Sunday, 24 February 2008

Do Greener Paths to the Future Need to Be So Conflicting?

This afternoon the Virgin airline company is flying a Boeing 747 from London to Amsterdam with one engine powered by bio fuel made up of oil from a nut grown in rain forests and ordinary coconuts. This event in the past might have been praised as finding a way to provide sustainable airline fuel, which is daily used in vast quantities, as a substitute for fossil fuels. However, the event has been severely criticised as nothing but a publicity stunt and green groups such as Friends of the Earth have pointed to the fact that bio fuels produce more greenhouse gases both in their growth and in their use than conventional fuels. They also argue that growing bio fuels takes away land that should be used to produce food. They also dismiss Virgin's plans for developing algae-based fuels as impossible in decades. Sir Richard Branson the head of Virgin is probably wondering why he even bothered. His argument is that the nuts will make rain forests more necessary and so people will be less willing to deforest and that the coconuts come from plantations where people cannot even sell their nuts normally.

Now it is clear that there are differing views of the future and most greens would like all of us to stop travelling away from where we live certainly by aeroplane and to only eat locally-produced food. We would go back to a kind of 18th century model of living. As it is, in the UK mobility is being reduced greatly given the sharp increases in fuel and public transport prices, but that is not being done on any environmental basis, simply due to the greed of companies. Trains are lesser polluters than cars, lorries and aircraft but it is now more expensive to go by train from Cornwall in South-West England to West Scotland than it is to fly to Cuba and stay in a hotel for a week. You can have a holiday in Egypt for less than a train fare from London to Newcastle in North-East England.

The world as a whole produces too much food and has been wasting vast quantities of it for decades. The European Union has long encouraged farmers to 'set aside' land from production for other uses or just to lie fallow so as to reduce food production. Now I accept that much of this land is not in regions of the world producing tropical fruit but rape seed which grows in vast quantities in the UK is a bio fuel too. The world can feed everyone who currently lives on it, it is just that the food resources are held by the rich and the agricultural economies of much of the world is distorted to satiate the rich, at cheap prices, rather than feed locals. Fair trade approaches are beginnning to assist a little but will not alter two centuries of distortion overnight.

As I have noted before, control of oil has taken over from first religion and then politics as the prime cause of wars in our contemporary world. So whilst bio fuels may have difficulties at present if more people can grow fuel in many parts of the world it should reduce the fighting to capture what is becoming an increasingly rare resource and we have known that for the past four decades.

Branson represents one view of the future which is a capitalist, global economy that pays attention to its impacts on the environment and on people. There is a much more popular model which is that simply capitalism proceeds as it is at the moment chewing up everything and everyone in its way. Now, I am no advocate for Branson, but I am relieved that he seems to behave more in the way that many Victorian businessmen did, tempering his drive for profits with other concerns. He could simply continue to run his airlines on the fuel they currently use and not bother to experiment, but he feels it is important to do so.

The green movement keeps making a huge error that undermines its campaigns. It keeps offering us one option: return to the 18th century or die. Now for the bulk of the population sitting in brightly lit houses, microwaving their meals, playing with their ipods, flying for holidays in Spain, the 18th century is not an attractive prospect. They are willing to take that gamble than give up all the things that they feel they have worked hard for (and which it is becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of as prices rise and wages stay stagnant). So, the bulk of us are not going to listen and we are not going to alter our behaviour to benefit the planet.

Personally I have long encountered this 'all or nothing' approach from the greens. Back in 1980s I was an enthusiastic youth and with my housemates recycled and did all we could living in a Midlands town to address environmental issues. Then I went to a talk which featured all the candidates in the local election. Me and my friend were on the front row knowing that the Green Party candidate was going to be there and were interested to hear what she had to say. That was the day we abandoned all attempts to be green. When her turn came she made no effort to try to win over anyone in the audience and simply said in the following words 'you will never be like us, you will never really understand'. She made it appear that she would feel dirtied to receive the votes of the audience. In addition, it seemed to me as an impressionable supporter that however hard I worked I would never be able to reach the perception or the status of this 'us' she spoke about. She left that hall with less support than she had entered it with, but probably felt righteous through her patronising of what she saw as the greedy idiots killing her planet.

Green movements no matter what their focus need to learn from religions. Christianity offers the model of Hell but it also offers Heaven as a reward for living a good life. At the moment the greens simply keep showing us different versions of Hell without any suggestion of how a green, sustainable world could look like (and not just one that is the 18th century recycled - people are not going to give up on high tech); this is why Branson is popular he seems to indicate a time when you could travel without damaging the Earth in doing so.

Another aspect that the greens overlook is that those religions that have an 'elect' that you are born into, die out, they do not grow and they do not prosper in the meantime. Addressing environmental issues is too important to adopt that approach. You need to win over a much larger chunk of the population, because even if say, 75% of the ordinary British people supported green movements actively their influence would be minimal against the 0.1% of the population who are super-rich. However, the greens seem to be making no effort even to address the bulk of the population. Again they need to look at how religions did it. In the past some men and women would become monks and nuns. They were a small elite in society, living godly ways. However, many would reach out into the local communities and some people would become lay brothers, associated with the monastery but not taking vows and other people would help the monastery with money and labour. A successful movement needs to ripple out into its community or it becomes cut off. Those bodies which have a single rule and turn away anyone who does not match their standards will not thrive. There are millions of young people who could support green movements but if it has strict rules they are never going to participate. There are millions of families who could reduce their consumption of fuels, plastics, paper, water, and so on, but they need it set out in easy steps otherwise like me twenty years ago they will simply give up and go for the easy option of not bothering at all.

It is a great sensation to feel righteous and patronise the idiots in society, however, more greens have got to give up this power trip and realise that if they are going to lay foundations for real change for our planet's benefit they need to come up with an offer to the bulk of the population which is more appealing than 'change or die'. Despite what you might think most people will gamble on the 'die' option especially when so many scientists and politicians give us conflicting information about what that entails or what causes it. It may be uncomfortable to sit down with Branson who you see as a self-publicist, but at least he has made more steps in your direction than the bulk of businesspeople and if you avoid ridiculing you may find you can get his money and influence behind you. It is better to show people, gently, the error of their ways, than to dismiss their efforts which have often been at heavy cost to them as worthless. When the green movement lost me in 1988, it probably did not notice, but there are others who have a lot more power and influence than me who could accelerate achieving many green objectives. Responsibility for the destruction of the planet will not lie with the attitudes the green movement adopted, however, responsibility for not changing the minds of sufficient people to stop that destruction will lie with them.

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