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What happened to the green movement?

The silence that has come to surround environmental issues is deafening. From the impression created, we might be forgiven for thinking that all is right with the world, that this muteness reflects a sense of easy security in the knowledge that the crises, which at one time seemed to imperil humanity itself, are now safely |under control.

Certainly, this contrasts markedly with the eruption of public concern following the catastrophes of Chernobyl and the discovery of wide-scale ozone depletion. Then, as if over-night, industry and government found their agendas filled with a whole new range of issues for which the public demanded answers and action. Subsequence broad scientific agreement over the imminent probability of drastic global warming led, for a while, to the quite extraordinary prospect that the industrial nations might actually be forced to ease back on the throttle of economic growth in the realization that an unquestioned faith in the possibility of endless |progress' might have had its day. For the industrial nations -- whose whole sense of indentity has been built onprecisely this idea of a proressive, triumphal march to some utopian future of infinite wealth, power and leisure -- the idea that we might, in fact, have got it wrong, came as a truly unprecedented shock. Indeed, it is difficult to adequately stress the scale of culture-shock implied by even the suggestion that the existing sense of progressive history, of human direction, might have to be reassessed for the sake of sheer survival.

Yet this was exactly the challenge which, for a time, seemed to have been laid down by the Green movements when, for a brief moment in this country, the Green Party actually became the third party.

Today, with the Green political pulse barely detectable at one per cent and Jonathon Porritt warning that the Green Party has |all but disappeared as a serious political force', we have to ask -- what on earth has happened to the Green movement.?

Environmental concern has not lessened because the problems have gone away. Last summer, The Stratospheric Ozone Review Group reported that ozone depletion over Europe had reached 8 per cent predicted to rise to 20 per cent by 1997. More recently (February 1992), however, NASA has confirmed EC-commissioned research suggesting that 50 per cent more ozone-depleting chemicals are now present in the atmosphere over Europe than have ever previously been found elsewhere, As a consequence, both research agencies have predicted catastrophic ozone depletion of between 30-40 per cent over Europe this Spring (United Nations studies have indicated that a one per cent depletion of ozone would lead to an increase of 70,000 new cases of non-melanomic skin cancers). |Our conclusion is that the immune system of the atmosphere -- its ability to fight ozone-destroying chemicals -- is weaker than we suspected,' NASA scientist Professor James Anderson has said, adding -- |None of the news is good'.

The vulnerability of animal and plant life (especially the foundation-stones of the great food-chains such as plankton) to ultra-violet radiation is not in doubt. Forty per cent ozone depletion would herald unimaginable and unprecedented environmental chaos

The uncertainties surrounding global warming are well known and many have sought a dangerous comfort in them. These same people, however, seem to choose to remain unaware of the extraordinary level of agreement among climatologist regarding the reality of global warming. The disagreement lies not in the existence but in the extent of global warming. The fact is that all current climate models suggest that global warming will take place somewhere between 10 and 100 times faster than living systems have experienced since man has walked the earth. While many climatologist have sought greater accuracy than this in the study of possible feedback effects (for example, of oceans, clouds and snowy terrain) in amplifying or suppressing global warming, the literally infinite complexity of the climate systems involved has, so far, made accurate and conclusive prediction impossible. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing more than 300 of the world's best climate scientists, last year suggested that even another decade of scientific research might not help us in our quest for complete certainty. The report concluded: |The complexity of the (climate) system means that we cannot rule out surprises'.

In other words, if we are to wait until all doubt has been removed, before taking action, we will be waiting a very long time indeed! Moreover, at the end of this wait, our inaction may have made catastrophe inevitable. Meanwhile, a significant minority of climatologists are beginning to talk in different terms about something else -- the |Runaway Greenhouse Effect'.

These, the two highest-profile environmental-crises--massive ozone-depletion and global warming -- are still there. Our blissful silence matters, of course, not one jot to be the chemical reactions taking place over our heads in our atmosphere, to the increased levels of ultra-violet light already filtering through to the earth's surface.

While these crises almost seem to be worsening in direct proportion to the growth of our indifference, so too many other serious problems have begun to assail us with almost no general public awareness. One example of this type of ignored disaster concerns the global extinction of frogs and toads. To many people it will come as news to hear that scientists have discovered that, across all continents, right around the world, millions of frogs and toad are dying. Even in areas apparently unaffected by serious pollution, the slumps in amphibian populations have been astonishing. The journal Science recently rvealed, for example, that researchers studying the Western Toad in central Oregon have found that, for the past two year, almost 100 per cent of all toad eggs have inexplicably died in the early stages of development. Similarly, in Britain, frogs and toads are now suddenly close to extinction. A survey carried out by Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham showed that populations of the once Common Frog have plummeted to below 30 per cent of their former levels. Another study by the Nature Conservancy Council--which would normally anticipate finding frogs, toads and newts in eight out of ten ponds in Britain -- found them in less than half that number.

