Don’t let the faux greens sell off our environment

People like Chris Huhne are willing to talk the talk while in office, but they will usually capitulate to business interests.

In February 2012, the BBC’s then environment correspondent, Richard Black, described Chris Huhne’s departure from the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)as “the exit of a minister ... generally regarded as having fought tenaciously for ‘green’ policies”. It was a view echoed by many mainstream, business-friendly “greens”, who were presumably impressed by Huhne’s readiness to talk the talk while in office.

“One abiding set of values that all Liberal Democrats share is a respect for our environment, natural systems and sustainability,” he told the Lib Dem conference in 2011, adding that, with its backing, “We will hold course to be the greenest government ever.” Some may have been less impressed by his promise, a month later, that: “Renewable energy technologies will deliver a third industrial revolution. Its impact will be every bit as profound as the first two.” Apparently it had not occurred to this champion of natural systems that it was the fallout from those previous industrial revolutions that got us where we are in the first place; or, as Robert Burns noted, on a visit to the Carron iron works in 1787: 

We cam na here to view your warks 
In hopes to be mair wise, 
But only, lest we gang to Hell, 
It may be nae surprise.

Still, compared to many of his coalition colleagues, Huhne was at least pro-renewables – well, maybe not solar – so his heart seemed to be in the right place. But was it?

After the DECC, Huhne seems to have had second thoughts about our natural systems. Now we all know about his lucrative consultancy post with the Texas-based company Zilkha Biomass Energy, whose website contains such priceless (if rather alarming) comments as: “Today we let much valuable forest resource go unmanaged. A managed forest, compared to an unmanaged forest, is able to sequester much more CO2, making trees better solar batteries.” And recently, unburdened by the need for conference-friendly rhetoric, Huhne seems to be letting his true colours shine through.

He has never opposed fracking (“Shale gas may be significant,” he wrote in 2011; “If it comes good, we must be ready to take advantage of it”), but talking to John Humphrys on the Today programme last September, he came over as something of an enthusiast, at least for importing cheap, US-produced shale gas.

His disregard for natural systems became most apparent on 19 January, when he called for more greenfield sites to be given over to development. “The brave political promise would be to recognise that the supply of housing land and sites – brownfield or greenfield – is ultimately the government’s responsibility,” he wrote in the Guardian. “The tougher the planning controls, the higher are house prices.”

Huhne’s words were carefully chosen – we cannot help but agree that people need houses – but history teaches us that calls for the relaxation of planning laws are never about homes, as such; they are always about development – and the consequence, always, has been the loss of woodland, meadow and wetland habitats: “our” natural systems.

As Fiona Reynolds remarked in 2011, when she was director general of the National Trust, what little we have left of those systems “has all been protected through good planning and the moment you let good planning go, it’s lost forever”. Recent developments, such as the Trump Organisation’s Scottish government-backed destruction of the dunes at Menie, in Aberdeenshire, show that what our environment needs is more protection, not less.

But then, that wouldn’t be business-friendly. And, as every politician knows – faux greens such as Chris Huhne included – to be business-friendly is everything.

Paradise lost: Menie in Aberdeenshire in 2007, where Donald Trump recently built a golf course. Photo Jeff J Mitchell/Getty.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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In the age of podcasts, the era of communal listening is over

Where once the nation would listen to radio events together, now, it is the booming podcast market that commands our attention

It’s a moment so celebrated that no TV drama about the Second World War is complete without it. At 11.15am on 3 September 1939, Neville Chamberlain made a live radio broadcast from Downing Street announcing that “this country is now at war with Germany”. A silence fell over the nation as people rushed to the wireless to hear him. The whole country was listening, but crucially, it was listening together.

Nearly eight decades later, it is difficult to imagine a communal audio event like that ever happening again. The arrival of the Walkman in 1979, since superseded by the iPod and then the smartphone, turned listening into a personal, solitary pastime. It was no longer necessary for families to get a radio on a hire-purchase arrangement and gather round it in the sitting room. The technology that delivers audio to us is now small and cheap enough for each of us to have one in our pocket (with headphones tangled around it, of course).

