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The Great Green Disconnect: Bafflement Essay #8
Is a pro-human environmentalism possible?
I’ve been so thoroughly baffled about the subjects under discussion in this essay that I’m going to use some music to help carry us along.
Sometimes in these baffling times, a phrase from a book, a line from a poem or a song floats into my mind as if transported by a helpful aspect of the collective consciousness. In this case, it’s a ballad by Rodriquez, the poetic songster from Detroit whose poignant lyrics capture so much about the puzzle of being in the modern world.
Rodriquez’s gift was to blend emotional response with truth-telling, melancholy with a jaunty appreciation of the texture of reality. ‘I wonder’ is a gentle stream of consciousness which expresses both love for an ex and concern for the wrongness of society. Take a listen now if you feel like it.
I Little Green Alex
I grew up seeing plastic bags drying on the line. They’d acquired a grey opacity as they flapped between the tea towels, having lost their transparency from multiple cycles in the washing machine.
This domestic recycling came quite naturally to a child raised in the Second World War. Rationing stretched into my mother’s adulthood and when she met my father, who was descended from generations of subsistence farmers in Austria, a parsimonious partnership was formed. They filled our Victorian villa with secondhand antiques, but there was not much Stuff. Purchases of any size were supposed to last decades, if not a lifetime. Money was short, but my parents’ care with the things of the world was about stewardship as well as saving.
These days I volunteer at the off-grid festival The Green Gathering for the sheer pleasure of living in a field. There are talks about climate change and stopping oil, but my interest in these is limited. My greenness is more of a lived thing, part inherited, part instinctual, born of a desire to be in nature and an antipathy to waste. And although over the course of my adult life I’ve been an activist in many areas – as a trade unionist, campaigning to save public libraries and to promote justice for Palestinians – I’ve never engaged in environmental activism.
But lately, as a non-activist Green, not very consistent and not at all ideological, I’ve begun to wonder: is there still a place in the world for people like me?
II Brave New Zones
This question is newly-arisen because until recently, it didn’t much matter where you stood on the green stuff. In liberal Britain it was generally understood that there are so many social issues with claims on our attention that we each pick the ones which best suit our interests and temperaments, respecting, even welcoming, each other’s differences.
But times have changed.
All around there are growing demands for people to stop doing things in the name of environmentalism. The demands are getting ever-closer to home: the British government has just chosen to announce, amid a bitterly cold winter and skyrocketing energy prices, that you can get a fine of £300 and a criminal record for burning the wrong kind of wood.
The citizenry’s cars are the biggest focus of the authorities’ current efforts. Oxford City Council is pioneering a new municipal trend of restricting residents’ movements. In November 2022, after a five week consultation, the council announced it would be trialling an experiment to reduce traffic congestion. From 2024, the city will be divided into six ‘zones’. Drivers will be required to apply for permits to move between the zones and be allowed to make only a hundred such trips a year. Numberplate-recognition cameras at the edge of each district will ensure that anyone driving illicitly between one zone and another will receive a fine.
Other councils are considering similar schemes. In Canterbury, the council proposes to ban all driving between the five designated zones into which the city will be divided: those wanting to do a supermarket shop or take the kids into the next neighbourhood will have to drive out to the ring road and re-enter the city another way.
These new schemes are being presented as part of a drive, if you’ll pardon the pun, to create ‘the 15-minute city’, a voguish urban planning concept coined by Carlos Moreno in 2016. The idea is that everything one needs to live – shops, employment, healthcare, education, social and cultural life – should be within a fifteen-minute walk or cycle ride, obviating the need to leave your zone.
All very desirable, you might think. Indeed, anyone who has lived in a small town or urban area with a strong community focus, as I have, will have experienced the convenience and pleasure of basing your day-to-day life in a human-scale place. But in this curious conflation of local living with experimental traffic schemes, there is no attempt to improve local facilities. The language used by councils in presenting such schemes, with words such as ‘enable’ and ‘allow’, makes it sound as if restricting car use will somehow automatically create all the community and services you could need. In fact, it thinly veils a coercive shift which does nothing more than restrict residents’ ability to move around their cities by dint of surveillance, permits and fines.
