This is a hard time to be green. Since the financial crash in 2008, British government policy has been fixated with ‘growth’, and action for the environment has become profoundly out of fashion in the UK with politicians and media alike. No more dogsled rides for David Cameron to highlight climate change, and deep burial for his promise to run ‘the greenest government ever’. In November, the Sun reported that the Prime Minister had ordered aides to ‘get rid of the green crap’ to reduce household bills. It was, said the Daily Mail, all part of Opposition leader ‘Red Ed’s’ ‘green obsession’. In December, the Daily Mail ran an article on ‘fat cat Ecocrats’, identifying a ‘web of ‘green’ politicians, tycoons and power brokers’, profiting from these green levies.
But what does it mean to describe something as ‘green’? The word has become so loosely used that its meaning is debased. Seemingly, it is ‘green’ to establish protected areas, restore ecosystems or protect rare species. At the same time, it is ‘green’ to oppose nuclear power, buy organic, promote renewable energy, oppose a new runway at Heathrow, try to control speeding on motorways, oppose housing development in the ‘Green’ Belt or build wind farms.
Journalists love the word ‘green’. It is perfect for a headline: a compact, neat shorthand for ‘environmentalist’. It is also barbed, for it carries a series of overtones, of dilettante obstructionism, opposition to the ‘real work’ of running a country, building a business, or making a living.
Academics, also use the ‘green’ label with enthusiasm. A literature is full of references to ‘green grabbing’, the appropriation of land for environmental purposes. A conference in Toronto last year discussed the process of ‘grabbing green’, analysing how the environmental agenda is being captured by capitalism. The ‘green economy’ was a central idea of the Rio+20 conference in 2012, and has become the main target of a growing radical critique of mainstream market-based approaches to environment and development.
This is an important area of debate. Mainstream approaches to the crisis of sustainability at the end of the twentieth and the start of the twenty first century have become increasingly neoliberal. The attempt to ‘mainstream’ environmentalism by engaging capital (for example in the headline work of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, created at the time of the first Rio Conference in 1992) means that ‘green’ debates have increasingly been set within a capitalist frame. Indeed, the very word ‘green’ has been claimed by businesses executives trying to explain to their boards, shareholders or customers their reasons for (or claims to) address the environmental impacts of their production chains. The same word has been used to criticise them for insincerity or paltry ambition (as in ‘greenwashing’).
So do academic researchers use ‘green’ any more precisely than journalists? By and large, no. The label ‘green’ is applied loosely to a whole range of things that have some kind of relevance to nature. It has become a crude label for any kind of ‘environmental’ argument or action.
In this loosening of definition, much is lost. The word ‘green’ now describes a debate: once it described a position in a debate about the nature of society and its relations with nature. Green ideas challenged the conventional obsession with economic growth as a goal for society, and the endless mechanisms of capitalist production and consumption that continue to drive it forward, and the grinding up of nature that conventional development legitimised. Such green critiques of the standard development model abounded in the past from Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful through green anarchism and socialism to the environmental justice movement. Yet calls for a zero growth economy did not die away with 1970s neo-Malthusian angst, but have endured and grown, notably in Tim Jackson’s neat separation of ends and means in his call for Prosperity Without Growth. The idea of ‘degrowth’ or décroisssance suggests the possibility of an alternative to the dominant economic paradigm, one that rewards better rather than more consumption and public versus private investment in natural capital.
Green ideas seek to challenge mainstream ways of thinking, cutting across the conventional political camps of both left and right (despite the old Republican adage about watermelon politics, with greens as closet socialists: green on the outside but red in the middle, or ‘green as the new red’). They also challenge many sacred cows in the environmental movement. Is it ‘green’ to establish protected areas financed by global ecotourism? My answer would be no, because this funds nature protection in one place by destroying it elsewhere through the fossil fuel of long-haul flights and the consumerist global lifestyles. Is it ‘green’ to strip mine a forest and provide cash for conservation actions to ‘offset’ the damage elsewhere? Again, no: it might make economic sense for a mining company, it might be a cost-effective way of preserving biodiversity, but it is not in any sense ‘green’. It is a symptom of the problem of modern systems of production and consumption, not a solution.
The UK’s only Green Party MP (Caroline Lewis, MP for Brighton, that hotbed of wild radicalism) was arrested in August 2013 when police served an order under the Public Order Act to close down protest against fracking for gas in Sussex. The argument about fracking in England, which led to this protest, is complicated. It includes concern about nuisance from drilling and damage to the countryside, the impacts of injected chemicals and wastewater, fear of earthquakes and the impact of cheap gas on greenhouse gas emissions: all quite straightforward ‘environmental’ concerns. But it also reflects concern about the way private corporations are granted permission to drill to over the heads of local people, about high-energy company profits (and high consumer prices), and about whether the state should be able to stop citizens from taking part in peaceful protests, or non-governmental organisations from organizing them. This complex set of issues demands careful analysis of ideas, arguments and motivations, not the casual attachment of the bland label ‘green’, as if that explained everything.
Green thinking is awkward to categorise. It stretches way beyond simple ‘environmental’ issues and calls into question the whole shape of economy and society and of human engagements with nature. These issues are too important to allow ‘green’ to be used as a loose label, whether by journalists or academics. Green ideas awaken passionate support and equally passionate opposition. They are an important part of a balanced political diet. To debate them we need to recognise them for what they are. We need our label back.