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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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