I wondered why this was happening now. Local government, I well remember from my public service reporting days, is full of fads and buzzwords – here a ‘localism’, there a ‘hub’ – but after a few headlines and a conference or two, they usually pass due to cost and unworkability. But in this case, an internet search reveals a pattern that is becoming familiar: statements about making the most of the ‘opportunities’ provided by Covid. There’s a sudden glut, in 2021, of articles and documents about the 15-minute city, some implying that people are positively clamouring for them. New websites have sprung up which seem hastily put-together and lack the depth of content which speaks of a genuine groundswell of interest. From late 2022 onwards, the crusade has been gathering pace, with more and more local authorities expressing interest in turning their jurisdiction into a ‘15-minute city’.
Despite huge protests from locals, the cameras are already going up around Oxford. The council’s scheme is costing £6.5 million just to put the infrastructure in for the trial. How many public libraries, community projects or local food-growing schemes could be funded with that? Imagine if, instead of corralling, prohibiting and infantilising, the good that could come of local people having free rein to give expression to their own inner authority and creativity?
Meanwhile, 2020 saw the British government bring forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by ten years to 2030. It’s not at all clear that the infrastructure to support sufficient numbers of electric vehicles will be in place.
At this point a line of Rodriguez (slightly adapted) sails into my head: I wonder how many times we’ve been had ...
Can we at least talk about it, this experiment of restricting the freedom of movement on which modern society depends?
Apparently we can’t. And here we enter a second area of bafflement: the decline of public debate.
Over the past couple of months I’ve tried to engage in some online discussion about the implications of both the 15-minute cities and proposed new traffic restrictions in my London suburb. (The ‘Healthy Streets’ initiative threatens to ban traffic for several hours a day in a bid to stop people using cars to pick up their children from school.)
In vain I point out that, with a limited and unreliable public transport system, driving is often the only way people can get to work. Trades folk cannot transport their tools and materials without a vehicle. Householders sometimes need to pick up heavy items from a shop or take waste to the tip. A car journey may be the only practical way of taking children somewhere in the rain, while anyone of any age or state of health may need to use a vehicle for a while in order to go on with their life. Community events tend to depend on one or two good folks driving crockery, costumes or equipment to a nearby park or hall.
The responses have been baffling. Human costs and practicalities are dismissed without any attempt to consider them. Absurd suggestions are put forward: a plumber can use a tricycle cart to transport his tools, said one person, suggesting travel by river as another option. I wondered why improving public transport wasn’t being explored as a more constructive way of reducing congestion. Too expensive, said the political editor of The Guardian, defending the Oxford restrictions. There’s a Marie Antoinette style obliviousness at work in these kinds of responses, an ideological blindness to human frailty and diversity.
At worst, there’s an accusatory reaction where anyone daring to question is given a label – insert insult of choice here – and characterised as malevolent: so you want people to keep dying from pollution then? These are the Ad Hominem and Straw man Arguments of our day: one is simple name-calling while the other attributes to the other party a position they don’t actually hold. The superior tone, with its implication that the other party is wrong simply by virtue of daring to disagree, is testament to the bad old-fashioned Argument from Authority.
Notably, the responses follow the pattern that characterised much of the public discourse around Covid, focusing on the individual rather than the issue.
Civility, my friend the journalist James Jeffrey, observes, appears to be in ongoing decline. ‘It's strange how many of us continue to lose the plot and act unreasonably. It's as if we caught it - acting unreasonably - during the pandemic and can't cure ourselves of this new unfortunate habit!’
