What does it mean to be an environmentalist these days? That's a a question that's being asked with increasing frequency. It used to be so simple. If you wanted to protect a part of the biosphere that you considered precious but which was under threat all you had to do was write letters of complaint to your MP and the local paper. If that didn't have the desired effect (and usually it didn't) you might make up some placards with a plain message painted onto it (such as Save Bluebell Wood!) and join a group of like-minded people and stand around on the High Street on a Saturday morning. When that tactic failed then more often than not it was time to take direct action and set up camp in the local wood that they were planning to cut down to make way for a new supermarket. This involved some personal risk of injury and you might have to lie down in front of a bulldozer, but at least it attracted attention and the chances of your success increased notably.
A good example of this type of protest, and one that I wrote my dissertation on when I was studying for a master's in environmental philosophy, was Twyford Down. This, for those who have never heard of it, represented a watershed moment in the history of environmental protest in Britain, and even twenty years on it arouses strong feelings. Twyford Down was an area of water meadows on chalklands, rich in biodiversity and full of historical significance with at least two ancient monuments. Unfortunately it also stood in the way of a planned link up with the M3 motorway and the Department of Transport (DoT) was determined right from the outset that no amount of protest would deter it from completing the motorway network in that area.
The process that eventually led to pitched battles as police cleared the way for the heavy earth moving equipment to wreck the fragile ecosystem turned into a textbook example of the limitations of doing things 'by the book'. Most of the people who wanted the project stopped had played by the rules and even the DoT went through all the motions of appearing to be democratic and holding public consultations. When all was said and done, what had previously been officially designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AOB) and the site of two Sceduled Ancient Monuments – in theory one of the most heavily protected areas of Britain – became just another stretch of tarmac so that goods could get to and from London a little quicker. Yet another piece of the biosphere had been sacrificed on the alter to the gods of progress and nature's rich tapestry suffered another small snip.
|Twyford Down: Once a protected natural site but today a stretch of tarmac|
It was a crushing defeat for Britain's environmental movement, but nevertheless it didn't crush their resolve and the whole fiasco meant that ministers would at least think twice about planning something similar again. That can't be said of the Rio+20 Earth Summit that recently took place. At least I think it took place, I couldn't find much mention of it in the news. In fact, if anyone needed a reminder that concerns about the environment have officially been downgraded over concerns about the economy then this was it. You couldn't even call it a damp squib, because at least you expect a squib to go bang when you light the fuse. World leaders stayed away in droves and it was only the professional activists who ended up attending. If there was ever a clear signal that what some people call the global elite don't care about our planet then this was it.
Which gets me onto George Monbiot. Soon after the end of the non-summit he wrote that, not to put too finer point on it, he had given up. The whole political sphere of environmentalism had been coopted by big business interests he concluded, with the end result being an official text that talks not of sutainability but of sustainable growth. What, he asked, is the point any longer if this is the best we can acheive? In his own words:
"Giving up on global agreements or, more accurately, on the prospect that they will substantially alter our relationship with the natural world, is almost a relief. It means walking away from decades of anger and frustration. It means turning away from a place in which we have no agency to one in which we have, at least, a chance of being heard. But it also invokes a great sadness, as it means giving up on so much else."
Now, despite Monbiot's controversial support of nuclear power, I still happen to like him. I like his articulacy and his committment to unfashionable causes and willingness to act as a lightning conductor for the more vicious Telegraph troggers, who call him Mr Moonbat (note: the term trogger is something I just thought up i.e. a contraction of troll and blogger - which is what the poison pens employed by the Telegraph effectively are, and has nothing to do with what the urban dictionary defines it as!). I also like the fact that he's a father of two young kids and the moving piece he wrote to his newly born daughter about the world she will grow up – which resonates with my own experience. I met him once, getting a very short interview in Copenhagen, and he comes across as a slightly eccentric geography teacher at a boys' grammar school. He's endearing in that, up until now, he seriously seemed to believe that the powers that be would listed to his reasoned arguments and act upon them in good faith. He was a reasonable voice in an unreasonable world.
But this endearingness is also what makes him somewhat dangerous. There's nothing that a powerfully funded lobby such as the nuclear industry likes better than to display the scalp of a former enemy and George Monbiot, in claiming that Fukushima has convinced him that nuclear energy is safe, handed over his own scalp on a sliver platter. Those of us who gasped in horror at his announcement reacted at first with disbelief and then anger. His conversion seemed so utterly blinkered and naive that it was all some of us could do to open and close our mouths in disbelief like fish out of water. There are many things about nuclear power that are abhorrent but the one statistic that suffices is that there is, on average, one serious accident for every 3,000 years of reactor use. Thus, with the approximately 11,000 extra reactors that would be needed to phase out coal, we could expect around four Chernobyls or Fukushimas per year and also lack the money or resources needed to deal with these disasters.