At the same time, the method of delivery changed, too. “Radio” ceased to indicate simply “programming transmitted by electromagnetic waves” in the late 1990s, when conventional radio stations began to make their output available on the internet. Online-only radio stations sprang up, streaming their shows directly to computers. Free from any regulation and with the internet as a free distribution platform, these early stations echoed the tone of pirate radio stations in the 1960s.

The idea of “audioblogging” – making short voice recordings available for download online – has been around since the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until 2004 that the word “podcasting” was coined by the technology journalist Ben Hammersley in an article for the Guardian. He was looking for a name for the “new boom in amateur radio” that the internet had enabled.

Thanks to technological advances, by the early 2000s, a podcaster could record a sound clip and upload it to his or her feed, and it would arrive automatically on the computer of anyone who had subscribed. Apple began to include podcasts as a default option on iPods; in 2008 iPhones offered a podcast app as standard. The market boomed.

Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide data on its products, but in 2013 it announced that there had been more than a billion podcast subscriptions through its iTunes store, which carried over 250,000 podcasts in 100 languages. In 2016, Edison Research released a study suggesting that 21 per cent of all Americans over the age of 12 had listened to at least one podcast in the past month – roughly 57 million people. Audiobooks, too, are booming in this new age of listening; the New York Times reported that
although publishing revenue in the US was down overall in the first quarter of 2016, digital audio sales had risen by 35.3 per cent.

The vast share of this listening will be solitary. This is because audio is a secondary medium. For all the talk about the rise of “second screening”, it isn’t really possible to do much more than idly scroll through Twitter on your phone as you watch television, but you can easily get things done while you listen to a podcast. Put on a pair of headphones, and you can go for a run or clean out the oven in the company of your favourite show. In this sense, the medium has been a game-changer for commuters and those doing repetitive or manual work: there’s no longer any need to put up with sniffling on the train or your boss’s obsession with Magic FM.

Though podcasts are an internet phenomenon, they have managed to remain free from the culture of trolling and abuse found elsewhere. It is difficult to make audio go viral, because it’s tricky to isolate a single moment from it in a form that can be easily shared. That also deters casual haters. You can’t just copy and paste something a host said into an insulting tweet.

Our new and solitary way of listening is reflected in the subjects that most podcasts cover. While there is the occasional mega-hit – the American true crime podcast Serial attracted 3.4 million downloads per episode in 2014, the year it launched – most shows exist in a niche. A few hundred listeners who share the host’s passion for pens or for music from antique phonographs can be enough to sustain a series over hundreds of episodes (there are real podcasts on both of these topics).

This is also where the commercial opportunity lies. It costs relatively little to produce even high-quality podcasts, compared to TV or conventional radio, yet they can ­attract very high advertising rates (thanks to the dedication of regular listeners and the trust they have in the host). The US is far ahead of the UK in this regard, and podcast advertising revenue there is expected to grow 25 per cent year on year, reaching half a billion dollars in 2020. Where this was once a hobby for internet enthusiasts, it is now big business, with venture capitalists investing in new networks and production companies. The US network Gimlet attracted $6m in funding in 2015. However, in the UK, the BBC crowds out smaller, independent operations (the trade-off is that it makes undeniably outstanding programmes).

There is even a movement to make listening a communal activity again. The same hipsters responsible for the resurgence of vinyl sales are organising “listening parties” at trendy venues with high-quality sound systems. Live shows have become an important source of revenue for podcasters. Eleanor McDowall, a producer at the Falling Tree radio production company, organises subtitled “screenings” for podcasts in languages other than English. I even have a friend who is part of a “podcast club”, run on the same lines as a monthly book group, with a group of people coming together to discuss one show on a regular schedule.

The next big technological breakthrough for audio will be when cars can support internet-based shows as easily as conventional radio. We might never again gather around the wireless, but our family holidays could be much improved by a podcast.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times