If this story strikes us as trivial or amusing, we might do well to heed the wordsm of the amphibian expert, Dr. Mary Swan: |Frogs like the common frog are not sensitive indicators of environmental problems. They are insensitive ones. They are quite hardly. If they are suffering, an they are, something very serious is happening to our environment'.

This is just one of the |forgotten' catastrophes taking place around us. Meanwhile, the outlook for our silent society is ultra-violet birght -- ninety million additional human beings continue to arrive everyt year, with the world population expected to double to around 11 billion by the middle of the next century; 1.2 billion people are now living in |absolute poverty' as defined by the United Nation; 26 billion tons of top-soil continue to be lost every year through erosion and |efficient-farming'; by 2020, there will be only fragments of untouched rainforest left anywhere in the world. The list goes on. The simple lesson is that the desire to raise and discuss these crises, not the crises themselves, has disappeared.

So what, we ask again, has become of the will to do something about these crises? Following the previous arguments, some may be reminded here of what has come to be known as |compassion fatigue' -- the idea that, ultimately, even the most conscience-stricken individual becomes saturated by |doom-landen' calls to action.

The explosion of Green concern in the eighties has been taken and turned, not into genuine action, but into products and votes used to reinforce the position of those determined to maintain the system -- the idea of |progress' -- as it is. All round us, we are surrounded by instances of inaction parading as action, of old wine parading in new Green bottles. For example, whilst European consumption of Halon gases (three times a ozone-depleting as the main CFCs) has been cut by 50 per cent, Indian Halon gas consumption between 1985 and 1990, has risen from 8 to 500 tonnes -- mostly supplied by Britain and the United States. How much genuine concern lay behind Proctor & Gamble's 300,000 [pounds] purchasing of the Worldd Wild Fund For Nature's logo to endorse the spurious claims of its products? How much genuine concern lay behind Eastern Electricity's call for us to use more rather than less electricity to combat global warming (a suggestion for which they were awarded the |Friends of the Earth Green Con of the Year Award')? The truth is that industry remains as aggressively profit-oriented as ever. According to the logic of that orientation, environmental issues are importantly only as PR issues.

Similarly, the most important achievement of the current government's environment White Paper, was the setting-up of new Green machinery in Whitehall, driven by two new cabinet committees. Marvellous! Except that we know that the first of these committees -- chaired by Michael Heseltine -- met only twice in its first twelve months, whilst the other -- chaired by the Prime Minister -- met just once! Again, that White Paper's best proposals concerned measures to combal global warming vigorously, particularly through energy conservation. Yet, even top officials admit that next to nothing has been done -- Select Committees from both Houses of Parliament have condemned the Government's lack of action.

As things stand, the government, like industry has a straight-forward vested interest in promoting unrestrained economic growth and preseving the environment costs money, eats profits, eats into economic growth, reduces wealth, reduces employment, reduces the chances of being reelected. Both industry and government have powerful reasons for creating the impression of doing something about environmental crises rather than of actually doing it.

The effects of these skin-deep solutions to our environmental problems have been two-fold. Firstly, they have created the false impression among many people that |something is being done' -- when either it isn't or is being made worse -- and that therefore they need no longer concern themselves with these problems. The huge power of government and industry to influence the public regardless of the actual truth, suggests that it is pathetically easy to fool people and do nothing.

Secondly, the massive inertia of industry and government against doing anything to deal with the appalling problems that face us, leads to a sense of hopelessness and disillusionment among people who have been misled.

However, and more importantly, I think the source of what goes by the name of |compassion fatigue', this silence in the face of crisis, lies beyond even industrial/political indifference and manipulation. The truth is far more insidious and problematic even than cynicism.

Everyday, each of us is bombarded by an endless call to live life in a particular way, in a way we have to live for economic growth to be maximised. For this to happen, we have to live as the producers would wish us to live -- in a carefree, high-consuming manner.

After all, the article in The Observer reporting The Stratospheric Ozone Review Group's findings of eight per cent European ozone depletion on July 20, 1991, measured just seven inches by five inches at the bottom of page three! How could a report of even this seriousness compete with the vast mass of articles, adverts and editorial encouraging us, not to doubt, or question the direction of society, but to embrace the immediate concerns of the day, the concerns that necessitate our first accepting their central promise of the desirability of unrestrained economic growth?

The truth is that the Green movement -- like so many issues fundamentally challenging our preconceptions about ourselves and our society -- has fallen victim to the over-whelming conforming influence of our consumer culture to eat, drink, plan, consume and above all think, as |normal'! In this way, even approaching catastrophe has come to be turned into a passing fashion, a way to win votes and sell products. The only hope for the Green movement, for the environment, lies in our ability to see that the |normal' is not, in fact, normal any more!
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Title Annotation:environmental movement
Author:Edwards, David
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:May 1, 1992
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