And Monbiot isn't the only scalp, of course. In Britain alone we can add James Lovelock, Mark Lynas and former Greenpeace man Stephen Tindale to the pro-nuclear shills. There's nothing pleasant about seeing them on bended knee before Big Nuke, repeating the same press release rhetoric about 'meeting future energy needs without boosting CO2 output.' It's still more unpleasant to realise that these few greying men have come to think of themselves as the official mouthpieces of the environmental movement, and that everything they say is somehow more insightful than anyone else. Their message and tone is increasingly brittle and closed for discussion. Thus I once found myself in an on-line discussion with Mark Lynas that was supposed to be about his new book in which he expouses virtually everything he once opposed, such as a massive roll-out of GM crops across the Third World and a wholesale switch to nuclear energy. During the open discussion I raised some of the issues I have learned in the past few years from peak oil and Lynas had an iHissyfit, saying my reality-based reasoning in which I mentioned Liebig's Law of limiting factors was 'evil'.
So it's actually refreshing to see Monbiot's breakdown of faith in the sytem. He's a bit behind the curve but it's pleasant to see that finally he's 'getting it'. After all, in his own words he says:
"I do not believe that the planet-eating machine, maintained by an army of mechanics, oiled by constant injections of public money, will collapse before the living systems on which it feeds. But I might be wrong."
Yes, that's where I store what's left of my hope. For all the doom and apocalypic predictions surrounding the peak oil scene, the rather substantial silver lining is that the 'planet eating machine' is running out of power before our very eyes. Nearly every mainstream environmental organisation, from Greenpeace to WWF, trots out the same old figures about CO2 emissions rising into the distant future, taking no account of catabolic collapse due to declining net energy. Relatively soon, it will no longer be possible to ravage the world on such an industrial scale. George Monbiot, and his ilk, want to replace the oil powered planet eating machine with a nuclear powered planet eating machine. It's hardly environmentalism, is it?
But not all environmentalists have gone over to the dark side. Paul Kingsnorth, for example, whose articles I used to read in The Ecologist, 'gave up' years ago and started the Dark Mountain Project. The Dark Mountain Project is a kind of half-way house for recovering environmentalists. It's for those who have confronted their despair but refuse to give in to it, instead turning it into something more useful. Paul Kingsnorth says why he walked away from conventional hope-based environmentalism:
"It was the despair of an environmentalist who could see that environmentalism was failing and who had to work out how to deal with that. It was the despair of someone who felt he had no-one to talk to about his despair because, though many other people were feeling it too – oh, you could see it in their eyes however hard they tried to conceal it – it was never talked about. Activists do not talk about despair. No-one talks about despair. Despair, in a progressive society, is taboo. We do not want despair. We want hope. Hope, all the time. Hope, like a drug. Do not look down – look away."
And it seems to me that being a modern day environmental activist is all about cheating despair. Sign up for any newsletter from groups such as 350.org and you'll likely be bombarded with chirpy upbeat messages about how well their campaign is going. All we have to do is click away and someone somewhere will deliver a petition to someone important who will in all probably ignore it. It's an efficient system for limiting the effectiveness of protest and at the same time making the would-be protesters feel as if they are doing something useful. I even saw one group recently saying that if every protester were 'armed' with a quad-core laptop and linked in to Twitter, Facebook and various other networks they could out-process the evil global elite and effect a revolution that would usher in a new age of global peace based on an equitable distribution of ... yadder yadder yadder. You get the point.
But maybe it's time to confront the depair, work through it and get on with something useful? I'm not saying that there is no point in protesting on a global level or being a clicktivist – just that we should realise that by doing so we are getting involved with ritualism and our 'actions' may never be more than symbolic. As such, in an age dominated by the dark forces of progress-at-all-costs, placing too much faith in the effectiveness of altering consciousness with symbolic gestures can end in obessive denial and even psychosis.
For his own part I read that George Monbiot had moved to a remotish part of Wales to raise his kids, catches his own fish every morning from a kayak and is now focusing his efforts on projects that restore the wild in areas degraded by man's destructive habits. All that's needed now is a strongly worded renunciation of nuclear power and I suspect that 99% of UK environmentalists would forgive him.
By fighting to protect places and species instead of focusing obsessively on the impossible task of getting nations to reduce their CO2 emissions we can throw a lifeline to our planet. Or at least to bits of it. Have a look for example at Miranda Gibson, who is currently living up a tree in Tasmania and trying to stop logging concerns from trashing the forests. She's as good an example as there is of someone willing to forego personal comfort and safety to protect something of immeasurable beauty and natural worth.
Some people just shrug and say 'what's the point?'. This is both a defeatist and nihilist attitude. None of us should think that their individual efforts will 'Save the Planet' (or some other nonsense) but neither should we think they have no effect at all. We just have to accept that there will be consequences of our individual actions, some of which are noticeable and most of which are not. The actions we take today set the scene for what happens in the future.
To me at least, that's something worth fighting for.