and Winner, or Enzensberger for that matter, knows that in the conceivable immediate future there is no chance of any Western government adopting a green programme of this kind, whatever form of proportional representation might be adopted by the politicians. Dreamers of the absolute have to compromise with reality, just like that Canadian hero pursuing desirable policies through the cuteness of seal pups. Porritt and Winner place their hopes in the sheer fickleness of public opinion:

Green ideas have moved decisively from the fringes of society, which they occupied less than ten years ago, into the mainstream. It is actually to our advantage that the values of modern society can change with such prodigious speed. Just consider the bewildering roller-coaster of changing sexual mores over the last twenty years – or the astonishingly swift rise and dominance of Thatcherism. Britain in the late 1980s is a significantly different place than it was in the late 1970s. This volatility is disturbing to many people. But, in a green context, it may also be a cause for optimism.

It might also be a cause for the deepest pessimism. The greening of our fellow-citizens depends, not on arguments between those who are sea-green incorruptible and those who are dismissed as mere environmentalists, nor on the differences between the advocates of ‘deep’ ecology and the rest, but on a series of small placatory gestures by governments of all complexions towards citizen pressure groups of all parties and of none. Sometimes it does not even need governmental action.

Friends of the Earth first impinged on the British consciousness in 1971 with the dumping of non-returnable bottles on the doorstep of Schweppes. Today every town has its bottle-banks. In America, the home of conspicuous consumption, the process of consumer pre-sorting of household waste has gone much further. The example is trivial in terms of the broader issues, but so are the international agreement on whale-hunting and innumerable other specific campaigns still to be won. Sooner or later, governments will have to placate public opinion on nuclear energy and on a thousand other issues for which effective lobbies have yet to emerge. In the meantime, how many more environmental disasters must there be before the lessons get through?