Looking back, the example was set from the top. Early on in the pandemic, health secretary Matt Hancock called people who were not keeping the prescribed two metres distance from others ‘very selfish’. The following year, Michael Gove applied the same epithet to those who chose not to have the vaccine, while elder statesman Tony Blair insulted refuseniks directly: ‘If you’re not vaccinated at the moment … you’re an idiot.’
The name-calling continues to this day, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak recently claiming that, in the resulting economic crisis, only ‘idiots’ would expect tax cuts.
I recall this style of argumentation – how can I put this? – from my much younger days. Back then, asserting ‘you smell!’ or ‘you’re stupid!’ was a reliably simple way of expressing disagreement with a playmate, although sometimes we’d just hit each other or engage in a spot of arm-wrestling. By adolescence we’d moved on, and at sixth form in my grammar school we were taught how to conduct ourselves in a respectful debate. Later, as a professional adult teaching critical thinking and following public debate as a journalist, it never occurred to me that anything but reasoned debate would characterise British public life.
Psychologists remind us that all human behaviour has a function, even if it’s not a healthy one. So what might be the purpose of a public discourse that has fallen into a regressive psychological state?
Notice what happens when the focus remains exclusively on those who question or disagree. Instead of a discussion, you have a kind of war, and the matter at hand disappears as the ‘enemy’ tries to defend herself or runs away. Perhaps that’s the purpose: shoot the messenger so you don’t hear the message. You’ve pre-empted all reasonable discussion.
Councils, I know from my library campaigning days, have long used consultations to feign an interest in public opinion. But it seems that, post-Covid, a shift has taken place in authorities’ attitudes to the public and their disregard for people’s views has become blatant. A comment from Oxfordshire County Council's Duncan Enright suggests that the 15-minute scheme was a done deal from the outset: it was ‘definitely’ going to happen, he said, even before the decision had been formally taken by the cabinet. A councillor in Bath responds to one objection to the roadblocks springing up around the city thus: ‘There may be instances where we receive more responses against a proposal but a decision is taken to proceed. This could be because the proposal will help to achieve wider council objectives.’
In London, a Freedom of Information request has uncovered what looks like foul play in the consultation about the expansion of the Ultra Low Emissions zone. Some 5,270 consultation responses against were excluded from the results with the claim they were ‘copy and paste’ jobs, while just three responses in favour of were excluded on similar grounds.
All of this makes me wonder: is there something inherently authoritarian about the green movement? Can change only come about through the imposition of top-down measures? Do people have to be sacrificed to environmentalism? And will we ever arrive at the point where, shivering in our separated zones, the demands for sacrifice stop?
When it comes to environmental matters, I’m new to this kind of thinking. In my last Bafflement essay, I wrote of the loss of my green innocence and my recent discovery – long recognised by seasoned greens – that carbon offsetting is a murky practice, fraught with deception and vested interests, that allows big business to go on polluting as usual.
Little Green Alex has grown up. She’s still a bit green and an awful lot human, but now she’s politically disconnected and thoroughly baffled.
IV Planet Vs People
Fifth Generation Warfare is a concept that emerged some twenty years ago to capture a quintessentially twenty-first century phenomenon. In contrast to earlier forms of warfare deploying force, FGW uses influence to achieve its aims, fighting what is essentially a covert war through information and ideas. Misinformation and social engineering, according to Daniel H. Abbott, are used extensively to bring about ‘the deliberate manipulation of an observer’s context’. As a result, ordinary members of society become the foot soldiers in such conflict, conscripted to fight on others’ behalf to achieve goals they may not fully understand.
The idea makes me wonder: all those community-based green warriors fighting for measures that will change life in the western world beyond recognition: have they been drafted into someone else’s army?
In the States, Greg Braden is increasingly alarmed by the way the young have been convinced by college and media that carbon dioxide is the enemy which must be eradicated at all costs: ‘This is being used for social engineering. It’s dividing families and shredding communities.’
Braden attributes the problem to a false narrative based on a ‘negotiated climate model’ based on cherry-picked data (video contains interesting data). ‘The people that are doing it - there’s conflict of interest – are working for institutions beholden to the funding that supports them cherry picking the data,’ he says. ‘And the people that have the least bandwidth for the kind of changes that are being forced are suffering unnecessarily based upon a false climate model.’
Braden is far from alone in expressing such concerns. Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg has garnered both praise and criticism for advocating a proportionate response to environmental problems which takes into account the need to address multiple issues, along with the human cost of mitigating measures. In this conversation with Joe Rogan, he cautions against a narrative based on fear and argues that innovation would produce a more constructive way forward. Meanwhile, from a different perspective, the UK’s Jem Bendell has had the courage to turn his back on a major environmental orthodoxy and declare that ‘sustainable development is a lie … We wanted to believe because it was convenient with our careers to develop, consumer lifestyles to lead, houses to buy and kids to bring up.’
The response to Covid alerted many of us to the extent to which vested interests can distort public decision-making, ensnaring the public in a web of information and ideas that we’d never previously conceived of. The use of manipulation by the British government to instil fear into the population through the use of behavioural psychology has been well-documented. Even in 2023, the revelations keep coming, with the news of a covert military operation in which the British army spied on citizens who questioned government policy.
‘An interesting thing that the whistleblower said was that there had been a desire for the army to demonstrate this information ops,’ said Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, the civil liberties organisation which published the findings of the investigation. ‘77th Brigade describes itself as ‘non-lethal engagement for modern warfare against adversaries,’ she said. ‘They were interested in demonstrating to government that we can do this kind of elite information ops.’
‘We were being surveilled by our own military, with military power.’
How very FGW!
While I was writing this piece, a blog dropped into my inbox. It contained the news of the government’s new plan to improve the environment, which includes the pledge that within five years everyone will live within a 15-minute walk from a green space.
The pledge, without ripping out estates and office buildings across the country like turbo-charged Victorians with a limitless budget, is clearly unrealisable. Could it therefore be – rather than a realistic policy proposal – a nudge made with perfect timing as council after council jumps on the bandwagon – to help embed the idea of ‘15-minutes Good’ into the public mind?
I wonder how many more times we’re going to be had.
IV Human greenness
I don’t actually think environmentalism is inherently authoritarian. I do think a kind of ‘human greenness’ which would allow both people and planet to flourish is possible.
I don’t have a detailed picture to offer of what it would look like. I suspect part of the difficulty is that, over the past couple of decades, we in western society have been so well trained in how to think about our relationship with the planet that it’s difficult to step outside a narrative which claims that experts and Science have all the answers. Part of this training has been to think in terms of black-and-white solutions that ‘must’ be imposed from the top down, and fast. It leaves little space to assess wider implications and unintended consequences, or to consider other possibilities.
We need to reject this kind of thinking and get back to a more open mindset, one that allows us to assess where we are in a more nuanced, less self-punishing way. As I write, I can only see properly thanks to the plastic in my eyes and, when I go to out later, I’ll only be walking normally thanks to the plastic orthoses in my shoes. Do we need to accept that we’ve only got to where we are as a civilisation thanks to developments which have had negative as well as positive consequences? Probably. Did we make some mistakes? Certainly. Will we, in future, need to draw on some of the practical wisdom of our forebears, with their greater connection to the natural world, while also looking for innovative ways of meeting our needs? Almost certainly.
When confronted by policies devoid of heart and sense like the new wave of oppressive traffic restrictions, we need to do more than just say ‘no’. The challenge of these times is not just to oppose but to also envision, to ask questions and to begin the messy, uncertain business of finding ways of creating an environmentalism consistent with human flourishing, one which recognises humans as part of nature and sees the possibility of a positive future.
I want to end this essay with another song, this time a more upbeat one. We need to keep our spirits up and remember that bafflement, as my great-aunt Agatha never actually said, doesn’t last for ever.
So here’s Scott Perrie with a celebration of a possible future: